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.

 

Advertisement

We Don’t Value Life

The 14 county employees who were killed by an armed-to-the-teeth couple in San Bernardino this week hit us hard at the state agency where I am employed.  Although I did not know any of the people involved, I do have professional contacts in San Bernardino County who emailed me to let me know that all non-essential county offices were closed for the remainder of the week.

This latest horror occurs right on the heels of the terrorist attacks in Paris in which so many lost their lives.  Indeed, the media now tell us that the San Bernardino murders had terrorist connections as well.

All the presidential candidates, both Democrat and Republican, have now been addressing the issues of gun control and stamping out terrorism.  Perhaps I am too jaded for my own good, but I am not so sure that there is much that can be done about either one.

Let us not forget that we have now reached the third anniversary of the mass murder of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  And then there was the mass killing in a church in Charleston, South Carolina and so many other scenes of loved ones ripped from us in an instant by bullets.

Most gun murders barely make a blip on the local news due to the fact that, typically, only one or two people are killed, and they are usually family members.  Then there is gang violence about which we throw up our hands and chalk up to the breakdown of the American family.

I don’t think there are any easy answers for us.  In other countries, ownership of firearms is illegal.  Despite the gun lobby screaming that if owning guns were a crime, only criminals would own guns, the murder rate is far lower in most other nations than it is here in the United States.  As an article in The Washington Post recently pointed out, Congress will never make any significant move toward gun control due to its effect on liberty interests (in other words, the Second Amendment).

So I guess this means we are stuck.  Placed in social context, however, our propensity for murdering each other should come as no surprise.  The sad fact remains that there is no longer any respect for life in this country.  Any society that sanctions abortion, capital punishment and hunting is obviously just as happy to have dead corpses in our midst as it is to have the company of living beings.

I am constantly appalled by the way we treat animals, from the terrible abuse of pets to the murder of cows, pigs and birds so that we can eat their flesh.  But, really, it all makes sense.  How can we hope for any respect for our fellow creatures when we don’t even value the lives of those of our own species?

 

Sorry is Not Enough

black ribbon

I’m one of those voters who used to be known as a “bleeding heart liberal.”  Despite the fact that the world’s gone insane, I am unable to harden my heart to the pain suffered by others here in the United States and around the world as the result of senseless tragedy.

When I was young, it was the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007.  Five years later, it was Pan Am Flight 003, known as the Lockerbie air disaster.  The former has been attributed to remnants of the Cold War, the latter to international terrorism.

Then disaster reached our own shores.  There were the school shootings, starting in the ‘90s with Columbine.  Then came the horror of my native New York City being torn apart at the seams.  After 9/11, I thought I’d seen it all.

Sadly, we picked right up with the mass murder at our schools.  Virginia TechSandy HookUmpqua Community College in Oregon.

This year, freedom of the press and freedom of speech came under attack with the Charlie Hebdo murders.  Then a jet full of vacationers returning home from the seaside is bombed out of the sky over the Sinai.  And now terror in the streets of Paris.  At least 132 dead, 77 survivors in critical condition.

Here in northern California, as everywhere else, we are far from immune.  You may not hear about the “little” local tragedies, but they arguably affect our communities even more than the major events that occur thousands of miles away.  This time last year, a couple from Utah drove into town and went on a rampage that included the killing two of our police officers.  Earlier this week, we locked the doors against the sirens that wailed throughout our neighborhood.  A few blocks away, there was a robbery, shooting and hostage-taking.  The SWAT team came out, and some streets were evacuated, residents being sent to the local elementary school to wait it out.  Then, Friday night, a local high school football player was killed in a drive-by shooting about a mile from here.

Tragedy, large and small, seems to be a fact of life in modern times.  There are days when I think that all we can do is be there to support those left to pick up the pieces, from emergency personnel to the families of the victims.

That, of course, is the bottom line.  Don’t let the steady stream of violence, tragedy and disaster in the news inure you to the real costs of these events to our society.  For every horror that you learn about on TV, in newspapers or online, there is a community that will never be the same again.  Remember that every victim is someone’s daughter or son, brother or sister, mother or father.

I thought about this while watching the debate between Democratic candidates O’Malley, Sanders and Clinton on Saturday evening.  The basis of our Western civilization tends to be reactive in nature.  We believe that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, that everything will be alright — until it isn’t anymore.  However, going through tragedy after tragedy ad nauseam begs the question of whether it’s enough to merely be reactive.  Perhaps I need to change my mindset that all we can do is be there to mop up the mess.  Perhaps the time has come to be proactive, to say hey, we’re sick and tired of this and we’re not going to take it anymore.  To realize that it’s time for our leaders to be proactive instead of reactive, to prevent those intent on terrorizing the citizens of the world from committing their murderous deeds.  It is heartening to see France taking forceful steps in this direction.  It is encouraging to see Germany offering the full assistance of its military resources.  And yes, we here in the United States, along with the rest of France’s allies, must do our part to help with the effort.

If we can’t pull this off, we will remain right where we are today, stuck in a time warp where all we can do is send condolences to the mothers and fathers who have just lost their children and to the children who have just lost their mothers and fathers.

Not being a military man, I don’t know what this will involve.  But it seems that it must start with improving our ability to obtain critical intelligence.  And so, presidential candidates, at the next installment of the debates in December, I’d like you to point out which one of you is up to the challenge.  Some are saying that Paul, Trump and Sanders lack the fortitude to do what it takes.  I must add Clinton to this list, who proved by her mishandling of the Benghazi crisis, that she falls woefully short of what Hemingway referred to as “grace under pressure.”

I already know that all of the presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican alike, are very good at showing up at the scene of tragedy and saying “I’m sorry” to the families of the victims in a heartfelt sound bite.

“Sorry,” however, is no longer enough.

#prayforparis

Tomorrow:  Consider the turkey, a bird well esteemed

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logonanopoblano2015dark

Bernie and Donald

Bernie SandersDonald Trump

Photo credits:  Sanders, Wall Street Journal; Trump, NBC

A couple of weekends ago, while out to lunch with some of the family, my teenaged niece mused that she really ought to pay more attention to politics.  My guess is that she’s hearing a lot about the upcoming U.S. presidential election.  It would be hard not to, even though it is still a year away.  I smiled and nodded, unwilling to admit my own ignorance on the subject.

I suppose ignorance is a relative thing.  It’s not as if I can’t name the front-running Republicans and Democrats, but I’d have a hard time telling you what their positions are on the issues.  My education in this area is decidedly hit or miss, primarily limited to what I read in the Washington Post on my phone during my lunch breaks at work.  And I know that I don’t retain much of it.

Politics seems such a strange subject in America.  For example, it is said that religion and politics are the two subjects that should never be discussed in polite company (didn’t sex used to be part of that list?).  The point, I think, is that political disagreements can drive wedges between neighbors, friends, business associates.  While many don’t care a whit about politics, others have very strong opinions and feel compelled to argue the correctness of their positions.  Discouraging conversation on the issue, however, would indicate that most of us are so closedminded that we are unwilling to listen to the merits of other positions and decide for ourselves.  I am not so sure that I believe this.

Perhaps it is my legal training that has made me perfectly amenable to entertaining contradictory ideas on a subject.  As I’m fond of saying, there are usually more than two sides to every story.

In light of the above, it should come as no surprise that I am admirer of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, presidential candidates who are arguably positioned at least six standard deviations apart on the political spectrum.  I see good and bad in everything.

I can’t ever recall having voted for a Republican for president in my decades of going to the polls.  However, they say there’s a first time for everything, and, for me, 2016 might be just that.  If, as expected, Hillary Rodham Clinton sews up the Democratic nomination, I expect to support Mr. Trump should he emerge as his party’s standard bearer.

The usual arguments against Clinton seem to have struck a chord with me.  Between her handling of Benghazi, the despicable email scandal and my repulsion with political dynasties that make us look like a Third World country, I simply can’t stomach the thought of a Clinton presidency.  The choice of Clinton disappoints me not only because I have heretofore been a diehard supporter of the Democrats, but also because I think it would be wonderful to have a woman as chief executive.  I have long admired Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Vigdis Finnbogadóttir (former president of Iceland), and I think the time has come for the United States to break the male stranglehold on this particular club.  But not with Hillary Clinton, dear God.  Carly Fiorina?  I’m listening.

I fully plan to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary even though I am quite aware that I will not have the opportunity to vote for him in the general election.  Many who, like me, “feel the Bern,” insist that it is still quite early and that anything can happen in the twelve months between now and the election.  I believe they are deluded.  While I pray that they are right, I believe that a Sanders nomination would require nothing short of a miracle.  I doubt that he can even win the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, despite the fact that he’s campaigning so hard there that he’s about ready to be declared an honorary Hawkeye.

Much has been made of Sanders’ self-characterization as a democratic socialist.  For some, “the S word” is anathema that they continue to incorrectly associate with communism.  While I find the term to be unfortunate, I believe that labels are best applied to bottles, not people.

I believe that Bernie Sanders has his head in the right place.  I believe that he truly loves America and its people.  His support of environmental causes, income redistribution, and access to college education and health care for all place us squarely on the same page.  I’m not exactly a cockeyed optimist, however.  I realize that, were Sanders president, he would have a hell of a time with Congress and the Supreme Court.  Then again, isn’t that what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they engineered the separation of powers between the branches of the federal government?

Which brings me to The Donald.  I have doubts as to whether he can secure the Republican nomination, but at least he seems to have a chance, something that Sanders lacks with the Democrats.  However, if he succeeds in the primaries and ends up running against Clinton, I will support him.  Like so many others, I like the fact that Trump does not mince words.  He seems to say what he believes, without regard to the fact that many may react disapprovingly.  I don’t agree with all of his ideas, but he strikes me as authentic.  Perhaps this is a product of his money and privilege.  And yet, I cannot overlook his success in business.  I admire the way that, in a recent debate, he deflected criticisms of his multiple business bankruptcies by retorting that there is no reason for him not to take advantage of the protections offered by the laws of the land.  That, of course, is how a successful business is run:  You make the most of the resources at your disposal.  I think we can do worse than to run the country like a business.  As I said, Carly, I’m listening.

As widely disparate as their approaches are, I believe that both Sanders and Trump are committed to creating maximum opportunity for the greatest number of people.  Sanders wants all of us to have access to health care and a college degree.  Trump says he wants all of us to have the opportunity to become rich like he is.  In some respects, they are taking different roads to get to the same destination.

So if the campaigns of Jeb and Marco, Ben and Carly, John and Chris implode in the coming months, I’ll be voting for Mr. Trump.

Unless, of course, Bernie Sanders pulls off the Vermont Miracle.

Tomorrow:  So I’m a vegan.  How do I explain this to my niece?

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logonanopoblano2015dark