Magazine

Change America can believe in

  • 17 July 2010
  • From the section Magazine
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.

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.

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.

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.