Thomas Borstelmann

 

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

Cover Interview of April 29, 2020

The wide angle

I have been writing and teaching U.S. and world history for more than three decades, for 12 years at Cornell and then 17 years at Nebraska. I have been primarily concerned with placing U.S. history in a global and comparative perspective. Partly, this is because evaluations of American history and American culture are difficult to make without some sense of the other human possibilities of the same era. Living and traveling abroad—particularly in Ireland, Italy, and China—were crucial for me. Living in just one culture is analogous in some ways to having just one eye: for most people, it’s spending time in a different culture that allows them to begin to become binocular and develop the depth perception that comes with that.

My focus on the United States also reflects how central and influential the United States has been for modern world history, as well as how much it has been shaped by ongoing contacts with other countries and other peoples. The United States is the most powerful modern nation in nearly every measurable way, whether economic, military, political, or cultural. It is also the nation with, by far, the most people who came from elsewhere: a spectacularly diverse, global society. Just Like Us evolved out of a growing sense that all interactions between Americans and foreigners are built on assumptions—sometimes changing, sometimes steady—about who those foreigners are. No other historian had yet explored in depth the American engagement with foreignness.

Just Like Us is being published in early 2020, but it is not at heart a Trump-era book. Most of the research, organizing, and writing were done in the final years of the second Obama administration. And it no doubt reflects some of the mild optimism about diversity and inclusiveness of that earlier era. Indeed, some friends have gently asked if perhaps the 2016 election might have proved my argument wrong. No: the book is not a prediction about the future, but an interpretation of events up until now. The data and stories I have compiled here are not changed one whit by the latest recrudescence of xenophobia, a recurring political virus endemic but not dominant in American life.

If anything, the story in Just Like Us of dramatically increasing inclusion and diversity in the United States should be a source of encouragement in darker times. We have seen this empowerment of white grievance before, and we will get through it.