Almost everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of people who blame their own country or civilization for everything, who feel embarrassed about their own culture. There is a word for this: “oikophobia,” fear of home, the opposite of xenophobia, fear of foreigners. We see oikophobia when people tear down statues of their nation’s heroes, rename schools named after founding fathers, consider America rooted in racism with few redeeming features, and so on. We are all familiar with oikophobia, but it is not a uniquely modern perversion. Rather, it has taken hold in many civilizations before our own, typically in a civilization’s declining days. In order to understand oikophobia, then, we must see it as a predictable socio-historical phenomenon. Just as early civilizational phases tend to be naturally conservative and xenophobic, late civilizational phases tend to be naturally progressive and oikophobic.
In fact, ever since antiquity, Western civilizations or cultures have cyclically evolved from naive self-promotion in their beginnings to self-loathing in their periods of decline. A study of civilizations through time—of the major political events and literatures of, for example, ancient Athens, Rome, France, Britain, and the United States—reveals how events and ideologies cause oikophobia, and how, today, they have created a culture of self-rejection. While these things have not happened in exactly the same way in every Western culture, oikophobia is a phenomenon of mass psychology and human nature—both of which do not, and cannot, change.
As a general matter, when a civilization progresses and grows more successful, there is enough wealth and power for people to focus more on competing against their peers than preserving the health of their communities. Diverse interests arise, leading citizens to view one another as threats greater than those posed by foreign enemies. Since foreign enemies have been successfully repulsed during a civilization’s rise to power, they no longer serve as effective targets for a civilization’s sense of superiority. And human psychology, which often builds human identity around an adversary, thus crafts a new adversary: other people in one’s own civilization, and ultimately, the civilization itself. By rejecting one’s own culture as backward, an individual can set himself above other, competing interests of that culture. Earlier in the arc of civilizational development, when the state is poorer and individuals more reliant on one another for basic security, cooperation is essential for survival. But as a society becomes more affluent, there is greater opportunity for citizens to criticize their own culture.
Civilizations rise and must inevitably decline and fall. It is precisely the process that begets a civilization’s success that leads to its decline and fall. To take only one example among many: The gradual expansion of citizenship in the Roman Republic and subsequently Empire increased the number of fighting men. Those men felt that they, as equal citizens, had a personal stake in the welfare of the state. But this expansion of citizenship also led to expanding notions of equality. The more that people feel equal and empowered, the more they consider themselves more important than the state. This, in turn, leads to internecine conflict among interest groups. And so expanding citizenship, from the point of view of the state, has both positive and negative consequences, and is an example of the larger truth that the same process that leads to a civilization’s rise will also lead to its fall. Thus, oikophobia is just as “natural” as xenophobia.
Oikophobia generally arises when the culture has reached its peak and begun its decline—which for the aforementioned states would be ancient Athens in the late 5th century B.C., Rome in the early Empire, France in the mid-18th century, Britain in the late Victorian era, and the United States after World War II. The oikophobe comes to regret the exploits of his culture and the injustices and sufferings that will always attend a people’s rise.
As has been the case in other civilizations, oikophobes in the United States dominate in left-wing areas. Non-oikophobes and, in some cases, xenophobes and anti-oikophobic reactionaries dominate in right-wing areas. (For ancient civilizations, of course, the labels “progressive” and “conservative” are more appropriate than “left” and “right.”) Oikophobia has had a debilitating effect on many aspects of our society, its culture, politics, and military. Its result is a nation so fixated on internal squabbles that it is no longer capable of effectively projecting outward as a unified force.
It is by understanding oikophobia that we can hope to combat it. Once we realize that oikophobia is a pathology that develops in a predictable socio-historical context, we are better equipped to deal with it in our politics. We should always be aware of our civilization’s shortcomings, and be open to what other civilizations may teach us. But in examining past cultures we see that oikophobia—the felt need to denigrate one’s own cultural home—is a common historical recurrence. This, in turn, will allow us to better understand some of our cultural predicaments today.
Benedict Beckeld has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Classical Philology from the University of Heidelberg. His latest book, Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations, will be published on May 15, 2022 by Cornell University Press. He has written for Quillette, the Federalist, City Journal, and other outlets. He is based in New York City.