Liberal charges of xenophobia reveal more about those making them than about those at whom they are aimed. This is not to say that those charges are merely cynical, that they are used only as weapons against the left’s political enemies. These charges, though misplaced, are sincerely made. And precisely because of their sincerity they shed light on contemporary liberalism, which is powerfully inclined to see xenophobia where it does not exist—or at least to regard as xenophobic thoughts and actions that most non-liberals regard as normal and just.
The term “xenophobia” is a modern coinage based on ancient Greek roots that literally suggest fear of strangers. Used in its popularly accepted sense xenophobia refers to an irrational fear of foreigners and an unjust animus against them. Thus understood, xenophobia is rejected by all mainstream Americans. The majority of those Americans, however, understand their rejection of xenophobia as perfectly compatible with acknowledging the distinction between what is foreign and what is familiar, and even with preferring, within just and decent limits, the latter to the former. On this view, opposition to the “Ground Zero mosque” is not, despite liberal complaints, necessarily a manifestation of xenophobia. The opponents of the mosque acknowledge the rights of those who want to build it, but they think it should be built elsewhere out of respect for the feelings of those whom it offends. Of course, feelings are wounded on both sides: those who want the mosque are offended by opposition to it. Nevertheless, the opponents give greater weight to the feelings of their largely non-Muslim countrymen than to those of the mosque’s mainly Muslim proponents.
Implicit in this behavior is the sense that while everyone’s rights must be respected, not everyone’s feelings and interests are entitled to equal consideration. In acting and thinking this way, the critics of the mosque are manifesting a deeply rooted human proclivity, what the ancient political philosophers called “the love of one’s own.” Although this love is natural, it can be carried to unjust extremes. In Plato’s Republic, for example, Socrates is at pains to teach Polemarchus that justice is not doing good to friends and harm to enemies. Nevertheless, insofar as love of one’s own is natural, some reasonably restrained version of it is defensible. Thus Socrates’ correction of Polemarchus’s opinion holds that the just man will do good to friends and harm to no one. Even this philosophically refined version of justice acknowledges that more consideration is owed to friends than to others.
Viewed in this light, one might say that liberals are shocked by natural human partiality, and tend to attack it as xenophobia, because their own moral and political vision is skewed by a kind of unnatural xenophilia, a love of foreigners and preference for them. This surely does not get to the root of the matter, however, since one can hardly experience a genuine love for what is little known. In most cases the liberal’s reflexive protectiveness of foreigners requires no serious familiarity with them or affection for them. What is really at work is a kind of hostility to one’s own, a tendency that Roger Scruton has termed “oikophobia,” a fear of the familiar. To capture its political aspect, we might refer to it instead as a kind of liberal patriphobia, a fear of one’s own country and a fear of the love of one’s own country. I hasten to add that by this remark I intend no crude slander on the patriotism of American liberals. I intend only a candid statement of what I think every honest observer must admit: liberals are deeply suspicious of the love of one’s own, which they regard as both intellectually primitive and morally dangerous. In its place they embrace an egalitarian cosmopolitanism that suspects as unjust any preference for one’s own over outsiders, and even the very act of making a distinction between one’s own and outsiders.
Liberals act in these ways in part because contemporary liberalism is abstract and rationalistic in its philosophic roots. Liberals are still in important respects children of the Enlightenment and still hold dear its universalistic assumptions and aspirations. The Enlightenment hoped to usher in an empire of the “rights of man,” to establish society on the basis of what is owed to human beings as human beings, and accordingly rejected older, more partial loyalties—to clan, country, or faith—as merely arbitrary. To be sure, such loyalties are in some sense arbitrary and hence irrational. Objectively speaking, one man’s father is no more valuable than the next man’s, and the relationship between father and son is the work of chance and not choice. To that extent, one could contend that loyalty to fathers is merely arbitrary and irrational. From another perspective, however, one might contend that such loyalty is perfectly rational—in the sense that, while every man would admit that his father has no particular claims on the human race, every man would equally claim that a father does have a very powerful claim on the help and affection of his own son. Love of one’s own is unreasonable from the standpoint of an abstract rationality, but it is perfectly reasonable in the sense that it is embraced as normal and good by the common sense of the human race. If this is the case, then Liberalism’s reflexive suspicion of the love of one’s own turns out itself to be unreasonable and unjust. Respect for the rights of man may be the beginning of political wisdom, but it is not the end.
Liberal patriphobia also arises in part from liberals’ sensitivity to the historical traumas that have been inflicted on the human race through a disordered love of one’s own. In the European experience, Nazism and Fascism stand as sobering reminders of the enormous criminality that has been done in the name of a perverted patriotism. In America, the historical crime of slavery was initiated and defended on the basis of whites’ definition of Africans as alien and other, and hence as not possessed of any rights that demanded respect. Liberals are correct to be mindful of such injustices, sensitive to their causes, and alert to avoiding their recurrence. They err, however, in laying the blame for such crimes entirely at the feet of the love of one’s own as such. The real culprit is the excess of the love of one’s own, not to say an insanely inflated version of it. As St. Augustine remarked, the abuse of a thing does not take away its use; and it would be no less foolish to abandon the love of one’s own because of the excesses of nationalism than it would be to abandon erotic love because of crimes of jealousy.
Although well-intentioned in its origins, liberal patriphobia should be rejected as incoherent and morally dangerous. It is incoherent because it is what C.S. Lewis called, in The Abolition of Man, a mere moral innovation—that is, a novel teaching that rejects important portions of the moral tradition of the human race on which it is nevertheless silently parasitic. This was, in fact, Lewis’s criticism of Nazism. It wrenched from traditional morality the universally accepted principle that a man must love and serve his country, while at the same time it abandoned the equally venerable claim that justice requires that we respect the rights of all men, even those of foreign nationality. Modern liberalism simply reverses this error, denying that a man may especially cherish his countrymen while groundlessly insisting that he love the whole human race. In fact, modern liberalism learned its love for humanity from a traditional morality that also taught a heightened love for one’s own. If one principle is to be rejected, then both are groundless. If one is to be retained, then both have authority.
Liberal patriphobia is morally dangerous both in its direct and indirect effects. To the extent that liberals succeed in their moralistic denunciation of the love of one’s own, they debunk human sentiments that are perfectly normal, natural, and just, and they therefore directly desensitize men to duties of love and service that go beyond the minimum owed to all men in common. In the long run, liberal patriphobia cannot succeed precisely because it is up against a natural human love and humanity’s moral common sense. The indirect effect of the liberal denunciation of love of one’s own as xenophobia is to discredit the charge of xenophobia and rob it of all of its force. Given humankind’s sad proclivity to lurch from one irrational extreme to another, liberalism’s campaign against the love of one’s own threatens to wear out the charge of xenophobia and thus leave us disarmed in the face of real xenophobia when it arises.
Opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is not xenophobia but an ordinary, predictable, and understandable manifestation of the human proclivity to distinguish between what is one's own and what is alien and to give preference to the former over the latter. The core of the opposition arises from those who feel most directly brutalized by the 9-11 terrorist attacks, either because they are New Yorkers themselves or are other Americans whose love of one's own is so intense that they feel those attacks as attacks on themselves. They view the mosque as a provocation and an affront because of its association with a religious tradition that is alien to the historically prevalent American culture and that is in some forms admittedly hostile to that culture, as in the case of the 9-11 terrorists themselves. Additional opposition to the mosque arises from the same feelings operating in other Americans who, though more distant from the dispute, nevertheless find themselves drawn into it. They see a current controversy between those that they regard as their own and those they regard as other, and they feel impelled by national and cultural loyalty to side with the former against the latter.
Such feelings can, of course, show themselves in ways that are excessive and unreasonable. If that is happening in the case of the mosque, then liberals would be correct to say so in proportionate terms. Liberals err badly, however, in insisting that the current manifestations of such feelings are so excessive as to deserve the name of xenophobia. The opponents of the mosque, after all, are animated not by a generalized hostility to what is foreign, but instead by a concern about a particular religious tradition with which their country has had a recent traumatic experience. Moreover, such opponents admit that even the builders of the mosque have rights that must be respected—admit, that is, that love of one's own is limited by a justice that involves obligations even to those viewed as strangers. Liberals err even more fundamentally in denouncing the underlying feelings of patriotic solidarity as themselves xenophobic, for, again, such feelings are natural, ineradicable, and, within proper limits, productive of good. By their present accusations of xenophobia, liberals distort the meaning of the word and do no good service to their own countrymen or, in the long run, even to the strangers about whose feelings and interests they are so solicitous.
Carson Holloway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author most recently of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).