Oikophobia: American Self-Contempt
How self-hatred happens and what we can do about it
Note: A good part of this is summarized/paraphrased from Benedict Beckeld’s book, Oikophobia, which I recommend reading
You’ve seen it happen again and again: Fallen statues. Burned flags. School name changes. Canceling dead people (highly rec listen to that one). The throughline? A hatred of one’s own culture and home. Or, as Benedict Beckeld puts it, Oikophobia. As opposed to xenophobia, or the hatred of others, Oikphobia describes the hatred of self.
It’s when the richest people in the richest country in the world refers to itself as a seething hellhole of bigotry (all while curiously continuing to live and immigrate here…)
To be sure, Oikphobia is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s proved to be a pretty common pattern in well-off western cultures: when successful societies that cease to face any more existential threats, they eventually turn on themselves. It happened with the Greeks. It happened with the Romans. And now we see it happening again in the U.S. This phenomena often goes hand-in-hand with Xenophelia, or the preference of other cultures and love of the other.
But how does Oikophobia even happen? In some ways, it’s a macro version of the line: “from shirt sleeve to shirt sleeve within three generations”, which implies that the second and third generations of a family are lazy and undisciplined and grow up to despise their heritage that brought them so much.
It’s also like the phrase: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times.”
Basically, when people struggle together against a common enemy, their wins produce a strong sense of national identity and abundance. But shortly after when they no longer need to focus on survival, they quickly shift their focus to achieving higher states of prestige. Which sounds natural except it functionally means that since people no longer share a common enemy, they begin to turn on each other. The human psyche seems to crave an enemy in order to flourish.
Now that enemy can either be a very serious enemy like an external country like China or Russia, or it can be an internal enemy who is fighting with you over scarce resources. If we can’t find enemies outside our home country, we create enemies out of our fellow people here at home. This is why people often say “we need a war” in order to unite our country again.
But even if we don’t have a common enemy, it has historically helped a lot to have religion. We need something of a higher power to unify around — whether it’s an external threat or a shared belief in god. Serving in the army and going to church are both quite bonding experiences. Without an animating cause to rally people around, we’ll end up tearing down statues of our own founding fathers just to feel a sense of retribution and purpose.
Decades ago Francis Fukuyama noted the problems created by having no external enemy or sufficiently motivating cause to rally around:
Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.
Ironically, the more successful a civilization becomes, the more prone it is to oikophobia and self-loathing. The less external competition a nation has, the more likely people are to turn on each other in order to rise up since there aren’t any opportunities to rise up by attacking an external enemy.
To paraphrase the old quote “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against an external enemy”. This seems to be exactly what’s happened in America: we are the richest nation in human history, have no obvious existential threats, and yet we’re seemingly in the midst of a civil war where the red and blue tribes are constantly at each other’s throats. They won’t be friends with each other, won’t marry each other, and increasingly refuse to live in the same communities.
Interestingly enough, there is also another opposite extreme reaction in contrast to oikophobia, which manifests as an equally irrational sense of nostalgia for the past. When people obsess over revitalizing an idealized past that might never have ever existed, that’s driven by the same force as what fuels oikophobia. The stronger oikophobia becomes, the stronger the nostalgia grows as a counter reaction. This explains half our country’s feeling of resonance with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Curiously, feelings about America are split by class. Elites critique America, proles defend America. Ironically, it’s the people who’ve benefited the most within America who are quickest to disavow the history that enabled them to flourish. Perhaps this too is a luxury belief: elites critique America as a way of justifying their own power and signaling that, unlike proles, they can succeed even without a national identity, whereas proles defend America because their home and national identity is all they have.
To be sure, ideally we should be able to both learn from other traditions while at the same time appreciating our own. Within moderation, self-critique is a good thing. It’s only harmful when it gets taken to the extreme or when it causes us to uproot traditions that have served us well.
Paphrasing Beckeld, conservative and progressive approaches are both needed — but in different doses at different times. A more progressive outlook is an important ingredient in propelling early societies since at that stage people need to adopt new ideas and capitalize on the strength of outsiders. Meanwhile a more conservative outlook is just as important for late-stage societies to not lose their grounding and ability to stand up for themselves. The perennial doom of Western societies has historically been that its citizens tend to be more conservative at the civilization’s earliest stages while becoming more progressive as the society grows wealthier and safer. This is the exact opposite of what’s needed for such civilizations to thrive.
We might hope that there could be a proper balance between oikophobia and jingoism, but this hasn’t historically been true — no civilization has proved it to be possible to go back once oikophobia has taken hold of its people. So what can be done? Well, one answer is to make it cool to like America. Having high-status people champion patriotism is a start in that direction. Which works because people select beliefs based on the people who champion them. Mike Solana and Katherine Boyle are examples of people championing a more prestigious form of patriotism, while accounts like Americana Aesthetics and Build or Die are downstream effects of their expanding our ability to appreciate American values.
Oikophobia is largely a western phenomenon because it is built from egalitarian and democratic values, of which the West identifies with strongly. While China and Japan have tried to adopt their favorite qualities of the West (e.g. technological and scientific innovation), while leaving behind the parts they don’t like (e.g. moral progress), the results are debatable. Even if you agree with these non-Western countries’ moral judgments, there’s a broader question as to whether scientific progress can be sustained without valuing moral progress, or whether they’re a package deal. We’ll discuss that in a future piece.
Ironically, it’s the objectively freest countries that complain the most about a lack of freedom. The more leeway you have to express your opinion, the more we hear people expressing their dislike. Simply put: you wouldn’t ever hear about vocal oikophobia in North Korea.
Which highlights the fact that there’s something American about hating America. It’s an American statement to say that we as a country are not doing enough. We fundamentally believe that we can always do better. An extreme version of this mentality is actively self-destructive and disincentivizes the behaviors that have caused us to historically succeed. However, a positive spin on this mentality can be read as a relentless focus on improvement.
On this day of gratitude, I choose to celebrate our nation’s productive desire to become better and, by expressing gratitude for the traditions that have historically helped us flourish, push back against the oikophobia that tells us we should burn it all down.
I leave you with my favorite quote on gratitude by Sam Keen:
“The more you become a connoisseur of gratitude, the less you are a victim of resentment, depression, and despair. Gratitude will act as an elixir that will gradually dissolve the hard shell of your ego-your need to posses and control-and transform you into a generous being. The sense of gratitude produces true spiritual alchemy, makes us magnanimous—large souled.”
Thanks to Molly Mielke