It’s a funny thing about humans: we have this tendency to glorify things that are traditional, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
Cows in India are a great example. Once upon a time, the Indians revered cows because they provided so much: milk, beef, leather, butter, urine for tanning, burnable dung for fires. They revered them so much that a cow became the appropriate gift to give a Brahman; not long after that, the killing of a cow in India became a crime equal to the killing of a Brahman.
Today, the very phrase “sacred cow” is a euphemism for “anything considered immune from question or criticism, especially unreasonably so.”
Burning Man has an ever-increasing accretion of traditions. Some of them are old enough now that their origins are a mystery to newcomers, who tend to perhaps take them more seriously than the dusty old-timers who started them. There has even been some serious talk out there in the default world about Burning Man being a nascent new religious movement. . . which is utter crap, of course, but it’s easy to see how someone might think so.
This tendency to attach an ever-increasing sense of sacredness to things just because they happen to be traditional is superbly illustrated by the recent flap over noise and the playing of “Free Bird” during Temple burn, which has been covered here in great depth. . . but that example is possibly a bit too obvious, given that merely calling a building a ‘temple’ will invariably draw some measure of sacred feeling to it almost immediately.
What about a less obvious example? We hear a lot of lofty talk about “the evolution of the cashless society” in connection with Burning Man’s gift economy, which is often spoken of these days in terms of something elevated. Certainly, many of us are rather militant in protecting it, and regard it as something not to be violated under any circumstances. How did it really start?
I give you now my own (fictionalized) take on how the gift economy actually came to be:
Thing A: “Dude, we should all come here every year and do this as an annual thing.”
Thing B: “Good idea!”
Thing A: “Wow, there are REALLY a lot of people here this year!”
Thing B: “Yeah, I heard that some people are driving in from as far away as Santa Cruz!”
Thing C: “Hot dogs! Getcher hot dogs here! Cold drinks! Only twelve bucks!”
Thing D: “Chocolate-covered pretzels!”
Thing E: “I got t-shirts here! T-shirts for sale!”
Thing F: “Magic ass balm! Cheapest magic ass balm on the beach! Get it while it’s hot!”
Thing A: “This is getting annoying.”
Thing B: “I agree. I come out here to relax and enjoy the event, not to be descended upon by an army of hawkers and shit salesmen. Anyway, it’s inconvenient to carry cash around and count change when you’re this drunk. I think I lost fifty bucks earlier.”
Thing A: “Yeah, and I was going to take all my clothes off and let you check out my titties, but I need pockets so I can carry my cash.”
Thing B: “Goddamnit, that tears it! We should ban vendors!”
Thing A: “I’m down. Let’s make a rule that you can’t come here to sell stuff to people. Next year, you bring the hot dogs and I’ll bring the magic ass balm, and we’ll share.”
Thing B: “Deal.”
Thing A: “Holy shit, look at all the people.”
Thing B: “Yep. But no vendors.”
Thing A: “Care for some ass balm?”
Thing B: “Thanks! Have a hot dog! Oh, and nice titties, by the way.”
Thing A: “Why thank you, sir.”
Thing C: “WOW THIS IS AMAZING! Do you realize what you people have done?!?”
Thing A: “Um. . . we went camping and brought everything we thought we might need with us, plus some stuff to share with other people so they’d share their good stuff with us in return?”
Thing C: “NO! You have modified the barter system to create a cashless society! I have an elaborate theory about this, which I will now expound upon.”
Thing B: “You’re making a big deal out of it. It’s not a big deal.”
Thing C: “This changes everything! I might even write a book about it. . . it’s a revolution in economics!”
Thing A: “You do realize that I have titties out over here, yeah?”
Thing A: “Amazing how this event has grown.”
Thing B: “I’ll say.”
Thing C: “Wow, hi guys! It’s so groovy that people here recognize how evil money is! Normally I live under a bridge and eat out of dumpsters so I won’t ever have to touch that damned Satan-paper!”
Thing A: “OOooooookay. Um, want a hot dog?”
Thing B: “I’m actually a stockbroker.”
Thing C: “You are all my brothers and sisters and I feel our quantum interconnectedness opening up my chakras! We exist in a sacred realm of purity and love because we don’t use evil, wicked money!”
Thing A: “You’re kidding, right?”
Thing B: “Guffaw!”