Phobias are about what just isn’t so. Quite natural minor fears and qualms – or just a bit of distaste and unease – somehow get blown up into something you just cannot face. Those minor fears and qualms decouple from common sense and become unreasonable fears, and then become compulsive and then paralyze you. That’s the problem – agoraphobics, those who deeply dread public spaces and chit-chat with strangers, stay locked up at home, for example. That makes buying groceries a tad difficult. And you tend not to date much. If you suffer from arachnophobia – even if spiders are quite harmless – you end up like Diane Keaton in that movie, having Woody Allen come over in the middle of the night to kill that spider you think you saw in the bathroom, and no good came of that. The most common phobia – acrophobia, fear of heights – is interesting. Only an idiot walks to the edge of the roof twenty-three stories above Fifth Avenue and does a little tap-dance, giggling – but sometimes you do have to climb a ladder to change a light bulb. It’s all a matter of keeping things in perspective. And yes, some spiders are quite nasty.
But you don’t treat phobias by urging perspective – telling the person with the phobia they’re being unreasonable, and actually quite stupid. That’s like telling someone with clinical depression to think good thoughts, and when they can’t manage that, getting angry with them and telling them to stop feeling sorry for themselves and to snap out of it, damn it – and then walking away forever, to show them you won’t put up with such foolishness. That only makes them more depressed, and for good reason. Now, as their best friend has just walked out of their life forever, they really feel bad about themselves.
And so it is with phobias – the best treatment seems to involve classical conditioning techniques, to very gradually introduce the feared stimulus in a step-by-step sort of thing known as systematic desensitization – start with taking one step up on a little stepladder and standing there for a bit, and then very gradually, over time, work up to the ledge twenty-three stories above Fifth Avenue, or at least to changing that light bulb. Of course this process is incredibly tedious and slow, but it actually seems to work. And it doesn’t involve one party angrily sneering and the other party either depressed and crying or seething in angry resentment.
Funny – that sounds like American politics, which, like all national politics, involves the most curious phobia of all, xenophobia – that uncontrollable fear of foreigners, or of at least what seems strange and exotic, or just “the other.”
This particular phobia is odd because xenophobia seems to be a tribal thing and all mixed up with a fear of losing identity, your own identity and your identity as part of the group that, for instance, you think are the Real Americans. Xenophobia is both personal and shared. And this phobia doesn’t paralyze you – it leads to aggression and a need to eliminate the presence of “the other” – to secure a presumed purity, one that may or may not have anything to do with reality. In the United States, a nation of immigrants and mongrels, of which we sometimes say we are proud, claims regarding national purity fall apart pretty quickly. Someone has always wanted to keep the newcomers out – the Irish or Italians or the Asians – until the newcomers become part of the mix, joining the national identity, and then the former newcomers join in and scream bloody murder about the newcomers from Albania or Tonga or wherever. Yes, the whole national purity thing is a bit silly. But think of it as a group phobia. On and off, in cycles, it involves the French.
And the nature of this phobia changes over time in ways that don’t have to do with nationality or newcomers. We once had the Klan and now we have a black president – or maybe we don’t, as his mother was white. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t matter much now. He is either 1) a socialist devil or 2) the most thoughtful, reasonable and impressive president we’ve had in what seems like ages. And if either view has to do with race no one says it has to do with race, at least on their side. And the same thing is happening with gays – they used to be the other but now nearly no one under thirty sees what the big deal is. Did you know that so-and-so is gay? Yeah, so – what’s your point?
Some things now just seem quaint. Nixon had his man, Fred Malek – who did what Nixon asked, work up a list of the members of the Jewish cabal at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so they could be fired. The Jews were the other? It seems so. Malek now says he rather regrets that he did that, but it didn’t hurt him. In September 1989, Malek was appointed by the first President Bush to coordinate plans for the 1990 economic summit of industrialized nations, and in 1992 Bush appointed him campaign manager for his re-election. And Malek was national finance committee co-chair of John McCain’s presidential campaign – and a special advisor to Sarah Palin on all things political. Malek now says he has nothing against the Jews, per se, but he is obviously an expert on “the other.” Xenophobes find him useful. Perhaps he helped formulate Palin’s position on just who are the Real Americans – they don’t live in cities and they don’t live on either coast, and they drive pickup trucks and like NASCAR, and they don’t like fancy-pants people with college degrees who talk about big ideas, and they go to church a lot and all the rest. Those are the real Americans. Everyone else is “the other.”
Yes, that seems quaint, or will seem quaint one day. But the thing about xenophobia is that those who hold such views say there is nothing unreasonable about their fears – there is no phobia involved. Here’s a summary from Ron Unz:
According to Lou Dobbs, “a third of the prison population in this country is estimated to be illegal aliens,” and Glenn Beck regularly warns of “an illegal alien crime wave.” Congressman Tom Tancredo insists, “The face of illegal immigration on our borders is one of murder, one of drug smuggling, one of vandalism for all the communities along the border, and one of infiltration of people coming into this country for purposes to do us great harm.” Michelle Malkin adds an even more terrifying note, calling our borders “open channels not only for illegal aliens and drug smugglers, but terrorists, too.” Even as far back as 2000, the highly regarded General Social Survey found that 73 percent of Americans believed that immigration caused higher crime rates, a level of concern considerably greater than fears about job losses or social unity.
And there’s the more mundane argument that they’re ruining our economy, except there is this recent FactCheck.org piece that looks at the economic impact of immigration and concludes that “study after study has shown that immigrants grow the economy, expanding demand for goods and services that the foreign-born workers and their families consume, and thereby creating jobs.”
That only makes sense, as there seems to be a lot of research showing that increased immigration – legal or illegal – may have a small negative effect on low-skill workers who lack a high school education, but it has a positive effect overall, as one would logically expect. And Matthew Yglesias comments:
But of course when you look at the politics of this issue, none of this is reflected. The people clamoring to “control the border” aren’t recent low-skill immigrants from Mexico. It’s very rarely native born high-school dropouts either. Rather, the people upset about immigration tend to be white high school graduates, a group that has a lot of conservative opinions about many issues but generally benefits from high levels of immigration.
We are dealing with rather dysfunctional xenophobia, of course, and Kevin Drum chimes in – “This suggests, of course, that opposition to immigration is rooted less in economic concerns and more in cultural resentment and language angst.”
And to show that Drum links to a Chris Hayes piece from 2006. This is about John Tanton, the founder of FAIR – the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the oldest and most influential immigration restriction group we have. Hayes explains that for years, Tanton tried to preach an anti-immigration message based on economic and conservation grounds. These awful folks were ruining the economy. But that didn’t work. And Hayes explains what did work:
Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same complaint. “‘I tell you what pisses me off,'” Tanton recalls people saying. “‘It’s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can’t read.’ So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question.”
Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this “emotional power,” but the board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. “The very first mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return,” he says. “That’s unheard of.” John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture war.
The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their very identity was under assault. “Feelings,” Tanton says in a tone reminiscent of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, “trump facts.”
And when people feel their country, their language and their very identity is under assault you have classic xenophobia. It’s not reasonable – English is hardly going to disappear and study after study shows the net economic effect of any kind immigration is positive, as it logically should be. But phobias have nothing to do with logic, of course. And as Tanton realized if you want to harness the “emotional power” of a tribal phobia, you hook onto that non-rational stuff. As Drum notes, beyond language and culture, it’s the fear that Hispanic immigrants are responsible for an “illegal alien crime wave.”
But that Ron Unz item, in the American Conservative of all places, shows that probably isn’t true either – and among all the charts and tables and analysis, a few things catch your eye:
Nearly all of the most heavily Latino cities have low or even extremely low crime rates, and virtually none have rates much above the national average. Eighty percent Latino El Paso has the lowest homicide and robbery rates of any major city in the continental United States. This is not what we would expect to find if Hispanics had crime rates far higher than whites. Individual cities may certainly have anomalously low crime rates for a variety of reasons, but the overall trend of crime rates compared to ethnicity seems unmistakable. …
Now let us consider the five most Hispanic cities in America: Corpus Christi, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; Miami, Florida; Santa Ana, California; and El Paso, Texas. Together they total over 3 million in population, averaging 68 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, and 6 percent black. … Overall, the crime rates for these most heavily Hispanic cities are generally low, with violent crime 10 percent below the national urban average and the homicide rate 40 percent lower.
That’s the data. That’s just not how it feels, and least to the older white folks in Arizona. But for those white folks there’s this:
Consider two large and comparable American cities – San Jose, California and Seattle, Washington. Both are located on the West Coast, are overwhelmingly suburban and generally affluent, earn their living from the technology industry, are politically liberal, and have small black populations. Seattle is one of the whitest cities in America at 70 percent, with Asians being the largest minority; Hispanics number only 5 percent. By contrast, San Jose is over 50 percent larger in size and although mostly white and Asian, is one-third Hispanic, with a large number of impoverished illegal immigrants. Seattle’s crime rate is indeed low, but the crime rate in San Jose is actually much lower: one-third lower for homicide or violent crime in general and with less than half the robbery rate. In fact, none of the most heavily white major cities in America have crime rates anywhere near as low as one-third Hispanic San Jose.
But of course you don’t tell someone in the grips of their phobia that they’re being unreasonable, and actually being quite stupid. Heck, they may live out here in Los Angeles, and everyone knows we’ve been overrun with crime. But we haven’t been:
During the middle of the 20th century, it was by far America’s whitest large city – roughly 80 percent white European by ancestry – and was generally regarded as America’s middle-class suburban paradise. But as the decades went by, LA increasingly became a byword for violence, crime, and ethnic conflict, with the deadly Watts and Rodney King racial riots filling television screens across the country. These enormously negative social changes coincided exactly with the population becoming less white, and although relatively few analysts were willing to suggest a direct causal relationship, I suspect it was noticed by all but the most obtuse observers. As early as 1982, a future LA served as the setting for Ridley Scott’s dystopian film “Blade Runner,” in which violence, poverty, and sudden death for a vast non-white immigrant population exist side by side with the sybaritic luxury of a tiny remaining white elite.
Since then, these ethnic demographic trends have continued apace, and Los Angeles today ranks as America’s least white European large city. Half of the population is Hispanic, and many of these are impoverished illegal immigrants and their families. Yet all crime rates have been falling steadily over the last two decades, with homicide dropping a further 18 percent just last year.
Oops. Claiming it is not a clinical phobia, but reasonable fear based on real facts, takes another hit.
And the item has its conclusion:
The evidence presented here powerfully refutes the widespread popular belief that America’s Hispanics have high crime rates. Instead, their criminality seems to fall near the center of the white national distribution, being somewhat higher than white New Englanders but somewhat lower than white Southerners. Taken as a whole, the mass of statistical evidence constitutes strong support for the “null hypothesis” – namely that Hispanics have approximately the same crime rates as whites of the same age.
Now what? Unz suggests his fellow conservatives need to recognize their dysfunction phobia:
Conservatives have traditionally prided themselves on being realists, dealing with the world as it is rather than attempting to force it to conform to a pre-existing ideological framework. But just as many on the Right succumbed to a fantastical foreign policy that makes the world much more dangerous than it needs to be, some have also accepted the myth that Hispanic immigrants and their children have high crime rates. Such an argument may have considerable emotional appeal, but there is very little hard evidence behind it.
Perhaps it is time for those classical conditioning techniques, to very gradually introduce the feared stimulus in a step-by-step sort of thing known as systematic desensitization. America had its problems with gays, but you watch a little Ellen DeGeneres, read Andrew Sullivan, watch Barney Frank go after the sleazy Wall Street guys and the oblivious bankers, and you have a beer with Frank and Joe down the street – well, the phobia in all of that gay stuff lifts. What’s the problem? What was the problem? No one was ever threatening your identity. You have yours, and they have theirs. So what?
In the case of xenophobia, talk to that Hispanic guy next to you about his kids and your kids or maybe just about the Dodgers or something. Small steps. No one has to be trapped in their phobia. But then you’ll be mad about the politicians in Arizona and their new papers-please bill. No one treats your friends that way, damn it.
And sooner or later you’ll remember that America was set up as a clever conspiracy to undermine xenophobia.