The New Xenophobia


Fear and the Death of Community

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. – Franklin D. Roosevelt

My wife and I went for a walk to the drug store yesterday.  She hadn’t been out of the house in three weeks and cabin fever had set in.  We didn’t really need anything, but her aunt is turning 100 years old in a few weeks.  Since we won’t be with her on this momentous occasion, we decided we at least should send her a card to let her know we’re thinking of her.

For a few minutes we debated the need to go.  Is it responsible for us to go out at all?  Should just one of us go?  We eventually decided that we both needed to get some fresh air, the store is only a couple of blocks away so a walk would be good for the both of our souls.  If we felt uncomfortable when we got to the store, one of us would stay outside while the other went in, get what we need and leave as quickly as possible, while still practicing physical distancing as much as possible.

As we walked, we met a couple of other individuals and family groups, out for air as well.  Approaching these other people, we adjusted our strides, slowed down, walked in single file and gave a wide berth as we passed on the sidewalk.  We made eye contact, smiled and nodded at each other and said thank you for respectfully keeping a safe distance apart.

When we got to the store, we decided it didn’t look too busy so we both went in.  I stood at the end of the aisle while she went down and picked up what we needed.  We tried our best to stay the requisite 2 meters away from any other humans and didn’t touch anything unnecessarily.  This was especially hard for her as she likes to browse, touch and smell things.  You break it you bought it became you touch it you bought it.

The whole experience was surreal.  I couldn’t put my figure on it at first but as I began to reflect, I started to realize that what I was feeling was an underlying sense of fear coming from everyone.  Contrary to FDR’s inaugural address from 1933, we are now being told that fear and suspicion is an appropriate response.

Xenophobia is the fear of the other.  The term has mostly been used to describe the way in which societies organize around the exclusion of certain people groups.  Closing boarders, limiting access to social services and denying basic human rights based on religion, skin color, or country of origin has been described as xenophobic.  But today xenophobia can be more literally and broadly defined as the fear of neighbors.

COVID19 is not your grandparent’s crisis.   Ninety years ago, the economy cratered due to a cascade of events set off by the collapse of the overvalued stock market.  This led to tightened lending criteria at the banks, reduced consumer spending, and higher cost of exported goods as a result of a tightened money  supply.  FDR became president at a time when people were afraid, not of each other but for each other.  His speeches and famous fireside chats were designed to give people a sense of calm, encourage community service, sharing and cooperation.

Today we are being given a very different message.

“Enough is enough.  Go home and stay home.”  Justin Trudeau, March 23, 2020

Gone are any encouragements to go out and spend money and keep the economy going, like President George W Bush so famously declared in the aftermath of 9/11.  All non-essential businesses have been shuttered or forced to sell only on-line with curbside pick-up.

Gone too are encouragements to get together and work for a better community.  All community involvement has been reduced to, “do your part, stay home.”  But that doesn’t build a sense of community at all, it simply leads to isolation, stress and depression.

Last week, as I stood in line to get into Costco, (that being a head trip in and of itself, retailers have never before restricted access to their stores), one staff member walked up and down the line reminding us all to keep our distance because “everyone is a threat to your safety.”  It didn’t register with me until days later, but this is the perfect example of how we are being taught to live in these times.

Fear Everyone!

The economic, social, and psychological impact of this crisis has yet to be felt in its fullest form.  We are trying, but without real human connection there is a key element missing.  When all human interaction is done at a distance of 2 meters and shrouded in caution, like the Costco employee so starkly reminded us, we lose a piece of what it means to be human.  Our economy will inevitably suffer but the long-term damage to the social fabric and our psychological wellbeing my well far outpace any financial losses we will experience.

When we can’t get together in groups all attempts to maintain connection through other means are but a poor facsimile of the real thing.  This fear will kill community in ways we may never fully understand, it’s already started.    Not to mention the people without access to modern communications technology, the elderly, the poor, the physically and developmentally challenged.

I have no advice to combat this feeling of isolation and depression.  We are in uncharted waters.  Humanity is not made for this and we are completely ill-equipped for a long fight.  We need each other, there’s nothing more to say.

 

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