My first Burning Man was eight years ago. Arriving at the gate late on the second night with my then girlfriend, a fastidious professional model, we were ready for almost anything, but not the manic clown-police at the entrance gate who, with a deft hand and an inch-wide white marker drew a giant ejaculating penis on our windshield and demanded (tongue-in-cheek) all our drugs.
My girlfriend left the gate in tears but recovered quickly, falling in love with the scene and especially hula-hooping which she’s done ever since.
I took the gate as a bit of social engineering, as if to say, “Welcome. Be audacious. Shine as weird as you want, but know that we can out-weird you, so don’t get too full of yourself. We’ve got you covered.”
I too fell in love with the scene, and have been back twice since, just last week with my 23-year-old daughter. I love the invitation tp audacity but also the easy,reliable benevolence toward everyone including me, now a middle-aged duff, no longer as audacious as I once was.
Every time I’m back, that uplifting humbling line from the Beatle’s song "All you need is love” comes back to me: “Nothing you can do that can’t be done.” Burning Man is crawling with talent and ingenuity. It’s a place to stand out in the midst of everyone else standing out, a place to both elevate and get over yourself, and in the process to reflect on the tension between aspiring to be more than you are and being OK with what you are.
I know a bit about gate-keeping at freak gatherings. For seven years in my 20’s I lived on The Farm, America’s largest and longest-lasting hippie commune. Burning Man is 60,000 freaks living together for a week (and then some—tons of pre-event set-up and post-event break-down). The Farm was 1,400 who planned to stay forever, and on top of it, 20,000 visitors a year all streaming through our gate day and night, unscreened and unscheduled to stay a few days for free at what, in the 70’s, was something of a hippie mecca.
An elected elder of the Farm by my daughter’s age, I ran our gate often, meeting and managing whomever arrived. Most of the people came with great intentions and good vibes. Some were lots more trouble than that.
Running gate gave me lots of time to think about what it takes to invent an alternative bubble society within the larger society and how to handle the bubble’s semi-permeable membrane, a question that now, as an evolutionary philosophy and social psychology professor still keeps me busy.
To create a new and distinct society you need dedicated focus and a degree of purity lest your vision of a new society get diluted. But to survive you need flexible interaction with the outside community. Getting the permeability right is the challenge, what to tolerate; what not to tolerate.
The semi-permiable membrane challenge runs deeper than creating a bubble society. It's a core issue for all living systems, for example to the earliest life forms with their semi-permiable cell membrane walls, adaptively addressing life's big give and take questions: what to join; what not to oin, what to accept; what to reject, what to tolerate; what not to tolerate. Evolutionary Biologist Terrence Deacon calls it “the paradox of individuality.” No creature is an island and yet again it is, since a distinct individual can only survive as a separate being by interacting with the world outside.
Luck of the draw, this visit, my daughter and I weren’t met by cock-drawing clown police, but my daughter could have handled it. Many in her generation, the generation best represented at Burning Man, is used to a lot of cultural variability, and don’t harbor that purist, dogmatic visions of social change, that on the Farm we disdainfully called “being High Brahman.”
The farm was more pragmatic than dogmatic. We didn't tolerate free-love but tolerated junk food and for similar pragmatic reasons. We had a whole lot of work to do and for the most part picked our priority battles with an eye to what would keep us going. Casual sex would cut into our work lives and create more drama that the commune could sustain. And hand-wringing over occasional bags of chips or sodas wasn’t our thing either. We had higher priorities, and chose carefully where to allocate our tolerances and intolerances.
In retrospect, I think our disdain for High Brahman hippies was our unsuccessful bulwark against the New Age puritanism that was already taking root in the 1970’s, a moral absolutism that still dominates in Berkeley where I now live.. Moral absolutes, whether from the Far Right, Far Left or Far Out New Age stunt human growth.
I’m astonished by how strong and resilient New Age puritanism remains here in Berkeley, how many people, especially of my generation have gotten good at turning up their high Brahman noses through abosutist spiritual correctness.
“Yintimidation” I call it, the sweeping final-word pontifications of the self-proclaimed yin and spiritual who counsel hypocritically that you shouldn’t be judgmental (a judgment) that negativity is bad (a negativity), that you should be closed-minded to closed-mindedness and intolerant of intolerance.
As the hypocritically spiritual demonstrate, you can’t live by these principles. Instead you just get good at ignoring the places where you're judgmental, negative closedminded or intolerant. The principles stunt growth by keeping us from lifes' age-old questions about when to judge, be negative, be closed-minded and intolerant.
No doubt new age spiritual purintanism is a reaction to prior puritanisms that pointed the opposite direction, for example, the self-glorifying zero-tolerance policies of the far right and far left. All moral absolutes, once they became culturally dominant, can and will be abused in the human race to outshine each other, boss each other around, act like the pope and win at “shutupsmanship.” Absolutist morality is absolute power, which corrupts absolutely.
I’m awestruck and humbled by how Burning Man culture extends hippie philosophy in a healthier direction, an alternative to the New Age puritanism which has become just another route to standard-issue human self-certainty.
Burning Man culture doesn't take itself too seriously. There's much more self-effacing irony to it, that strange and wondrous balance between elevating, and getting over oneself. It was folk art at its best, everyone gifted and talented at something, often something majestic in its triviality like hula hooping, just a celebration of the expansive possibilitiess in what a body can do.
Not only are there no corporate logos at Burning Man, there are no famous names there. No founder, or philosophical leader, the bands, the music, the camps, all with transient names, meaningful, playful, but not really mattering. Everyone shines and no one is blinded or over-shadowed by the shiners' light. Not only is there no commerce there, there’s hardly any promotion of anything, no glad-handing, no ideogical campaigning, hippy, progressive, or otherwise.
Will Burning Man save the world? Certainly not. Is it sustainable? Not year-round the way the Farm was for its 14 years, with a community of 200 still living there today.
And not, perhaps in the environmental sense. It’s energy intensive--all that driving and burning. Still, though my priority issue is Global Warming, I’m not a purist about it. While, I don’t fly to vacations in far-flung lands because the carbon footprint of such trips is too large, I’ll burn a tank of gas to be part of the Burning Man circus. I’m glad I live five hours from this best exotic culture bang for the carbon-footprint buck.
And as an annual mecca, Burning Man is sustainable. Its resilience, I think stems from its low ideological aspirations. I think it’s has longer legs that the Occupy movement in part because it’s not tilting at the towering windmills of commerce, but also because, like many in my daughter’s generation it doesn’t aspire to ideological or spiritual purity, and so has some built-in resilience. From my first visit eight years ago to my visit last week, I don't detect discouraging trends. The only trend I spotted was a delightful one to my ears. Dubstep seems to have replaced Industrial and House music as the dominant musical form. To me, dubstep has more soul.
As a mecca Burning Man has got something substantial to offer. It reminds us of the vast possibilities avaailable to humankind. I love its harmonious dissonance, its sweet cacophony that comes of the culmanating collision between the hippie’s, humankind’s, and life's two opposing truths: We are all one, and just do your thing, the paradox of individuality lived large for a week in the Nevada desert.