Thomas Borstelmann

 

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

Cover Interview of April 29, 2020

A close-up

I would—of course, I did—start with the Preface. It aims to draw the reader directly into the problem of Americans and foreigners, and how I see the development of this issue over time.

I am making a large argument about Americans and their relationship to non-Americans, but I’m also telling a lot of smaller stories along the way, all of which add up to the larger narrative about the nation and the world. Here’s how one perceptive (and kind) reader summarized some of these stories:

One of Borstelmann’s superpowers is his eye for telling details and unexpected connections. That’s why I often find myself raiding his writing as I prepare my lectures… We learn of the first Jewish Miss America (who would have thought to ask about that?), a Korean-American Olympic diver, Jesse Helms’s overcoming his hatred of communism in his quest to sell cigarettes in Vietnam, a Philippine immigrant’s report on abuses at Abu Ghraib, the rise of Chef Boyardee, the mainstreaming of Mormons, and Oscar Wilde’s characterization of the United States as ‘one long expectoration.’ Nuggets is what historians usually call such narrative gems. This mine sparkles with them.

But I might also offer the last two paragraphs of the book’s own Conclusion:

If there was, in fact, a subversive force loose in the world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it might best be seen as coming not from their usual outsider suspects, but rather from America’s own democratic ideals, combined with America’s own absorptive popular culture and seemingly infinite consumer pleasures. That culture and its products encouraged the spread of the viruses of individualism, of headlong material consumption, and of the relentless quest for wealth, which tended to disrupt other more traditional cultures. ‘What is the process of civilizing,’ prominent U.S. clergyman Josiah Strong had asked in 1885, ‘but the creating of more and higher wants?’ Americans have been at the front edge of that ‘process of civilizing’ ever since.

The pursuit of profits and opportunities overturned the old and brought in the new. Capitalism, with the United States and its freewheeling culture at the forefront, proved the greatest force for change in the last half-millennium. A wide swath of Americans might have imagined themselves as what they called ‘conservatives,’ but their way of life brought persistent pressure for reordering everywhere it flowed. There was nothing conservative about it. Americans, instead, turned out to be the real subversives of the modern world, confident and determined, at home and abroad, that other peoples would, if given the chance, choose to live just like them.