The Road Less Traveled? Nope

Willy Loman

Last week I taught Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to parents of new students who are entering St. Mary’s in the fall and were registering for classes. (We do so to give them a taste of what their kids will encounter when they come to college.) As I did so, I suddenly had an insight into why a Mitt Romney distortion of an Obama quotation is gaining some traction.

As you know if you’ve been following politics (or watching any television at all), a Romney ad shows Obama telling businesses that “you didn’t build that.” The ad claims that Obama is giving all the credit to society or the government, as opposed to the entrepreneurs who build the businesses. But the quotation has been taken out of context, and the context clearly shows that Obama was crediting society for building a support network—specifically roads and bridges—within which business people can experience success. Here’s Obama:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

At worst, Obama is guilty of a faulty pronoun antecedent (he should have said “those” rather than “that”) or a vague pronoun referent. If Obama is really the Kenyan socialist Marxist that his detractors claim, then it shouldn’t be hard to pillory him for actual things that he has said or done. Why be reduced to ripping a quote out of context? (The same goes for a more recent Romney ad which has Obama saying that “We tried our plan — and it worked,” omitting the fact that Obama is talking about the Clinton era, not his own.)

Partisans believe what they want to believe. But I think the deeper story here is that, regardless of what he says or does, Obama is being attacked because he is challenging a deep entrepreneurial myth: that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and that our success is due entirely to our own efforts.

I’ve written about how Charles Dickens devastatingly takes apart this myth through the character of Bounderby in Hard Times. Indeed, it now appears that many of Romney’s own examples of American bootstrappers received a lot of help from the government. So technically, Obama is right.

But trying to see this denial is the best possible light, I wonder if some entrepreneurs require self-deception in order to take the gambles that they do. Maybe they need this heroic sense that they are doing it all by themselves.

I think of a famous passage from Death of a Salesman where self-deception is defended as necessary for those who put themselves on the line. Willy’s old friend Charlie, responding to Biff’s statement that Willy didn’t know who he was, says that Willy could not afford to be realistic:

Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Back to Robert Frost. The poem is commonly read as a hymn to the American ethos of “I did it on my own” or “I march to the beat of my own drummer.” The poet’s speaker concludes with what appears to be a ringing declaration of solitary success: “I took the [road] less traveled and that has made all the difference.” If this is perhaps America’s most well known poem, it is because it plugs into a foundational American myth.

But further scrutiny of the poem casts doubts on the myth. The speaker, when he objectively looks into the facts, has to admit that he probably did not take the road less traveled. The roads, he acknowledges, were equally traveled. In fact, he may have taken the safer looking road, the road that did not bend into the undergrowth:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

Despite his momentary realism, he predicts there will be a time, ages and ages hence, when he will tell himself (with a sigh) that he took the solitary path. Looking ahead, he imagines himself reinventing his history. The idea I’m floating is that the poem speaks to us deeply because self-deception is part of what we do. Maybe Obama is being excoriated, not for running down business, but for questioning our vision of ourselves as heroic individuals.

I’ll only add that not all in the business community think this way. My eldest son, who runs a small marketing company, fully acknowledges the help he gets from others. He’s also an enthusiastic Obama supporter who believes that the Affordable Care Act will help his company. Perhaps because he has a strong sense of self, he doesn’t demand that people laud him as a heroic individual.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a fair number of business people who are ready to believe that Obama is diminishing their success.

Further thought: Columnist Richard Cohen of The Washington Post uses another relevant passage, this one from John Donne’s “Meditation 17,” to castigate the Republicans:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

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  • Jason

    Giving helicopter parents “a taste of what their kids will encounter when they come to college” is a brilliant idea. Good thing corporal punishment was phased out years ago!

  • Carl Rosin

    Wonderful post and connections. Your comment about the (deceptive) allure of that “hymn to the American ethos” hits the nail on the head, especially with regard to Charley’s poignant speech. Willy made the wrong choices and dreamed the wrong dream (as only Biff finally realizes), but making choices and having dreams were decidedly not his errors. Frost’s narrator owns his responsibility: I chose this road, not to be different or because it was easier; I am my choices.

    The self-mythologizing angle provides great insight on the American psyche. Aim high, be confident, take responsibility…but beware the dangers of hubris!

  • Robin Bates

    When you are the world’s preeminent military and economic power, hubris is something to be wary of, Carl. I remember having you be wary of it when I was a Fulbright scholar in Slovenia. It’s very easy to be an arrogant ugly American. As Mitt also demonstrated last week in his European trip.

  • Robin Bates

    Sometimes the parents say they wish they were back in college, Jason. Incidentally, I was paddled once in grade school. (And I was innocent!)

  • Robin Bates

    Here’s a follow-up to my reply, Carl. In an August 3 New York Times column, David Brooks captures some of what I was trying to say. he says that in their 20s, it’s okay for people to think of themselves as individual pioneers. Then in their 80s, they can develop a more realistic perspective. Here’s his conclusion, written as an advice column to “Confused in Columbus:

    But you, Mr. Confused in Columbus, are right to preserve your pride in your accomplishments. Great companies, charities and nations were built by groups of individuals who each vastly overestimated their own autonomy. As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.

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