I’ve heard Occupy Wall Street described as being “like Burning Man” several times now. Sometimes that’s just by the jackasses at Fox News, but sometimes it’s by people who might know enough about at least one of them to have a point. Occasionally it’s meant as a compliment.
But is it right?
Occupy Wall Street is certainly an experiment in socially relevant communal living that involves camping and picking up after yourselves … and to the extent that any anybody doing that is “like Burning Man,” they’re like Burning Man.
And they’ve both apparently got a lot of people offering to lead yoga. So, there’s that.
The more I think about it, though, the more the comparison seems inaccurate – and even unfavorable to both groups. People say Occupy Wall Street is “like Burning Man” as a means of deflecting attention away from its political relevance. “Oh those kids,” they’re saying. “You know how they like to get together and camp and do crazy things. I bet there’s a guy on stilts! Like Burning Man!” The implicit suggestion is that because Burning Man is a spectacle, that’s all Occupy Wall Street is.
On the other side, suggesting that Occupy Wall Street is like Burning Man implies that all Burning Man has to offer a political cause is style. Bring in the camping! The DJs! Wear crazy costumes! Have a positive attitude! That’s SO Burning Man!
Like Hell that’s all we are. It’s true that Burning Man has no particular political goals and nothing remotely like a 5 point plan to save society – but I think that the values that Burning Man brings to the table and the process by which it gets things done have a lot more to offer society-and-its-discontented than just art cars and midnight bacon parties.
Although, for the record, every presidential nominating convention should have a midnight bacon party. It’s democralicious!
In particular, I’d suggest that Occupy Wall Street is focused on saying “No” – no to fat cats, no to plutocrats, no to the banking industry, no to business without accountability. “No” may be the only thing the people involved can agree on. Burning Man, by contrast, is focused on affirmation: bring something, build something, create something that everyone can participate in! Burning Man’s anarchic spirit, though very real, is usually sublimated to a variety of very specific goals – wouldn’t it be cool if we built this and offered it up to the community?
Sure there’s always ambiguity: people come to Burning Man to get away from the world, and that’s a kind of “no,” while Occupy Wall Street is focused on creating a better world, which is a kind of “yes.” But these are small ambiguities: the difference in overall approaches is night and day.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with an honest “no.” In fact, it can be essential. And there’s a hell of a lot going on right now that’s worth saying “no” to. Much of 21st century civilization, in fact. But I’d like to propose that the spirit of affirmation that Burning Man does so well, coupled with its philosophy of self-reliance and gifting, is what it has to offer activists and world-savers of every stripe – and that it’s distinct from protesting, however cooperative the group.
This isn’t just an academic distinction: it offers a concrete set of differences. Burning Man and its auxiliaries have done tremendous good for the world but, to my knowledge, have never protested anything. Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar, and a host of other small organizations spend a great deal of time helping disaster victims and installing solar panels. They do not protest Big Energy and companies that emit Co2.
To be “like Burning Man,” then, is not to protest but to build alternatives that anyone can use … and have more fun than anyone else doing it.
What would it mean in this case? Well, take the banks: even if we hold companies and their executives accountable for crimes that have been committed, we still need to create a better banking system. We need to build banks and credit unions that will eschew ridiculous fees, that will loan to small businesses, and that will invest in the communities around them. Can we build those banks ourselves? Can we build those credit unions together?
If we can, then what are we waiting for? Start now. The very act of creating a bank like that would give millions of angry people and socially responsible companies the option of putting their money someplace that wouldn’t use it to destroy the middle class. As they took it, draining funds from banks that are social irresponsible, they’d be making a real change.
That comes from a “yes,” not a “no,” and it would make a huge difference. That, to me, is the substance of the Burning Man way.
No one has to do that, of course, but it makes a distinction – one that I think is crucial – between Burning Man’s style and substance. We need that distinction: too often media portrayals focus on the style alone. Too often we make it too easy.
In this sense I’d say I see a lot more “Burning Man” in Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone in NYC, than in Occupy Wall Street, or any event where someone happens to be wearing fuzzy boots.
When Canada was told that poor schools serving Harlem’s community were never going to be better, he created charter schools that would; when he was told that the children he was serving weren’t healthy, he created child health programs for them; told that parents lacked the skills necessary to support the schools, he started parenting workshops.
It’s been phenomenally successful – it’s also been tried, and failed, in other cities around the country. The model isn’t enough, the plans aren’t enough … it takes a certain, selfless, DIY spirit and an ability to create using the tools you have. It takes a sense of joy in giving rather than bureaucratic process. That DIY spirit and ability is rare in America: the inhabitants of Black Rock City do it every year. The only difference (aside from the fact that Geoffrey Canada was doing it first) is that Burning Man’s community has yet to take on a challenge as intractable as intergenerational poverty … while Canada has yet to look like he’s having half as much fun as we do.
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with protesting. Politicians need to be told no, executive crime needs to be prosecuted. I’m just saying: it’s not “like Burning Man.” Even if you’re naked.
To the extent that Burning Man has anything to offer the protest movements of today and tomorrow, I think that spirit of affirmation is it – a crash course in how to focus on Yes when the world makes you want to scream “No!” No hula hoops necessary.
What you do with it, of course, is up to you. That’s the point.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com