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Is hatred of strangers hardwired in humans?

A story of xenophobia
By George Makari

During the summer and fall of 1900, when the World’s Fair was underway in Paris, French newspapers ran a series of reports on a formidable threat suddenly emerging from China: “xenophobia“, they nicknamed it. At the same time as their capital celebrated the dawn of globalization and the inexorable flattening of the earth, readers in France have been informed that there is a conflict with”xenophobesWas a dangerous part of the new reality.

The trouble had started the previous winter when a group of impoverished villagers in Shandong Province, with aptitude for martial arts and believing themselves to be immune to gunfire, chanted “Destroy the aliens” as they mounted an insurgency. desperate against the European missionaries and colonizers taking over. their country. The Boxer Rebellion, according to George Makari in “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia”, his captivating, meticulous and sometimes exasperating meditation on a subject which has annoyed human society at least since the dawn of consciousness, has marked a new and ironic turning point in the trajectory of a hitherto obscure term. “Xenophobia no longer applied to a rare medical disease or to a broad rivalry between Western nations,” he observes. “This now served as an explanation for the daunting problems Western globalists might encounter in the East, where an irrational and violent hatred of all foreigners might take hold.”

The lack of self-awareness and defensive projection exhibited by European powers throughout the period of colonial expansion is considerable. Much like Makari’s efforts to trace the evolution of his elusive and ambiguous descriptor. It was not the first time that the ancient Greek terms for “foreigner” and “fear” were linked, but the French-speaking framework of the Boxer Rebellion was the moment when the concept became mainstream and xenophobia became “a clarifying word ”to name an increasingly relevant phenomenon in many colonial contexts.

Makari, psychiatrist and historian, weaves a fascinating but powerfully disturbing series of examples of hatred (and exploitation) of foreigners alongside the internal dissent that such encounters have always sparked. Long before the British, French, Russians, Germans, Americans and Japanese divided the Qing Empire, the Spanish crown had brutalized the native inhabitants of Hispaniola, excusing the assault with surprisingly similar justifications. The humanizing spirit animating this book and anticipating all the hard-earned progress that we can claim by looking back since the 21st century was born out of this genocidal calamity.

Makari’s admiration for Bartolomé de Las Casas, a man whom Borges memorably denigrated as “this strange variant of the species. philanthropist, is contagious. As a boy in the late 1400s, Las Casas was presented with a black slave when his father returned to Seville after an expedition with Columbus. At the age of 18 he also left for Santo Domingo, where he became a land and slave owner who initially did not think twice about the larger system of which he was a part. Although we are all trapped in the norms and prejudices of our time, some of us are capable of radical independence. “At a later date, perhaps after witnessing a massacre of Taino Indians in Cuba,” writes Makari, “Las Casas became uncomfortable. He frees his vassals, returns to Europe and takes his Dominican orders.

Incredibly, during the height of the Inquisition, he succeeded in publishing without punishment accounts denouncing crimes committed under the auspices of the crown and in the name of Christianity. Perhaps it was because it was virtually impossible to account for the extent of orgiastic violence. “Who will believe this?” Makari quotes him lamenting on the page before an illustration from “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” by Las Casas, which depicts Spanish soldiers cutting off the hands and noses of countless Native Americans. . “I myself am an eyewitness writing this, I can hardly believe it.”

His conscience provides an anti-xenophobic pattern that Makari finds reproduced through the ages in places both familiar and unexpected. Voltaire, himself a powerful anti-Semite and proto-Islamophobic, “turned to Las Casas to help his readers grasp the nature of intolerance”. It is of course easier to spot xenophobia in others than to find it in the mirror, and in the Enlightenment, rival European powers flattered themselves that they were critical of the Spaniards. Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain were also courageous and early voices against the imperial transgressions of their respective societies.

Then, through the figure of Charles Marlow, the narrator of “Heart of Darkness”, the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad shattered the facade of colonial innocence. “Conrad masterfully described Marlow’s transformation,” Makari writes, in a scene that anticipates the shift in our understanding of xenophobia – from something barbaric hosts inflict on civilized visitors to our own prejudices and fears projected onto strangers: “What we referred to as an attack,” Marlow reflected, “was really an attempt at repulsion. The action was far from aggressive – it was not even defensive, in the usual sense of the word: it was undertaken under the stress of desperation and was in essence purely protective. But it was Roger Casement, an Irish acquaintance of Conrad in Africa, who continued Las Casas’ testimony work when, as British consul in Congo, he began to assess allegations of abuse that rocked the world. belief, which was described by Edmund Morel in “The Reign of King Leopold in Africa” ​​as “a carnival of massacre”.

As the twentieth century progressed and immigrants began to infiltrate the cities that had conquered them, xenophobia gradually took on a three-pronged meaning. Makari distinguishes between “racial xenophobia”, which occurs “when a Western emigrant encounters reflexive hostility” from a non-European population reacting badly to domination; “Xenophobic imperialism”, which occurs “when biased Western imperialists invade lands which they see filled with primitive Eastern and Eastern hosts”; and finally “anti-immigrant xenophobia”, which occurs “when residents of Western countries attack” foreign “minorities as well as immigrants, often refugees or inhabitants of the colonies of this country”.

Throughout his analysis, Makari brings an impressive range of readings, carrying his learning lightly and interweaving fascinating capsule biographies of transformational figures like Raphael Lemkin, Carl Schmitt and Theodor Adorno with literary commentaries on Aldous Huxley, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. The book changes again when it follows an introductory psychology course dealing with behaviorism, stereotypes and projection. All the material is exciting. Yet the large number of access points to such a global subject ultimately becomes an obstacle. In the final third of the book, as the tale becomes a sort of “Au Café Existentialiste” style flash tour of post-war intellectual history of the Left Bank, the word “xenophobia” almost loses its meaning.

“The fear and hatred of foreigners,” Makari writes through Foucault’s lens, “has not only manifested itself in pogroms and race riots, but has also been hiding in seemingly reasonable places, in the heart of the world. society, perhaps in all hearts ”. Any quality that may reside in all of us necessarily ceases to be a pathology and simply becomes one more aspect of human nature.

What could be the solution to such a deep-rooted problem? “Radical egalitarianism constitutes the greatest threat to xenophobia”, he finally dares. A cynical reader can’t help but think that we are hardly any closer to understanding how to implement such a policy in the aftermath of Trump and Brexit and the migrant crisis in Europe in 2015 than we were in the past. beginning of the worthy enterprise of Makari. Yet this is less of a critique of the author than of the breadth of his genealogical ambition – and our own stubbornly consistent interpersonal failings. The fact that he could not land the plane does not make any less impressive the views we were granted during the flight.

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