Little Boxes

It is unquestionable that one of the most iconic photos of the Second World War is the raising of the flag atop mountain Suribachi on the Pacific island Iwo Jima in 1945. This picture of a group of American marines hoisting the flag of their nation aloft condenses the whole conflict: the men face away from the camera, concentrating on the job at hand. Some of the men – there are six in the picture – are almost invisible; hidden behind the others. They struggle to get the flag upright; just as they wrestled the island from the Japanese. The landscape is rocks, trampled plants and debris; ground they bled for; ground that was used to bleed them to great effect by the Japanese. Far beyond the group, you can see the contours of the island and you can sense the vast ocean beyond. The island was of strategic importance back then, but also an insignificant spot in an expanse of blue. Now, it is a backwater like it was before the war.

That incident is also a posed photo; it is a fake.

The concept of a group of anonymous men working together to perform a task seems somewhat strange for a country that epitomizes rugged individualism. If you care to browse some of the other famous photos, then the individual confronts you. There is one where a US Marine aims his Thompson gun at an off-screen enemy while another soldier ducks aways. Another shows an unshaven marine looking over his shoulder at the camera, a cigaret dangling from his lip and the barrel of the rifle on his back visible.

A cursory glance of propaganda posters from World War 2 shows a difference between the United States, Germany and the Soviet Union. The first leans towards the individual: I want YOU for the US Army. The second shifts the focus towards the group: So wie wir kampfen arbeite du fur den sieg! (so we fight, so you work for victory) And the latter leans even more heavily into the denial of the individual: If it isn’t the moustached tyrant Stalin who is the focus of adoration then it is the Motherland: you for them or us.

We can find the devotion to individualism in an iconic song called Little Boxes, which was made famous by Pete Seeger. Malvina Reynolds wrote it after she saw the houses being built in Daly City, California. It was a song that mocked middle class conformity by liking them to the conformity of their houses. The song holds no bars either: it shifts from the ticky-tacky houses to the ticky-tacky people; not only mocking their conformity but also their shoddiness. I think it is ironic that the middle-class, then the backbone of the United States, is being mocked in this way. Would it go far to say that this is – in a way – also mocking those who raised the flag on Iwo Jima?

The adoration of individualism and the rejection of the group is a concept that spreads in and through western culture, with the central source being the United States. Back in the day, ‘In god we trust’ appeared on the dollar as a ward against atheist communism: the source of the mindless masses. Was there an expectation that the reference to god would prevent the communist from handling it? Scorching him or her like holy water would a vampire? Or was it expected that it would change an atheist into a believer? Or is it, in fact, conformity itself? The spreading of the idea that all true Americans are all Christians.
A current equivalent of individualism is the superhero, and we contrast the superhero with the zombie. The first is the high mark of individualism, and the latter is the symbol of the mindless masses. In the movie Dawn of the Dead, the survivors comment on the undead gathering at the mall: that is what they remember from when they were the living. It is consumerism turned into a reflex and their desire to eat the living is, in fact, that reflex at work.

I thought about the above when wandering around Second Life at sims that host the Linden Homes. There is even a sim called Free Will, and another called Sheep Date. There are at least a dozen of these sims connected into a giant area filled with the same houses.
Now, if you expect a diatribe against Linden Labs, Second Life, Linden Homes and their inhabitants, then I will disappoint you. Instead, I like to discuss another subject, but I need to give some context to Linden Homes first.
Linden Labs will provide you with a piece of land and a house when you open a premium contract. This Linden Home is not the only option. You can forgo the house and land and buy your own property and place a house on it or build your own. With the premium account, you get a 300 Linden(the Second Life currency) a week.

You can buy a piece of property on the mainland. The prices fluctuate, but it is possible to get something of the same size as a Linden Home for about 2400 Linden. A house can cost you anywhere between 10 Linden to several thousands. If you go to events like Fameshed or Collabor88, you might get a decent house for 300 linden. Alternatively, you can rent a house and rent out the bought property. Or you just buy a house and place it when you are online on a free sandbox: a free area that allows for temporary builds. There are many options.

You can buy a piece of property on the mainland. The prices fluctuate, but it is possible to get something of the same size as a Linden Home for about 2400 Linden. A house can cost you anywhere between 10 Linden to several thousands. If you go to events like Fameshed or Collabor88, you might get a decent house for 300 linden. Alternatively, you can rent a house and rent out the bought property. Or you just buy a house and place it when you are online on a free sandbox: a free area that allows for temporary builds. There are many options.

When roaming around Free Will, I had to think of the genesis of the Little Boxes song. The story – as told by her daughter – has Reynolds writing the song when driving past these ticky-tacky boxes. I wonder if she got out of the car and interviewed the inhabitants of these houses about their personal details. Are you doctors? Are you lawyers? Do you all go to university? Do you all play golf? Did she organize a beauty contest to evaluate prettiness of their children? Did she go to the census bureau to get the details?
I think it is highly unlikely. Don’t you?
Reynold projected her own conceptions on them. She created windmills and then set to work to tear this straw man down with mockery. She created the zombie. And as fake as that picture of the flag raising was, so fake is her song.

These houses and their inhabitants were likely of the same generation that raised the (real) flag on Iwo Jima. In their late teens and early twenties back then and in their late thirties and early forties, when she drove past their houses and wrote her song, knowing nothing about them, but assuming she did. Her song inspired a generation who feared the herd mentality that her song avowed to be present. They were the children of the ticky-tacky generation and of the affluency that allowed them to reject the projected conformity of the previous generation. They aspired to another uniformity: that of rabid individualism. So now, everyone wants to be ironman , Luke Skywalker or Captain America. History is irony, if not anything else.

When roaming around Free Will, I had to think of the genesis of the Little Boxes song. The story – as told by her daughter – has Reynolds writing the song when driving past these ticky-tacky boxes. I wonder if she got out of the car and interviewed the inhabitants of these houses about their personal details. Are you doctors? Are you lawyers? Do you all go to university? Do you all play golf? Did she organize a beauty contest to evaluate prettiness of their children? Did she go to the census bureau to get the details?
I think it is highly unlikely. Don’t you?
Reynold projected her own conceptions on them. She created windmills and then set to work to tear this straw man down with mockery. She created the zombie. And as fake as that picture of the flag raising was, so fake is her song.

These houses and their inhabitants were likely of the same generation that raised the (real) flag on Iwo Jima. In their late teens and early twenties back then and in their late thirties and early forties, when she drove past their houses and wrote her song, knowing nothing about them, but assuming she did. Her song inspired a generation who feared the herd mentality that her song avowed to be present. They were the children of the ticky-tacky generation and of the affluency that allowed them to reject the projected conformity of the previous generation. They aspired to another uniformity: that of rabid individualism. So now, everyone wants to be ironman , Luke Skywalker or Captain America. History is irony, if not anything else.
When I look at the Linden Homes in Second Life and consider all the above, I try to shed myself by projecting ideas on the dwellers and in that instance I know I will fail. Do I know how to avoid mocking anyone? I do not know, really. All I can say is that I hope I don’t kid myself in thinking that my mockery is nothing else but mockery of myself. Those that applauded Reynolds’ song were laughing at themselves and they didn’t know it.
Fools, all.
Or maybe they knew?
If I made a mockery of myself like that, I hope it invokes a laugh.
A long one.
A Homeric one.

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