I'll start by admitting that this webring id, which may sound like an intentional exercise in irony, has become something of a misnomer from some points of view. I no longer have much to do with Burning Man, and by some definitions, I no longer qualify as a conservative. In the latter case, this is not so much because my political views have so greatly changed, but because the meaning of the word "conservative" has changed into something I'd have to consider genuinely unwholesome. When we start having serious debates in this country about whether or not the use of torture to extract information from people we think might be terrorists, something has gone very badly wrong, and when one finds widespread approval of the notion of holding some of those people, without charge and without counsel for years, one isn't given good reason to expect to see any improvement any time soon.
Conservatism has usually meant something very well defined, even if the definition was something that didn't lend itself to a concise description - the support for something resembling traditional secular Western values; while the conservative Christian and Jewish presences were decidedly welcome among Conservative Republicans, and indeed made up the majority of that crowd, one didn't have to be Christian or Jewish to be a Conservative. There were Conservative Atheists, Conservative Pagans, Conservative Buddhists ... going to church on Sunday Morning or shul on Friday Night was not part of the package. The issue was not how one viewed the next life, or even if one believed in the next life, but how one conducted oneself in this one, and what one considered to be the proper running of society given those values. What were those values, precisely? A foolish question, one tantamount to asking that the one questioned summarise all of the history and development of Western civilization in thirty words or less. But some things are clearly at odds with the flow of that civilization, not just over the last few years but (far more significantly) over the last few centuries, and some of these things can be very easily summarised.
I was, perhaps, what one might have called an Old School Conservative. "Old School?", you ask. Picture some snide little college freshman who's been called into small claims court over nonpayment of a loan. "Did you borrow this money?" the judge asks. The freshman says he did. "Then why weren't you willing to pay it back". In an affected inner city accent and full of misplaced pride in an action and an attitude that he should be ashamed of, the extremely white hip-hop wannabee says "that's old school, judge". Gavel comes down, kid who is smirking at the judge is ordered to pay up, kid shakes his head and goes "whatever" and walks out, soon to walk out on his rent payment never to be seen again.
One can't built a viable society out of people who act or think like that kid; we're able to get things done because some of us are willing to live up to those boring old traditional notions of propriety and duty. That doesn't mean going to work with a starched collar or never drinking anything stronger than iced tea or never doing anything that the PTA would disapprove of, but it does mean accepting certain moral and ethical contraints, and accepting the fact that these should not be up for negotiation. An old school conservative is somebody who recognizes the need for those values, and has the sense to know that on that basic level, "live and let live" is not an appropriate response. If somebody wants to shave his hair into a mohawk and hang tiny flashing neon christmas tree ornaments from it, that's his choice and we don't have a problem with that. We might even sell him the ornaments. But if he wants to bear false witness against his neighbor, fail to honor his debts, engage in fraud, neglect or abuse his children, seduce his neighbor's wife, or engage in any number of other behaviors that are far from victim-free, not only won't we respect his imagined right to engage in those behaviors, we won't even respect his imagined right to his opinion, that he has the right to engage in those behaviors. There are some things that decent people don't do, don't say, and don't even let themselves think, and if he wants to disregard that, we don't want to know him, and we sure as **** don't want to vote for him.
I've never been a fan of Bush the elder. He was largely a cipher as vice president, which I won't hold against the man because not being a cipher in that office is a near-impossibility, but from his first campaign (against Dukakis) onward, he would seem to have become an odious presence. Dukakis presented a number of criticisms of what was then the status quo. Reasonable people might not have found themselves agreeing with what his response would have been to the problems he mentioned, but given the reality that the nation was about to head into the era that made the "misery index" a familiar concept the familiar, concept that it is today, one can't sensibly deny that there were issues that needed serious discussion. Bush the elder's response was to attack Dukakis for his "negativity". A rational electorate would have never let a sitting vice president, even one sitting as a lame duck, get away with such an outrageous response, one in which he essentially asserted that good manners shielded his administration from any sort of substantive criticism; indeed, in the absence of such criticism, what is a vote to be based on? But Bush the elder got away with just that, pushing this intriguing new conception of the Divine right of presidents right into the First Gulf War, during which he dared to imply that anybody questioning his decision to pursue that war was being disloyal to his country in the process, "support our troops" becoming the rallying call of the day. A decent man might wonder whether sending a few hundred young people off to their deaths, ostensibly to restore an absolute monarch with a dismal human rights record to his throne, and fairly clearly in order to divert attention away from that president's dismal track record at home, was particularly moral, but by that time decency was no longer in fashion, as could easily be seen in the public reaction to the "road of death" incident, in which fleeing Iraqi draftees, people who had no desire to be in Hussein's army, were roasted to death by the tens of thousands, firebombed without reason from behind as they futily fled for their lives from the battlefield.
That the Iraqis have forgiven us for that speaks well of their graciousness as a people. That we've found it so easy to forget this incident says something about us as a nation as well, but it's not quite as praiseworthy.
The elder Bush was not, as the term was once defined (really not so long ago) a conservative; he was a neo-conservative or a neocon for short. What's the difference? Picture an old school conservative, the real thing, being libeled by a liberal, having any number of sick and outrageous positions attributed to him, as being what he "really" believes, in order to keep his audience from listening to him as he explains what he does think and why, by whipping them up into a frenzy. Picture one of those liberals looking at this increasingly, fantastically neanderthalish position being constructed for his opposition, thinking about how much fun he could have by trying to advocating something that sick and outrageous, and taking on those positions as his own.
"Son, why didn't you repay your debts?" "That's old school, judge."
Real conservatives want to build a viable society in which decency and hard work can earn a livable, endurable future for all; neo-cons try to see what they can get away with. A very simple case to illustrate the difference, a non-hypothetical one from the not so distant past, sad to say:
A young woman in Indiana, swept off her feet by a young man, agrees to go up with him to his room. As she comes in the door with him, a friend of his jumps out of his closet and slams the door shut. "What, you're expecting me to sleep with both of you?", she asks, taken aback. "No, with all three of us", says yet another friend who has just come out of the bathroom". Then all three of the young men rape her. This incident is reported to the local paper, and believe it or not a serious debate arises as to whether or not the men had the right to rape that woman!
What has happened is that the neo-con has parroted a few of the positions taken by the conservative, such as the questioning of whether or not promiscuity is a good thing, but forgotten the reasons for the positions and discarded the spirit of decency, compassion and a call for self-respect that motivated these positions. We would suggest, if the young woman asked, that she not sleep with everybody who asks because to do so is to fail to value herself, and she owes herself better than that. Surely being multiply raped is not going to leave anybody feeling less degraded; such a defense of the indefensibly horrific as is offered by the neo-con misses the entire point of the objection, if one wishes to view something so gently put as such, but the neo-con does not care. He has imbued a few of the forms of conservatism with the hatemongering spirit that has defined the Left for decades, an eagerness to judge and condemn, to push others down instead of encouraging others to lift themselves up. The Conservative seeks a utopia that he knows that he can never find, and accepts this, because he knows that it is the looking that matters more than the finding; a neo-con smugly proclaims the acceptability of the dystopia he joyfully helps create, dismissing all criticism of his actions as being nothing more than "whining".
The elder Bush went on to be humiliated in one of the most thoroughly deserved, crushing electoral defeats on record, but not before convincing the American people that questioning the faction in power was bad citizenship, arguing doing much to set the stage for the 1990s by creating an early form of Political Correctness; even if the dogmas pushed were different, the twisted rules of engagement, the distorted notion of the ethics of discourse, were already in place, meaning that all that those Conservatives who were willing to support the first Bush could say when the Liberals in their lives turned upon them, having found support among a population suffering from the effects of Bush's economic policies, was "do as we say and not as we do". Not a very effective response when one's faction is clearly the weaker; arrogance only works from a perceived position of strength.
One might have tried very hard to remember that sometimes the apple falls light-years from the tree, and to not judge the son according to the willful failures of his father, even when he defended that father; this is what sons do. But what followed was a repetition of an old pattern, of a gradual erosion of civil liberties under a Bush administration. Under the administration of George I, we as citizens were inspired to do this to ourselves. Under George II, an emboldened administration has eliminated the populace in its role as self-afflicting middleman, and did the damage itself. Fear of terrorism requires that we accept that the protections of due process be done away with, because we shouldn't give the terrorist our authroties are interrogating the opportunity to use our own system as a shield? Nonsense. Anybody can be charged with anything for any reason, and that "terrorist" might just be an innocent man grabbed off the street my mistake, or out of malice by somebody who wants to use the system as a weapon. "Guilty if accused, just to be on the safe side" is the standard of justice associated with reigns of terror, not with civil societies.
Why do we not detain people indefinitely without charge, in effect handing down prison sentences to those who may be innocent? Why do we not torture on the off chance that somebody might know something? Because as with the case of the man who defended the rape of that young woman, because we know better. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; how would you like to be the one rotting in jail for an offense you've never heard specified, or the one being tortured for information which you didn't possess? It's a hellish moment, something straight out of Kafka, that nobody but the worst masochist would want to live through. To inflict it on another is at odds with the most basic, defining moral principle of that religion which the Bushes dare to claim to hold dear - Christianity. And it doesn't fit too well into Judaism, either. If beliefs still mattered to people, this reality would be enough to nail either President Bush to the wall; at the very least, it would force the second to take a more responsible stance, instead of trying to simultaneously incite and pander to the frightened mob, playing the demagogue with a rare level of skill.
Is it easy to fight honorably against an enemy who doesn't? Do we find ourselves safe in the short run as we do so, protected from all senseless tragedy? No, but as a nation, we've done it before, against adversaries far more formidable than anybody the Islamic world currently offers us - against the Soviets and against the Nazis before them, and in the end we came up on top, not in spite of our values, but because of our values. Values which gave our people, and our allies, something worth fighting for, a reason to hope for a future that would be something more than a random descent into the nihilistic fever dream of a modern inquisition. Values that allowed us to work together because, for the most part, we could trust each other (up to a point), and thus could work as one instead of always working at cross purposes. In the long run, that made for a more efficient society, one that its more authoritarian enemies had little chance of prevailing against, in the end. We have forgotten this, trading our freedom and our rights in for our security, forgetting the warning that our founding fathers left about those who would accept such bargains. Shame on us.
Or should I say, "shame on some of us", because others of us remember that Conservatism, unlike Neo-Conservatism, is about respect for that massive body of custom and moral thought that is to be found in the study of the lives, folkways and literature (yes, literature) of a civilization that goes back for millenia; for basic core values that, however nuanced and difficult to concisely define, nevertheless can not easily be changed, so long as tradition is valued. If this is so, then those values are not just whatever we want them to be, either for the sake of momentary convenience, or because the boys down at the bar said so. They represent the honest and tested response of conscience to many generations worth of accumulated experience, and if we're willing to toss that away just because our candidate told us to, conscience is the one thing that is no longer a part of our lives. Conservatism is not the "George Bush fan club"; we are not to ignore the shortcomings and misdeeds of that or any other adminstration, just because it proclaims itself to be a "conservative" one; to do so is to render the concept of conservatism meaningless. Besides which, it would become redundant. We already have a word for a political philosophy that holds that loyalty to one's country requires unquestioning acceptance of the actions of its government and obedience to all of its decrees, without question or the slightest hint of resentment.
It's called "fascism". If a group of people want to sign up for that, they can leave me out of that. I am told that usage defines meaning, so if acceptance of this reckless discarding of the most basic values of a free society, values that literally predate the founding fathers, is what others refer to when they speak of being "conservative", then I will get up and step off that bandwagon before it heads off into the abyss, thank you very much. Does this mean that I flip flop between being a liberal and being a conservative, if I find myself being classified as first being one, then the other, and then the first again? No, only that as others blow with the political breeze, I stand firm as my world and its excessively fluid standards move about me and that, in case some have forgotten, really is what a citizen in a free society is expected to do, because otherwise it isn't likely to stay free for very long.
Yes, indeed, sort of. I don't plan on going to another Burning Man, because at well over $200/ticket, it has been priced beyond reason. Let's remember that the camps and art installations one goes to see are provided to the community, gratis, by volunteers; that the "Man" (the large sculpture whose burning helps offer a cathartic closure for the event) is in fact assembled by volunteer labor; that the actual BLM land fees account for less than 10% of gate receipts and so really, arguably, the Burning Man LLC is literally charging the Burner community megabucks for little more than a halfway decent fireworks show, maintaining the portapotties and for the promotion of an event that is perhaps already all too well known. That, and gatekeeping. Burning Man, in my view, has gotten to be about greed and the lust for a petty sort of power, and that's a shame, as is the fact that a small but loud faction seems determined to co-opt what has been billed as being a "radically inclusive event" to serve as a platform for one specific flavor of politics, and create a hostile environment for all who dissent.
Sounds bad, so why bother? Because like the vandalism of a number of installations by drunken frat boys in the last few years, while these are things that have happened at a burn in recent years (namnely, the large burn near Gerlach), they aren't specifically what Burning is about. What is Burning about? A "burn" is a gathering of a group of people who travel far enough out to, to some degree, drop off authority's radar screen, and making use of the comparatively vast spaces available out in a more remote place, construct a temporary community in which people enjoy an unusual amount of freedom in which to explore and share their interests and live out a few fantasies - sort of a creative potluck, a giant collective piece of performance art in which a surreal temporary city is created. There is nothing about this moderately anarchistic vision that is specifically liberal or democratic; the desire to get the government off one's back is a familiar one to Republicans and Libertarians as well, and the challenge of seeing what one can build and make work in a challenging environment is one that appeals to many engineers, technicians and craftsmen regardless of their political orientation. Burning is, as I've said, a chance for all to share what they have to bring, as people attempt to revive what are becoming the increasingly forgotten folk art aspects of culture, in an increasingly homogenized, corporate world, through their actions voicing protest against this vision of man as overworked consumer, and nothing more.
"Man as machine" is not a good vision. One doesn't need to be a liberal or a socialist to object to that; one only need remember that one is supposed to have a soul, and remembering that is what Burning is about. Not the naked girls (or guys, as your preference may run), as pleasant as they may be to look at, and certainly not the drugs or loud music, as available and in your face as the latter two may be. No, it's about the chance to make a few memories about the things one did, instead of the things one watched, to end up with a few stories of one's own to tell.
Though, like many, I am abandoning the big event in Nevada, which I see as having become too much about politics, hostility and greed for my liking, and I might even give up on the label, I'm not about to give up on the concept - there's too much there to give up, for far too little reason. The Western United States, dire predictions to the contrary notwithstanding, is unlikely to run out of abandoned wasteland for the forseeable future, and even if it does, there is always Canada, with far more land and far fewer people. One can go up during the summer and be left alone there, perhaps, if one feels the need for that much space. If one wants to set up a giant exploding pyramid, perhaps one needs that vastness. If, however, what one seeks is the opportunity to meet and interact spontaneously in a place where one's landlord or the overly pushy local police force is not unilaterally making the rules, and what one wants to do is something no more potentially destructive than a poetry reading or interactive theatre event in the woods, and one doesn't mind keeping one's clothes on, a small corner in the local forest preserve might be plenty. Certainly, it will be a lot less expensive to reach, opening the possibility of making these be-ins a more frequent occurence, one open to a wider and not necessarily affluent public.
Given my location, this possibility is one that I'm more focused on. Chicago ia not near any wide open spaces, not on a Western scale; indeed, not even on the scale of the East Coast. What isn't city has almost entirely become farmland, with only a few square miles left over, here and there. There are no great howling wildernesses for us to get lost in, no mountains to climb, and for most of us, little opportunity to escape one of the most unrelentingly bland environments that man has ever seen fit to inflict on himself. But on at least one particular day that comes to mind - July 4 would be the first that comes to mind - there are large crowds revved up from the fireworks, ready to do something and having nowhere to go. Get away from the Lake, away from the drunks, and it's actually a fairly pleasant crowd, eager for an experience that the night will not be likely to provide. It's a great opportunity for somebody who wants to get an interactive event going to find a crowd, maybe an opportunity one can sell the city on the virtues of. Look at it from the standpoint of the police - which would you rather deal with? A group of people watching and joining in on an electric poi dancing event, or those same people getting sloshed and firing a few bottle rockets into their neighbor's houses before breaking a few beer bottles and going after each other? This is an opportunity to celebrate a holiday in something that is, in the best possible sense, a very American way, one offering more pleasure to the participants and less hassle for the authorities whose noninterference one certainly would like.
This is the first possibility I'd like to explore, something that genuinely is community building in a place where the community lives, through the shared opportunity to explore one's creativity. Let's see if anybody in my area is willing to take me up on this, and do more than just talk. This page is part of Hi, There - yes, that's really the name of the site. If you entered my site anywhere other than on this page, you can return to your ring using the central ring return page for this site.
More to add later, when I have time. I run an unofficial Politically Incorrect Burning Man list, open to participants in that or any other participatory interactive arts festival / creative potluck / be-in. This profile was made possible by Webring and by the power of the frog.