The Modern Survival Guide #93
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And let’s get one thing straight — xenophobia is bad. I wouldn’t have thought this concept would be such a hard sell in 2019, but as it turns out… yeah.
So let’s talk definitions first — it’s always good to know what we’re decrying before we break out the torches and pitchforks. Xenophobia is generally defined as dislike or prejudice against people from other countries. There’s an interesting distinction there, because xenophobia is not necessarily the same as racism; it’s more of a generalized fear of foreigners.
That being said, anecdotally I can’t think of an example of xenophobia I’ve encountered that wasn’t at least a little racist, and I have a whole separate article on why racism is bad.
But let’s focus on the fear of foreigners, because that’s potent enough. This takes a lot of forms in the media and conversation, but you’ll probably be familiar with at least some of the following:
- Foreigners bring crime!
- Foreigners spread disease!
- Foreigners abuse the welfare system!
- Foreigners bring un-American ideas!
- Foreigners aren’t Christian!
- Foreigners take our jobs!
- Foreigners dilute the racial makeup of America!
Do these sound familiar? They should. The President has said most of them, and your uncle (you know the one I’m talking about) said the remainder over the course of last Thanksgiving dinner.
Make no mistake: xenophobia is a core issue of modern survival. It holds us back, it creates bad situations, and if we happen to be of the not-exactly-WASP-persuasion, it becomes a serious issue of safety. We shouldn’t be xenophobic, we shouldn’t tolerate xenophobia from our public figures, and we shouldn’t pass xenophobic laws. Xenophobia is a dead end in the modern world.
But it’s got teeth. Oh good grief, does it have teeth. I don’t think we can go any further into why xenophobia is bad without taking down the resident straw men, such is their power in modern dialogues. Then we’ll talk about why xenophobia is bad, counterproductive, and quite simply silly in the modern world.
Dismissing Xenophobic Mythology
Again: I’m sorry we have to do this in 2019. But here we go.
No, Foreigners Don’t Bring Crime
… At least, not the way xenophobes think about it. It is an unvarnished truth that if people exist, then there will be crime. The only question is how much crime, and this is where it gets interesting, because there is no link between immigration and crime in general, and when you control for classifying illegal immigration as a crime in itself, there is a weak link between immigration and lower crime rates overall. In other words, it seems that areas with large immigrant communities have less crime than demographically similar communities of natives.
It’s also worth noting that most of the “serious” crime that immigrants bring with them, in particular gangs and drugs, tends to focus on the immigrant community itself. So you could make the argument that this is irrelevant to the health of non-immigrant communities anyway, and therefore pull the teeth of the argument that immigrants make the nation less safe.
As such, when we talk about immigration (illegal or otherwise) and crime rates, it’s important to realize that (a) foreigners aren’t any more responsible for crime than natives, (b) concentrations of immigrants may in fact decrease crime levels, and (c) this is the wrong discussion anyway. The correct question is whether or not incoming groups bring things to the table that outweigh the minuscule increase in crime that comes with adding more humans, and the answer is usually “yes, they do.”
No, Foreigners Don’t Spread Disease
… At least, again, not the way xenophobes think about it. It is a universal fact that if you have people, they have to die of something, and that something is often disease of one form or another. Therefore, in any population of humans, some will have a disease. Over a long enough timeframe, all members of any population will have a disease.
So the question isn’t “do foreigners have diseases,” but rather “is that dangerous?” Studies seem to indicate that immigrants are less likely to die of certain diseases, and more likely to die of others, but that they tend to only spread particular diseases within their particular immigrant community. So no, we shouldn’t be particularly worried about immigrants spreading disease. At least, not if you’ve had your shots. You’ve had your shots, right? RIGHT?
It’s worth noting that if we were to correct unsanitary conditions that exist in immigration holding facilities, strenuously address anti-vaxxer bullshit, and invest in better healthcare availability overall, this would both alleviate concerns over immigrants spreading germs and make the country healthier as a whole. But I digress.
No, Foreigners Do Not Abuse the Welfare System
This myth is mostly aimed at illegal immigrants, and as far as the fact checkers can tell, it’s full of crap. Some studies have gone so far as to show that immigrants in general are less likely to receive government assistance. It’s also worth noting that illegal immigrants are entirely ineligible for federal assistance programs in the first place. It’s tough to take advantage of a system you can’t access.
Yes, of course there’s fraud. But there’s no evidence that it’s large enough to make a noticeable dent in the various welfare programs’ budgets. Whatever you think about these programs, the overwhelmingly vast majority of their beneficiaries are legally authorized to access them. In addition, it’s entirely likely that the contributions that illegal immigrants make to the economy, and their tax contributions (from non-income-related taxes, of which there are more than a few), outweigh their cost. This is certainly true of legal residents.
No, Foreigners Do Not Bring Un-American Ideas
This makes sense if you think about it for half a second, because there are only a few “American” ideas:
- Desire for opportunity
- Desire for equality under the law
- Desire for liberty
- Belief in the ideal of democracy
- Belief in the philosophic concept of inalienable rights
These are the concepts enshrined in our founding documents, and they are accessible to all people. You don’t have to be American to want these things; that’s one of the reasons the US exists, and it’s why we’re a nation of immigrants.
Everything else is up for debate. Everything. That’s part of the point of this whole “freedom” gig. The most un-American idea you can possibly hold is that there exist such things as un-American ideas. As long as you want opportunity, want liberty, want equal treatment, want democracy, and want rights… you’ve got what it takes to be American. Some of our citizens arguably do not.
And indeed, if we look at the data on this subject, the reasons people come to the US seem to line up quite neatly with American ideals.
Yes, Foreigners May Not be Christian, But That’s Fine
Speaking of un-American ideas, a lot of people would be happy to include this one on the list. There’s the ever-present screed that the US was founded as a “Christian Nation,” and a great many of the churches of modern-day America reserve the bulk of their distrust for anyone who does not follow their particular faith traditions (including each other, but that’s another story).
Nevertheless, the thing we all need to remember is that the 1st Amendment exists. It is manifestly un-American to prohibit or restrict the practice of religion, so long as the religion in question does not represent a clear and present danger to the citizenry.¹ And we even let some of those get by; it’s hard to argue that many of the cults that enjoy 1st Amendment protections are wholesome environments.
Ultimately, the best responses to the critique that foreigners might not be Christian are either “so what?” or “great!” From the perspective of our laws and national philosophy, the response is “so what?” From the Christian perspective, the response ought to be “great!” if for no other reason than it puts so many more souls in close proximity to those who might convert them.
After all… aren’t y’all supposed to be worried about the state of the souls of the 1.5 billion heathen Chinese, and eager to convert them for the glory of God or whatever?
No, Foreigners Don’t Take Our Jobs
… At least, not the way the xenophobes think. South Park had a lot of fun with this one.
So let’s break this down. First of all, there are no jobs that Americans won’t do — for the right amount of money, anyway. But as farmers across the country will tell you, Americans aren’t particularly interested in fruit picking for sub-minimum wage, which is why there’s a thriving shadow economy of illegal immigrants who do agricultural work. So it’s fairly obvious that immigrants will take jobs that Americans won’t.
Anecdotally, probably a lot of us have either had the experience of losing a job competition to a foreign worker or knowing someone who has. This drives the other side of the debate. However, anecdotal evidence and economic reality are two different things.
Immigrants who come to the US for legal work add to the overall productive workforce. This grows the economy, thus creating more jobs. It may very well be the case that a foreigner got the job you wanted, but the reality is that foreigners contribute to a net gain of our jobs, making it more likely that you will be employed in general. It’s fine if you’re pissed that you didn’t get a job, but from a national policy perspective cutting off immigrants is the very definition of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
And Finally, Yes, Foreigners Change the Racial Makeup of the Country
… but who the fuck cares? If this is your rallying cry, you’re part of the problem. Racism is bad, y’all.
Also, this complaint has been going on for so long that everyone almost certainly has someone in their ancestry who would have had this charge leveled against them at some point in history. Especially if you’ve got some Irish blood in you, or an Eastern European relative or two.
We are, without any possibility for argument, a nation of immigrants, so it gets really silly when you think about this from a historical perspective. Probably in another eighty years there’s gonna be some guy named Gomez (or Pradhan) complaining that some other guy named Yuh is altering the racial fabric of America.
Why Xenophobia is Bad
Ok, now that we’ve emerged from the wilderness of xenophobic complaints, let’s tackle the key point: xenophobia is bad. It’s un-American. It’s antithetical to the modern economy. It’s illogical. It’s immoral. It’s not a viable way to interact in a globalized world. It’s one of the evils of the modern world, and we should all do our best to be inclusive, not xenophobic. Why? Because…
Xenophobia is Un-American
America is a nation of immigrants. This is indisputable. Unless you are a member of a Native American tribe, your ancestors came here from somewhere else. To come here and then claim that no one else should show up is the very tippy-top of the height of hypocrisy.
Some might then say, “It’s not the immigrants I’m opposed to, it’s the illegal immigrants.” Fine. Then you should support a rigorous rebuilding of the immigration system of this country, with an emphasis on fair and open avenues for legal immigration, because the current system sucks and much of it is based on systemic racism from years past. And y’all, racism is bad, m’kay?
Xenophobia Hurts the Economy
America, for better and worse, operates a nominally capitalist economic system. And brother, skilled workers are thin on the ground. We need medical professionals, engineers, programmers, and bio-tech people in the worst way, and the US university system is not keeping up. The only way we continue to stay economically ahead is to import as many skilled people as we can, as fast as we can.
There’s also a more basic issue: modern economies rely on innovation. Innovation needs smart people. Smart people are a statistical phenomenon of human populations in general, not just American citizens. In order to drive the engines of innovation and entrepreneurship, we need as many smart people as we can get. Xenophobia is antithetical to this concept; we can’t invent the cure for cancer in the US if the doctor who was going to do it can’t get into the country.
Xenophobia is Illogical
Fearing or hating another person simply because they are not like you is illogical. Plain and simple. Why? Because no one is like you. And at the same time, everyone is like you. Isn’t that a fun line to walk?
No one is exactly like you. Not your friends. Not your parents. Not your coworkers. Not your spouse. We are all slightly different; we have slightly different genetics, slightly different ideas, slightly different goals. So the discussion then becomes a discussion of which differences matter, and how much. And then in most of these discussions we’re right smack back in the realm of xenophobic mythology (or racism).
While we’re on the subject, when you get down to the level of genetic markers, there isn’t really any such thing as race. All we’re talking about are melanin concentrations as an adaptation to sunlight exposure, and that’s a really silly basis for any argument of superiority or inferiority. That’s science for you. Everyone is kinda like you.
Which just leaves ideology. And again, if people are coming to America with the concepts we previously mentioned, that’s all the ideology that America requires.
Xenophobia is Immoral
Fearing or hating another person simply because they are not like you is immoral. Plain and simple. Hate and fear lead to repression and violence. They engender needless cruelty and promote policies that inflict suffering. They encourage a view that other people are inferior, if only as a defense mechanism. We have seen this recently, in case we needed a fresh example.
Xenophobia is inherently dangerous for the livelihood of a functioning democracy — it limits people’s ability to make rational choices, is injurious to the public moral center, and it creates conflict between different groups based on historical grievances. Nothing good comes out of mindless hate and fear. This is where we get the monsters of history, not the saints.
Xenophobia is Not a Viable Strategy
Like it or not, the world is globalized. This is not open for discussion, and it’s not really open for revision; there is no such thing anymore as a viable autarchy.² If you don’t like it, blame capitalism and democracy, because both of these systems have done more to bring the world together than any other combination of forces in history.
If we accept that we live in a globalized world, the necessary corollary is that it is less than useful to have consistently bad relations with other people in the world. We’re seeing some of the consequences of that right now — decreased roles for the US, bad trade relations, fraying alliances, etc. None of these things are good in a globalized world, where “isolated” is a synonym for “irrelevant.”
Xenophobia does not help with this. If you instinctively dislike or hate foreigners, it makes it super easy to make very bad decisions. Xenophobic people elect xenophobic politicians. Xenophobic politicians make dumb decisions based on xenophobic ideologies. Dumb decisions can have very bad consequences; if you’re a soybean farmer, you’re not exactly having a good time right now, just for example.
Xenophobia simply isn’t a viable survival strategy in a world governed by globalized trade and institutions, and that’s more or less all there is to it.
So Don’t Be Xenophobic
Much like racism, xenophobia is pretty much the inbuilt default condition of humanity. We simply do not like differences in others; it’s a tribal in-group/out-group response, and it holds us back. It’s our job as rational adults to fight that kind of instinct. And much like avoiding racism, avoiding xenophobia is all about separating the general from the specific.
It’s about recognizing that just because that immigrant person is a criminal, the vast majority of immigrants are not.
It’s about remembering that just because I didn’t get a job, that doesn’t mean that immigrants as a group took my job.
It’s about knowing the difference between one person having measles and the immunity rate for an entire demographic.
It’s about recognizing the fact that another person’s faith doesn’t affect my faith.
It’s about recalling that we are a nation of immigrants, a nation of disparate peoples, and that e pluribus unum isn’t just a nifty catchphrase.
It’s about remembering that my rights end at your nose, and vice versa.
It’s about realizing and internalizing the fact that racism is bad, and adjusting our worldview accordingly.
This take dedication, self-awareness, and practice. These are not things that come naturally to a great many people, and thus we must emphasize the practice part of the equation. As with racism, when you catch yourself having xenophobic thoughts (and you will), treat it as an opportunity to practice not being xenophobic. “Yes, I didn’t get that job, and someone named al-Salihi did. This does not mean that immigrants are taking American jobs, it simply means I didn’t get a job. I will go home and work on my resume.”
Xenophobia isn’t going away tomorrow. If anything, this is one of those human problems that will never find an “end of history” scenario. There will probably always be xenophobic people, and from time to time we will all have xenophobic thoughts. That’s simply part and parcel of being human. But we don’t have to be xenophobic, and we certainly don’t have to give xenophobic people either respect or positions of power.
Treat xenophobia like what it is: an instinctual and cultural dead end that has no place in the modern world. It’s bad for us; let it die.
¹Aaaaand before the Islamophobes get started, let me simply say this: there are radical Islamic factions, and there are radical Jewish factions, and there are radical Christian factions. If you have a religion, you will have radicals. It is our job as citizens to keep them from getting too much power. So the best thing you can do, if you’re worried about one religion or the other, is to double down on the 1st Amendment. I’m looking at you, members of the Christian Right. Honestly, if you all could pull your heads out of your butts for longer than thirty seconds at a clip, you’d notice that you have a natural political ally in conservative Muslims for all issues except what the Man in the Sky looks like. It’s weird to me that you haven’t figured this out.
²An autarchy is a nation-state that is entirely self-sufficient. There aren’t any, and arguably never have been any viable autarchies which aren’t grossly negligent with their own people’s lives.