Oikophobia in American History

The final installment in the three-part series on the historical manifestations of oikophobia


As the final dismemberment of the Western half of the Roman Empire is accomplished, no European people is able to achieve any significant measure of literacy and, therefore, advanced culture. A by and large cultured Mediterranean civilization is replaced by a barbaric and mainly Germanic one. Western Europe becomes the home of various assortments of Franks, Goths, and others. It is not necessary to analyze here the history of every single or even any individual medieval people. Rather, it may be established as a general rule that from the fall of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance, culture, by which I now mean literacy and the interest in matters beyond one’s own little village, did at no point during this period advance significantly outside of royal courts (and often not even there) and the confines of monasteries. Since we have just looked a bit at oikophobia in cultured societies, namely Greece and Rome, we learn more about this social pathology by understanding why it does not arise in significant measure in uncultured societies, such as the kingdoms that controlled Western Europe for a millennium of relative darkness, where frequently even the king himself did not know how to read. Oikophobia inevitably arises among cultured peoples. In the middle ages, there can be no oikophobia, because generally some limited form of democracy, or at the very least a measure of intellectual freedom, is necessary for oikophobia to arise in any significant measure. (This is why a limited oikophobic phenomenon in antiquity becomes an even greater mass phenomenon in modernity, through the ever increasing democratization and egalitarianism of Western society.) Since medieval societies did not move far beyond their founding religion (Christianity), they remained firmly defensive of their own civilizations and would not lapse into oikophobia; this touches upon the subject I have already discussed, in the post of October 20, 2014, In Defense of Judeo-Christianity, which is why I do not delve further into that topic here.

The discussions of the antiquity of Western history should make the exposition of modern times in this respect fairly predictable, and so it is: The strengthening of European nations, the awakening of the simple medieval peasant, previously concerned with little but the seasonal cycles, and his slow conversion into a wealthier landowner or his move into the city where he joined the middle class, turned his eyes outward. The strength of these new states asserted itself and thought itself superior, in that initial phase of what I call strong decadence that always recurs in the relatively early stages of civilizations. In modern times we see among the disparate nations the same pattern that was manifest in antiquity and that because of religion and economic fragmentation lay dormant during the dark ages: a people relatively uncivilized and uncultured, but possessed of great mobility and untested strength, awakens and, as it were, goes abroad in the service of its deities. Initial successes against surrounding peoples lead to greater wealth and prestige among the people, and a national identity is forged, accompanied by literary epics and other accoutrements of culture (Homer, Beowulf, La Chanson de Roland, El Cantar de Mio Cid, etc.). Eventually, the people reaches its pinnacle of success, with so much wealth that a permanent leisure class can be established, and this era of greatest political power will generally coincide, more or less, with the pinnacle of the nation’s cultural and scientific achievements. Eventually, there is enough wealth and power that the leisure class, and in many cases people lower on the social ladder as well, become more occupied with achieving higher states of wealth and prestige than they are with the health of the state, which is where weak decadence – oikophobia – sets in and the state’s religion begins to be seriously weakened. Diverse interests are thereby created that view each other as greater enemies than they do foreign threats. What Freud has called “the narcissism of small differences” (der Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen) becomes one way in which a particular interest expresses its superiority over others: the fact that the most immediate antagonisms are at home rather than abroad makes oikophobia particularly tempting, since by rejecting one’s entire culture as backward, one automatically sets oneself above all the other interests that are, precisely, parts of that culture. The opportunism afforded by the higher degree of wealth and leisure thus contributes to oikophobia. Earlier in the social development there is less room for opportunism, because the cooperation of a larger proportion of the people is essential for survival at a time when the nation is poorer and individuals more reliant on one another for basic security. But once the society has taken off and become affluent, there is greater opportunity to excel and more room, therefore, for people to start criticizing their own culture as an effort to get ahead personally. (This, by the by, is also why dissidents and protesters often tend to be mainly middle class, not lower class, as might appear more intuitive, and this is another predictable pattern that repeats itself; to take a recent example that resonates with me personally, when Brazil was destitute, there was less significant mass protest against the government as regards poverty and corruption, but with the successful lifting of millions of Brazilians out of poverty over the last decade, protests against government sloth and corruption became almost inevitable. It is possible to hold two thoughts in mind at once: to think that some of the protests are justified, while nonetheless recognizing the irony in the fact that the protests are partly a result of, precisely, successful governmental responses to widespread poverty.) Ultimately, either the state will fall through actually violent infighting, or a view on the part of individual members that their interests are more important than those of the state will lead to their unwillingness to sacrifice themselves for the state, and so the nation falls to the onslaught of a people that is in the beginning of their own cycle and thereby in the process of “going abroad”. In the absence of such an enemy, the nation may survive but simply sinks into irrelevance.

Inexperienced American militiamen near Bunker Hill are able to inflict heavy casualties upon the world's greatest army, in 1775.

Immigrants greet the Statue of Liberty. (As an immigrant myself, I was filled with similar awe when I first saw the Twin Towers (and every time thereafter, in fact).)

The United States is, in spite of one unique feature, as much of a textbook case as any other. A strong and vigorous people, mainly of farmers, repels the world’s most lethal military force from their land and establishes a new state. Although their culture stems directly from the British, they have a lower level of culture than their former overlords. Although the founding of the state is secular, religion is at this time much stronger than it is today. The weakening of Christianity in the United States will not proceed in a straight line – social developments are rarely straight – as for instance the 19th century is by and large more devout than the 18th (as is true in much of Europe as well), but the overall direction of development is nonetheless clear. The unique feature of the United States, as opposed to previous empires, is that the populace is not at all autochthonous, but rather based on immigration. But this fact actually renders one of the historical tendencies we have established even more striking in the American case. The founding fathers immediately recognized the immigrant nature of the United States as a problematic issue and considered diversity an obstacle to be overcome.

It is fair to say that, early on, mass immigration strengthened the state – just like expansion of the citizenship had strengthened Rome during the Republic – because great masses of new workers, soldiers, and, in some cases, experts arrived on American shores. But, as in the case of Rome, after a certain critical and largely inevitable point, what has been a source of strength becomes a liability and a source of weakness. The strongest and one of the earliest signs of this development is the American Civil War, which, while fought over slavery, was more fundamentally a clash of diverse cultural, ethnic, and economic interests. The liberation of the slaves also expanded citizenship and led to a greater pool of soldiers, but in the long term it added yet another interest group to an already fragmented nation. (I am obviously not defending the awful institution of slavery; I am simply describing a historical process.) After World War II the United States achieves its peak of power and prosperity, which, as we have seen in other cultures since antiquity, leads to a far greater number of oikophobes than an earlier and simpler time can allow, again illustrating why oikophobia can arise only comparatively late in a civilization. It is no coincidence, of course, that religion is drastically weakened at this point in U.S. history. It is the case, again quite paradoxically, that the lack of confidence in one’s own culture arises precisely from that culture’s success. Like the Athenians (and the Greeks) believed in themselves at Marathon and Salamis, so the Americans believed in themselves at Yorktown and New Orleans. Like the Athenians no longer believed in themselves during the Peloponnesian War, so too the Americans no longer believed in themselves during the wars of the last half century. For a people to thoroughly believe in itself, it helps to be close to extinction – as the Greeks were during the Persian Wars, the Romans during the Second Punic War, and the Americans during the Revolution – a point which comes early on. Once success is overwhelming, belief – cultural, patriotic, and religious – declines.

A very young soldier lies unburied at Antietam. It was the one bloodiest day in all American history. Although his death may have been a necessary step in the abolition of slavery, he died because of diverse economic and cultural interests.

The role diversity plays in this deserves to be emphasized. Today, diversity, which, again, was a problem in the minds of the founding fathers, is a professed goal of politicians and anyone claiming a certain cultural savoir-faire (I myself, having moved from the socialistically homogeneous Sweden of the 1980s to the gorgeous variety of New York City, know the beauty of diversity as well as anyone). But of course such politicians and intellectuals do not really understand culture, history, or mass psychology, because the evidence in history that diversity in the long run weakens a people is absolutely overwhelming. One reason why a Kansas farm boy will generally be less oikophobic than a Massachusetts college student, more willing to view the state as superior to himself, is because the college student lives in a more diverse environment while the farm boy leads a life that lies closer to the sort of lives led during the earlier stages of American civilization. As I discussed in the previous post in the case of Rome, there are not only military but also legal milestones in the development. As I cited the examples of the Lex Hortensia and Clodius' grain dole for the Romans, one may cite the 17th Amendment to the Constitution (allowing direct election of senators by the people rather than by state legislatures) and Roosevelt's New Deal, among many others, as instances of the growing egalitarianism of the people.

Even when unsolicited, the Greeks (in this case Plato) butt in to the conversation and explain why it was so obvious all along.

The first unquestionably oikophibic president of the United States was Jimmy Carter, and every president since then, with the possible exception of Reagan, has been oikophobic. The state of current American civilization is such that diversity has had a debilitating effect on many aspects of society, on its culture, politics, and use of its military. It is a nation so bent on internal squabbling that it is no longer capable of effectively projecting outward force. That this would happen was predicted hundreds of years ago – in fact, thousands of years ago, before Europeans even knew of the American hemisphere. In his Republic, Book 8, Plato explains that the more freedom and equality is to be found in society, the more its members will hold themselves above the state. This is a very sad acknowledgement indeed, since it is possible to be in favor of freedom and some forms of equality while at the same time deploring some of their long-term results. Even those things we would generally consider good end up weakening our societies. (This goes back to the issue raised in my post of December 10, 2014, The Narrow and Broad Views.) 

The more oikophobic we become, the farther we are removed from the sources and thereby the understanding of our own culture. This is why many Americans today have only a very superficial understanding of what culture entails. They tend to think that it is mainly a matter of such things as whether to eat with a fork and knife or with chop sticks, or of consuming matzah ball soup on Passover. If, however, we undertook the study of Greek and Latin, of English literature, Western tonality, and much else, a study rendered easier by and in turn fostering pride in one's own civilization, then we would better comprehend that the ballot box, the Latin alphabet, and the separation of church and state are expressions of our culture. But since we do not, we are often surprised at how much other peoples around the world, who are closer to their own cultures, are fanatically willing to fight and die for what they believe. It is to those people we shall in due time succumb in our irrelevance, as already in large measure have e.g. the British and the French. I recall that shortly after the Muslim attacks on Charlie Hebdo last January, a French reform rabbi said in an interview that France's greatest strength is its diversity. This modern prejudice has, overwhelmingly, the evidence of history against it. And it is not our feelings but rather evidence, in philosophical and historical argument just as in scientific, that matters.