The Barbarian Solution

There is poem by Constantine Kavafy called "Waiting for the Barbarians" that describes the city of Rome waiting for the imminent arrival of the barbarians—their arrival that very day. The citizens gather in the forum to do nothing but wait. The senators do not legislate, he emperor sits enthroned at the city gate, the orators don’t make speeches, and high officials don their finest regalia, dressing to impress. They’re all waiting, but the barbarians never arrive. By evening, the city’s citizens are bewildered and confused. The forum empties, and the people shuffle home, anxious and lost in thought. Why? “Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come. And some people have arrived from the borderlands, and said there are no barbarians anymore.”  “And now what’s to become of us without barbarians,” they wonder, because “Those people were a solution of a sort.”

The barbarians in Kavafy’s canny poem are imaginary beings, mere ghosts of past threats But, in the real world, real people—usually members a racial, ethnic, or religious minority—are often placed in the barbarian role. They are outsiders, aliens, “them” rather than “us.” They are dangerous people, or even less-than-people, and we—whomever “we” happen to be—must protect ourselves and our loved ones from them, by controlling, incarcerating, or even exterminating them.

Jews have long been treated as a “solution of a sort” for the problems afflicting European civilization. When collective misfortune struck, the problem of explaining what brought it about could be solved by citing the Jews as its architects. When bubonic plague raged across Europe, people Christians looked for an explanation for why this terrible disease was unleashed upon their world, and hit upon the solution that Jews had poisoned the water supplies in a plot to destroy Christendom.

The fantasy that Jews were behind the bubonic plague was an early version of the conspiracy theory that Jews are an immensely powerful group who secretly pull the strings behind world events to their own advantage and to the detriment of others. Combined with other medieval anti-Semitic lore, such as the notion that Jews use magical means to get their way (see Joshua Trachtenberg’s The Devil and the Jews); that they are abductors and murderers of Christian children, whose blood they consume (see Magda Teter’s Blood Libel); and that profaners of the body of Christ (see Miri Rubin’s Gentile Tales), the notion of a malevolent Jewish conspiracy became entrenched in the darkest regions of the collective European psyche, appearing again and again in new variants as the centuries rolled on, most notoriously in the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. How was it possible that Germany found itself on the losing side in World War One? It was the treachery of Jews who stabbed the Fatherland in the back. And the Great Depression? A plot by greedy Jewish financiers.

I emphasize Jews because, historically, they have been one of the main European prototypes of the barbarian-as-solution. But they are not the only one. From the late nineteenth century to the present Black people—especially black males—have occupied that role. Pictured as more bestial than human, they are imagined superpredators, devoid of reason and seething with lust and violence. Trumpian rhetoric about rapists and murderers cast Mexican immigrants (and non-White immigrants generally) in the barbarian role, and of course there are the Muslim terrorists bent on our annihilation. In all of these cases, demonizing a group of people has been expedient for those seeking to garner or sustain political support by sowing fear and distrust. And now, in the United States it is the democratic elite, who, like swindling Jews, stole the election from Donald Trump, and the imagined critical race theorists who are corrupting the minds of innocent children, who are the newest editions of the barbarian solution.

I have spent the last thirteen years studying the most extreme form of this sort of othering: the phenomenon of dehumanization, which occurs when a group of people conceives of others not merely as their enemies, but as less-than-human creatures, leading to some of the worst atrocities that human beings have perpetrated upon one another. I have written three books on this subject, the most recent of which—Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization—was published by Harvard University Press this year, so I think I know what I’m talking about. Dehumanization is not dehumanization at its inception. It is the culmination of a process in which some group of people is singled out and denigrated as degenerate, criminal, destructive. Then, when a skillful propagandist comes forward who is able focus and exacerbate these sentiments, presenting himself as the savior of the people, it is like a match to dry kindling, creating a conflagration of violence cloaked in the garb of righteous indignation.

My research into dehumanizing ideologies and their precursors leaves me in little doubt that we Americans are in a precarious position these days. It is not just the high level of political polarization that is so frequently remarked upon. That is nothing new. Our nation has been polarized from its inception. Something more ominous and irrational is at play. If this sounds alarmist, bear in mind that even the most dangerous movements have small beginnings, and are often not taken seriously until they have gathered enough force and momentum, and then it is too late. When the elderly Sigmund Freud learned that his books were consigned to the flames in the German book burnings of 1933, he quipped "In the Middle Ages they would have burned me, now they are satisfied with burning my books." Little did he know that five short years later he would be a refugee from Nazi terror, living out the final year of his life in London, and that three of his sisters would burn in the infernal ovens of Treblinka, and the fourth would die of starvation in Theresienstadt.

Of course, books are not being burned in today’s America. We have not reached that extremity. But books are in danger of being banned, as conservative lawmakers and activists seek to purge school libraries of what they deem to be offensive content. Bizarre conspiracy theories promulgated by QAnon, which bear an uncanny resemblance to centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes, the delusional “stop the steal” movement spearheaded by our former president, and the belief that unvaccinated citizens will soon be herded concentration camps as a prelude to their extermination, are ravaging the minds of otherwise sane people. And the longing to return to a glorious past (one that never really existed), and the anticipation of the rebirth of a purified nation—a nostalgia that has presaged nearly every authoritarian regime for the past century—is palpable in much of conservative rhetoric that we have heard in the wake of the Trump presidency.

Perhaps my worries are unfounded, and my vision of our current political situation is clouded by my absorption in the horrors of the past. Perhaps this time of madness will soon pass, and everything will be alright. But if history has anything to teach us, it is that we should not pin our hopes on empty optimism, and close our eyes to what bears all the earmarks of a gathering storm.