American Dream analysis with Larry Harvey

The annual Burning Man buzz has started again in San Francisco, which is home to most of the event’s best artists. The event’s Borg, Black Rock City LLC, is about to announce its art grants for this year and many of the artists I’m close to – such as Peter Hudson and the Flaming Lotus Girls – have already started to hear whether their projects will be fully funded (information that I must keep to myself right now…lo siento, my readers).
But one thing we all know is that workspaces in The City and the East Bay, from the Box Shop to the Shipyard, will soon transform into buzzing hives of colorful and creative activity, sculpting artworks that fit directly or very loosely under the banner of this year’s controversial American Dream art theme.
As I mentioned in my last post, I received sat down with BM head honcho Larry Harvey in his art-filled, rent-controlled apartment overlooking Alamo Square to talk about his “reprehensible theme,” the state of the country, and the prospects for the fundamental political changes that he, I, and those like us are seeking.
“It struck a chord,” Harvey said of his theme, for which he’s been widely lambasted, even by those close to him (someone came to the BM holiday party sporting a T-shirt that read, “American Dream? Larry, Larry, what were you thinking?”). But Harvey said he was going for provocation: “I know why I wanted to do it.”
“There was a cascade of denunciation and maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. It pricked people where they should be stimulated,” Harvey said.
Right now, when so many people are viewing the United States with such scorn – particularly among the counterculture that is attracted to Burning Man – Harvey said it’s important to rediscover the country’s positive attributes (such as the Bill of Rights, which Harvey placed on this year’s tickets) and work to recommit our fellow citizens to a positive path that we’ve lost, particularly during these imperial years of Bush II.
“America has lost its way,” Harvey said. “But to do this theme, I had to find things that I wanted to be proud of with America.”
For Harvey, that was how the U.S. behaved in the wake of World War II, when we rebuilt Europe under the Marshall Plan and essentially forgave and helped to restore Germany and Japan, our bitter enemies in that terrible war. He suggested that people need to find something about this country to believe in if we are to restore ourselves in the eyes of the rest of the world.
“Americans need to find our pride again. We can’t face our shame unless we find our pride,” he told me.
Personally, I’m as wary of the world pride as I am of the word patriotism, both of which imply a kind of elitism and egocentrism that have been our worst enemies as a country. But I do understand what Larry is getting at, particularly because he doesn’t gloss over the need for Americans to decide whether we want to rejoin the world or play out the endgame of a careening empire in decline, blinded to its fate by hubris.
“Now, the time has come and a real decision has to be made by everyone,” he said.
Do we embrace the moment’s potential for transformative change, which Barack Obama has made a centerpiece of his campaign, or we will be scared back into the politics of the past that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain seem to embody? Harvey is wary of flying the partisan flag, but it’s safe to say he’s for the former, something he’s been driving at with his last three themes – Hope and Fear, Green Man, and now American Dream – the only three in the event’s long history that have been overtly sociopolitical.
“Next year, I plan to take it another round, but I can’t tell you what it is,” Harvey told me, hinting only that it “straddles psychology.”
Harvey said that he’s done with themes like Floating World that could just as easily be high school prom themes, and he has not use for those who complain that they want escapism from their Burning Man experience.
“Burning Man doesn’t mean anything unless it affects the way we live our lives back home,” he said, citing his favorite pair of signs that mark the arrival at Black Rock City: “What happens in Vegas stay in Vegas. What happens in Black Rock City goes everywhere.”
Through offshoot groups like Black Rock Arts Foundation, Burners Without Borders, and Black Rock Solar, Harvey said burners are actively applying their social networks and ethos to important projects in the real world. And he said that is happening in countless other ways that will manifest in the coming years.
“That city is connecting to itself faster than anyone knows. And if they can do that, they can connect to the world. That’s why for the last three years I’ve done these sociopolitical themes, so they know they can apply it. Because if it’s just a vacation,” Larry said, his voice trailing off as his mind moved to his main point. “Well, we’ve been on vacation long enough.”

Finding focus

Seeing the world through new eyes is a powerful metaphor. And in my case, there’s also some literal truth to it as I gaze out upon San Francisco with 20-15 vision unaided by glasses or contact lenses. Last Friday, lasers zapped away the bit of corneal tissue that was blurring my vision, bringing the world sharply into focus. But my outlook was already undergoing some nonsurgical adjustments.

The decision to break up with my sweetie has been more painful and drawn out than the one to get LASIK surgery, which was an unexpected Christmas gift from my mother. Compared with the intense contemplation of whether to leave a wonderfully sustaining four-year relationship to pursue uncertain adventures, letting someone shave my eyeballs was no big deal.

Alix and I have been doomed for months, maybe even years, but we loved each other too much to face it. Love doesn’t really conquer all, as we all eventually realize, often around the time when couples talk about whether to have babies. I love my daughters, who are now 18 and almost 14 years old, but as I approach my 40th birthday, I can clearly see that my child rearing days are nearing their sunset.

We’re doing a good job of loving and supporting each other as we untangle our lives, but the future is a blur. The horizon ends at the end of the month when Alix flies to Bali for a six-week trip to southeast Asia and I move out, couch-surfing with friends until I fly to South America 12 days later and worrying about where to live next after my return.

My five-week trip to Peru and Bolivia will be part vacation and part journalistic exploration, as I’ve discussed in some earlier posts. It’s by far the most time I’ve had off from 17 years worth of daily and weekly newspaper deadlines, a chance to really reflect on my life, gaze upon the world, and just be.

Yet there’s really no respite for a restless soul. I’m brimming with writing projects right now, all of which exhibit serendipitous cross currents and flashes of interconnection that seem to be painting a picture that I can’t yet see.

As the war started five years ago, I was arrested for helping block the intersection in front of Bechtel, our homegrown multinational corporation that helped spark Bolivia’s latest revolutionary cycle by privatizing the water system in Cochabamba. And for some reason, I feel compelled to fly down there and learn more.

I regularly cover San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s well-packaged yet hollow approach to politics and civic governance, often recalling his stylistic mentor Bill Clinton as I watch Newsom in action, using the right liberal rhetoric (and even some of the same hand gestures and intonation) but selling out those values to maintain his personal popularity, over and over. So now I cover the presidential race, and the upcoming Democratic National Convention, where we’ll see whether we’re really ready to turn a new political page or whether it’s back to that soulless Clintonian triangulation.

Are Americans ready to see with new eyes?

Barack Obama’s campaign has tapped into a deep well of unfocused human energy, those who have been so disconnected from corrupted and ineffectual political systems that they choose to create new worlds, from Black Rock City to Second Life to untold other deliberately created communities. But I believe they yearn to apply their energies to the real challenges our country and the world faces, if they can only see how to do so. 

“There’s a real idealism out there, but they haven’t had an outlet,” Burning Man founder Larry Harvey told me on Monday as we chatted in his apartment, speaking simultaneously about Obama supporters and the burners that are branching out into the world, from Pisco to Gerlach (soon I’ll do a post focused on my conversation with Larry and his American Dreams).

I’m also inspired and idealistic, and I too am looking for an outlet for my energies. For now, that’s how I intend to use this blog, to explore the connections among my many current writing projects. And just maybe, at some key moment, it will all snap into clear focus.

Time for change

Politics has been swirling furiously through my brain for the last week, shooting out from my personal and professional sides, on subjects local, national, and international, in disparate shards that nonetheless seem to add up to something cohesive and consistent. This is a big moment in time, both mine and ours.

This Tuesday’s California presidential primary is an obvious catalyst to my sense of epic transition. Despite similarities in the policy positions of the two top Democratic candidates, it seems clear that only Barack Obama could be the kind of transformational leader that this country so desperately needs. I tend to agree with the progressive political leaders who I interviewed for my story in this week’s Guardian that an Obama election could open up discussions that the Democratic Party hasn’t been willing to have: How do we rein in the military-industrial complex and get past these cycles of war? Can capitalism be tweaked into sustainability or do we need to socialize key sectors of the economy? Will we finally deal with institutionalized political corruption and create a real, public interest, multi-party democracy that reengages the citizenry and expands the political dialogue? Are we willing to atone for our national sins or will we keeping tell lies to ourselves and the world? Are we doomed or is redemption still possible?

Despite my support for Obama, I acknowledge the critics who correctly note that he’s not talking in these terms, at least not yet. Nor should he, lest we see the Republicans keep the White House. But once he’s sworn in and we know the makeup of Congress, that’s when the real struggle begins for the anti war, social justice and other people’s movements. That’s when we expect action on this change rhetoric and do what we can to push and pull our leaders to really earn the votes we cast for them.

It’s true on the national level and it’s true here in San Francisco on the local level, where I and others have been pushing Mayor Gavin Newsom to live up to his rhetoric. Three-quarters of San Franciscans say they support him, but he’s maddeningly imperious and self-serving to those of us who closely follow his initiatives and political tactics. I’ll cop to holding leftist political views, but I can abide anyone who is honest and acts in good faith, regardless of their ideology. Yet disingenuousness grates on me.

I prefer well-meaning outsiders to the powerful people who ape populist rhetoric while propping up the status quo. I’ve started doing interviews with key anti-war figures for an upcoming cover story and I admire their tenacity in the face of impossible obstacles. Because their sacrifices matter and history will note their presence in our streets as it condemns imperial America (including people like Newsom, who bash the Bush Administration and condemn the war, but never once lent their presence or support to the anti-war marches and have consistently belittled and undermined the movement).

This week, I’ve also been making preparations for my trip to South America, including sending out letters making my first overtures to Bolivian President Evo Morales, in the hopes of getting an interview when I’m down there in April. As the week began, he was meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and representatives from Fidel Castro’s Cuba in Caracas at the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas conference, which seeks to strengthen the rising socialist tide with mutual defense pacts and agreements to create a lending institution to replace the World Bank in South America. As I said, this is a very exciting time, fraught with possibilities and innumerable pitfalls.

In preparation for my five-week trip to Bolivia and Peru, I’ve been studying Spanish and reading a great book: Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics. It looks at the history of people’s movements in South America, going back past Simon Bolivar to Tupac Amaru (both of whom Morales praised in his inaugural address in 2005), and right up to the current revolutionary period that began in 2000, when the people of Cochabamba rose up against SF-based Bechtel’s takeover of their water system, continuing through the protests in La Paz in 2003 that drove the American-educated president into exile in Miami and right up to recent adoption of a new constitution in Bolivia.

The world is changing. That’s why President Bush’s State of the Union speech this week sounded so anachronistic and why people are so resistant to returning the Clintons to the White House. That’s why I and other journalists in San Francisco are trying to create new models and aggressively resisting the predation of corporate America. It’s why progressives here are pushing policies that set new standards for the rest of the country.

We can either embrace the political awakening we’re seeing rise up in South America and elsewhere, or we can keep living under the illusion that we’re an indispensable and lovable superpower. We can choose a new course, and this is the year to do it.

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?