Working Together for an Inclusive 2022

As 2021 limped to a merciful end, I was reminded of our libraries as places of hope and found a renewed appreciation for those who preserve and enhance these spaces. In my town of South Bend, Indiana, our main library recently reopened after a major renovation. As I strolled through this new space a few weeks ago, I browsed the stacks, looking for titles that caught my eye. I came across George Makari’s Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia, pulled it down and began to read. I was transfixed.

My interest was kindled by my ongoing curiosity about Brexit and the choices made by many U.S. citizens these last five years. These extraordinary events seemed stoked by xenophobia and my curiosity regarding them had been heightened by the recent Atlantic feature article “The Bad Guys are Winning” by Anne Applebaum, which makes the sobering claim that if the 20th century saw liberal democracy triumphing over communism and virulent nationalism, the 21st century is a story of the reverse.

Makari, a U.S. citizen of Lebanese heritage who is a psychiatrist and a historian masterfully traces the origins of xenophobia, all the while offering insights into humanity’s mindset. What do nations do to foster identity and to ensure loyalty? They create a national memory, one that highlights remembrances, but also, equally important, a shared amnesia. As he notes, any divergence from this spoken memory scape, any shift in the boundaries of memory could be political dynamite, something we have seen with critical race theory (Makari, 47). From Freud’s explication of “the narcissism of minor differences,” as the Viennese doctor tried to explain why groups seem to need someone to hate, to Theodor Adorno’s exhausted conclusion that the authoritarian personality found relief in hatred (a people who were “negatively in love”), we see the stubborn roots of a fear of “strangers” that is demonstrated by too many of our brothers and sisters (Makari, 192-193).

What is the answer? Unfortunately, familiarity has not extinguished this hatred as we witness neighbors turning against neighbors. The problem is wickedly complex, and Makari reminds us that its seeming intractability in the scientific literature simply means that “mental life is too undetermined by empirical facts to live and die by a commitment to scientific falsifiability [a nod to Karl Popper] and it is too important to simply abandon” (Makari, 236). He is also hopeful, asserting that “self-aware institutions must help us weed out the invasive species of stereotypes, fears, and assumptions that fill out minds” (Makari, 265).

As Makari notes, we come to this crisis armed with concepts, forms of analysis, and collective memories, and we know that words and ideas can change the way we think and act. It is in our libraries, these self-aware institutions, where we find these words and ideas and you, our members, are their custodians. You uphold our core principles – that society benefits from the open exchange of ideas, that access to information is essential in a democratic society, and that we remain dedicated to creating diverse and inclusive communities. Through your work you tend the light of equality, rights, and decency. You defend us against the bitter results of amnesia. It is no easy task, and I am deeply grateful. Thank you!

Bibliography

Anne Applebaum. “The Bad Guys are Winning.” The Atlantic online. November 15, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/12/the-autocrats-are-winning/620526/.

George Makari. Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021.