By Sarah Wontorcik
When faced with a foreign object, an amoeba will slowly surround and absorb what is foreign.
The U.S. has historically accommodated differences, but eventually absorbs them in some way as an amoeba does, Borstelmann said. What begins as foreign and different, becomes an addition to the body and adopted into mainstream culture.
“Perhaps the greatest advantage that the United States has in engaging with foreigners in [the early 21st Century], was its relentlessly absorptive popular culture and economy,” he said. “What used to be outside, comes inside. This process happened with the United States, with cuisine, and the continual evolution of popular taste to absorb new ethnic traditions.”
Borstelmann’s lecture was the fourth of a 12-part series of lectures highlighting Nebraska research in celebration of the university’s 150th anniversary. His lecture, “The Hearts of Foreigners: How Americans Understand Others,” investigates how Americans think about and engage with the rest of the world in terms of foreign relations and immigration.
In an interview before his lecture, Borstelmann explained the purpose of research.
“I’m trying to capture a story over 200 to 300 years of American history of how Americans, generally, in the mainstream, have thought about those other peoples and whether they’re mostly similar or different from Americans,” he said. “There’s a story there that has changed over time, there’s a continuous tension between excluding other peoples who are different and including peoples who are seen mostly as like us.”
With the Trump administration tightening up U.S. borders and immigration policies, Borstelmann says he hopes to encourage Americans by showing a greater narrative of inclusion and adaptation in the U.S.
“The basic argument I’m making is a little bit counter-intuitive,” he said. “It’s not what people expect in the era of Donald Trump and polarization of politics.”
In his research, Borstelmann has found that Americans have become more inclusive, on average, over time. Evidence of this can be seen in how egalitarian the U.S. has become, Borstelmann said. The larger picture of America historically points in the direction of inclusivity.
“It’s not a simple story and its ongoing, and obviously the 2016 election was a shift back toward more exclusionary policies,” he said, “but my view as a historian is that there is a longer change over time that is bigger than the little backward sliding of 2016.”
Though the Trump administration represents a step toward exclusivity rather than inclusivity, Borstelmann is still optimistic about what the historical trends of American society project for the future of inclusivity.
“We’re living in a weird test case of whether what I’m arguing is really going to be true in the long run,” he said. “It could be that we’ve changed now, and ever since 2016 my story of greater inclusion into the mainstream of American society, that story may be done. Maybe we’re going to turn and go backwards now, into greater exclusion. I don’t think so myself, because the trend line is too strong against it.”
Borstelmann argues that being an amoeba culture, one that is constantly evolving and absorbs differences, is deeply engrained into the American identity. He spoke of several patterns in U.S. history that illustrate how American culture has consistently adopted what was once thought of as foreign.
“A lot of people think that Donald Trump and nativists, because they make a lot of noise and have a lot of power right now, are essentially the real story. If you look closely at these immigrant parents, over time, they see the opposite,” he said. “What they see in their children, when they have kids they bring here or they have kids [here], most of what they see is the terrifically inclusive, assimilating power of Americans. [It’s] not perfect, [there is] plenty of racism, but basically what happens is their kids get utterly Americanized over time, especially over generations.”
This same trend can be seen in how Protestants viewed Roman Catholics and Jews before WWII. For more than three centuries, Borstelmann noted in his lecture, America’s Protestant majority tolerated Roman Catholics and Jews at best, but more frequently treated them with skepticism and even violent distain. That all changed, however, when Protestant Americans were faced with what Borstelmann described as “deeply anti-religious totalitarian enemies,” first Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union.
“Religious differences among Americans swiftly lost their motivating power,” he said. “In their place emerged a newly public, tri-faith culture under the banner of that still-fresh term: the Judeo-Christian tradition. Mainstream American understanding of what was foreign in terms of religion, a key American concern, shrank dramatically.”
Borstelmann is encouraged by patterns of inclusivity like this, repeated throughout history, and believes the trend will continue. He will be publishing a book in 2020, sharing the same title as his lecture, that he hopes will encourage others in the same way.
“The story that I’m telling, I hope, helps remind people of their own history as Americans,” he said. “That’s a history of openness to peoples who, once upon a time, seemed very different, and then after a certain amount of time didn’t seem very different anymore
“I think the larger story is much bigger, and we shouldn’t forget it.”