by Whatsblem the Pro
Ah, non-conformity. It’s what Burning Man is all about, right? I mean, aside from all the other stuff that Burning Man is all about.
Some people go through their lives (especially the part before they graduate high school) thinking “god, I’m so WEIRD, I’m not like any of these people around me.” The braver, better-looking ones tend to celebrate it openly, while the rest take varying amounts of time to blossom and grow into either a fabulous never-ending explosion of confident freakishness, or a stultified simulation of normalcy from which they never again escape, unless they do it in secret. That ramrod cop with the sour face and severe buzzcut who wrote you a ticket for a rolling stop? He’s wearing a pair of custom-made crotchless hot-pink Hello Kitty panties under his uniform. Your quiet, mousy, conservative neighbor with no friends who never takes you up on it when you invite her to weekend rave-ups at your place? You should see her FetLife profile. And then there are the crushed spirits; the faceless horde of never-rans, locked up in cubicle farms forty dreary hours a week, and mired in their own frustrated disappointment the rest of the time. Plugging away at mundane lives they never wanted in a world they never made, too beaten down to break the mold even in their most private moments.
As Burners, we’re free of all that. We tend to be pretty relaxed about our little idiosyncrasies, and each other’s. The Playa isn’t just a place where you can walk around with your junk hanging out; it’s a place where you can walk around with your entire personality hanging out. True, maybe not everyone will appreciate it, but you’re still entitled (within reason), even if you’re the most heinous shirtcocker in Black Rock City and you like to spend the entire week at the bike racks in Center Camp, sniffing Yellow bike seats and chimping off.
Conformity is a pretty effortless thing for those who are inherently non-freaky. Achieving and maintaining casual veneer of non-conformity is harder; there are so many points at which non-conformity eats itself, Ouroboros-like, and becomes conformist. You’re a weirdo if you go to a PTA meeting wearing a silver speedo, pasties, and moonboots covered in purple fun-fur, but on the Playa you’re just another glitter junkie in a vast sea of uber-colorful participants spectating each other. A lot of them look surprisingly alike.
Fortunately, the conformity of wearing a costume to what is, essentially, a massive costume ball is not a type or degree of conformity that anyone can seriously decry as some kind of problem. Culture’s in your head, not hanging on your bones, after all. . . but there are ways of being conformist that are both terribly non-obvious and, by virtue of that insidiousness, terribly threatening to the very non-conformity that we prize so much. I know this may seem paradoxical; true non-conformity, after all, is effortless – helpless, even – and not forced.
Macy’s does not yet sell complete Playa-ready Burner ensembles for pre-fab sparkle ponies to insta-Burn in, so we don’t need to worry about that kind of very obvious conformity making inroads on us yet. It seems to me that the real threat, the most stealthy, most pervasive, and most dangerous form of conformity that we struggle with within that broad and deep wellspring of freaky creativity that is Burner culture, is magical thinking.
Maybe this surprises you. “What’s the harm?” you ask, and rightly so: it’s not like we’re an homogeneous cult full of zombie-eyed religious fundamentalists, bent on spreading and enforcing our magic-based dogma far and wide for the glorification of our imaginary friend in the sky. As long as our magical thinking is fundamentally different from the tired old Judeo-Christian fables most of us grew up rejecting, it’s all good. . . but is it really all that different?
I’ve personally come to the conclusion that the most common types of magical thinking are indeed very harmful, highly corrosive to our culture (to every culture), and disturbingly similar in their underlying natures. I find that, having thought it through a bit, I am now deeply offended by most examples of magical thinking, because so many of them boil down to the same very, very ugly reductio.
I’ll get back to that in a bit.
People sometimes ask me what I have against hippies and the Rainbow Family culture, because I do often mock and deride them, occasionally with caustic fury. Usually, I’m just going for the low-hanging fruit on the humor tree; in the aggregate, as an archetype, the hippie is risible as hell. He has a giant conceptual “kick me” sign hanging around his neck, like a skinny emo kid in a high school locker room full of jocks. The hippies had their own fun when the inimitably lampoonable Nixon was in office; now that the ’60s are over, it’s their turn, forevermore. Yep, hippies are easy to make fun of. . . and if you can’t find one to make fun of in the immediate vicinity, you can just pull all that hair and gunk and stuff out of the drain in your shower, and build your own.
It’s not that I genuinely hate them; I don’t, and it would be silly to hate them anyway, because as narrow a label as ‘hippie’ is, it still encompasses far too much cultural territory to cover with any kind of earnestly-felt emotion. Hippies, like most classifications of human, range from people I love and respect and cherish (oh my god, you guys, I’m so sorry about this article) to people I’d like to cut up and use as chum on my next fishing trip. Hopefully my digs and jabs will encourage them to take Don Miguel Ruiz’ Four Agreements to heart, with a focus on not taking things personally.
After the levity is over, ‘hippie’ becomes a pretty useful label when we start talking about different varieties of magical thinking. There certainly exists some percentage of self-identified hippies who are pragmatic, scientific in outlook, and well-grounded in subjective reality, but that percentage is small and atypical. . . so small and atypical that I would venture to guess it is dwarfed even by that tiny percentage of hippies who are useful and hard-working. In fact, it could arguably be said that one of the defining characteristics of a hippie is the tendency to enthusiastically engage in a certain flavor of magical thinking. It’s less well-defined (and requires less of a commitment) than the magical thinking of, say, the muezzin who calls out the adhan from the top of a minaret five times a day, or the magical thinking of a Catholic taking communion and believing wholeheartedly in the miracle of transubstantiation, but when you really deconstruct the beliefs held by a surprisingly wide panoply of magical thinkers, you may find that those beliefs all have certain things – terrible, awful things – in common.
Let’s take a look at a short list of magical thinkers from widely disparate parts of the spectrum:
* Christians who believe in a loving God who actively helps them through life
* The Dalai Lama, who believes that karma from previous lives determines one’s station in this life, and what pleasures and pains one will be subject to
* Theistic Satanists who believe that Satan sends them tests in life in order to spur their development as individuals
* Hippies who believe that “we create our own reality,” and that the world around us can be transformed by nothing more substantial than our own positive thinking
While these four forms of magical thinking are clearly very unlike each other, their similarity comes into sharp focus when we ponder their implications for people in extremis, especially helpless and undeniably innocent people in extremis.
Consider: If Jesus helps Tim Tebow score touchdowns, and helps Jennifer Hudson win Academy awards, and helps J. Random Christian get that promotion at work, why doesn’t He help babies who starve to death in Southern Darfur?
Christians who believe that God helps them through life must really think they’re awesome, to get all that attention from the Lord while those Darfurian babies go hungry and die. What could be more flattering? Tebow’s next touchdown is more important to the infinitely-loving creator and saviour of the universe than the needless and horrible suffering of innocent children.
The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, as a proponent of karma, believes that he is the Dalai Lama and therefore entitled to a life of wealth, luxury, privilege, and dominance over lesser beings because, hey, he was a really great guy in his previous lives, and that’s how karma works. Those babies in Darfur, on the other hand, are suffering and starving to death because they were huge assholes in their previous incarnations. They’ve got it coming! Fuck ’em! It’s just karma in action.
(Incidentally, for those of you who only question authority that doesn’t validate the things you want to believe, I highly recommend you take a look at Michael Parenti’s essay “Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth,” which may cause a scale or two to fall from your starry Eastern mysticism-clouded eyes.http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html)
To the theistic Satanist, thriving and prospering is evidence of being virtuous enough to overcome the tests one has been given. Darfurian babies who fail to thrive and prosper are just not good enough to pass the tests that Lord Satan sends their way, so they lose. Those losers, they should have manned up and shown a little spirit in the face of their adversity!
And those hippies who say “we create our own reality?” Wow, they must really look down on those stupid babies in Darfur. The unenlightened little fools are doing it wrong! They’re creating a shitty reality for themselves instead of one in which they live in America and have so much food to eat that they can afford to get all squeamish and hypochondriacal about wheat gluten and high-fructose corn syrup. Good thing for hippies that they’re so wise and enlightened, or they might be feebly swatting flies away from their malnutrition-distended bellies too.
There are other parallels. The hippie meme that says that thinking good thoughts at people is a valid way of helping them, for instance, is no different than the Christian habit of praying for people who need help instead of actually helping them. It’s a way of pretending that you’re doing something, so that you can absolve yourself of the guilt of just sitting there on your fat ass while other people starve to death. Oh, but quantum mechanics (very scientific!) says it works!
No, hippie, it doesn’t, and if you really knew anything about quantum mechanics, you’d know that. Here, eat this and be quiet
Like I said, the really dangerous kinds of conformity are the kind we can’t readily detect. . . conformity that undermines our uniqueness, both as individuals and as a culture, and fucks us out of our freedom to be entirely ourselves. In the case of “we create our own reality,” and other examples of the quantum mythology that hippies seem to love so much, it makes us huge douchebags as well, of the same stripe as Tim Tebow, or those idiots who spread the urban legends (see snopes.com) about virtuous young Christian women being saved from the imminent depredations of sinister inner-city thugs by the sudden appearance of angels. Oh, the angels didn’t swoop in when you got victimized? Fuck you, Jesus obviously thinks you’re worthless trash.
You wonder why I hate hippies so much? Well, I don’t really hate them. . . but I do look down my nose immediately and severely at anyone who pipes up with “we create our own reality” or any similar half-baked hippie/New Age/quantum mythology catch phrase, just like I sneer at evangelical Christians who try to tell me about Jesus as though I’d been living in a hidden vault in a secret cave under a giant boulder on Mars my entire life. If it’s someone I like, I try to educate them out of their blissed-out stupor and show them why their magical thinking is so offensive, and such a threat to any attempt to build an alternative world that freaks like us can live in comfortably. If it isn’t someone I like, I just point and laugh and shoot them with my mirth rifle.
Be offended, or grow and be better than you are.