The Little Engine That Could is a favorite children’s story that teaches the value of determination, hard work, and an optimistic attitude. Fueled by the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” the tiny train surmounts incredible obstacles. Cue the ecstatic acclaim.
I’ve thought about this quintessentially American fable ever since James Robertson came to national attention earlier this year. When his car died 10 years ago, Robertson, a 56-year-old Detroit resident, walked 21 miles a day to and from work for a decade. There was no reliable public transportation, and Robertson could not afford a new car on his factory wage of $10.55 an hour. So he kept on going through all kinds of weather and unsafe areas, never missing a day of work, and never complaining.
Robertson’s been lauded as an American hero. As one letter writer in my local paper enthused,
Mr. Robertson is what America is supposed to be all about; he reflects the values that made this country great. . . . America loves those who are willing to work hard and fend for themselves . . .
We sure do. We’re a can-do country, born and bred on The Little Engine that Could. People so loved Mr. Robertson’s story that through crowd-funding, they raised enough to give him $360,000 in cash and a new car.
Those who overcome adversity certainly deserve our admiration. But there is a dark side to our adulation of such against-all-odds triumphs. Just look at what else the aforementioned letter writer has to say (I repeat his admiration of Mr. Robertson as a springboard to his further point):
America loves those who are willing to work hard and fend for themselves rather than trying to game the system and depend on government assistance when it is not really needed.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were more people like James Robertson willing to do what it takes to get and keep a job and be productive members of our society, and fewer individuals who are able to work but choose to take advantage of the government’s willingness to give away our tax dollars?
I have no quarrel with Mr. Robertson, but there’s plenty wrong with a society that idealizes high levels of adversity as an acceptable test of character. Should it take 21 miles of walking through all kinds of weather to keep a job? If this is the expectation, then we don’t have to look at a system of wages in which a full-time worker can’t afford a new car. We can ignore the lack of public transportation, childcare, decent wages. It’s an implicit acceptance that society owes nothing to the individual.
Such thinking lets us off the hook. It allows us to believe that those who cannot make it are to blame. The letter writer may have been inartful in his words, but his sentiment is not unique—in fact, it’s what fuels our most monumental political debates and is arguably a fair summary of the Republican Party’s platform.
It also substitutes favored-cause crowd-funding for sensible and humane public policy.
This swap, not surprisingly, doesn’t turn out so well—not only for those whose inspring stories are not trumpeted in the national media, but even for Mr. Robertson: His ex-girlfriend went after his money, and he had to move out of his neighborhood because he felt threatened by those have-nots who remained .
Sure, there would still be jerks even in a more equitable society that embraced collective good and not just individual triumph. But I can’t help but wonder how things might be if more people could be deemed worthy of support without having to be stand-alone (or walk-alone) heroes.
Because, after all: What if the Little Engine can’t?