Why America Slept

Rites of Passage being our new theme on the playa this year – I’m left to ponder how all rites of passage would become one single passing, if the Earth’s physical systems’ deterioration continues to accelerate. Here’s a musing on the ultimate passing (for us, anyway) and the USA’s role in it.

There were hundreds of millions of Kindles and Nooks frozen in death, stuck on one page – “Why America Slept.” You can say one thing about us, we were a species that scribbled, texted, hologrammed and burst a blood vessel of pixels in the final years. Every last atrocity was broadcast virally. By 2015, every consumer could make a major feature film with a gadget fitted to the hand. We could dial in our imaginary laughing audience for the sound track. If the revolution wasn’t televised, the end of the world was. Millions of movies would be found on mounds of corpses, still flickering in fingers and suitcases. Of the five known mass extinctions in the history of the earth, this was the only one where the dying species seemed to know what it was doing.

It was not a pretty sight, as so much of homo sapiens went down. By 2020, there was a bitter suspicion that a privileged few would survive with secret technologies in the higher elevations. It was a planet racing with high budget rumors as it died. The bitterness was even directed at the coyotes and cockroaches that poured through the front-doors of suburban palaces as families packed their SUV’s for the final drive. Yes, these millions of corpses had sour expressions on their faces – and still the question floated among us. Why did America sleep? The United States of America was supposed to be the hero. “Saving the world” was the plot for most of the movies in theatres in those last years. In fact, at the end, most Americans still believed that their habitual heroism was in full force. But by then, we were stumbling back and forth between virtual and actual worlds. It was a struggle to the death by competing dreams.

America was sleeping deeply, in a dream whose creators were hiding inside skyscrapers with smoked glass. One wonders – could we ever have looked critically at the heavily financed dream-state that became adopted as “normal living.” Normal living became horrific apocalyptic screaming media, cosmetic heroism, and left-over fundamentalist religions. This media was often produced by self-identified liberal environmentalists, while off-screen the air and water was utterly poisoned, with tsunamis coming in like big, consciously directed erasers. If only we had found a way to examine the waking dream by riding into it on the back of a strong counter-dream, like some artists did back in the 20th century…

The American dream turned out to be deadly because it sold tickets to a long series of apocalypses – they are the epitome of good (funny-scary) entertainment. Then, something went terribly wrong when dying spectacularly made good media – a diverting nightmare shall we say – but we could not go forward with ordinary living, where death has a natural place. The leaders of the dream, the captains of consumption and militarism – culturally silenced those who thought that death was a natural part of living. The special effects of mass death continued, while individual death was pushed into endless assisted living, and Americans slept on and on. We took our imperial eternity for granted. We shopped and bombed to push back the emptiness. We swiped the plastic for yet another amazing funny apocalypse. And then one of them, in mid-joke —-

[Editor’s Note: OK, Burners … as on the playa, there are no spectators in life. So this is your call to action … what can YOU do to make your day-to-day world a better place? What ARE you doing? Share your ideas in the comments.]

About the author: Reverend Billy Talen

Starting in San Francisco in the early 90's Reverend Billy Talen began to explore "a new kind of American preacher" - a post-religious one, but a good whooping preacher anyway, inspiring people toward a spiritual event that did not need the mediation of organized religions or other corporations. Moving to New York City, he preached on the sidewalks of Times Square, and found people clapping and singing along with him, and the choir grew to empower the message of resistance to Consumerism. They called themselves the Church of Stop Shopping. They came to Burning Man in 2003 ("Beyond Belief"), but many of the singers and musicians were longtime Burners. They were invited to perform on a stage built in the base of the Man that year. Two years later they gathered with Joan Baez and the jazz musicians of the playa to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Their hope is to continue to preach and sing against Consumerism, and for the Life After Shopping! Change-a-lujah!

8 Comments on “Why America Slept

  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Awesome post, Rev. Billy.

    As a Burner whose default world is overwhelmingly virtual, I am an incarnated example of the dilemma you’ve posed. Here is how I cope:

    Virtuality is the medium for manually redirecting the attention of others. At the beginning of Big Media, only those with inordinate resources and influence could control the message. At this late stage, as you’ve pointed out, virtuality is so heavily subsidized that we’re all publishers now, but we’re pissing into the wind. In order for us, the good “us,” that is, to capture any attention, we have to share our influence. We can then use our networked mind to direct some attention in the right direction, i.e. offline, outside, into the immediate and physical world.

    Fortunately, Burning Man is a pretty great antenna for this broadcast.

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  • Chris Nuckols says:

    Billy you’re one of my favorite people in the world. You gave me a dvd copy of your movie before it came out and you are definitely one of the doers, I hope I see you on the playa.

    I promise to stop sleeping on the job and use this enormous amount of technological capability for the mass awakening needed to prevent the coming shapocolapse. You’re an amazing human being, I’m sure I’ll enjoy your future works, as I hope one day you’ll enjoy mine!

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  • DhammaSeeker says:

    Why isn’t this blog post getting more comments? We really are sleeping….

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  • Two of the comments encourage people to comment! I think my vision in this little sermon is pretty dark. Perhaps it doesn’t invite conversation. On the playa I’m a nicer sort – I will stop and talk with more openness, the sunlight cracks the dark. I was gonna say I feel “Hope.” But the word “Hope” is struggling just now. Have a good day! The sun has risen in Brooklyn!

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  • Leo says:

    Not sleeping! I have my eyes wide open every day. I choose to work, really hard for people who cannot do for themselves, those with disabilities. I have my little corner of the world I try to make it good each day, and least find a few smiles.

    I see my government, not mine any more, not the voice of the people, by the people. It’s becoming more oppressive and fascist as Congress grants big business tax breaks at the cost and burden of the other 98% of America.

    My virtual self is a step inside a world that equalizes and opens new possibilities for human connection and expression. It is not commercialized, not FB’d, not counted by hits. It may be the place where we will truly burn The Man. We must all see these possibilities and protect the freedom of the internet.

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  • CavemanBob says:

    Why am I sitting here commenting on a blog?

    It’s go-time. Zero hour. The world’s messed up and we have a green light to get right to work making it better.

    Maybe those people who aren’t commenting can’t cause they gotta keep their eyes on the road.

    Don’t text and drive.

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  • Delicious Mystic says:

    “Debit or Credit?”

    Wake Up!

    You get what you pay for.


    A plastic bag of noodles in a box of noodles wrapped in plastic.. I’ve got flour and flax in old jars at home. . Forego the tasteless equality of an anonymous box of noodles? One of a million boxes of noodles that could exist on any shelf..?
    But, my shelf? No. Not this box of noodles. Not MY shelf. Not today.
    But, it does have pretty pictures, and “flavors added”.. Natural flavors even!
    Not Natural. Not from Nature. No, not by a long shot. Natural Flavors. As in, those flavors existed in Nature but they were made in a lab.
    Not the noodles.
    Not the bottles of water. Damnit, why didn’t I fill my bottle at home? Not again.
    Not the paper towels. I could get two or three pretty nice sheets at the thrift shop, cut, hem. done.
    “Hang on a sec”
    “Sir, would you like to use a different card”
    “No. Can I have my card back?”
    “Oh, certainly. Here you are. Would you like to use cash today?”
    What the fuck is in that toothpaste anyways?
    Not the toothpaste. I’ve got baking soda and some mint.
    Not the mouthwash. I can soak some cinnamon sticks in Vodka for a bit, and water it down.. Gallons for that price…
    “Sir?! Would you like me to hang on to this til you get back?”

    “Sure.., but I dunno when I’ll be coming back!”

    “can you believe that, the guy just left his stuff here…”

    I’m leavin all that shit I don’t need in that basket.

    There’s a lot we pay for that ends up as trash. So much of what we buy is disposed of, not just water bottles and paper towels, but the packaging, the to-go ware… So much ends up in a landfill sooner than later. How many resources, how many dollars get poured into the trash minutes after reaching the consumer? And that’s taking for granted that we need the shit they sell us. Dollars pumped into landfills, like the rays of ancient sunlight pumped into our autos.
    And We pay with more than dollars. All of us.
    Somehow with enough dollars, oppression can be distilled not only into the independence of rhetoric and lifestyle, but into profits. Free markets free to plunder of the cheap, abundant resources of illiteracy, malnutrition, and slavery. Someone has to harvest the cocoa in the latte, the diamonds for the bride; our dollars get buried in landfills, or drowned in blood, and in these times where neither landfills or tragedy are scarce it is little surprise that the almighty dollar buys so little of the Dream. I don’t want to dream if it means throwing away Values and value for the pretty picture of convenience, and I’m not alone.
    We don’t have to trade shame for a handful of trash and a microwave dinner.
    We are not the Last Peoples, we are not those whose times are ending.
    But, We are The People.
    It is our time
    It is morning…

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