Chapter 1, The Tribes of Burning Man

It’s tough to decide which chapters to read at my book launch party tomorrow night. Some will be dictated by the special guests that I’ve invited to come speak because I want the crowd to hear how they’re portrayed in the book before watching them come to life, talking about whatever is on their minds. Let the chaos provide!

But as a preview, I’d like to pass on a sentimental favorite of mine because it grounds the modern Burning Man event in the larger sociopolitical moment, which I think is interesting and important. I’ve always thought of this as Chapter 1, even though it actually follows a Prologue, Introduction, Foreword, and the first of seven “day in the life” sections sprinkled throughout the book, which I use to paint a vivid and personal portrait of life on the playa. Anyway, here is, see you all tomorrow night.

Bush Pushes as the Playa Pulls

It was a gloomy day in San Francisco, like the whole town was hung over. Most of us probably were. What else could you really do but drink as the Fall 2004 election returns rolled in? We woke up achingly aware that Americans had actually validated this naked emperor, George W. Bush, as our president, and rewarded him with a second term.

After washing the stink of several dour campaign parties off of me, I headed into work at the Bay Guardian. This was an independent, progressive newspaper that openly scorned Bush and we had fought hard before the election, pushing on the boundary between journalism and activism with our cover story “Ten things you can do to help defeat Bush and save the country.”

We didn’t feel bad for so aggressively singling out one politician, or even the de facto backing of a Democrat we didn’t much like. Our assessments were backed by years of solid reporting on how Bush had plundered the country and made the world hate us. After giving the rich a huge tax break and placing capitalists in charge of regulating their industries, the Bush Administration used 9/11 as a pretext for extrajudicial killings and kidnappings, torture and other gross human rights violations, and two disastrous wars sold with calculated lies.

With a record like that, I didn’t understand how he might actually be reelected, a possibility we labored mightily to prevent. But now, it was over.

I thought about “Ten things…,” a project that I had conceived and executed with help from others on staff. It ran in early August, even before the traditional political season began, a clarion call to oust Bush on the grounds that he was a war criminal, a pawn for powerful oligarchs, and a proven liar and incompetent.

Yet personally, I was feeling a little guilty at the time as I prepared for my second trip to Burning Man, that annual festival of countercultural creativity and glee. There were good arguments being made all year that we ought to be putting the time, energy, and resources that we were using on this weeklong art party in the Black Rock Desert into defeating Bush.

The most poignant call came from John Perry Barlow, the former Grateful Dead lyricist and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who circulated an essay calling for people not to go to Burning Man: “If someone like Karl Rove had wanted to neutralize the most creative, intelligent, and passionate members of the 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, or doing anything that might actually threaten electoral chance, when they have an art car to build.”

In the case of my camp, Opulent Temple, instead of an art car it was a huge steel DJ booth, along with several big fundraiser dance parties in San Francisco to generate the $20,000 we needed to rock the desert with a wall of sound. But the point was the same and it was a good one that also bothered our camp founder, DJ/promoter Syd Gris.

Syd and I bonded over progressive politics probably even more than we did the great parties that he threw in San Francisco. Just about everyone we knew hated Bush, but Syd was the only DJ I knew who so directly infused politics into his nightlife schtick, opening his gig-plugging e-mails with socialist rants and often doing consciousness-raising midnight rituals at his parties. It actually really bothers some of our fellow partiers and DJs, but I’m a radicalized political junkie, so I’ve always admired and connected with it.

Bush was in office, the country was at war, things were fucked up and our community of smart, awesome people were putting their resources into Burning Man rather than social action,” Syd told me later, recalling that pivotal, poignant year. He had also read Barlow’s essay and addressed it directly in his missives at the time.

That was sobering and it definitely got me thinking. And where I came through, in that little thing I wrote, is we do this because this one event feeds the human spirit in ways, well, I don’t know any other way to be that. It fuels you up to get through the rest of the year and have a little hope in mankind. And that was certainly one of my first reactions to Burning Man is it renewed my faith in people.”

It’s the reaction that many people have to the event. We are awed by the seemingly limitless creativity and goodwill that Burning Man puts on display every August, which is such a marked contrast to the real world, particularly under the criminally overreaching Bush Administration. Yes, we should fight them, but we did fight them in great numbers during his march to the ill-fated Iraq War, and it didn’t matter. So, for many people, it was tough to devote our lives to helping Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry report for duty.

We knew Barlow was presenting a false choice. If we could trade Burning Man for Bush’s downfall, most of us would have done so willingly. But would that have happened if we’d gone to New York City to protest the Republican National Convention instead of spending that week on the playa? Doubtful.

Still, maybe that’s why I pushed this cover story so hard. Was I trying to assuage my own guilt or maybe urging our readers to pick up my slack while I was partying on the playa? All I know is that I desperately wanted Bush gone and was aghast it was even a close contest. All fall, the Guardian unloaded at his regime with both barrels – and I probably wrote more words in that quest than anyone.

And still Bush won. Sitting in my messy office, ignoring the periodically ringing telephone, looking over the detritus of a busy few months – desk piled with press releases and stories marked up with my edits, manila folders labeled “the case for impeachment” or “corporate crimes” filled with documents, long checked-off to-to lists – the words rang in my head: and still Bush won. Never had an incumbent president presented such an easy target, never had so many millions of Americans mobilized so passionately to push for electoral change, and still Bush won. It was depressing, maddening, dispiriting, unbelievable.

But there was one thing I was thankful for: that I’d gone to Burning Man anyway. At least I had that, those beautiful memories and intimate connections with good, interesting, life-affirming people. Lost in a moment of blissful reverie, I studied the Opulent Temple photo montage that was the screen saver on my computer: Rosie and me in front of The Man, Syd spinning records in the DJ booth, people feeling their musical bliss, smiling faces, crazy costumes, inspired artworks, fire. Ah. Then I snapped back to the present reality. Bush. Us against the world. A rainy day. Of course it was raining, but I still needed to attend the late afternoon anti-war rally.

My arrival in San Francisco had been tightly intertwined with peace marches. I first saw the Guardian ad for a city editor on a packed Muni train en route to the massive march in January 2003, when about 100,000 people filled Market Street for miles. Two months later, during my second week on the job, Bush invaded Iraq and mine was one of 2,000 arrests on a massive day of protest. I fell instantly in love with my new city and its creative expressions of people power. But this was still Bush’s country, even if we voted for Kerry and protested the war.

It was probably good that the anti-war movement wasn’t giving up, but I felt only dread about covering the event. It was going to be a joyless march, a real antithesis to all the beauty and wonder that San Francisco and Burning Man had inspired in me and others. Things seemed bleak, dismal, hopeless – but even though I couldn’t see it at the time, the conditions were right for a transformation.

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