Review of George Makari’s “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia”

Ran Zwigenberg

Pennsylvania State University

Makari, George. Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia. W.W. Norton & Company (US), Yale University Press (UK), 2021.

George Makari’s Of Fear and Strangers is a beautifully written and captivating book. As the book’s full title plainly states, it is a history of Xenophobia. This, however, is not a history of the psychological term in the narrow, medical history sense of the word. Makari’s aim is much broader. Although he does not use the term, this being a book aimed beyond the academy, what Makari has constructed is a genealogy of the term. In here lies both the strength and, ironically, some of the weaknesses, of the book. Makari looks beyond the narrow confines of psychology and psychiatry and examines the rise of Xenophobia considering the wider historical environment in which the term gained popularity and validity. Makari, rightly, does not see Xenophobia as “intrinsic to human nature” (Xii) but firmly plants its rise as a term and argument within the last couple of centuries and Euro-American Age of Empire (indeed, he finds it beginning in the violent joining together of Europe and America into a racially hierarchical Atlantic World). Makari, thus, traces the rise of Xenophobia through the history of colonialism and war, and then the various disciplines: philosophy, sociology, anthropology, as well as psychology and psychiatry, which struggled with the implications of Xenophobia. The book is a tour de force that takes the reader through the last couple of centuries of colonialism, modernization, globalization, and the wider intellectual reactions to these transformations.

However, while doing so, it seemed to this reviewer, Makari has cast his net perhaps too widely — while also, at the same time, ironically, too narrowly. Deciding the scope of one’s work is always an issue, and language is a natural barrier, but, especially regarding the book’s almost complete lack of non-Western sources (its astute analysis of Franz Fanon notwithstanding), the brilliance and eloquence of Makari’s work are somewhat diminished by its Eurocentrism. This does not mean the arguments presented in the book are not valid. Far from it. Furthermore, Makari seems to be aware of these limitations. Yet, a truly comprehensive investigation into the term should encompass Non-Western as well as Western sources.  

Makari starts the journey into Xenophobia’s origins in his own family history of immigration and war. The Lebanese civil war that shook his family’s world, and the way the former tolerant and cosmopolitan society tore itself apart “haunted” Makari (xxii). Similar, more recent outbreaks of intolerance and the challenges to the liberal order in the UK and USA, though less violent, made the search for Xenophobia’s origin more relevant than ever. Makari rightly dismisses evolutionary psychology and similar explanations that see in the phenomena something innate which can be somehow traced to the Savannahs of Africa. For Makari, Xenophobia is clearly a modern phenomenon. Here the author adopts a social constructionist perspective to psychiatric terms, which follows the work of philosopher of science Ian Hacking. For Hacking, the introduction of new diagnostic categories created what he calls a “looping effect”: novel forms of experiences, new ways to relate to one’s world, and new ways of thinking and expression.[1] Such categories, of course, were not created out of thin air but rose due to the peculiar historical circumstances of the era in which they were created.

The word Xenophobia is, of course, Greek. But Makari finds no connection “between the Xenos and the Phobos” in the texts of antiquity (10). Xenos’ meaning was far more ambivalent before modernity where it could mean both stranger and a guest. Rather, the “fear of strangers,” Makari argues can be traced to European colonialism and its immediate precursor, the reconquest of Spain. Makari finds the rise of intolerance in Catholic Spain, and the conquistadors’ atrocities against the colonialized others, as well as in the reaction to these horrors by Las Casas and others, the genesis of our modern notion of Xenophobia. Makari does briefly examine the later rise of “nervous specialists” in the mid-19th century and the proliferation of phobias, but he does not spend too much time of the phenomena’s career as a pathological term at the beginning of the book. Rather, he turns to its rise as a symbol of “irrational political animus towards foreign nations” (48)

The actual word “Xenophobia” is traced to Jean Martin de Saintours – an expert in stenography – who utilized the telegraph in to write up dispatches from China as the Boxer Rebellion targeted European in the declining empire. De Saintours, Makari surmised, probably received a report from Shanghai, wrote it up and labeled Boxers as Xenophobes (61). In a recent article, Makari writes he “found [De Saintours] at the center of a storm that crashed over much of the globe, and now seems to be doing so again.”[2] From De Saintours, Makari takes the reader to a journey through the rise of jingoism, racism, and empire, as the term migrated from providing an explanation why colonial people had a supposed irrational fear of Europeans, who only wished to “civilize” and “enlighten” them, to the deployment of the term by reformers who condemned the anti-Semites, racists, and bigots who targeted immigrants and minorities throughout the turn of the century Europe and the Americas. Makari then examined these critiques and moralists from Las Casas, to Montaigne, Joseph Conrad, W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as thinkers like Franz Boas, Theodore Adorno, and countless others (Freud, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Fanon, Derrida, and Foucault all make an appearance) who tried to “take the cloak of invisibility” of our biases, hatreds, and discriminatory attitudes towards “others” (231-232). Makari examines them against the thought of their rivals from Ernest Renan to Carl Schmitt and other modern champions of racism and nationalism. After going through the intellectual history, Makari then turns to a closer, if briefer, look at psychological and other theories from group psychology to behaviorism, that tried to explain or even cure the phobia by using the tools of the psychological sciences. Makari sees all these approaches as only being partially successful, as no single approach explained xenophobia: behaviorism cannot explain the impact of “ideas and identities,” neuro behaviorists cannot explained “entrenched bigotry in those who have never been traumatized,” cognitive scientists “run into walls when they try to account for disdain towards strangers that is more than a rigid thought,” and, finally, psychoanalysis cannot really explain group behavior on the scale of political camps and nation (236).

Makari’s criticism of psychoanalysis is accurate and timely. In the immediate postwar era, there was a consensus among liberal psychologists that conservatism was a form of mental disease. As Michael Staub argued, early postwar psychologists shared the idea that most Americans are likely to develop mental issues because of bad upbringing, and many of these were at risk of being lured by right wing extremists.[3] University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Kenneth Appel, for instance, insisted that conservatism was a psychiatric disorder. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that many conservatives suffer from schizophrenia, while progressive thinkers like Nathan Glazer and Richard Hofstadter saw conservatism as abnormal psychological phenomena that came from failure to adjust to a complex modern world.[4] Not everybody was comfortable with this. Already in 1954, celebrated combat psychiatrist Roy Grinker, in an echo of Makari’s current criticism, told his colleagues, “Today, we see in psychiatric practice an extension of psychiatric concepts from individuals to groups.” But, he continued, when a psychiatrist is asked to make statements about:

“groups, group action, group morale, he is pretty well frustrated because he cannot apply, legitimately, what he knows about an individual to group structure and function. Yet, he very frequently utilizes his special brand of knowledge authoritatively, to interpret what happened post hoc to the group, but often he is incorrect. Unfortunately, he is the one in the community who is asked to make very frequent pronouncements to lay people through lectures and what not.”[5]

Grinekr was a lone voice in 1954. The phenomenon somewhat receded since the 1960s, with the anti-psychiatry movement and other developments somewhat dampening psychiatrists’ appetite for public commentary and group analysis. But the wake of the 2021 January 6th insurgency, similar sentiments have emerged as psychiatrists and psychologists are again consulted to explain a world that again seems to have gone mad. Makari’s intervention here, thus, is necessary and timely.

Makari, however, does not develop this insight into a full-blown critique. He examines psychology and psychiatry only as part of a wider examination. Makari’s focus, again, is much more on the history of the term as idea and the intellectual ramification of these developments, than of xenophobia as a psychological category and the problematics of psychological experts’ role in society. This is not a work on medical history. Makari’s training as a psychiatrist, notwithstanding, it seems that he does not see in xenophobia a medical or psychiatric condition. Admittedly, the lines between disease and health in psychiatry are quite blurry and, as Foucault and others taught us, categories are always socially constructed to a degree. Yet, phobias are real.  I have a close family member who has an undiagnosed, yet quite real Koumpounophobia. This rare condition means she has a fear and disgust of buttons (plastic, shirt buttons). Makari is, again, right for not limiting his investigation to psychiatry. Xenophobia does not quite feel the same as other phobias. People with Koumpounophobia feel the need to wash their hands and are quite disgusted if touching a button. The men who stormed the capital would not react similarly to, let’s say, a person of Middle Eastern descent (though they may have negative feelings of disgust, they would not puke or feel physically unwell), yet, similar to the critique above in regards to psychologists’ role in society, this reviewer would have liked, at times, for Makari to tread closer to the disciplinary terrains of psychiatry and psychology, and the way psychiatric terms and praxis interacted with the wider world. 

I am not trying to argue here Makari should have written a completely different book. His approach is not necessarily wrong (and makes for a much more enjoyable read as one by one one’s graduate school intellectual heroes emerge on the pages), yet going through what seems at times a crash course at Western intellectual history, with thinkers following in quick succession does at time makes the reader’s head spin.[6]  If we follow Makari’s logic, almost all relations between humans and their “others,” that is other humans, can fall under this rubric, and, thus, although the book is thought provoking and immensely enjoyable, it was hard for this reviewer, at times, not to feel slightly uncomfortable with the ever-expanding enquiry. Furthermore, the wide scope of the enquiry, I would argue, obscures the important critiques outlined above.

My second critique relates to a more familiar problem with books of this nature. As a scholar of Japan and Asia, I was further concerned by the almost exclusive focus on European and North American developments. This is especially troubling given that the term, as Makari convincingly argues, was born in relation to the 1899- 1901 Boxer uprising in China. Thus, the book manages to be both too wide in its application, and too narrow in leaving half or more of the world beyond the scope of the investigation. There is, of course, a limit to what one can do. Language, especially, being a barrier for enquiry. Such a blindness of Non-Western intellectual worlds is not limited to Makari. In fact, Makari, with his wide use of French, German, and other European languages, is much better than a lot of similar books that aspire to the universal but are actually mostly about us Euro-Americans. A whole host of (mostly) trade books, offer us sweeping vistas of examination and analysis into the human condition but barely go beyond the English language world. Being a Lebanese American, and as Makari connects the genesis of the work to his own family experiences as the Lebanese civil war shook their world, one would think at least the Middle East and Arab or similar points of view would make an appearance. Alas, the book stays firmly within Euro-American debates.

Such criticisms as outlined above are not meant to invalidate Makari’s work and arguments. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity for others, especially scholars of the non-West, to pick up where Makari began and further sharpen and expand the research of xenophobia beyond Europe. The last couple of years have seen an explosion in the research of Non-Western psychiatry. Omnia El Shakry work on Freud in Egypt, Emily Baum and others on China, Jun Yoo on Korea, Harry Wu on Taiwan (and transcultural psychiatry in UNESCO), and many more scholars have expanded our understanding of how modern psychiatric terms were understood in non-Western sites.[7] Japan, my own area of specialty, has seen a flourishing of research, which is especially pronounced in Japanese language work but also led to a number of groundbreaking works in English.[8]  All these scholars offer us a correction to a history of medicine, which is all too often too Eurocentric.

I tried to offer a (very) modest beginning for such an endeavor, and followed Makari’s methodology, by examining Japanese media sources for the use of Xenophobia. Makari examined media in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German and found out that the use of the word xenophobia, shot up from 1989, following the end of the Cold War, and then around 2016 with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. In Japanese there is no single term for Xenophobia (which is, in itself, telling). The dictionary mentions dislike of foreigners (gaikokujin girai  – 外国(人)嫌い), antipathy towards foreigners (gaikokujin ken’o – 外国人嫌悪),  anti-foreign thought (haigai shisō – 排外思想), rejection of foreigners (gaikokujin haiseki 外国人排斥), an, finally, simply a romanization of  Xenophobia (zenofobia ゼノフォビア). But the trends in Japanese media seem to follow Western patterns.

Still, there is much less discussion of xenophobia than in the West. I searched for all the terms but found only a handful of mentions in Japanese newspapers. However, almost all of these are from the 1990s onward. Thus, a 1992 article under the title “Xenophobia” in the liberal newspaper Asahi mentions that “xenophobia is growing across Europe… [there have been] a lot of incidents against foreign workers, gypsies and others that came to work in West after fall of socialism.” Yet, the writer of the article wondered if Japanese are xenophobic or simply like to avoid foreigners because of language difficulties. Furthermore, the author added, humorously, “there are so many examples of phobias: Aphobia, claustrophobia, schoolphobia, taxphobia, and the like.”[9] The connection to (seemingly made up) phenomenon of taxphobia and the intellectually dishonest avoidance of real problems of bias and racism towards minorities (as in these are just language problems) tell as much about the psychology of the writer than of the Japanese as a whole (if one, again, can even make such claim). Other articles in the mid-nineties and more recently were much more serious, and more in line of Western critiques taking issue with the way foreign students and immigrants are treated, and the lack of reform regarding foreigners’ right to vote in local elections.[10]

A particularly vivid, and much earlier, example can be seen in an 1891 report from anti-foreign riots in China (around the Yangtze River basin). The report describes, quite garishly, and with cartoonish illustrations, Chinese rebels torturing foreign missionaries, attacking churches, burning foreign books, and displaying a seemingly irrational hatred of foreigners. The implication of these descriptions, as well as the cartoonish illustration, is to differentiate xenophobic Chinese from the more Westernized and tolerant Japanese readers of the report.[11] As John Dower demonstrated, when Japan went to war with China in 1894, such visual differentiation was on full display in Japanese wood block prints that depicted the war, in a classic orientalist fashion, as orderly, disciplined, and technologically superior troops fighting a multitude of wild and exotically dressed Chinese army (the Chinese military, especially the navy, was in fact in the middle of a similar westernization effort to that of Japan and was favored to win).[12] By depicting the Chinese as irrational and xenophobic, the Japanese were symbolically triumphing over not only a Chinese “other” but also their own Sinified past. A sort of symbolic datsu- A, or a departure from Asia, as urged by the liberal thinker Fukuzawa Yukichi.

Both the 1890s and 1990s uses of the term are very similar to what Makari found for the West. The above results, of course, may not be representative. Japan, also, has a particular trajectory that differs from China and other places that were formally colonized.  But they do suggest similar timelines to the rise of xenophobia and similar connections to immigration and globalization that Makari found in the West. Xenophobia is not a Western problem. It is a global problem. It is also not a problem that is limited to psychologically damaged individuals, bigots, racists, misogynists, and the like. Thus, although I spent the first part of the review on a critique of Makari’s “over reach” in the search for Xenophobia’s genealogy, I still find the work quite admirable and necessary. As Makari states in the end of the book, expanding and building on the work that was done so far in the multiple fields he examined was his ultimate aim in writing this book.  Makari sees the current age we live in as an age of crisis, “the belief in new world order has gone – a new force of populism and xenophobia crept to the front” (265). Of Fear and Strangers offer the many ways we tried to understand “xenophobia,” with their wide application, as important ways to combat the bigotry and hatred around us. Makari calls on us to confront this crisis, armed with the multiple insights offered “by our forebears,” which he examined in his work. Makari’s work is an important steppingstone for doing just that.

* I thank Kobi Kabalek for reading and commenting on this review.

[1] Vesterinen, Tuomas. “Identifying the Explanatory Domain of the Looping Effect: Congruent and Incongruent Feedback Mechanisms of Interactive Kinds, ” Journal of Social Ontology, vol. 6, no. 2, 2020, p. 159.

[2] Makari, George. “The Invention of “Xenophobia” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 6th, 2021.

[3] Staub, Michael E. Madness is Civilization: When the Diagnosis was Social, 1948 -1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 15.

[4] Dowbiggin, Ian. The Quest for Mental Health: A Tale of Science, Medicine, Scandal, Sorrow, and Mass Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 139.

[5] “Community Resources for Morale” in Galdston, Iago. ed. Panic and Morale; Conference Transactions. New York: International Universities Press, 1958. p. 241.

[6] There are also some curious omissions, like Emanuel Levinas, who only makes the briefest of appearances despite developing a whole body of work based on the encounter with the “other.”

[7] El Shakry, Omnia S. The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in modern Egypt. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2017; Yoo, Jun T. It’s Madness: the Politics of Mental health in Colonial Korea. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016; Baum, Emily. The Invention of Madness: State, Society, and the Insane in Modern China Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018; Edington, Claire E. Beyond the Asylum. Mental illness in French Colonial Vietnam. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2019; Zhang, Li. Anxious China Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy. Oakland, CA.: University of California Press. 2020; Wu, Harry Yi-Jui. Mad by the Millions: Mental Disorders and the Early Years of the World Health Organization. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2021.

[8] Kitanaka, Junko. Depression in Japan: Psychiatric Cures for a Society in Distress. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 2012; Suzuki, Akihito, and Junko Kitanaka. Seishin igaku no rekishi to jinruigaku. Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai. 2016. 

[9] Asahi Shinbun, November 8th, 1992.

[10] For instance Mainichi shinbun, September 8th 1996, and Ashai Shinbun February 10th 2010.

[11] “Da oni-shō-sho-zu” (1891) Plaut family Papers, Folder 1949, The wiener Holocaust Library, London, UK,  Also cited in Kaba Yutaka, “Nagae ryūiki kyōan to ‘kodomo-goroshi’” Zinbun, p. 299  accessed March 25th 2022.

[12] Dower, John. “Throwing Off Asia,” MIT Visualizing Cultures accessed March 25, 2022

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