The Politics of Burning Man

Burning Man and the Republican convention coincide. Where's a good progressive to go?

Although John Perry Barlow -- writer, cyberpundit, and former Grateful Dead lyricist -- lives most of the year in Wyoming, he attends Burning Man every summer. But he came home from last year's event -- the experimental arts festival/community gathering held annually in Nevada's Black Rock Desert -- feeling "weirded out," and not for the obvious reasons. In a blistering e-mail to his readers in October, he explained why:

If someone like Karl Rove wanted to neutralize the most creative, intelligent, and passionate members of his opposition, he'd have a hard time coming up with a better tool than Burning Man. Exile them to the wilderness, give them a culture in which alpha status requires months of focus and resource-consumptive preparation, provide them with metric tons of psychotropic confusicants, and then ... ignore them. It's a pretty safe bet that they won't be out registering voters ... when they have an art car to build.

Well! We, for one, stopped all work on our art car to attend the Awe to Action conference on July 10, eager to hear what promised to be a lively discussion of Barlow's guilt-inducing polemic. At this one-day event sponsored by several spiritual and academic institutions, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey was scheduled to face off against Barlow for the first time in public since the infamous "Karl Rove" e-mail, which had spread like wildfire through Burning Man listservs. Hoping to see some blood, or at least some male cattiness, we drove to the First Unitarian Universalist Church at Franklin and Geary and settled into a pew.

Avuncular Harvey, in his traditional bone-colored Stetson hat, was seated across from the bearded, all-black-wearing Barlow. Both were in massive, baronial chairs with red velvet cushions and huge carved backs -- it appeared that a serious discussion was indeed in store.

Barlow began by explaining himself. "Coming out of the Burn last year, I felt we were self-ghettoizing and self-marginalizing," he said. Beyond the desert, he saw a draconian administration threatening the very rights that make Burning Man possible, Barlow said, and he thought it was irresponsible that Burners -- members of a highly visible, successful countercultural movement -- were not taking a greater role in trying to boot President Bush from the White House. "It's not sufficient, obviously, to protest in the streets," he told the conference. "We can't affect them economically, but we can vote them out of office. But it's an incredibly dreary process that's very different [than Burning Man]."

Wait a minute! Was Barlow seriously suggesting we drop our glue gun and sequined gas mask to go door to door registering voters? Save us, Larry Harvey!

But when it was his turn to speak, Harvey, in his typically elliptical, muttering style, took a different tack. He described standing on Golden Gate Park's Hippie Hill in the 1960s, feeling convinced that a great wave of enlightenment would soon roll over the entire world.

"I was peaking," he admitted, to much appreciative laughter from the audience. It was a fallacy to believe that personal experiences of awe led to appreciable change in the world, Harvey said, and it was never his goal to make Burning Man into more than an "initiation." Cooperative community-building is the best road to real accomplishment, he added, and pointed out that over the last few years, Burning Man enthusiasts have been organizing into regional groups that are active all year long. Among them, Harvey noted, are NYC Burning Man performance artists Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, a fake evangelical preacher and his gospel choir who travel to Starbucks and Wal-Marts to preach against the creep of transnational corporations.

"They're not just throwing parties, they're participating in civic spirit," Harvey said.

But this type of political activity is a far cry from the "dreary" work Barlow is talking about: knocking on doors, sending out fliers, and making phone calls. That kind of activity might involve chatting up people who are boring and normal, God forbid.

"I'd like to see [Burning Man] culture become more amphibious," Barlow insisted. "More comfortable with people not like them." One of his biggest concerns is the aggressive rejection of more conservative types by so-called liberal types, Barlow said, adding that he hoped Burners might come to realize "straights" also have a legitimate point of view. "America has divided into tribes that ... will be killing ourselves pretty soon," he said.

But just when we thought the fur would start flying, Harvey, who has spent much of the past five years dealing with small-town lawmakers and police in the rural Nevada communities around Burning Man, said he knew all too well about the grunt work on Barlow's mind. "We're willing to tell people how to do it," said Harvey.

Common ground! Barlow then admitted that despite his polemic, he would be going back to Burning Man this year -- although not for the entire week. For the first three days, he will be at the Republican National Convention in New York City, and he wondered how many other Burning Man devotees would similarly split their time.

But even his convention agenda does not include much in the way of dreary stuff.

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