I've been to Burning Man four times, in '05-'07 and '09. This year will be my fifth trip, and quite possibly my last.

Perhaps such a statement strikes you as unexpected. After all, aren't I championing the greater culture of Burning Man as a force for creative problem-solving during the political crisis I see developing even as I write this? A seed out of which will grow a reformed society?

I fervently hope so. During the week the festival is on, Black Rock City likely has the highest-density population of creative, resourceful, iconoclastic people anywhere in the world. Creating a thriving city in the barren wasteland that is the Black Rock Desert takes extreme creativity, intelligent planning, and a resilience in the face of hardship that you won't find in such concentration in any other city in the world.

But Burning Man is no utopia. It's often spoken of in those terms, but it's intellectually and perceptually lazy to do so. Burning Man is rife with some very harsh contradictions: Burning Man is often seen as a celebration of freedom, even anarchy, but it is run by a centralized organization that need answer to no one--and frequently doesn't. That organization, Burning Man, LLC, (often known within Burner culture as "BMorg" or even "the Borg") is a for-profit corporation whose only income is the ticket sales for entry into the event, yet depends on thousands of person-hours of volunteer labor for the event to happen at all.

More? Burning Man culture extols anti-commercialism, to the extent that BMorg ostensibly bans commerce on the playa--but then undermines the "gift economy" it wants to create by running a cash cafe in Center Camp. Burning Man bills itself as an arts festival, but it discriminates fiercely on what sort of arts it champions--visual artists can apply for grants to get their work out to the playa, but the big sound camps that dominate the nightlife get no such assistance. Burning Man claims to want to foment creativity, but then puts layers of bureaucracy in the way of that creativity--for many creative acts, you need permission.

As I noted in my first post, my experiences at Burning Man have been broadly transformative within my life. But as the years have gone on, the contradictions at the heart of the experience have come more and more troublingly to the fore. To put it succinctly: most of what is wonderful, ebullient, life-changing, etc., about the event comes from the Burners themselves, the wonderful, creative people who devote vast parts of themselves into creating the most vibrant city in the world. Most of what is aggravating, disenchanting, hard-to-navigate, frustrating, etc., about the event comes from BMorg itself or from the volunteers who most willingly do its bidding. Not to say that what BMorg and said volunteers do hasn't been valuable--the event would have long ago ceased to be without their efforts--but on a fundamental level I believe that BMorg radically, narcissistically overvalues itself and undervalues the community that supports it, and it may be that I can no longer directly support, with great blocks of my time (not to mention substantial amounts of money), an organization that treats me and others in such a manner. Perhaps I'll have such a great time this year that I'll be in a big hurry to go back--we'll see. But right now, I'm pretty disillusioned.

Nevertheless, I will continue to be an ambassador for the greater culture that Burning Man has spawned, and will continue to follow the hypothesis that Burning Man culture can ultimately be the breeding ground for the solutions to the political problems that even now are disintegrating the bonds that hold our society together.


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