The Democratic National Convention Vs. Burning Man

29 08 2008

By Jill Ettinger

In a recent episode of The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert jokingly replaced pictures of the Democratic National Convention with Burning Man footage: naked people writhing in mud, flamboyant costumes, lewd dancers. The images seemed to be the complete opposite of the DNC’s yes-we-can obsessed audience, as liberal as they may be. But the separation between these two seemingly different groups is perhaps more accurately, just a fragmentation of one school of thought. In fact, this year’s theme at Burning Man is “The American Dream.”

Roughly the same number of people are attending the DNC in Denver, Colorado, as there are people trekking out to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada this week. Those DNC attendees only had to arrange travel and lodging accommodations in Denver – a pretty standard and fairly painless process. Those people choosing to spend a week at Burning Man had to account for everything – bedding, bathing, drinking water, food, etc. Burning Man is a completely self-reliant event in extremely harsh conditions. Attendees need to be prepared for blinding dust storms as well as dehydration and heat exhaustion. Most Americans are clearly not up for this type of challenge.

Though it may seem that the only way to support change in our country (especially during an election year) is through rigid flag waving and allegiance-pledging hyper patriotism, the neo-tribal-freak-fringe Burning Man culture offers a (more) steadfast commitment to catalyzing our national identity through among many things, it’s moniker of Radical Self Expression.

Who we are as a collective is made up of who we are as individuals. That obviously means something different to each of us. Yet we so often define ourselves by others definitions. Beliefs are scripted not from the heart but from the fragile, susceptive pressure points in our egos. Fear masks as confidence and our cataclysmic pursuits of status, money and righteousness lead us on paths of self-preservation, casualties of our own devices. We’re lost, and sometimes never found.

That is unless we’re fortunate enough to have a reality-shattering experience. Some Born Again’s claim to have this. Anyone that’s ingested enough psychedelic drugs has; victims of traumatic near-death experiences often claim it; most Burning Man attendees find it in new ways each time they go out to the desert. What separates these types of experience from say, “finding Jesus,” is (usually) the humbling inward impetus of the genuine experience. The dogma urging spewed out by organized religion correlates to the fact that most ‘hallelujah’ moments are forced through an individual’s overwhelming need to feel Something (read: Anything). A transformative drug trip, trauma, or weeklong desert excursion (which often includes drugs and near death experiences) can catalyze an individual into a deeper connection with the world around him by going through the Fear. Religion on the other hand, takes us into the fear and stays there: Fear of being incomplete without God’s love. Fear of offending the almighty. Fear of breaking the rules. Fear of living in a world with others who worship another God. Democracy of late is working the same way. Despite his blogging daughter’s attempts to make voting Ancient Republican the hippest thing besides Denny’s new late-night menu, even if you’re only half paying attention, McCain’s Skeletor “Evil Lord of Destruction” resemblance is uncanny. An option he is clearly not. But should we fear him?

Think of yourself (and everyone else) as the Dalai Lama, right around the time the elders decided he was the Enlightened Master. His Holiness was still only a child, and though the words of the monks may have rung true, he had to negotiate his urges to be a child, to find that stillness to become the person he is today. Maybe there can only be one Dalai Lama, but there can certainly be millions of self-aware individuals. Blind patriotism is easy, even as a pro-choice-anti-war Democrat. If the bottom line for any of us is faith in leaders rather than in ourselves, we will not come to find the world we dream of has arrived when we wake on November 5th.

Democrats and any non-Republican American might want to be thinking about how they are going to affect change if Obama wins, and especially if he doesn’t. Will we accept another Republican President by burying our heads in the sand or burying deeper into making more peace with the strange world we find ourselves living in? Regardless of sex, race, or qualifications, the 2008 Presidential Election is about Americans voting for Themselves.

An amazing thing happens when 50,000 people spend a week together in a severe desert environment. It’s a profound camaraderie that makes the DNC pep rally feel like an insult to our human potential. We can be – and already Are – so much more than we let ourselves be in this country. If we want this nation to move into a new era, maybe a Colorado stadium just isn’t big enough for the transformation. Maybe we all do need to trek out to a giant empty river bed in the desert, get naked and roll around in the mud. Either way, why the hell wouldn’t we?

[Note: I would myself be at Burning Man this year, but I am attending a wedding the same week.]

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