[We'd like to welcome new author Whatsblem the Pro to Burners.Me. He's kicking things off with this monster of a post about this year's "Free Bird" controversy, and the vitriolic backlash related to the Temple Burn]
It may not be obvious to the casual eye, but nothing demonstrates the steep political and cultural gradient of Burning Man quite so handily as the behavior of the crowd at Temple burn.
Yes, there’s a significant political and cultural gradient at Burning Man. Contrary to popular belief, Black Rock City isn’t some kind of neo-Woodstock populated exclusively by contempo-hippies getting groovy and passing their bongs and dreadlocking tips around. Black Rock may be a place for a certain oddly-inclined swathe of humanity, but the swathe Burners cut is quite broad, and thus BRC’s culture has some very real diversity to it in spite of the many qualities that Burners share.
Like any cosmopolitan metropolis, Black Rock City is a bustling mélange of diverse cultural streams coming together; hippies certainly have their place, but so do ravers, punk rockers, industrial arts and engineering geeks, gun-toting Anarchists (minus the guns, these days), hard-working rednecks, pranksters of all stripe (often inspired by the Cacophony Society and the Situationists), devotees of the Church of the Subgenius, the Church of Eris, and the Church of Satan, survivalists, 12-Steppers, polyamorists, radical Feminists, iconoclastic geniuses, jet-setting career hedonists, mild-mannered blue- and white-collar workers, and, sadly, a certain percentage of garden-variety frathouse douchebags and sorostitutes who think they’re in Daytona for Spring Break. We’ve even got some wealthy Republican investment bankers in the mix, straight outta Wall Street. . . and as of 2012, a sudden massive increase in the number of undercover cops. Truly, as the saying goes: WE ARE EVERYWHERE.
When the Man was younger and the City less densely populated, there were a lot fewer rules. You could, for instance, get yourself and your dog good and drunk and then test your aim at the Drive-By Shooting Range at high speed if you were so inclined. . . but with the event growing by leaps and bounds came the decision that it was necessary to ban firearms and require vehicles to observe a 5 MPH speed limit. Pets were banned too; you can still get drunk, but you have to drive at a snail’s pace, you can’t shoot at anything, and Spot has to stay home and drink toilet water (poor Spot!).
The thing about the growing list of rules, though, is that by and large they’re there for clearly pragmatic reasons. It could be argued (it often is argued) that the rules are overly-protective and are destroying or have already destroyed the original spirit of the Burn, but the rules do tend to have a solid rationale behind them that is arguably sensible. Some of them are just plain inarguably necessary; 2012 gave us a horrifying example of that when foreign matter deposited in a porta-potty clogged the hose of a suction truck, causing the hose to burst catastrophically. The driver of the truck was hospitalized with pieces of shrapnel from the hose buried in his neck, accompanied by a heaping helping of raw sewage. Please: if it isn’t single-ply toilet paper and it didn’t come out of your body, it doesn’t belong in the potty.
Still, the necessity of some rules is more debatable than that, and whether or not the rules ruin your Burn is highly subjective and depends heavily on what the Burn means to you; regardless, it’s undeniable that the maternally protective and homogenously Left-wing thinking of hippies and hippie-like beings has made vast inroads on the more Mad Maxish and ruggedly individualistic influence of the Anarchists and Nihilists and Libertarians among us. It has been generally assumed that the inevitable increase in deaths and injuries that our population boom would have brought had the firearms and rule-free driving been allowed to remain would have been unacceptable. To the average person on the far Left, that all seems rather obvious and self-evident, and the largely unexamined assumption is that it has to be that way because that’s the only correct way possible. It’s the same with all the rules; there is little dissent among Burner hippies because every political stance comes with its own distinctive set of blinders, and those of the far Left tend to determine how the Borg sees things these days. It’s a mistake, however, to think that everyone agrees that the rules are necessary. The popular Burner motto “Safety Third” is hardly a new thing, after all, and is only partially a joke.
What happens when rules generated by the assumptions of the patchouli set run head-on into the more libertine sensibilities of dissenting factions?
If it’s a matter of written rules, you might get the kind of bad boy/bad girl behavior that, perhaps paradoxically, is so often exhibited by DPW workers. They may work for the Borg, but their cry of “fuck yer day” is not a sentiment commonly associated with hippies, or even Lefties in general. DPW has a mini-culture all its own; their roughneck abrasiveness and sometimes cavalier flouting of the rules are borne of a sense of entitlement (perhaps justified) that comes of heroically busting ass for long hours in a terribly hostile environment so everyone else can party. It’s to be expected. The more likely reaction among non-DPW non-hippies, however, is a reluctant acquiescence and adherence to the rules, peppered with some dusty muttering about how much better it was last year.
What about unwritten rules? Are they really rules at all, or just traditions? Whose traditions are they, and do we as Burners have a universal responsibility to respect and uphold them?
Ask people on the Playa, and most will tell you that there is a long-standing tradition of sitting in silence and mourning the dead or otherwise having a cathartic, spiritual experience – again, in silence – while the Temple burns down. Many will use the word ‘rule’ instead of ‘tradition,’ but there is no rule about remaining silent or indulging yourself in spirituality during the Temple burn.
There are always some people who ignore the tradition and make a little noise, and the 2012 Temple burn was no exception. The most egregious example, however, was a vehicle sporting a powerful sound system that violated the silence in a very muscular way by playing the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Free Bird” while the flames rose to the sky. As always, the ordinary noisemakers were vigorously shushed by the kind of people who have an exaggerated sense of the sacred. . . and as always, the shushers ended up making more noise than the people they were trying to silence. You can’t shush an art car with a bumpin’ sound system, though.
If the subsequent discussions that took place in various Internet-based forums devoted to Burning Man have been any indication, the playing of “Free Bird” upset quite a lot of people, and upset many of them very deeply. Sentiments have been expressed to the effect that this was a tremendous outrage that absolutely ruined the Burn, and that even ordinarily noisy individuals who lack electronic amplification should be very strongly discouraged from breaking the silence during Temple burn lest they too ruin the experience. So strongly, to some peoples’ way of thinking, that they believe noisemakers should literally be violently assaulted and injured for breaking the tradition.
That’s the typical hippie/Left-wing argument, anyway. It’s a persuasive one, both because it’s nestled in so many assumptions about what is correct behavior and what isn’t, and because the emotional impact of sitting in a crowd of tens of thousands of people who are all being silent is undeniably impressive. If you’re the kind of magical thinker who sees some things as being deeply sacred, the power of that experience may be multiplied tenfold.
What struck me most about the arguments and characterizations made by politically Left-leaning people in discussing the noise at this year’s Temple burn was that they tended to lump nearly all noise-making, regardless of its nature, into the same category: disrespectful, intrusive, unwanted rule-breaking, deserving of shushing, the most shocking insults, and even grievous physical punishment. That’s a product of the assumption that silence at Temple burn is absolutely right and deeply necessary, and that the tradition amounts to a de facto rule that only a lamentable fool or a contemptible, disrespectful jerk would violate. It’s one of those rare occasions when you see hippies snarling at people en masse and showing a propensity for physical violence.
Let me tell you the rest of the “Free Bird” story: the car that played the song was a DPW vehicle. They were memorializing the passing of one of their fallen comrades, who had the words “Free Bird” tattooed across his abdomen, and who was known for playing the song over and over when he wanted to playfully irritate his friends. As such, it seems to me that it was a thoughtful and perfectly appropriate way to say goodbye to him. They played the song only once, early in the burn.
Now let me tell you something about the tradition of silence: it’s an even older and more strongly-enforced tradition at the Rainbow Gathering, a festival that, rather than being a mixing bowl for many diverse streams of culture, is pretty much exclusively a hippie thing.
People mourn in different ways. In some cultures, high-decibel wailing and ululation are necessary parts of every funeral. In New Orleans, raucous live jazz tunes (like the traditional number “Didn’t He Ramble?”) are played both to celebrate the life of the deceased, and to sever the connection between his body and his spirit. There are cultures in which professional mourners are prized and paid well for their skill at providing convincing lamentation at high volume. Assuming that silence is the only proper way to mourn someone’s passing is both ignorant and selfishly provincial.
I can’t deny the powerful effect of sitting among tens of thousands of people who are all maintaining a reverent silence, but the fact is that this tradition, enforced as it is by large numbers of people who shush and shout people down and even threaten them with bodily harm, represents a force-feeding of Leftist hippie values on everyone who attends Burning Man, no matter what part of the political spectrum they occupy, no matter how spiritually inclined they may be, and regardless of what obligations for proper mourning they may owe to their own subcultural milieu. The tradition is a direct transplant from the Rainbow Gathering, and while hippies are certainly a welcome and vital stream of culture within the Burner family, Burning Man is not the Rainbow Gathering, and it does not serve the population of Black Rock City as a whole to allow one segment of our culture to oppress everyone else with their assumptions about how things are supposed to be.
It’s polite to respect the traditions that other people subscribe to, but there’s no need to sacrifice your own in order to satisfy their requirements if you don’t really want to. The lively discussions that have been taking place in forums like the unofficial Burning Man group on Facebook, though, have been filled with angry head-butting, mainly because elements of the hippie faction have been asserting the primacy of their subculture over all others. Rather than making polite requests that their wish for silence during Temple burn be respected, they demand it as something they are owed. They protest that all they are asking for is a little politeness, but the passive-aggressive nature of the ‘request’ is revealed when others decline to comply. It’s not a request; it’s a stern command from someone who is insisting that you modify your behavior to suit their aesthetic, because to their way of thinking the Temple burn is “supposed to be that way.”
Respect for cultural differences cuts both ways, and we all have to take responsibility for our own good time and our own mood. Your experience was ruined? That person who made noise near you during the Temple burn didn’t ruin anything for you; you ruined things for yourself and used your noisy neighbor as an excuse to do it. Perhaps that person was just being a loud, dumb, over-intoxicated douchebag, but they were still doing their own mourning and their own Burn in their own way. They were doing their Burn, not yours, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
DPW’s sonic tribute to Joey Jello was not so much an example of DPW personnel acting like entitled jerks as it was a valuable reminder that Black Rock City is a culturally and politically diverse place in which people must take care to refrain from forcing the template of their own assumptions and desires on others, and must take responsibility for their own experience no matter what those around them are doing. Claiming that you have a right to expect silence from others while the Temple burns is making the same argument that overzealous Christians use when they claim to have some kind of right to not be confronted with things that offend them, like Gay Pride parades.
Whose Burn is it? It’s our Burn, and we are everyone.