Fear and Loathing On the Road to the American Dream

I was flabbergasted when Burning Man grand poobah Larry Harvey picked “American Dream” for the event’s 2008 art theme. After returning from the playa last year, when the Green Man theme didn’t ring true and the eponymous man’s early arson outbreak wasn’t treated like the catalyst to community discussion it could have been, I lashed out against Larry’s nod to patriotism in a Guardian’s San Francisco blog post, “Addis on American Dream on acid.”

I even used an interview I just scored with Paul Addis, the guy charged with torching the Man during the Monday night lunar eclipse, to drive home my point and get a bigger audience. Just to make sure Larry, who I’ve gotten to know well over my years of writing about Burning Man, got the message, I also sent him a lengthy e-mail, citing Tolstoy and how patriotism was an evil to be vanquished not a virtue to be celebrated and telling him how he was alienating his core audience. He didn’t respond.

Well, at least he didn’t respond for a few months, when he sent me a long e-mail with the subject line: My reprehensible theme. We argued a bit more by e-mail and coincidentally ran into each other that weekend at a fundraiser for the Black Rock Arts Foundation, where my sweetie Alix Rosenthal served on the advisory board and so had bought me a ticket. Larry and I locked into a conversation that lasted for almost two hours, pretty much ignoring everyone else as we debated nationalism, art, provocation, conformity, and the impact of a desert full of freaks engaging in the most creative burnings of American flags that the country has ever heard of.

It was a good discussion and I came away with a better understanding of where Larry was coming from, but I still wasn’t convinced, didn’t like the theme, and didn’t think it was a good idea. Even before last year’s event, I had decided to take a year off in 2008 to travel and use my resources and vacation time in other ways, and the theme only made me feel more secure in that decision.

But now I’m going after all. I had planned to cover the Democratic National Convention in Denver this year, which was simultaneous with Burning Man. Then I had the idea of driving to the DNC, seeing the western U.S. as I pondered modern America in some gas guzzling vehicle, maybe even leaving from the Beat Museum in North Beach, where I could see the original “On the Road” manuscript, which Kerouac wrote on a long piece of butcher paper or something. Maybe even have a pre-trip chat with Warren Hinckle, the old editor of Hunter S. Thompson, Addis’s hero and psychic mentor. Full Gonzo, you know…vaya con Dios.

And then it struck me. Burning Man. American Dream. Freaks in funny hats, in the convention hall and in the desert. Perfect. I’ll rent a car, preferably a convertible, drive through the desert at a high rate of speed, stop at Burning Man for a few days, watch the birth of Black Rock City’s tribute to America, head into the Rockies to see the Democrats pick either the first woman or black man to be a presidential nominee, soak up the partisan weirdness and drink cocktails provided by corporate lobbyists and other purchasers of power, then head back down the hill for the Burning Man blast off, cranking out news copy, blog posts, and photos the entire time. My working title is “Fear and Loathing On the Road to the American Dream.” My editor and colleagues at the Guardian love the idea, so it’s on. What do you think?

Resistance is Futile

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion — which coincides with my fifth anniversary as city editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, for which I’m now starting my reporting for a cover story on the issue — here are a few of my thoughts:

What does it mean that it didn’t matter?
San Francisco erupted against President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, before and after it happened. Almost a million people filled our streets during several large protests leading up to the war. Much of the city was shut down on March 19, 2002, the first full day of war, and police arrested more than 1,000 people, including me.
Yet it meant nothing to the president, who had compared these massive street protests to focus groups, dismissing their importance completely. San Francisco’s political power structure reacted the same way – with a few noble exceptions – while gently condemning the protesters’ impact on business and the police budget. And Congress didn’t care.
It doesn’t matter that the protesters were right. On every major issue and prediction, the messages from the street proved correct while those from the White House were wrong. We weren’t welcomed as liberators. There were no WMDs. Iraq isn’t a stable democracy or shining beacon to anyone but the new generation of jihadis we created.
We had numbers on our side. It was the biggest protest in American history of an incipient war. We told our leaders not to do this while there was still time to back off. That should be our right in a democracy and it’s the reason why the framers of our constitution gave the decision to declare war to Congress.
But they didn’t listen.
We had eloquent speakers, insightful slogans, creative signs, and funny street theater, all sounding arguments and themes that were spot on right. People set their lives aside to make their opposition to the war understood, taking vacation time or even losing their jobs, facing violence and arrest and mistreatment in the name of a cause they believed in.
And it didn’t matter. What does it mean that it didn’t matter? What does it mean to democracy? What does it mean to those who protested? What will it mean to our future leaders? Does it create a likelihood of more wars? If the people are powerless to stop even an obviously doomed war, launched in our name without provocation, do we have any power?