Man in the middle - Page 2

From Burning Man to Denver, there's a new politics emerging in America, maybe even a new American Dream -- and it's not all about Barack Obama
Photo by Mirissa Neff

"The left wing conspiracy is finally vast."

The Big Tent constituency is a step more engaged with mainstream politics than Burning Man's Black Rock City, an outsider movement that sent only a smattering of representatives to the convention, including me and my travel mates from San Francisco, musician Kid Beyond and Democratic Party strategist Donnie Fowler, as well as the Philadelphia Experiment's artistic outreach contingent.

It's an open question whether either constituency, the Big Tent bloggers and activists or the Black Rock City artists and radicals, are influencing country's political dialogue enough to reach the Democratic Party's man in the middle. Obama didn't mention the decommodification of culture or a major reform of American democracy in his big speech, let alone such progressive bedrock issues as ending capital punishment and the war on drugs, downsizing the military, or the redistribution of wealth.

But those without floor passes to the convention represent, if not a movement, at least a large and varied constituency with many shared values and frustrations, and one with a sense that the American Dream is something that has slipped out of its reach, if it ever really existed at all.

These people represent the other America, the one Obama and the Democratic Party paid little heed to during their many convention speeches, which seemed mostly focused on bashing the Republican Party and assuring heartland voters that they're a trustworthy replacement. But that's hardly burning the man.

Photo by Mirissa Neff


It's been almost a year since Burning Man founder Larry Harvey announced that the art theme for the 2008 event would be "American Dream." I hated it and said so publicly, objecting to such an overt celebration of patriotism, or for setting up a prime opportunity for creative flag burning, neither a seemingly good option.

But I later came to see a bit of method behind Harvey's madness. After announcing the theme, Harvey told me, "There was a cascade of denunciations and maybe that wasn't a bad thing. It pricked people where they should be stimulated." He asks critics to read his essay on the Burning Man Web site explaining the theme: "It says that America has lost its way."

But he also said that the disaffected left and other critics of what America has become need to find a vision of America to fight for, something to believe in, whether it's our Bill of Rights (pictured on Burning Man tickets this year) or some emerging manifestation of the country. "Americans need to find our pride again," Harvey told me. "We can't face our shame unless we find our pride."

I was still dubious, since I tend toward Tolstoy's view of patriotism: that it's a bane to be abolished, not a virtue to be celebrated. Harvey and I have talked a lot of politics as I've covered Burning Man over the past four years, and those discussions have sharpened as he has subtly prodded participants to become more political, and as burners have reached out into the world through ventures such as Black Rock Arts Foundation, Burners Without Borders, and Black Rock Solar.

I've become friends with many of the event's key staffers (some, like BWB's Tom Price, through reporting their stories). This year, one employee (not a board member) I'm particularly close to even gave me one of the few gift tickets they have to hand out each year, ending my five-event run of paying full freight (and then some). I'm also friends with my two travel mates, Kid Beyond, a.k.a. Andrew Chaikin, and Fowler, who handled field organizing for Al Gore in 2000, ran John Kerry's Michigan campaign four years later, and was attending his sixth presidential convention.

Kid Beyond and I arrived at Black Rock City late Friday night, Aug.