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Thinking too much

Column by George Sibley

Modern Life – September 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

COLORADO CENTRAL’s most dedicated and critical reader, Slim Wolfe, complained last month about my insufficient respect for the Europeans, so he will probably love this one which is critical of the French.

The New York Times ran an article July 22 titled “New Leaders say Pensive French think too much.” According to the article, the new government of President Nicholas Sarkozy is trying to move the French nation toward “doing rather than musing; Sarkozy’s own mantra is ‘work more to earn more.'”

Sarkozy’s Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, according to the Times, “bluntly advised the French people to abandon their ‘old national habit.'” “France is a country that thinks,” she told the National Assembly. “We have in our libraries enough to talk about for centuries to come. This is why I would like to tell you: Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves.”

This is finally something from France that America’s emerging oligarchic directorate will applaud. The French have become a negative example here for what happens when people think too much. They thought too much when it was time to rally ’round the flag (our flag) and join the coalition of the browbeaten to march off to Iraq. They apparently thought about their own history of colonial disasters in places like Vietnam and Algeria, and thought they would rather not, which earned them the anger of all righteous Americans.

More recently, that scourge of the Republicans, documentarian Michael Moore, has held up the French health care system as an example of public health care that works. It’s clear they have thought hard enough to see through the incredible fictions spun by a private-sector industry that files its actual health care expenditures under “medical losses,” and expects to make 20-30 percent profits off of human misfortune.

Then there’s the ongoing French response to the American cult of the automobile. We’ve long chuckled at the funny little cars they drive that show no appreciation at all for the mystique of encasing yourself in a powerful tank of steel and pretending that all that power is actually thine.

Now, rather than addressing the problem of traffic by widening their boulevards to accommodate more traffic as well as bigger, more powerful cars, Parisians show signs of thinking about things like climate change and “peak oil,” leading them to actually decrease the urban space they allocate to the automobile, setting aside one whole lane on major thoroughfares for public transportation and bicycles! And they pay for this kind of nonsense by taxing the hell out of gasoline, rather than letting the benevolent corporations that rule the earth rightfully take all the income from rising oil prices.

So yes, in sum, there are many reasons for Americans to dislike the French penchant for thinking too much — their ongoing insistence on taking seriously all that 17th-century “Enlightenment” and “Age of Science and Reason” stuff, with nothing but thinly-veiled contempt for our valiant efforts to resurrect an opulent 17th-century aristocracy and a Sun King, refreshingly devoid of any social conscience.

UNTIL NOW, that is. Now, they do seem to be coming around, having elected this Americophile who comes right out and says the French think too much, and need to be more like Americans: Just do it! Whatever! Pump up the economy! President Sarkozy became probably the first well-known Frenchman since Alexis de Toqueville to vacation in America — and this time we aren’t going to get a big fat book of critique on American democracy out of it (not that there’s much of that left here now).

And Mme. Lagarde, the finance minister, didn’t just visit America; she lived here, got her preparation for this new direction for France as a member of a high-powered law firm in the American city immortalized as “Hog Butcher for the world.” Small wonder she would suggest that (as summarized by the Times) “the French should work harder, earn more and be rewarded with lower taxes if they get rich.” Lowering taxes will mean more money freed up for private conspicuous consumption rather than “promoting the general welfare,” and yet another launch of the convulsive cycle of economic energy driven by yearning, envy and oil that will probably make them good partners for the next American venture into petrocolonization. Efficio, ergo sum: I do, therefore I am.

But I have to say — ever the contrarian — that I receive this news from France with sadness. I don’t really believe, actually, that all the French people were sitting around in berets all the time, charging their brains with expresso or expanding them with wine and “thinking too much.” I suspect that most of the French have always been like most people here and everywhere; at some point in their lives they probably all had to think about something, and realized what hard work thinking actually is (notice how children start breathing heavier when they get engrossed in something that makes them think), and sensibly avoided it thereafter whenever possible, the way we sensibly avoid all really hard work when we can.

The article cited one well-known contemporary French thinker, Alain Finkielkraut (described as a “philosopher, writer, professor and radio show host” ) who pointed that out: “If you have the chance to consecrate your life to thinking, you work all the time, even in your sleep. Thinking requires setbacks, suffering, a lot of sweat.”

That said, however, aren’t there a lot of signs and indicators that the best thing for the world today would be for everyone to start investing a little more sweat in thinking and a little less in doing? Or at least thinking more about the things we do, before we do them?

I know, I know. A lot of people will say they can’t afford to not be doing, doing, doing from sunup to sundown; they have no time for thinking. For some of them — the poorest among us — it’s even true. But a lot of us are just pushing ourselves to an early grave in order to follow the Sarkozy charge to work harder, earn more and get rich, and that makes less sense all the time.

For the most part, the things we are doing today to get rich aren’t just stressing ourselves; they are also stressing, directly or indirectly, the natural systems of the planet on which we depend. The ways in which we work harder to earn more, also work the planet harder -and, demonstrably, reduce the ability of the planet to provide for all life. The increasingly ominous petroleum situation is a good example: Even most of the oil companies agree that, no matter how hard we work, we are very close to a point where the amount of petroleum we’ll get to run our world is going to start declining. Like it or not, we are going to have to start doing some hard thinking about this, since practically everything we depend on today is connected somehow to cheap and easy petroleum.

HERE IN Central Colorado, we catch the push and shove of too many people trying too hard to get rich both ways. On the one hand, our public officials, most of whom were already too busy, are dealing with the impacts of efforts to squeeze more natural resources out of the region. Here in the Upper Gunnison, we’re grappling with a proposal to shoehorn a sizable molybendum mine into a resort and tourism economy. On the other hand, these same officials are trying to deal with the consequences of all the people who are getting rich and looking for cool new places to build their mansions and music festivals and ATV trails and other monuments to themselves. And beneath our groans and cusses, the earth groans.

Shouldn’t we be thinking all this through a little more? That’s why it’s sad to hear the French eschewing a cultural tradition that led the way three centuries ago in the Enlightenment. And they’re giving it up just to work harder and (they hope) get rich? What a sellout for civilization. So now I guess it’s up to us, Slim.

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he recently retired from professing at Western State College.