Just Google It: An Essay on Self-Reliance

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, among my favorite words in the French language is la débrouillardisme and its adjective form, débroubillard(e).  While I do not believe that there is any English word that exactly captures the nuances of the term, the closest translation that I’ve encountered is “resourcefulness.”  The word also has a certain patina of what, back in my college days, was termed “gettin’ over on the man” and what (even earlier, as a kid) adults called “pulling a fast one.”  The implication is one of knowing how to get things done, particularly in terms of which back channels must be traversed and whose palms must be greased.  But the French word also contains an element of the concept of “cleverness,” somewhere between knowing how to spin straw into gold and knowing how to trick people into doing what you want.  It’s no wonder that “il/elle est très débrouillard(e)” is among the highest of compliments that a French person can bestow.

I also think of the term as bearing elements of “self-reliance,” as in “he can take care of himself.”  That presents a fine line between the admirable trait (in terms of the Protestant work ethic, anyway) of not needing to depend on anyone else and the (arguably) more questionable trait of “being a sharpie” who obtains advantages for him/herself at the expense of others.

I thought about this concept today because of Google, and because of the U.S. presidential debates that I’ve been watching on TV recently.

Painted with the broadest of brush strokes, I’ve heard it expressed that the Republicans are the party of laissez-faire economics and rugged individualism.  The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth (and its closely associated phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”), with its implication that “any kid can grow up to be president, just look at old Abe Lincoln who was born in a log cabin,” is alive and well in America.  The GOP has a reputation as being “the party of business” that rewards the rich with tax breaks that aid them in retaining their wealth.  The party also has a reputation of favoring a reduced role of government, with the underlying philosophy that most of us have deep wells of fortitude upon which one can draw to reach the nirvana that is self-reliance.  Don’t mess around with the economy and things will find their own level as people make decisions based on self-interest.  Coddling Americans with government largesse encourages sloth and leads to every type of weakness, from the personal to the national.

The Democratic Party philosophy appears to embody a decidedly different world view that includes awareness of society’s troubles, from poverty to mental illness to drugs (what I like to term “the three Hs”:  homelessness, Haldol and heroin).  My fellow Democrats like to be proactive rather than reactive.  Rather than closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, we believe in spending money on things like education, social justice and prevention rather than prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.  We believe that those who “can” have a duty to society to give their all.  But we also know that there will always be those who “cannot” and must be supported rather than left to be trampled on by the herd, to suffer and to die in desperation.  “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  Deut. 15:11  We may admire self-reliance, but it is wrong to disrespect those who, for whatever reason, lack that ability.  It takes all kinds to make a well-rounded society, and everyone has something to contribute.  We all agree on the need to care for the children, but too many of us fail to see that there are those among us who will always be children and must be taken care of regardless of their chronological age.

The stresses of modern American life put the lie to the ideal of self-reliance and expose the Horatio Alger myth for what it is.  I think of Donald Trump, whom I believe is rightly admired for his many successes, but who may not have been able to achieve them had he not been preceded by his millionaire real estate developer father, Fred.  While Trump may see himself as a modern-day Lincoln (I suspect that The Donald is a legend in his own mind), he was definitely not born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.  Nor was he raised in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was.

I find a supreme irony in the fact that both Trump and Sanders are native New Yorkers, the former from Queens and the latter from Brooklyn.  One was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while the other was born to impoverished immigrants who sought a better life in America.  I suppose it’s no wonder that Sanders seems to have an appreciation for the suffering and hope of those who risk everything to escape death in places like Syria, while Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims out of the country.  I think it’s clear that we have two different world views going on here, each propounded by a man who achieved success through his own vision of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” la débrouillardisme.

This is where I have to mention Google.  It seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “Why don’t you Google it?”  After hearing this phrase roll off the tongue of coworkers, my wife and my teenage niece, the profoundness of its ubiquity struck me when I heard it from my octogenarian father not too long ago.  The essence is that if you don’t know, it’s no big deal.  You can just Google it.

Over the centuries, the United States has progressed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and, finally, to an information economy.  Despite the importance of information, however, no one much cares what we have stored up in our brains anymore.  Why commit anything to memory when you can just Google it?

Among the arguments in favor of search engines is that they are capable of storing exponentially more information than any person could ever hope to know.  I imagine that today’s grade school students must find it insufferable to have to memorize anything (from multiplication facts to state capitals to spelling words) when you can just Google it.

Is this what has come of self-reliance?  Have we truly moved on from Nike’s age of “just do it” to the age of “just Google it?”  One could argue that we no longer rely on the self, but instead rely on computer databases (and hope to God that they are accurate).  Speaking of accuracy, I suppose there is no comparison.  The human mind is subject to the vagaries of recollection and the ravages of time, but zeroes and ones (like diamonds) are forever.

There are those who argue that the knowledge economy transcends the memorization of yesterday.  Computers spew and vomit out data nonstop; the value-added individual is he or she who can interpret what it all means.  How important is it really that a presidential candidate at a debate botches the name of a world leader, a quotation or a statistic?  We all know that CNN, Fox News and the New York Times will be fact checking every statement.  So there really isn’t any need for a dog to bark at the lies and misstatements of the candidates, as so colorfully recounted by Hillary Clinton recently.  We have the news media to do the barking for us.  And think of all the money we save on vet bills!

In his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we are obligated to decide things for ourselves rather than rely on the views and opinions of others.  He praises nonconformity, at least in the sense it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  After all, who’s to say that we’re not right and everyone else is wrong?

I suppose Emerson’s ideals could be said to have influenced the self-reliant types who head off into the Alaskan wilderness to live the life of a resourceful hermit.  And yet, the French ideal of la débrouillardisme is not about separating ourselves from our fellow man, but learning to succeed in spite of him.  It’s all about being Dickens’ Artful Dodger, knowing how to turn the tricks of the trade to your advantage, how to smooth talk others into giving you what you want, how to execute what Trump refers to as “the art of the deal.”

While it’s fine to admire the clever among us, and to refine our methods of dreaming and scheming, it would be well to remember that we are not dealing with a level playing field here.  Many of us are disadvantaged right out of the gate, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, who face every variety of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, and including those with mental and physical disabilities, and including those who were raised in abject poverty that weighs one down with a gravitational force that precludes pulling one’s self up by even the strongest of bootstraps.

While those of us who “can” pursue our self-reliant ways, we must never forget to proffer the assistance needed by those who “might” with the aid of additional resources, and we must never forget to provide for those who “cannot” under any circumstances.

So I say to all the presidential candidates of both parties:  Know this for certain, that the day will come when you will require an answer that neither Google nor Siri can provide.  For as King David taught us centuries ago, in time even the mighty shall fall.  And it is then that those of former greatness shall gain personal knowledge of what it is like for those of us who live without help and without hope.


Doin’ the Circûmflex Dance

One of my favorite cartoons of all time (which I discovered several years ago in Jonathan Fenby’s excellent France on the Brink) depicts a harried teacher before a French grammar class composed of teenage hoodlums.  In an apparent effort to help her students relate to the rather dry lesson, she writes the following conjugation on the blackboard:

nous brûlons une voiture
vous brûlez une voiture
ils brûlent une voiture
ells brûlent une voiture

“We burn a car, you burn a car, they burn a car . . .”

Best of all is the wry caption:  “And don’t forget the circumflex!”

I remembered this today when I read about the new rules and words developed by the Académie Française, the nearly 400 year old body that protects the integrity of the French language and determines how words are spelled in the French dictionary.  Among those changes, to take effect in schoolbooks next academic year, is the removal of the circumflex (the little hat- or roof-shaped accent) from words in which it has heretofore appeared over a U or I.  So brûler in the teacher’s lesson above will become bruler and entraîner (“to practice”) will become entrainer.

Quite a ruckus has been raised on social media by French speakers who are appalled at the mangling of their language and their perceived betrayal by the organization that exists to protect it.  The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe (“I am circumflex”) has been trending on Twitter among those expressing their indignation.  This, of course, is a play on “Je Suis Charlie,” the defiant phrase carried on signs and worn on clothing following the murders at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last year.

As you can see, the French get rather touchy about their language.  Granted, the circumflex doesn’t totally change the pronunciation of a word the way the acute accent or cedilla does (changing a short E to a long E and changing a C from the K sound to the S sound, respectively).  Some believe the accent is pretty much useless, a relic of Old French adopted to indicate locations where the letter S had been omitted (for example, bête, the word for “beast” gained its circumflex when it lost its S in the transition to modern French).  And the circumflex will not be completely disappearing; it will still appear where it always has on the vowels A, E and O, as well as on words in which its absence would change the meaning (such as sur, “on top of,” versus sûr, meaning “sure”).  But it is still a matter of pride for the French.

As if the disappearing circumflex weren’t bad enough, the Académie Française also saw fit to change the correct spelling of a few words — oh, about 2,400 in all.  For example, oignon, the word for “onion,” becomes ognon.  And it’s not only the circumflex that will be seen less often.  Fewer hyphens will be around, too.  Compound words like porte-monnaie (change purse) and week-end will lose their hyphens.

I had to laugh when I heard about week-end.  That, of course, is a prime example of “franglais,” the slang Frenchification of English words and phrases that so many of the French detest.  And although there is a perfectly good phrase for “weekend” in French (fin de semaine), the Académie Française has apparently capitulated to the unstoppable waves of popular culture that have been beating against the shores of French linguistics for decades.  Now, the French can not only use the English word “weekend” knowing it is officially sanctioned, but French kids can even spell it just the way it’s spelled in English without getting points marked off their papers.

I have to wonder about grand-mère, the French word for “grandmother.”  Back in the Stone Age, when I was in school, it was spelled grand’mère, with, of all things, an apostrophe.  By the time I arrived in college, the apostrophe had been replaced by a hyphen.  Could it be that the French will now be able to address their grannies without the need of punctuation?

Something tells me the grandmothers of French aren’t going to like this one bit.  But they can look on the bright side.  At least they won’t be losing a circumflex.



The Naughty Chair

time out

I have discovered that young children can be tyrants.

My wife and I (okay, mostly my wife) babysit our one year old grandniece at least four days per week while my niece is taking college classes.  We love her dearly and have a blast playing with her.

We spoil her beyond all reason, in the style of aunts and uncles the world over.

We pretty much follow her lead.  Most of the time, she is rather creative and comes up with all sorts of games.  Whatever strikes her fancy becomes the order of the day.

I mentioned last week about her game of pulling the headset cord out of my laptop and sucking on it.  And also the “La La Song” that she sings as a cacophonous duet with my wife. 

Now she has a new game.  It goes like this:  Baby bangs her palm flat on the couch.  Then it’s uncle’s turn to do the same in imitation of her.  Repeat.  Repeat. Repeat 20 more times.  Uncle wonders if she’s going to get tired of this sometime before dinner.  The answer is no.  Attempt to distract baby.  Fail.  Efforts to distract succeed only in annoying baby, who demands to know why you are doing this when the game is not over yet.

No matter what the game is, it is never over until baby says it’s over.  Don’t you know anything, uncle?

When she runs out of creativity, and has already pulled all of her toys out of the cabinet and strewn them across the living room and has grown bored with those, the little princess simply demands to be entertained.  As you know, being entertained upon demand is the royal right of all princesses.  Failure to comply will result in swift and terrible punishment in the form of a royal screaming fit that will jar your nerves from here to tomorrow.  You will not soon forget your transgression against Her Royal Highness, as you will wake up in the middle of the night and think you hear her bawling even though she is two miles away with her mom.

My little grandniece loves music.  Any kind of music.  On the TV, on our mp3 players or one of us singing to her.  She displays a big grin and begins dancing to the rhythm.  This should come as no surprise, as her mom, at the tender age of 17, has a melodious voice that some would kill for.

I’ve been trying to teach her the ABC song.  And “Frère Jacques.”  And “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.”  And “Alouette.”  Even “Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde” and “La Marseillaise.”  Can you tell that I’m in French mode?  My college student niece has asked me to teach her some French and I’ve been trying to go over some easy phrases with her.

My favorite baby doesn’t know quite how to take all those funny sounding words.  She just stares at me raptly as if to say “You know what, uncle?  You have finally gone and lost your marbles, dude.”

We attempt to capitalize upon the little one’s love of music by using any music available to keep her entertained.  There is always the insipid Baby TV in the background, and then there are the Sesame Street videos that my wife has found online.  I think “Hooray-Hurrah for Broccoli” starring Abby Cadabby is my new favorite.

I don’t have children of my own, so much of this stuff is brand new to me.  Like the way a one year old demands attention.  And I mean demands.  It is fortunate that there are usually three or four adults here, giving us each a break as she toddles gingerly between us.  She discovers her world by placing everything in her mouth and sucking on it.  I have gained a new appreciation for child-proof caps and child-proof locks.

When she gets into something that is off-limits and refuses to take no for an answer, the little one earns a time out in the “naughty chair.”  At her own house, her mom has a cute little seat emblazoned with the logo “Time Out!”  Little Miss Fussbudget hates that seat, as her legs dangle from it and she cannot get off unaided.  Here at the parsonage, she has a tiny green plastic seat that serves as the naughty chair.  The only problem is that she loves this chair and drags it around with her.  It’s not that she wants to sit on it, mind you.  She just wants to suck on its legs.  Take that, Supernanny!

When my grandniece feels she’s not getting enough attention from the adult upon whom she is currently focused, or when she gets tired or when she doesn’t feel well, all bets are off.  She expresses her displeasure in the only way she knows how:  By wailing at a volume that can be heard over in the next county.

We try to ensure that she has regular naps, but this is becoming increasingly problematic.  No matter how tired she is, she does not want to go to sleep when there is the risk of missing something.  And there are enough of us around that this would be pretty much always.

Her glassy-eyed look is a dead giveaway for how tired she is.  But just try to put her down and the siren show gets going.  Today, Nana had to rock her until she finally fell asleep on her.  And then she rocked her some more, knowing that the moment she was put down in her crib, she’d start screaming.  Which she did.

It is difficult to say no to this little girl about anything, no matter how inconvenient it is.  Not just because we love spoiling her, but also because it causes her to pitch a fit.  In that respect, she can be a rather demanding despot.

But when you really think about it, why shouldn’t she be?  She knows how to get what she wants.

And, as they say in the funny papers, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


NaBloPoMo November 2013