Out of downtown: Wealthy financier Warren Hellman has crossed his big-business allies to help progressive causes
"Sometimes you get the feeling in this city that in the land of the tolerant, the intolerant are king," said Hellman, whose festival has endured noise complaints even though the music is shut off by 7 p.m. "There is a continuing pressure to do away with fun, because fun is objectionable to someone, [but] we need to think about not creating a new dictatorship of a tiny group of people whose views are not in line with the opinion of most of the people of San Francisco.... You should try to balance the good of a lot of people versus the temporary annoyance of a few people."
Preserving fun and a lively urban culture is a personal issue for Hellman, who plays the five-string banjo and calls his festival "the most enjoyable two days of the year for me." He helps draw the biggest names in bluegrass music and acts like a kid in a candy shop during the event.
"I feel very strongly that an important part of our culture is built on the type of music and type of performance that goes on at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass," Hellman said. From parables set to music to songs of struggle and the old union standards, "that kind of music is the conscience of our country."
He considers bluegrass a vital and historically important form of political communication, more so than many of the upscale art forms that the rich tend to sponsor. "I'm glad that we have first-rate opera, but it's equally important that we foster the kind of music, lyrics, etc., that support all this," he said. "Somebody once said that most of the great Western philosophy is buried in the words of country songs. And that's closer to the truth than most people think. A big passion of mine is to try to help — and people have defined it too narrowly — the kinds of music that I think have a hell of a lot to do with the good parts of our society."
Perhaps surprisingly for a Republican venture capitalist from the older generation, Hellman also considers the countercultural freaks of San Francisco to be some of the "good parts of our society." That's why he attended Burning Man for the first time last year and why, he said, he loved it, as much for the culture and community as for the art.
"I went to Burning Man because as much as possible I want to experience everything," he said. "I want to just see directly what it's like. I knew I'd enjoy it. I never doubted that. But what really overwhelmed me is it was 40,000 people getting along with each other. I mean, it's pretty intense. There were dust storms and the world's most repulsive sight: nude men over 70 just dangling along. But I never saw an argument. It was 40,000 people just enjoying each other."
It was most striking to Hellman because of the contrast with the rest of society. As he said, "I've never seen this country so divided."
While Hellman supports Schwarzenegger — calling him "a good advertisement to California" — he has nothing good to say about his fellow Republican in the Oval Office. He calls Bush's tenure "an absolute four-star disaster." The invasion of Iraq is the most obvious problem, he said. "Our war policy has slowly veered from being 'Don't tread on me' to we're going to jump on your neck."
But his antipathy to certain aspects of the Republican Party began even earlier, when the religious right began to take over.
"I thought we were not that polarized during the Clinton administration. I was somewhat encouraged," Hellman said. "Maybe there was an undercurrent of strident religious behavior or strident conservatism, but not the conservatism that I think the Republican Party used to stand for, which was fiscal conservatism instead of social conservatism. Somehow, there was this angst in this country on the part of religious people who I guess felt this country was being taken away from them, and they were the kind of stalwart or underpinnings of society. And they took it back."