I've been a fan of Rush for a very long time. They were one of my earliest musical influences, and I can say with complete honesty that they were probably in no small measure the reason I majored in philosophy. Neil Peart was one of my early influences as a drummer, and a model for how I thought song lyrics should be written, as well as what themes they should address. There is a picture in an old Rush tour book of Neil sitting on the bus reading Aristotle, which struck me as an awesome way to live a life.
That said, there was always something, particularly about early Rush, that grated on me. While they may have been my gateway drug to philosophy, that was in large measure because I was aware of the influence Ayn Rand had on Neil's thought and writing. As has often been said, many 15-year old boys encounter Rand briefly in the course of their intellectual development, and then quickly move on. Those who don't, well, sometimes they develop weird ideas.
For Rush, those weird ideas were embodied in songs like "Anthem" (the title based on a Rand story), 2112 (the plot mostly borrowed from the same story), and "The Trees." These songs tend to embody Rand's stilted amoral libertarianism, though like most Rand adherents, Neil Peart didn't follow her to the extent of being a full-blown psychopath. His intellectual life was stocked with many other, moderating, influences.
That said, Rush gained a bit of a reputation in the early part of their career for being kind of right wing, and "The Trees" is perhaps one of the reasons why. It's a fable about a conflict between maple trees and oaks. The maples complain because the oaks are so tall they suck up all the light in the forest, while the oaks can't conceive of why the maples would have a problem with that. Ultimately, the conflict is resolved after the maples form a union, and equality is maintained with "hatchet, ax, and saw."
I think most people read the song as a kind of ironic union-busting tirade, in which the maples try to force the oak to give them something that they're not entitled to, and in the end are hoist upon their own petard. Almost everyone I've talked about the song with over the years has read it that way, and I did myself for a long time. But you know what? The more I think about it, the more I think that the song ultimately sides with the maples.
If you begin from the premise that this is just another of Neil's Rand-inspired right wing songs, then it's easy to see the anti-union elements as predominant. But consider how the song describes the oaks. They didn't earn their status as tallest trees in the forest. The song explicitly says that they are just "made" that way. Furthermore, their attitude toward the maples is insufferably clueless and condecending -- that they should "just be happy in their shade."
Ultimately this is a song about the distribution of a limited resource, and it raised the question of who should be entitled to consume that resource, and on what grounds. Rand's philosophy emphasized the idea that those who have access to the goods of society are entitlted to them on the grounds of their superior intellect, creativity, and ability. In short, (on a charitable reading) Rand is advocating a form of meritocracy. Other libertarians, like Robert Nozick, also emphasize the meritocratic dimension of their philosophy. They object to redistribution of wealth on the basis of the fact that it would be unjust to transfer wealth to someone who is not "entitled" to it on the basis of some arbitrary conception of equality.
What this analysis leaves out though is the whole problem of inherited wealth. Or rather, it doesn't leave it out, it just doesn't see it as a problem. Nozick's philosophy sees it as simply a just transfer of wealth from one legal holder to another, each of whom is "entitled" to it as a matter of freedom and personal liberty. However, inherited wealth undermines the meritocratic dimension of this entire philosophy, since it leads to the accumulation of riches at the top and the maldistribution of social goods.
The result is much as described in the song: The wealthy don't earn their wealth. They just "can't help it if they like the way they're made" (that is, rich), and have no desire to change. What's more, they have no means of conceiving of what it's like to be deprived of access to a scarce resource because someone else is hogging it all. They have enough sunlight, so therefore everyone else must have as much as they need as well. The oaks consume more because they need more. The maples wouldn't know what to do with that extra sunlight if they had it, so they should just enjoy the shade.
And so, in the song, the maples form a union. Unions are an essential part of the creation of a rough equality in capitalist societies, allowing workers to bargain collectively with management for wages and benefits. They also provide political leverage with governments, as they represent an identifiable consitutency that can deliver (or deny) votes and support to candidates. Thus strong unions serve an essential function in democracies, and benefit both the workers themselves, and by creating conditions for broad equality and social and political stability. Needless to say, the right hates them.
So when a conservative song writer writes a song in which unions figure, it's probably a good bet that they are the villains. (As a side note, much as I have always loved Frank Zappa, his anti-unionism was always one of the things, as with Rush, that drove me nuts about him). However, this is where my rethinking of this song has really taken hold. Instead of reading it as a conservative anti-union song, it can instead be read as a pro-union, egalitarian song.
The maples did exactly the right thing. In the face of oak intransigence and obstruction, the only way that they could effectively demand access to a resource that both they and the oaks needed, was to organize politically in order to leverage power, and force the oaks to do what they were unable to do on their own -- "we will make them give us light," that is, give us access to a resource necessary for our survival. But doing that means that someone needs to be empowered to weild the hatchet, ax, and saw. In other words, this becomes the realm of legitimate government intervention in order to secure greater equality. The maples couldn't do it on their own. The oaks were unwilling to (they "just shake their heads" at the maples' demands), so through collective organization, the maples empower a third party to enforce equality.
The ironic twist to all of this, I suppose, is that the maples are as much subject to the rule of hatchet, ax, and saw, as the oaks are. But I fail to see why that should be a problem. If the law is to be applied equally, then it absolutely should insist that the maples are not entitled to more light than the oaks any more than the oaks are. And so by creating conditions where a law enforces relative equality between oaks and maples, not based on inheretance but based on access, it opens the opportunity for sunlight to all.
When I initially proposed this idea, one friend of mine read it as promoting conformity. Whether she was thinking of Rand or not when she suggested that, I do not know, but that critique plays directly into the Randian presumption that access to wealth is somehow equivalent to creativity and individuality. That the hatch, ax, and saw level us into one uniform set of drones. On the contrary, this has got nothing to do with enforcing conformity. It has everything to do with allowing equality of opportunity so that everyone may strive for individual excellence. It is the lack of equality that prevents so many in society from striving for what they can achieve, while allowing those at the very top, particularly those with inherited wealth, to squander it pointlessly or horde it greedily.
By mandating the redistribution of wealth via law, there is a relative leveling of income but for the purpose of allowing access to social goods that are in large measure denied those at the margins of society. This can allow for the creation of a society in which everyone may seek to fulfill their own creative, intellectual, and artistic goals. In that sense, think the maples have exactly the right idea, and taking their side opens up the possibility of a society that is, to echo another famous Rush tune from the same era, "Closer to the Heart."
PS., As a footnote to all of this, and in support of my reading, I can't help but wonder about the significance of a Canadian band choosing a conflict between maples and oaks as the centerpiece of the song. Could it also reflect the relative status of Canada and the United States? In which case, it seems again to clearly be a pro-maple song.