Sometime in the late nineties there was a common spam email that went “I’m a time traveler stranded in your time. I have reason to think you know what I’m talking about. There is this part I need.” Anyway… I don’t actually know what they were meant to be except a prank, because there were no links to follow. Or perhaps they harvested the emails when you responded. One of these hit strikingly close to home because the signature was my nephew’s name. And while our last name is common, in Portugal no one goes just by the last name, but by two conjoined names, and his is an ancestral thing in our family (which I don’t have) that my brother chose to recreate, and therefore relatively arcane.
No, I didn’t answer that email. And this is a good thing. (Probably.) BUT this morning when I was thinking of the “uniqueness of the American experience” what I thought was most unique about us was innovation.
Yes I know. You’re going to come through and rant that Israel is eating our cake on research (bet you I know a lot of those projects, too) and so is Germany, and, and and–
But books for technical fields abroad are often in English, imported from America (I should know, I’ve shipped off my share of those, and got on the most FASCINATING mailing lists.) and even in fields like plumbing and car mechanics, most of the time you have to learn from Americans how to do it. (Yes, yes, there’s some things we got from abroad, but some of them don’t even become widespread till they come to America.)
Even science fiction (yes, yes, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells — pfui) as a popular and widespread genre wouldn’t exist without Americans.
Which brings us to why.
It’s not magical. And it’s not genetic. What pushes a country to excel in this or that is often the fruit of a confluence of happy accidents.
I spent a lot of time studying why the Portuguese discovered new lands; why larger, better equipped countries didn’t do it first (and yep, without Portugal starting it off, the whole age of discovery might have been delayed another 100 years, at least.) The answer, if I remember correctly started with: Stayed out of the 100 years war; had a tradition of seafaring and knowledge from both Greeks and Moors; didn’t lose as much population as other countries to the black plague; is a tiny, not particularly fertile (landwise) country. Etc.
In the US if you ask why we tend to be more… future inclined than other lands, I would start with: the people who came here broke with their past.
You can’t start to understand how much Americans underestimate the influence of the past in other countries. Sure they go elsewhere and see modern appliances/plumbing, etc. And they attribute the differences to quaint culture stuff.
Which is true. It’s also true it goes all the way down. A friend once told me that she grew up among people still refighting the Civil war in arguments. I told her that was nothing. I grew up among people who in every day association, unconscious prejudices, reaction to certain features, and occasionally verbally, are still refighting the Punic Wars. And most of this is subconscious, so it’s hard to tweak. You just feel there are things you do and things you don’t do, people you associate with and people you don’t, at a GUT level, and it’s very hard to bring it to the light and examine it.
My older son describes Portugal as an iceberg: a tiny, above the water part, towing an immense weight of history, some of it so deep and dark no one is sure about it. BUT all of it influencing how the iceberg moves and what it does.
Note some of this is changing with TV and mass media. And that’s part of why Americans have this advantage in creating the future: because people came here and changed languages (most of them) and therefore lost touch with the old legends and the things grannies teach their kids. They became people who learned stuff from the same mass media.
Sure, there is a shallowness to that type of culture — everyone complains about it, even us — but then again there isn’t. When the culture is purposely designed for that (and some of it was. A lot of it… well. More in another post) it can create a society that thinks over what it does and what it wants to do: a society uniquely suited for innovation.
This contributes to the US being like the aspergers kid in the playground. Things other cultures do (or more likely don’t do) instinctively, we think over to the nth degree, then try to do consciously.
Now what we are and what we do is largely an accident. It is, it occurs to me, what China tried to achieve all the times it burned its books, jailed its storytellers and wiped out its history. But because they were all the same people in the same place, stuff leaked through, and while they managed to forget a lot, it was just enough to repeat the same old blood-soaked mistakes again.
So, it’s purely an accident. And one that forces on both extremes keep trying to undo (both weirdly trying to make us more like Europe, only their own version of Europe in their pointy little heads. None of them would know the real Europe if it took a bloody chunk out of their asses.)
However doubt not that if America goes down for the long count, so does innovation, at least for a while, and maybe forever, until the same accident strikes again elsewhere.
Which is why we’re not going to let it go down. We’re Americans. We’re time travelers. We come from the future. And we’re going to take the world there.