Saturday, September 11, 2004


Last Sunday, the last day of Burning Man, I went to a round table discussion with Larry Harvey and John Perry Barlow at Otter Camp. The event was supposed to be a discussion about whether BM would continue to be relevant in the future, whether it is relevant now, and whether the oh-so-far right actually (despite their very vocal protestations) think BM is useful, especially this year when 35000 creative and expressive people were effectively neutralized out in the middle of the desert instead of protesting the RNC or whatever.

My first intimation that things were not right was when Barlow and Harvey entered the shade structure and a couple of hundred people got to their feet and gave a standing ovation, with numerous people running up to hug, kiss, or frotteurize them. Umm, 'no spectators, only participants', right? Where does the hero worship fit into all of that? I can understand people being thankful for the opportunity and the space to be and do what they want to be and do, but the crowd's reaction was way beyond that. I mean, it's not like we went to the circus and were applauding the ringmaster... we are the circus. We bring Burning Man with us to Black Rock City, and we take it with us when we leave. Larry Harvey is a facilitator, not a deity. He commoditized 'radical self-expression'... and it looks like there are a lot of people whose primary connection to BM is that of the consumer, not of the participant.

[Side note: In the late 80's, around the time Larry Harvey was first gathering his friends on the beaches of northern California for a yearly fire ritual, the Salt Lake City punk crowd would pack up each summer for a trip to the deserts of southern Utah. In the San Rafael Swell near Goblin Valley we would set up camp in one of the slot canyons with generators for the instruments and microphones and lights and have some of the most glorious gigs out under the stars. 'Out here in the desert we is stoned, immaculate'... these 'Infest the West' trips were our opportunity to express who we were without having to worry about the strictures of life in the Holy Land. People have been making their own rituals forever... and many of us continue to do so, even within the larger context of Burning Man.]

It's a problem of abstraction, like so many others these days: too many people have convinced themselves that they are participating, conveniently neglecting to notice that their participation isn't actually getting anything done. This gap between walk and talk keeps people feeling good about themselves without effecting any real change, and people don't want to hear that - they want a little microcosm consensus narrative that affirms their belief that they are doing something good while simultaneously shielding them from any actual risk.

This was rather evident when Barlow spoke about the political mess our country has become: the crowd seemed confused that his words were mostly devoid of rhetoric, but they reacted positively when he complimented them.
... we are just as guilty of demonizing the right as they are of demonizing us...
... we need to take more personal responsibility for the mess this country is in...
... but I do see some of the most intelligent and creative people in the country here today, and I know we can change things if we try...
(high-fives all around)

The crowd seemed to respond best to "they've got the guns, but we've got the numbers" sort of talk, but they seem to have forgotten that as of the last elections the numbers don't mean fuck all, but the other side still has the guns. I'm pretty disgusted by the Bush administration, but then again it's to be expected that they would be evil. What I want to know is where the fuck has the opposition been? Standing there in Otter Camp listening to these people talk it was pretty clear what the majority of the opposition was doing: patting themselves on the back and waving their dicks in the wind.

I did see political activism at Burning Man, but it didn't do much to ease my mind. I was happy to see the guy who had brought voter registration forms from 47 states, but I was totally dismayed by how many people took him up on it. Where the fuck have these people been? The election is in less than two months, the thousandth US soldier was just killed in Iraq, the assault weapons ban expires this week, they're reinstating the draft (with new conditions that extend the age range, and even outside of that you're fucked if you've got technical or language skills)... did the last election so demoralize this country that apathy has trumped the desire for change? How bad do things have to get before people decide to participate in the democratic process?

If you think that the elections are rigged, or that your vote doesn't count, the Declaration of Independence has some advice for you:

...all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Whatever side you are on, if it's security you really want, take a closer look at the Bush administration's handling of terrorism. And if you're on the 'anybody but Bush' side, get off your ass... the despots aren't going to remove themselves. I'm hoping that a little radical self expression can go a long way this year.