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There's a lesson to be learned in the Burning Man catastrophe
And the persistent myth of the hippie era just burned up with it
The sun finally came out earlier this week over the Black Rock Desert of Northwestern Nevada where tens of thousands of revelers at the famed Burning Man festival had gathered in an annual ritual of what its organizers describe as “"community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance".
It had been a washout – literally. More rain fell within two days than usually falls on the semi-arid “playa” where the “Burners” were encamped than usually falls in two months, and almost never in August where temperatures routinely soar to triple digits.
The boots of the bawdy Burner brats at the boundless bohemian bourgeois bacchanal were overburdened with cement-like crusts of mud as more than a few of them lit out across the desert and hitchhiked into, while the vast remainder were ordered to “shelter in place” in their water-logged tents and damp RVs.
There was no joy in Mudville, as the mighty myth of Burning Man had indeed struck out.
Burning Man – that strange and überhip hybrid of rock concert, New Age expo, and old-fashioned orgy - has now been going on now for 37 years since a bunch of failure-to-launch counter-culturalists in 1986 got together on a San Francisco beach and burned a wooden effigy, drawing a crowd.
The Reagan-era retro version of what was known during the days of actual hippies in the Bay Area as a “happening” somehow evolved over the ensuing decades into a pretentious spectacle of libertinism and virtue-signaling for much of the world’s superrich and progressive cultural elite, who these days turn out to be the very same people.
Burning Man, of course, was from the get-go supposed to be something far more pretentious than Silicon Valley’s version of Animal House. It was touted to be a kind of start-of-the art “spiritual but not religious” showcase for neoliberal globalist visions of a “sustainable” new world order.
The so-called “Ten Principles of Burning Man”, however, proved to be something of a parody of the globalist ethic itself and certainly don’t exactly display the ersatz ethical gravitas of the Ten Commandments.
For example, the first principle of “radical inclusion” states: “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”
Translation: “anyone” with a net worth of at least $5 million, “no prerequisites” except de rigeur megalomaniacal pretensions about saving the teeming multitudes of their social inferiors on this planet from their benighted populist barbarism, “strangers” aka average bloke sorts of billionaire venture capitalists who want two days alone with their office assistants to get weird and kinky without their wives or mothers ever finding out about it.
As a side note, “anyone” also has to come up with enough crypto-currency or cold cash to afford the average ticket of well over $1000, parking fees of $150, and camping for up to $5,000.
Like the last of the Mohicans, Burners are constrained by the eighth principle of “leaving no trace.” I quote: “Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.”
Nevertheless, such a golden rule doesn’t apply if you’ve got all the gold (like most Burners). In their unqualified haste to get home to their high rise offices and gated communities after an unanticipated and unbearable added day of having to stand down from partying and posturing, the roisterers at Black Rock Desert, according to ABC News, left the playa sodden “with abandoned vehicles, rugs, furniture, tents and trash.”
Which leaves us to wonder who had to clean out and haul off all the overflowing port-a-potties which various news sources reported made being one with nature rather unbearable when during the last two dire, diluvian days of the festival nature called.
Two many opinion columnists have already called down Schadenfreude on this year’s debacle, so I won’t participate any further in the pile-on.
Aside from the kind of schoolmarmish and faux populist tut-tutting voiced by Moira Donegan in The Guardian, or the silly, fulsome, and opportunistic, environmentalist pontificating of Adam Met in Quartz, the grisly fortunes of the elite ship of fools at Burning Man does hold some semblance of a moral lesson.
No, I’m not going along with the hackneyed, Christian Twitter meme of an angry Deity bringing the flood down once again on godless, licentious, urban progressive reprobates. Anyway, he said, as James Baldwin once pointed out, he’d bring “the fire next time”.
If all the really, really bad PR Burning Man received this time around accomplished anything at all , it perhaps made at least some of us jaded scolds of the post-postmodern American public conscience realize that that those “thought leaders”, professional role models, or celebrity icons, on whom we regularly rely for the latest adrenaline spurt of insight on how to pull the human race away from the abyss on its eve of its destruction, need to be taken a little less seriously.
Maybe we do really need a second opinion.
For the record, I’m talking about myself. Yes, in a universe long, long ago and far, far away I was one of those youthful “flower children” who all descended on San Francisco in 1967 to construct for the adulatory American imaginary the mythical Summer of Love in which LSD, rock legends like Janis Jopliin and the Jefferson Airplane, group sex, and funky pseudo-proletarian dress was all supposed tout ensemble to “raise the vibrations” at every single fifth-dimensional G-spot around the globe.
We actually believed that if “we made love not war” there would no longer be any war. That very year special operatives from the same hippie mind collective went so far as to amass in Washington DC in an effort to “levitate the Pentagon” with their positive thought energies.
In hindsight it all seems romantically bizarre and entertaining, if not harmless and puerile. But the hippies grew up and grew rich, and San Francisco became the venture capital capitol of the world. The excesses of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll for that period were replaced with more sophisticated excesses of wealth and avant-garde, utopian woolgathering.
Now San Francisco is an unlivable city because of unaffordable housing, a pandemic of homelessness, and out-of-control crime. Few people remember, but the same thing happened to Haight Ashbury, the neighborhood where the “happening” took place in 1967, which was also the epicenter of the countercultural “youthquake” that transformed generations to come.
The hippies all left the following year for the countryside, complaining that drug overdoses, random violence, and the intrusion of organized criminal gangs had turned paradise into purgatory. Within only two short years the dark underbelly of the Age of Aquarius manifested itself in sensational ways.
In the spring of 1969 in Berkeley a large, spontaneous assembly of what were known as “street people” took over an empty lot near the university campus and declared, like a similar group during the George Floyd Protests in June 2020, it as some kind of “autonomous zone”. They renamed the vacant city block “People’s Park”.
The administration at the University of California tried to evict them and, when they failed to do so peacefully, called the cops. Shouting “power to the people”, the squatters resisted. Eventually the National Guard was called in, at least one person was killed by sniper fire, and hundreds were sent to the hospital. Thousands of protesters were jailed under brutal conditions.
That August Woodstock happened, but also the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles that terrorized the Golden State until the perpetrators, Charles Manson and his infamous “family”, were finally apprehended. Manson had been a major player during the Summer of Love, and his ghastly, overnight metamorphosis from flower child to psychopathic butcher shocked the nation.
In December 1969 a free concert was staged by the British rock band The Rolling Stones on the Altamount Speedway just east of the Bay Area. Other famous bands such as The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were scheduled to play at the event, which attracted 300,000 people.
Violence broke out, and as the Stones played “Sympathy for the Devil,” four concert goers were murdered by the Hells Angels. It was an event of great poetic irony that, according to the news site SFGate, “has been mythologized as the end of the ‘60s.”
Even more ironically in the lead-up to the disastrous concert Mick Jagger had gushed the same kind of cloud cuckoo land claptrap that could be found in the mission statement of Burning Man. “It’s creating a microcosmic society which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings,” he was quoted as saying.
A quarter century after Altamont it seemed that the creators of Burning Man had still not learned the lesson. Although there is no hard evidence founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James were consciously influenced by the 1973 horror movie The Wicker Man, the comparisons are both striking and intriguing.
Based on David Pinner’s novel Ritual published – you guessed it – in 1967, the plotline of The Wicker Man centers on a British detective named Howie who comes to a remote island off the coast of Scotland looking for a lost girl, whom he discovers was going to be sacrificed by the local inhabitants in an ancient pagan practice to which they have reverted after centuries of Christianity.
It turns out that the islanders did not intend to sacrifice the girl at all. They were trying to ensnare Howie himself, who is a perfect sacrificial victim because he represents law and order and is a “fool”. The movie ends with Howie, trapped a wicker basket shaped like a man along with bleating and bellowing animals, going up in flames as the sun sets. Hence, “burning man.”
I’m sure that’s not at all the kind of lesson our smug and sodden, silver-haired, Silicon Valley-saturated survivors of the Summer of Love want to take away from the latter day countercultural apocalypse on the seared, severe, and God-forsaken lava beds of the Black Rock playa.
But as San Francisco sinks into its own mire and America as a whole finds itself wailing in sackcloth and ashes over its own polarizing political follies, its failed leadership, and its recent Summer of Recrimination, we have to wonder how many fools are still out there as future victims for “burning”.
As we head into the kind of electoral season that will probably represent something more akin to what went on in Rome’s Circus Maximus than what the nation’s founders had in mind for the fledgling democracy, we are reminded only with hope against hope of Otto von Bismarck’s (probably apocryphal) remark: “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”
He didn’t live long enough to discover they would all come together every year at Burning Man.