Ed Driscoll

'Packed Like Lemmings into Shiny Metal Boxes'

Ace of Spades and Verum Serum have a couple of interesting posts on what two popular early-’80s songs say about cars, the people who drive them — i.e., you and me, and the artists who wrote the songs. Verum Serum contrasts the Police’s “Syncronicity II” song with Rush’s “Red Barchetta,” for a way to explore a collectivist view of the automobile and the everyday people who own them, versus an individualist view.

The line in ‘Synchronicity II” goes, “Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, Contestants in a suicidal race.”

To which Ace responds:

That is, all you wage-slaves headed to work each day are lemmings in a suicide machine.

You hear this an awful lot from artists. An awful lot. You see this basic idea — the emptiness and awfulness of normal, quotidian life — in dozens of movies, like the empty American Beauty, and damn, if they don’t win Oscars a lot.

Death of a Salesman was about this. So, instant classic.

This is a silly and solipsistic conceit. Let me define that word, in case you don’t know it:

sol·ip·sism (slp-szm, slp-)n. Philosophy
1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified.
2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality.

Taken out of the realm of philosophy, the word is mostly used to describe a non-thoughtful, non-philosophical insistence that one’s own experience can be generalized to all other’s experience. That is, it’s a baby thing. Like babies who lack any sense of perspective outside their own heads, the solipsist is incapable of using his imagination to guess what the world might look like from other vantage points.

We are all prisoners of our own experience, it is true, but the solipsist is a willing prisoner, and generally refuses to even try to see the world from a different point of view.

Now, artists love songs like this, and movies like this, because these movies speak to them. They are of a specific psychological type, mostly. They themselves could not function happily within the confines of what most people would call “a normal life,” and are driven towards more Bohemian, atypical lifestyles.

I don’t begrudge them that. As someone who’s wound up, whether by choice or by chance, in a sort of Bohemian limbo myself, I get why they chafe at the idea of 9 to 5 and nicely-trimmed suburban lawns, myself. (Actually I don’t get the latter and never have — what the hell is the problem with a nice lawn?)

So these songs, and these films, can be said to be the stories of their own lives and their own choices, the rejection of “normal” life and more common non-artistic dreams and ambitions. And certainly, for any successful or semi-successful artist, their choice to take an oddball path can be justified; if it all works for them, wonderful.

But they don’t leave it at that. The message of these songs and movies is that the Square, Normal Suburban Workaday Life just wasn’t for me, because my psychology was such that I couldn’t hack that would always be miserable in such a state; it’s almost always generalized and universalized as something much, much bigger:

The life you lead (assuming you’re not an Artist) sucks and you’re a fool or a coward for leading it.

What? How did we get there?

Not everyone has talent enough to be an artist and produce art on an occasional schedule (when the Muse moves one) and yet be good enough at it so as not to starve. In fact, the number of artists a society can support is surely hard-capped at no more than, say, 1% at the very most, and only during a period of strong, strong economic activity, when artists who can’t make a living on their art can get paid good wages as a waiter or something.

This is so obvious, isn’t it?

So what the hell is the Artist scorn for all non-Artists?

Actually, it’s not artists; it’s leftists. Musically (for reasons I can explain if you’d like, but that would be a whole ‘nother post), country music isn’t my thing, but a few months ago when I spent a week in Texas, I listened to several hours worth of songs celebrating working hard, living on a farm, patriotism, and essentially being a grown-up. I imagine that once the country artist makes it to the point where he has a recording contract, he’s living a fairly similar and hermetically sealed life as Der Stingle was in the early 1980s, shuttling between the recording studio, the video studio, the stage, the hotel and the tour bus; it’s only the scale that’s different. But most country artists are smart and/or sane enough not to insult the people who buy their records and concert tickets. (See also: furious backlash by country fans against the Dixie Chicks.)

And it’s not just leftwing musicians and actors of course. Other performance artists on the left often express a similar level of solipsism. “I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me,” Barack Obama told the AP in the early 1990s, as Joel Kotkin reminds us, in this passage highlighted last October by Glenn Reynolds:

Many of the administration’s most high-profile initiatives have tended to reflect the views of urban interests – roughly 20 percent of the population – rather than suburban ones.

When the president visits suburban backyards, it sometimes seems like a visit from a “president from another planet.” After all, as a young man, Obama told The Associated Press: “I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me.”

In June of 2008, Jim Geraghty spotted a similar theme in a book by David Mendell titled Obama: From Promise to Power:

“[Obama] always talked about the New Rochelle train, the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn’t want to be on one of those trains every day,” said Jerry Kellman, the community organizer who enticed Obama to Chicago from his Manhattan office job. “The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions… that was scary to him.”

And then there was this classic bit by Michelle Obama on the campaign trail in 2008:

“We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do,” she tells the women. “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.” Faced with that reality, she adds, “many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management.”

Or average, everyday jobs — which bore the daylights out of the president, and presumably the first lady as well.

At the Weekly Standard today, David Gelernter looks at “Elites Gone Bad” and writes, “What America needs is a better class of left-winger.” Because let’s face it: when you go into the small college towns, and cloistered artists’ garrets like Hollywood, the smug has been rising for 25 years or so, and nothing’s replaced it. And they were angered by the Reagan administration and the Bush administrations,  and each successive generation has said that somehow these elitists are gonna re-embrace their fellow man, and they never do. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to Marxism or nihilism or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-business sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.