Change America can believe in

Manhattan skyline

Is America better than Europe at coping with progress? In the third of a series of articles on innovation, Justin Webb explores the different attitudes to change on either side of the Atlantic.

I used to suggest to nervous Europeans that when an American saw a gun and a European saw a gun they were seeing different things.

Philosophers tell us that meaning is to some extent created by our view of what something is: a table is only a table if you know what a table is.

Start Quote

Justin Webb

We Europeans live life at least partly in the past tense”

End Quote Justin Webb

With guns, Americans (outside Manhattan) tend to see a method of protection, of legitimate defence, of freedom; Europeans see a murder weapon.

So it is with innovation. The word changes meaning as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean.

In the New World it is a wholly positive word; it connotes the life-force itself. It speaks of what drives human beings to achieve. It suggests the conquering of disease and ignorance. It is at the core of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But if we are to be honest, those of us who reside in old Europe, there is something about our understanding of the word that is tonally different.

For sure we welcome innovation, if it very obviously leads to benefits. Europeans have nothing against luggage with wheels, or experimental but promising treatments for horrible diseases.

But innovation per se? Let us get back to you on that; let us see how it really turns out, this innovation of yours. Let us wonder out loud whether change is really necessary or whether in fact the old ways of doing things, stretching back to feudal times, are the best ways.

The phrases are part of our language - we sneer at what we call change for change's sake.

We tell each other with a knowing look: if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Americans, on the other hand - even conservative Americans - are cool with change.

They understand, for instance, that their constitution, immutable as it is, promotes innovation at the heart of government. The powers compete. There is never stasis. Flux is built in.

So it is in wider American life. David Brooks, one of America's finest political commentators, suggested years ago that his countryfolk lived life in the future tense.

That imperative to succeed, to see innovation as the core of the way things should be, is an American phenomenon.

We Europeans live life at least partly in the past tense. We are fearful and careworn: experience tells us, we say, that this might not work.

Americans, sans experience of anything much, reckon it might and reckon as well that it is worth giving it a go. Whatever it is.

Great minds

Lightbulb moment moment
  • A short series of articles for the Magazine on innovation

Innovation is a kind of transcendence for Americans - it takes them, they are confident, to a better place. Americans believe they can mould events to fit their priorities, their ambitions.

Which is not to say that they are always right. Sometimes innovation can lead to less than stellar results. Sometimes, who knows, perhaps it is better to be more cautious.

But, on balance, I always felt that there was something sunny about American faith in innovation.

I spent eight years travelling the length and breadth of the United States and not always finding peace and harmony and the fulfilment of the American dream.

But even in the darker places - among the poorest of the newly poor in the motels outside Las Vegas, for instance, or among the inmates of a tough young offenders prison in Jackson, Mississippi - I always found a faith in the idea that something, something American, could counter the desperate circumstances people were in.

The belief in innovation is also linked to the (to European eyes) weird religiosity of many Americans.

Justin Webb

Hear more from the BBC presenter on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Justin is a former BBC North America Editor

American religions are meant to deliver. Heaven (or hell) is very much round the corner in many American churches: there is a need to deliver change and deliver it fast.

Sometimes it makes American religious belief look unsophisticated and jejune - in fact it merely represents, it seems to me, a truth about the nation: the search for God is not just a search in the lazy passive European way: it is a search with an end in sight.

I have to say I feel very much at home back in England. Culturally and socially it is where I come from.

But I admire Americans' admiration for innovation: the attitude that says (across party lines) "yes we can!" and means it.

Add your comments using the form below

Justin Webb is spot on. The Americans are old-fashioned and belief in innovation comes from old-fashioned optimsm whcich still exists in the American psyche. We Europeans have the experience to know that new does not mean better but does mean different. Our thousands of years of history tell in the end . How new America still is.

Adrienne Macwilliam, Bolton, Lancashire

The real truth is that no two days are the same. It is an Old World concept that Royal Decrees and Crown Jewels set some kind of indefinable but permanently, eternally stable condition on the state of existence of civilization. New World people know that every day the stars bring totally new, even if small, changes to all life. It is not possible to entirely avoid change except at peril. On the other hand, Americans do sometimes envy the longer history of European civilization. In America, the quantum changes sometimes overwhelm what stability has emerged so far.

Michael Lewis, Seattle, Washington USA

The American positive spirit is so refreshing compared with British negativity. Not just because it makes the atmosphere generally feel happier, but because it really does get results. Things work better in the US because back in planning stage someone said 'yeah - let's give it a go' rather than 'well, the problem with that is...' as they do in the UK. Sure, the US is no utopia. But on the average street on the average day, the place is happier and more efficient.

Marty, Scotland

Americans are cool with change? If that means switching from going to the video store to using Netflix... yes... but we've still got the same big, fat clogged highways and the same dumb imperial wars. I don't see much change.

Justin Beck, Santa Rosa USA

The author is obviously misinformed. We Europeans are always and have always been at the forefront of innovation. We are just incredibly modest about it. A recent study by a Japanese University concluded that over 40% of all modern inventions were invented in Northern Europe with a large majority originating from the UK. A few recent examples include: The Internet - Sir Tim Burners Lee. The IPod, IPhone, and IPad' - Johnathon Ive (from London, now working for Apple). 'The Jet Engine' Frank Whittle, DNA Profiling, Radar, Hovercraft, The Tank, ATM Machines to name but a few. The list of great European inventions goes on and on. Perform a search on the Internet for European Inventions, the results are very impressive and very suprising.

John, Kent, England

This is a very simple examination of how Americans view change. Being a citizen of the US, I find the powers that be here are usually so averse to change they find a way to maintain a cycle that includes relative change/innovation, but on a grand scale the cycle is wholly static. Modern European architecture is far more progressive than most anything found here in the US. US Developers and governments are far more comfortable sanctioning a generic tower of glass than some fantastic structure the general public would weep for. And those governments would also be quick to silence any suggestions of more progressive architecture. One day that aging generic glass tower can then be torn down by the same government that sanctioned its construction. The cycle then continues. The US may appear to be a child of change, but in many cases it is sadly a stick in the mud.

Christopher, Morrisville USA

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

  • The OfficeIn pictures

    Fifty landmark shows from 50 years of BBC Two


  • French luxury Tea House, Mariage Freres display of tea pots Tea for tu

    France falls back in love with tea - but don't expect a British cuppa


  • Worcestershire flagFlying the flag

    Preserving the identities of England's counties


  • Female model's bottom in leopard skin trousers as she walks up the catwalkBum deal

    Why budget buttock ops can be bad for your health


  • Two women in  JohanesburgYour pictures

    Readers' photos on the theme of South Africa


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.