Sunday, July 31, 2011

Burning Man, Boycotts and Fernley, Nevada: the Sequel (but wait, there's more!)

While the Bonta incident has inspired some to threaten bodily harm, it has inspired others to talk about it at length. (I plead guilty as charged).  Some of the more interesting discussion has come on yet another Facebook page, "I Will Not Spend One Cent In Lyon County On My Way To Burning Man 2011." This event was founded by concerned Burner Jeremy Turner to raise awareness among people attending the world's most (in)famous Temporary Autonomous Zone.

A few participants continue to express concern about the ethics of a boycott.  As Burner Barbara Fried said:
Opinion: I was c. #200 on the Johnny Bonta FB page & completely support justice being done. However, I must believe that not every non-Native person/ storekeeper in Fernley is a racist hater, & that some are disgusted at persons & events. Unfortunately/ fortunately, people are not made to wear identifying badges... From study of history, I will not boycott, mistreat or shun all individuals who live in a place based upon the actions/ beliefs of a few people (incl. the authorities). That is stereotyping, & it is part of what Natives & other ethnicities have been fighting against for millennia. My .02. Perhaps some of the shopkeepers of Fernley will bravely put up signs to show their position/ support for equality/ justice/ fairness... for both the Burners/ visitors & for the whole town to see. That would be something. Shalom.
While I appreciate Ms. Fried's sincerity, I might note that there is a considerable difference between losing business from a few thousand Burners and being refused medical treatment for six days.  There is a considerable difference between the experience of Natives dealing with poverty, racism, and unemployment on the reservation and people with the disposable income to go on a week-long pilgrimage.  There is also a considerable difference between advocating a boycott and making terroristic threats: nobody is talking about bombing Lyon County shops or attacking random Lyon County civilians.  As I pointed out in an earlier post, a boycott is a legal and frequently effective method of encouraging change.  We might disagree on whether they are warranted in this particular instance, but we cannot argue that they work.

Ms. Fried suggests an alternative, recommending that shopkeepers in Fernley put up signs showing their support and that Burners patronize their stores.  Assuming at least some people in Lyon County were on board with this, it might well be a more productive way of attacking the issue.  No matter how good the intentions, a Burner boycott would be a largely symbolic gesture. It might cost a few businesses in Lyon County some revenue: I doubt very much that it is going to drive anybody in Lyon County to bankruptcy.  Encouraging people in the county to support tolerance and speak out against racism is likely to reap more long-term reward than punitive measures: a carrot may well be more effective in this case than a stick.

Another Burner, Sarah Nocktonick, mentioned another recent attack on a 24 year-old Navajo mother:
Rather than punish the entire town for the acts of a few disturbed individuals, let's all donate a little bit to Patty Dawson and her family who is without health insurance. Those who wish to help may contribute at any Wells Fargo Bank, to the Patty Dawson One Love Fund.
This is another worthy cause, one which might have passed largely unnoticed had it not been for the public attention garnered by this earlier incident. However this drama plays out for all the participants, it has brought awareness to long-simmering resentments in the southwestern United States.

As with all things Burning Man-related, we've also had a few naysayers. Zack Levitt said:
No need to hold a town hostage because the cops suck.
Kenaz, I am straightforward, I am not worried about it. If I need gas I will buy it, If I need something I will get it at the most convenient place. People get the crap beat out of them all the time and all over the place. Might as well boycott the whole country. My truck was broken into the other night, I am not boycotting my police because they did not show up. Though next time, I will make sure I hear it and am more prepared.
The first thing I note is that Mr. Levitt is so unconcerned about this incident that he felt the need to post about it, then provide a follow-up which further explained his lack of motivation.  I am apathetic about many things. I've never felt the need to go to forums dedicated to 4-H elections, chess club political shenanigans, Balkan languages, etc. and announce, then justify, my disinterest. There are plenty of political causes supported on Burning Man forums, ranging from heroic to hare-brained.  Why did Mr. Levitt feel this one was particularly worthy of being not just ignored but called out?

The second is that I can come up with several possible interpretations of Mr. Levitt's stance, neither of them particularly flattering.  One is that he is a nihilist, and has decided to focus his efforts on partying as we float inevitably toward the iceberg.  Another is that he has little concern for Johnny Bonta and the Lyon County Sheriff's Department because he assumes his skin and class privilege will protect him from law enforcement's worst abuses. Mr. Levitt's worldview may well be deeper than I have imagined: if so, I'd be interested in hearing more about it.

During the course of this discussion I noted that I've always found that the Burner community is, with a few exceptions, more committed to looking politically involved and concerned than with actually accomplishing anything. This is not entirely fair for a number of reasons.  For starters, Burning Man was never intended to be a statement for any particular cause, no matter how noble it may be.  As a TAZ, it is by definition nebulous. Some come to raise political consciousness; some come to make art; some come to take illegal substances and stare at sun-baked jahoobies. (Not that any of these are mutually exclusive, mind you).  Trying to corral 50,000 Burners into a single ideology is likely to work about as well as André Breton's efforts to hitch Surrealism to the Stalinist cause.

More to the point, this sort of criticism suggests that earlier sociopolitical movements were populated entirely by zealous devotees.  For every wild-eyed Abolitionist preaching the horrors of slavery, there were several hundred who went to meetings hoping they might meet a young lady who was into Free Love.  Radical hippie activists were surrounded by people who were in it for the weed and the social benefits (particularly regular access to weed). Nevertheless the ideas espoused by Abolitionists and Hippies had an enormous impact on public policy and American history. Biographers and scholars tend to focus on lone fanatics and wild-eyed radicals:  in doing so, they often minimize the effect of shallow and fashionable beliefs.  When the populace comes to accept "fringe" ideas as forward-thinking and progressive, the war has already been won: all that remains is cleanup and removal of the reactionary old guard.