Beyond Conventional Thinking

Life's rich pageant, outside the halls of state


Nothing like this week of all-Kerry-all-the-time Democratic convention coverage to turn one's mind to the other side of life—you know, the side not directly connected to the system of coordinated violence and threats designed to force other people to do what you want them to, and people's attempts to game that system in a usually futile attempt to "make a difference."

I know far too many people of what would generally be called "progressive" political tendencies who have been hoodwinked by two-partyism into thinking that they must devote great amounts of money, time, and effort to the cause of encouraging people to vote for Kerry, a man who stands for almost nothing they believe in passionately, on issues from war to civil liberties.

I try to resist the temptation (often a totalitarian one, as it can lead all too quickly to thinking that you, or someone, has to do something about it) to let other people's choices about what to do with their lives depress me. But I confess the sight of a sincere activist commie (especially one I might be personally fond of) wasting time and treasure on the cause of John Kerry's election is a serious bummer. It's a situation where I fear two-partyism has imbued my progressive comrades with what the more intellectual-history-minded among them might call "false consciousness."

I have in other contexts floated reasons why limited-government devotees might consider cheering a Kerry victory over Bush. But it strikes me that I have some more rationally selfish reasons as well, ones that will more directly affect my day-to-day life, to have a slight preference for a Kerry victory over Bush in the current context (not that it would make me vote for him or advise others to): A Kerry victory will mean I'll no longer be haunted with endless, tedious haranguing about the unique evils of George W. Bush and extemporaneous ramblings on national and international politics while hanging out in my usual bars, especially in San Francisco. National politics, wars, and the like suddenly become much less of an active concern for most of the non-libertarians I socialize with when a Democrat is in office. While I fear, for example, that the situation in Iraq and the level of U.S. violent involvement in it will remain the same whether Bush or Kerry reign, a significant portion of America's left will suddenly not care about it anymore, and after time the daily reports on American casualties will sink to the one-paragraph "international roundup" on page A-12.

Of course, such reasons are unserious, and irresponsible. Of course. Of course. But still…

I spent much of the past couple of years working on a book of history and reportage about the Burning Man festival, which will be published next month by Little, Brown. (I wrote a cover feature for Reason back in February, 2000 about the event's sometimes contentious relationship with government authorities.)

In a sentence—although I obviously felt the phenomenon required a whole book to explain adequately —it's a yearly, week-long intentional community built in the Black Rock Desert, the widest stretch of utterly empty desolation in the continental United States, dedicated to art, expression, and liberty; a place where the basic amenities of survival and civilization are either provided by yourself and your chosen pals, or by the organizers through a ticket price. It's an example, to some extent, of anarcho-capitalist community, with needs provided either by yourself or through a fee you've chosen to pay, not a tax enforced on you by violence.

The experience of researching and writing the book exposed me to many vivid, inspiring examples of the wonderful and unprecedented things that can, and do, happen when people work, not on national politics, but on their own lives, with their own friends, within their own self-created communities—things that enrich their lives as well as, often, the lives of many, many others.

Little comes out of throwing your support behind candidates except further support for a system of petty controls and evil tyranny. Believers in progressive politics who are interested in the arts and experiments-in-living, as they so often are, have much more to offer the world—and, if I may be so bold, their own lives—by producing art and experiments in living rather than indulging in electoral politics.

The Catholic Church has long advocated the rich and wonderful principle of subsidiarity, which advocates dealing with social concerns at the level closest to the individual human being. Our federal system leaves some room for this—San Francisco itself, is, obviously, far closer to the dream polity of its progressive denizens than the U.S. at large. While attempting to perfect the entire world, or even an entire nation, is inherently futile and impossible, attempting to make our own lives, and those of our immediate family, friends, and block, successful and peaceful and cared for is something within the realm of possibility. And it's a path whose rewards (and, of course, failures) would be real and immediate and fulfilling. But it is, make no mistake, harder than voting, or getting out the vote, or attending political conventions, or writing about them.

An article in last week's Los Angeles Times made the difficulties of radical progressive change clear, even as it debunked common complaints that capitalist modernity inevitably locks us into a death spiral of unhealthy, unsustainable choices that require systemic change on the national, or international, level. It profiled an ecovillage dedicated to "permaculture" functioning in Pasadena, in the midst of American heartless urban/suburban sprawl.

It tells of individuals who turned their yard into a farm and to the greatest extent possible try to consume or take from or damage the natural environment as little as they can, creating

closed-loop systems that take advantage of natural cycles, using the waste products from one cycle to fuel another. Think composting food waste into garden mulch, catching "gray water" from the kitchen to irrigate outdoor plants, converting discarded cooking oil into biodiesel to fuel cars.

American culture is not a permaculture; but as this story demonstrates, your culture can be. So why should anyone of Green tendencies expend efforts on trying to elect David Cobb or Ralph Nader or, goodness gracious, John Kerry (you know, in order not to waste their vote) rather than trying to forge their own ecovillage?

The ecovillage route is undoubtedly more demanding than getting out the vote. But I think it obvious that success—or even failure—of such an active communal endeavor would add more color, adventure, love, connection, to your life than every-four-year electoral activism.

The people who try to forge something new—whether an object, or a technology, or a way of life—will change and benefit the world far more directly than any conventioneer or politician is likely to, and probably have more fun doing so. As Alexander Cockburn recently and correctly noted, the quality of life of his (mostly lefty) readership in terms of coffee, bread, and vegetables has improved enormously in the past 30 years. And it was not thanks to any government initiative. And what we eat and drink everyday, in a healthy life, ought to mean much more to us than the machinations of those in Washington.

Where do we live? We live with ourselves and with other people, both in person and virtually; we live with our work; we live with the objects of cultural production that help us make sense of our lives and our work, or merely, in ways often indefinable even to ourselves, delight and divert us. We ought not, to the extent we can help it, live in George Bush's America, or John Kerry's.

One of government's most pernicious effects is the way it colonizes our consciousness, in a manner deeper and more significant than advertising or markets ever manage. I would call upon my fellow citizens to loosen the mental bondage government has over them, to ignore it rather than engage in pointless and hopeless efforts to change it, but I don't think I really need to.

Increasing lack of voter participation is often cast as sad, hopeless, a betrayal of our ancient Greek tradition of civic virtue, active participation in the business of the polis, as a vital responsibility of a good man. Still, Washington has made itself an unworthy object of civic virtue, selling itself to us primarily as either nursemaid or tyrant. Sure, it tries to take lots of our money and tell us what to do about everything from diet to what we can say on the radio.

But there is still, God bless America, plenty of room to ignore it and to live the life of a free human being, not a civic robot. In those niches come the possibilities of widespread change that should really excite even the most government-besotted pundits: people as free as they can manage to be, making a free choice to create something new, in the form of new methods of art and commerce, new ways to relate to and impact the natural environment. And what it can generate is so inspiring that even a week's worth of Democratic convention coverage won't make me forget it.