Thomas Borstelmann

 

On his book Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand Foreigners

Cover Interview of April 29, 2020

In a nutshell

Foreignness: how have Americans thought about it? Who are we, who are they, and how are we related to each other? These questions have underpinned all of American history, as an expansive colonial project and subsequent nation engaged with new and different peoples, first in North America and then all around the world. Just Like Us tells the story of how Americans have struggled to understand other peoples, both those living elsewhere and those coming to the American shores.

You could think of it as a combination of the history of political and popular culture (who Americans believe they are), immigration history, and the history of U.S. foreign relations. The book shows how Americans developed over time what they understood as a culture of individual freedom, and how they believed that culture to reflect essential qualities of human nature. They saw American culture and American values, in other words, as natural, and the United States as the place where people could truly become themselves, free from the constraints of unjust rulers and oppressive traditions. In this sense, Americans across the political spectrum have tended to be universalists: they may have been ethnocentric, but they also thought everyone else was American at heart.

It seemed only logical that others would try to get to this land of opportunity. The United States received the largest number of immigrants across the past two centuries. But were these newcomers ultimately similar to Americans and could they fit in here? Or were they instead fundamentally alien and unable to be incorporated?

This long debate has shaped much of the American past and present. But it is not, ultimately, a story of xenophobia and exclusion, powerful as those forces have been at times, including the Trump era. Instead, the larger picture is one of an even more powerful inclusiveness and assimilation, which have rendered the United States the most diverse great power in the history of the world. The United States today has more than 40 million residents who were born abroad, more than four times the number in Germany, which has the second largest number.

Believing themselves to be the ultimate free people and understanding this to be the highest expression of human nature, Americans have had a distinctive anxiety about losing that freedom through subversion. Immigrants represented one of the primary possible threats to American society. A second was Communism, which would eliminate private property, the foundation for American political liberty. Ultimately, the story of the twentieth century turned out to be the victory of markets, not the victory of Marxism. And rather than being subverted, the United States turned out to be a powerful subversive force for the socialist world instead. Americans may have worried about Communist brainwashing, but it was Communists who should have been much more fearful of the profit motive.

A third threat to the freedom culture of the United States was the influence of other peoples whom Americans encountered as they expanded their borders and then their influence around the world. The foreigners they met might change them. While that may have been true to some extent, it was even truer that the spread of American-style capitalism and consumer culture helped to reshape the entire globe. Leery of foreigners, Americans also embraced them—and, ironically, subverted them along the way.