Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Jason skips Burning Man

For the first time since 1997, there will be a Burning Man and I won't be there for any of it.

I started coming to terms with this back in February when I and most of my friends failed to get tickets in the lottery. And on March 2, when I was away from my computer from 12:00-12:15 pm Pacific Time, and therefore lost out on my chance to enter the STEP (Secondary Ticket Exchange Program) it became more real. And when they announced their policy for "Directed Distribution" of the last batch of tickets, I knew it was over. Even after 14 years of burning, I had always just done my own thing without every registering a theme camp, meaning apparently I'm not one of the important people for making the city what it is. So I shrugged, realized that while all Burners are equal, some are more equal than others, and made my break.

Since then, many friends have tried to convince me to find a ticket somehow anyway. There were plenty of people scalping selling their surplus tickets when they find out they or their friend can't go. There was an extra release of 10,000 more tickets. I didn't flinch. The fact is I just wasn't feeling it. I had decided--like I had jokingly threatened for the past decade--to just stay at home and take three showers a day instead.

And then a couple of things happened. First, I saw THE WIND (1928) at the Stanford Theatre with Dennis James rocking the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. That story of a young Lillian Gish who travels to a remote desert town where the howling wind and dust drives her insane always reminds me (fondly) of Burning Man. True, there's no crazy art projects or raves or naked people running around, but I'm jaded enough that I care more about the weather than the art.

Second, there was suddenly a ton of face-value or cheaper tickets on Craigslist (and I assume other sites.) I was no longer afforded the excuse that I can't get a ticket without paying outrageous scalper prices (BTW, the fact that a ton of cheap tickets appeared at the 11th hour I think is pretty compelling evidence that scalpers bought a lot of the early tickets and are now panicking. I wish the organization would acknowledge they had a huge scalper problem this year.)

And yet, I simply was still not feeling it. So I took a closer look at why I didn't want to go, and it started with the question, "What is Burning Man?"

There's a lot of different answers to that question. I've heard, "like the Internet come to life." "An arts festival." "A bunch of crazy people in the desert doing drugs, getting naked, and playing with fire (hopefully not often all at once.)" Or my personal favorite, "The world's shittiest gated community." (Okay, I came up with that last one. Remember, I'm a jaded old-timer.)

But when I take it seriously, the answer I really like is, "It's an evolving social experiment." Specifically, it's an experiment to determine if it's possible to build a society that lives according to the Ten Principles of Burning Man. And what I realized, and no one is talking about (okay, maybe people are talking about it and I just haven't seen it, but no one I've seen is talking about) is that the experiment has yielded a result. The answer is , "No." This answer was confessed in the announcement of the directed ticket distribution, and foreshadowed just a week before in an ominous announcement titled Radical Inclusion, Meet the Other Nine. And I realized my little Orwellian joke of "All Burners are equal, but some are more equal than others" actually weighed on my conscience more than I thought.

You see, it would be one thing if they acknowledged that Radical Inclusion simply can't exist if there are more people who want to be included than they can legally include. And in some ways (e.g., rising ticket prices, changes in culture) there has been a steady process of (I assume unintentionally) convincing some people to self-select out of inclusion. Still, they've been very good at doing everything they can logistically to keep the event inclusive (e.g., low income tickets, etc.)

But the result is something more than just Radical Inclusion runs up against large numbers. They made a conscious decision to jettison Radical Inclusion for the benefit of...I'm not exactly sure which one of the other principles, but something about keeping Burning Man and Black Rock City the special place that it is. Now I understand there are certain camps that are pretty vital--Ice, for example. Or First Aid. Or the Fire Department. But if there are camps that are that vital, just make them part of the staff and give them free tickets (for all I know of the organization, the camps I've listed already are staff and get free tickets.) But you know what would happen if that one cool theme camp didn't show up? We'd survive anyway, and probably find something even cooler to do. Do you really think we couldn't have Burning Man without Thunderdome? It seems priority was given to camps that had registered in previous years, because the true spirit of Burning Man is filling out the proper paperwork. Camps that had done their own thing, even if it was popular in their local corner of the city, were still left out in the cold.

I've lived in a few places that claimed to be "very inclusive" (or worse yet, "very tolerant.") The thing is, universally when it really came down to it what they meant is they were inclusive/tolerant of people or behaviors that the rest of society generally didn't tolerate. It did not mean they included/tolerated everybody who wanted to be there. And even if you got in, there were always some people who were way more "included" than others. And even when I found ways to become one of the more included members, the hypocrisy still bugged me (often not until I was out the environment and could see it with fresh eyes, but still.)

In fact, I began to believe there really was no such thing as full inclusiveness. Then I went to Burning Man. In 1998 it was truly inclusive. One thing I've loved so much over the years is the attitude that once we're out here, we're all equals. Larry Harvey is just another Burner. The guys who founded Google, if they're out here are just other Burners. If you run into (whatever rock star/actor is allegedly out this year) he/she is just another Burner. In 2012, in part because of forces beyond their control, but mostly because of a very conscious decision that certain Burners are more important than others, they have lost a little bit of that inclusiveness. If you run into someone camping in a large theme camp, chances are they're more than just another Burner, their the privileged class to whom tickets are directed.

And even this wouldn't bother me as much if it weren't for the fact that every time I look at that Ten Principles page, there's Radical Inclusion, still right at the top. No change in the text describing it, no asterisk. I've enjoyed plenty of things in my life that were not at all inclusive. Burning Man could be one of them, but it just turns my stomach when I read "Radical Inclusion" there and I know it to be a lie.

Maybe I'm too much of an idealist. Believe me, I'm not all that idealistic about much. Maybe they can acknowledge that Radical Inclusion isn't possible, but continue on the best they can. Maybe they can redefine the principle of Radical Inclusion to mean that your chances of getting a ticket won't be affected by X, Y, or Z, but the fact is you might not get a ticket just because of the luck of the draw. Maybe they'll actually find a better solution that restores inclusiveness next year. But until there's a serious examination of this negative result and its implications, I don't think I'll be back.

Groucho Marx said, and I agree, "I would never want to be a part of a club that would have someone like me as a member." Besides being a wonderfully head-spinning, self-deprecating one liner, there's a serious side to that witticism. It attacks the "someone like [our members]" attitude that so many exclusive clubs have. Groucho, as a Jew, was denied access to several clubs until he was extremely famous, and suddenly those same clubs wanted 'someone like him.'

I know I'm in no danger of Burning Man wanting "someone like me." Even if they would take me, there are officially thousands of Burners they wanted more. Until they meet my ideal of Radical Inclusion, fuck 'em. I'm not going to Burning Man, because they don't deserve me.


Adam Villani said...

My experience at BM is very partial --- my sister goes every year, and in 2009 I went with her to the site a week early to help set up, but then left about a half an hour before the general gates opened. So, take that into consideration, but I've never given much credence to the ten principles and instead just saw the whole thing as a big party, albeit one with a certain flavor and requiring a bit of a commitment on the part of the participants.

One of the things about anarchy in general is that it's a principle of governance that's extremely limited in scope; people need to be able to opt out of it at any time, and there's no way it would work as a general system of governance for any group of people larger than a small band or tribe. I think Burning Man illustrates that principle; with size and legitimacy come rules and regulations. It's just like anything else in society. It's got it's special Burning Man flavor, but it's still just the Burning Man-flavored variety of society at large. That's not a bad thing or a good thing, just an illustration of the limitations of creating a fresh, new set of rules.

puppymeat said...

Well said, Adam.

As long as a group is small enough, it can be totally inclusive. Once it's large enough, it just becomes "differently inclusive." Ricketts Hovse was definitely a place that claimed to be all-inclusive but was only differently inclusive.

I do appreciate that Burning Man held on to the principle of inclusion as long as it did, and it really did a good job with it. But maybe the result of the experiment is that inclusion only works up to a limit of ~50,000 people.

Adam Villani said...

Yeah, I agree about Ricketts, too. Talking about "radical inclusion" is a way of patting one's self on the back; generally it really just means that they have different inclusion criteria from other groups.