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.