If you ask several people whether they’re xenophobic or even racist, chances are you’ll get a negative answer from all of them. Yet the matter isn’t so simple. Xenophobia may express itself in three forms: fear, hate or contemp. The first is often justifiable. It’s a logical consequence of one of the basic senses of a living organism, that of self-preservation. The second, despite deriving from the first, is on the contrary hardly something for a rational being to entertain. In G K Chesterton’s words, ‘There is no reason for hating a shark, however much reason there may be for avoiding one’. The latest seems to have a different root: ignorance. If one doesn’t understand something, one tends to disparage it.
Furthemore, there are two kinds of xenophobes: one kind would maintain they have no problem with such-and-such group of people, only they forget to add ‘as long as they’re far away from me’. I often saw a scary, or at least guarded, look appear in somebody’s eyes when after their claim they had no problem with gays whatsover I grinned and retorted I was glad to hear that as I was one. Added to which, members of other minorities will confirm to you that such claims are nine times out of ten only said as a preliminary to some ‘but …’.
The second kind is quick to generalize unfavourably about other nations, about the other sex and so forth, while getting along quite easily with individuals of those groups. This is not necessarily a better kind of prejudice. Hearing somebody’s ‘of course, I don’t mean you’ after they were badmouthing your sort doesn’t make it any less hurtful or offensive. In fact, it can sometimes hurt or offend even more.
Talking about nations, my own xenophobias didn’t follow the usual pattern of this country too closely. Your typical Czech seldom fears other nations until his land is, once again, occupied; there are a few nations he hates; he has an unfouded contempt for all other nations, which in his eyes are just bunches of stupid gits (except perhaps for the Moravians, but that’s only thanks to the fact that your typical Czech considers Moravians a subset of Czechs, not a nation in its own right). The latest was never my problem. I became a bookworm so early that in a manner of speaking I was growing up in a multinational society.
(I remember that as a kid I once flabbergasted my father by my intention to support Canada against Czechoslovakia at some ice-hockey international (I was maybe reading some Curwood at the time), because the idea that I should as a matter of course support some twenty guys I had never met just because they, incidentally, lived in the same country, simply hadn’t occurred to me.)
Still, some of the common Czech fears and hates were instilled in me, and I had to fight them later on. Roma criminality simply is highly disproportionate. I overcame that during the years of coming to terms with being by default suspicious to others myself. (I didn’t personally know another out gay until I was about thirty.) ‘Russians’ occupied this country three days after my birth. I learned to pedantically distinguish between ‘Soviet’ and ‘Russian’ even before, twenty-three years later, their armies left. Which left the Germans, and that was the hardest bit.
For centuries, Germans and Austrians played in this region a role not unsimilar to the English in Britain. At times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire they usually occupied higher posts, spoke the prominent language (a couple of centuries ago, Czech was a dying language), their culture was seen as more refined, their colleges were more advanced… And then, after just two decades of Czechoslovakia, came the Untermenschen theory and its practical consequences. In my childhood the words ‘German’ and ‘fascist’ were still pretty much used as synonyms. At school they tried to teach us about eastern, socialist and thus ‘good Germans’ and western, ‘bad’ ones; we knew that East meant Prussia.
I was struggling with this ‘last racism of mine’ as I called it for years and only overcame it recently. It’s an established fact that such prejudices are inversely proportional to how many people of the group in question you know. For years I had only personally known two guys in my year at the Tech, and in our leisure time we moved in different circles. Then I got on the Net, and I began meeting others. Especially in connection with Gaelic.
This would be of no surprise to any other learner of the language. A recent program on BBC Alba stated that among learners whose first language isn’t English, Germans are easily the most numerous, confirming what I had estimated myself. One of the guys even disclosed a possible reason – German history having been appropriated and disabused by the Nazis for propagandistic purposes to such an extent that many people are still uncomfortable about showing too much interest in it – so they’re embracing a different tradition instead. (Not all these ‘Gaidheaileamailtich’ are into the language – some are into music or literature and so forth.) Whether that explanation is correct or not, the program is memorable for me for three reasons. First, it was the first BBC program I had the opportunity to watch. Second, one of those who prominently featured there was my FnaG friend Akerbeltz. And third, after its end I realized I had been watching it just as if it were a program about the French or Swedes or whoever.
And that’s how it should be.
Punchline? After retiring my father spent some time looking up his genealogy in old registers. By incident, a few weeks ago he mentioned that although there was no definite evidence (he only got some four generations back), there were strong indications of a bit of German blood running in his veins – and consequently mine…
PS In the meantime I developed a new xenophobia – towards the Czechs. Being an entirely different and unrelated process, it is outwith the scope of this post.