The Trees is an ideal (and pragmatic) leftist’s song

I love the song “The Trees,” by Rush, on their “Hemispheres” album. It’s the first song of Rush’s catalog that I heard, even though I didn’t know the band was Rush at the time.

It’s an incredibly leftist song.  I wholly approve. I am a leftist at heart.

I’ve been asking people I know what “left” and “right” entail these days, out of simple interest. If you’re reading this, it might be worthwhile to consider what these terms mean, without doing any research whatsoever. I promise I’ll explain in a few paragraphs.

I’ve gotten a lot of fascinating answers, largely centered on “Democrat” and “Republican.” These are somewhat valid, in that Democrats tend to be more leftist and Republicans tend to be more rightists.

But consider: Communists are far left. Fascists are far right. Yet these two groups tend to advocate for the same economic policies. They’re both boogeymen, politically.

How does this work? How can fascists and Communists be on the same page but be described so differently on a political spectrum?

History.

Left and Right aren’t about economic policy: they’re social. In the time of the French Revolution, the revolutionaries sat on the left of the gallery, while the monarchists sat on the right side of the gallery. The “leftists” were all about equality, a lack of social classes, whereas the monarchists were reinforcing the concept of social classes, as you can imagine with the concept of royalty being involved.

Leftists are confronted by social classes, while Rightists are comforted by the same.

The Democrats, by advocating for populism so strongly, see social striata (often defined by money) as being at least somewhat a negative thing. The Republicans accept the existence of social classes. Both parties have extremists that advocate either a destruction of everything associated with the old classist system (in the case of the Democrats) or the absolute enforcement and recognition of acceptable class striation (in the case of the Republicans).

I am a leftist. I’m not an extremist by any measure; I just take the Declaration of Independence seriously when it says “All are created equal,” with rights endowed innately for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Yet I’m also pragmatic: there are social classes. There’s no way to argue with the idea that some are born with silver spoons, and I’d be the last person on the face of the earth to suggest that someone born poor is unable to climb the social ladder. (Likewise, someone born rich can fall down the social ladder… like me, for example, in that I was born upper middle class and now I’m probably back at the middle class after having been lower-middle and perhaps lower class, period.)

So this started out with “The Trees,” and by golly, let’s cycle back around to it at last.

“The Trees” is the story of a forest, where maples are in conflict with oaks: 

The trouble with the maples,
And they’re quite convinced they’re right,
They say the oaks are just too greedy,
And they grab up all the light.
The oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the maples
Can’t be happy in their shade.

Rush, Hemispheres, Anthem Records, 1978

In the end, after some absolutely rocking music, the trees’ conflict is resolved:

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
‘The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’
Now there’s no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet,
Axe,
And saw

Rush, Hemispheres, Anthem Records, 1978

I find this to be beautiful in expression. Equality at last! … wait. The end result of the extremist expression of leftist thought (as the maples demand) is that all are equal… in being reaped. Yet the song still manages to advocate for a sort of pragmatic leftism: the maples aren’t wrong for wanting more! They just went about it in such a way that the “equality” wasn’t all that desirable after all.

I find that pragmatism – and the desire for equality – to be something close to a Platonic ideal.

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