All Change

‘Now that I am about to leave, I realise how uniquely American is the craving for “change”’

Before I pack my suitcases after spending 2010 in the New World and move back to the old, it’s time to unpack a comfortable cliché: “America is the land of self-reinvention, the one place on earth where one can arrive one day and be a new person the next; it is the country of change.” However naive, there’s something to it. Everybody seems to agree there’s a difference in atmosphere when one steps off a plane and an immigration officer says in a tone both stern and jovial: “Welcome to America.” One doesn’t have to climb on a motorbike and ride across the country to sense the freedom this is meant to evoke. 

And yet — “change” has become a word, an idea, a policy that has a dull, hollow, hackneyed ring to it. First came the “change we can believe in”, the slogan of Barack Obama’s campaign; then Sarah Palin mocked “that hopey-changey thing”; and now the Republicans themselves want “change for the country” after the mid-term elections. 

One doesn’t have to be a pernickety theoretical linguist to know they all refer to different ideas of change. Was this just idle talk? How did America change this year — and how much “change” can it take? 

Take the most obvious example: in January, one year into his presidency, Obama seemed like the political messiah his supporters portray him as, just a tiny bit embattled. Now, a month after his “shellacking”, he finds his hands tied: for some, he simply hasn’t been radical enough, for others he’s practically founding a socialist hell on US soil. If he has an agenda of how to turn the country around, why have so few Americans an idea of what it is? Obama himself spoke of the need to break out of the Washington bubble and reach out to all America. 

This may be just talk, and I have never quite understood the need for fraternising with the “hockey mom” or “Joe the plumber”. 

It is true that I have lived in the most liberal cities in the country (San Francisco, New York and Washington, DC) but is this America less “real” than the “flyover states”? 

“This was the first president we really cared about and we desperately want him to do well,” said friends of mine when we had coffee in Washington’s Dupont Circle, after the talk-show host Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” just before the mid-terms. It visibly pained them to see Obama struggling. This doesn’t translate into resentment, but rather a good deal of ironic mockery of Tea Party supporters. They have an imprecise sense that America is in bad shape, but are confident that it will turn around eventually. What is it about this optimism in a generation that is experiencing the worst economic downturn in more than 60 years? 

Full disclosure — my friends are a fairly homogenous group: computer geeks from California, who wouldn’t think twice about quitting a job to find a more fulfilling one. They are academics, lawyers and doctors on both coasts; people with Ivy League degrees in their late twenties and early thirties moving across the world like modern nomads with laptops, some of them employed, some not; writers, editors and artists. In short, this is a privileged bunch. I’m sure that the views of, say, a welder from Tennessee would differ from theirs, but among young, mobile, well-educated individuals there’s an idealistic belief that their country, despite its economic woes, will somehow continue to do what it’s always done and change for the better.

This may go against the grain of the line that’s been repeated everywhere: “The American people have rejected Obama’s ideology.” But it doesn’t look as if they have endorsed the Republicans’ either, mainly because the latter don’t quite seem to know what change they envisage. “Change” may have been abundant this year, but mainly as an idea: the concept itself is thus rendered meaningless because it is far from clear what action “change” calls for. The once- powerful word that got people on the streets in their thousands, got them agitated, happy, angry, has become the dull mantra of Washington: a word nobody outside this peculiar world of government types, lobbyists and think-tank workers particularly cares for.

The unshaken optimism of my friends is justified, however: there is still some truth in the fact that in America the present is always already part of the future. Europe (parts of it, anyway) may be recovering — but it is America that has the value of change built into its way of life. Looking back, now that I’m about to leave, I realise how uniquely American a craving this is, and how personal, heartfelt and defining for one’s life, too: “change”.

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