Man in the middle

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› steve@sfbg.com

As the Democratic National Convention was drawing to an explosive close Aug. 28, Barack Obama finally took center stage. In an address to more than 70,000 people, he presented his credentials, his proposals, and his vision. Most in the partisan crowd thought he gave a great speech and left smiling and enthused; some bloggers quickly called it the greatest convention speech ever.

I liked it too — but there were moments when I cringed.

Obama played nicely to the middle, talking about "safe" nuclear energy, tapping natural gas reserves, and ending the war "responsibly." He stayed away from anything that might sound too progressive, while reaching out to Republicans, churchgoers, and conservatives.

He also made a statement that should (and must) shape American politics in the coming years: "All across America something is stirring. What the naysayers don’t understand is this isn’t about me — it’s about you."

Well, if this is really about me and the people I spend time with — those of us in the streets protesting war and the two-party system, people at Burning Man creating art and community — then it appears that electing Obama is just the beginning of the work we need to do.

As Tom Hayden wrote recently in an essay in the Guardian, Obama needs to be pushed by people’s movements to speed his proposed 16-month Iraq withdrawal timeline and pledge not to leave a small, provocative force of soldiers there indefinitely.

After a 5,000 mile, 10-day trip starting and ending at Black Rock City in the Nevada desert with Denver and the convention in between, I’ve decided that Obama is a Man in the Middle.

That creature is essential to both Burning Man and the Democratic National Convention, a figure of great significance — but also great insignificance. Because ultimately, both events are about the movements that surround and define the man.

THE BIG TENT


Nominating Obama was a historic moment, but the experience of spending four days at the convention was more like a cross between attending a big party and watching an infomercial for the Democratic Party. It was days of speeches followed by drinking — both exclusive affairs requiring credentials and connections for the biggest moments.

This year’s convention saw a new constituency come into full bloom. It was called the Big Tent — the literal name for the headquarters of bloggers and progressive activists at the Denver convention, but it also embodied the reality that the vast blogosphere has come of age and now commands the attention of the most powerful elected Democrats.

The tent was in the parking lot of the Alliance Building, where many Denver nonprofits have their offices. It consisted of a simple wood-frame structure two stories high, covered with a tent.

In the tent were free beer, food, massages, smoothies, and Internet access. But there was also the amplified voice of grassroots democracy, something finding an audience not just with millions of citizens on the Internet, but among leaders of the Democratic Party.

New media powerhouses, including Daily Kos, MoveOn, and Digg (a Guardian tenant in San Francisco that sponsors the main stage in the Big Tent) spent the last year working on the Big Tent project. It was a coming together of disparate, ground-level forces on the left into something like a real institution, something with the power to potentially influence the positions and political dialogue of the Democratic Party.

"When we started doing this in 2001, there just wasn’t this kind of movement," MoveOn founder Eli Pariser told me as we rode down the Alliance Building elevator together. "The left wing conspiracy is finally vast."

The Big Tent constituency is a step more engaged with mainstream politics than Burning Man’s Black Rock City, an outsider movement that sent only a smattering of representatives to the convention, including me and my travel mates from San Francisco, musician Kid Beyond and Democratic Party strategist Donnie Fowler, as well as the Philadelphia Experiment’s artistic outreach contingent.

It’s an open question whether either constituency, the Big Tent bloggers and activists or the Black Rock City artists and radicals, are influencing country’s political dialogue enough to reach the Democratic Party’s man in the middle. Obama didn’t mention the decommodification of culture or a major reform of American democracy in his big speech, let alone such progressive bedrock issues as ending capital punishment and the war on drugs, downsizing the military, or the redistribution of wealth.

But those without floor passes to the convention represent, if not a movement, at least a large and varied constituency with many shared values and frustrations, and one with a sense that the American Dream is something that has slipped out of its reach, if it ever really existed at all.

These people represent the other America, the one Obama and the Democratic Party paid little heed to during their many convention speeches, which seemed mostly focused on bashing the Republican Party and assuring heartland voters that they’re a trustworthy replacement. But that’s hardly burning the man.

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Photo by Mirissa Neff

AMERICAN DREAM


It’s been almost a year since Burning Man founder Larry Harvey announced that the art theme for the 2008 event would be "American Dream." I hated it and said so publicly, objecting to such an overt celebration of patriotism, or for setting up a prime opportunity for creative flag burning, neither a seemingly good option.

But I later came to see a bit of method behind Harvey’s madness. After announcing the theme, Harvey told me, "There was a cascade of denunciations and maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. It pricked people where they should be stimulated." He asks critics to read his essay on the Burning Man Web site explaining the theme: "It says that America has lost its way."

But he also said that the disaffected left and other critics of what America has become need to find a vision of America to fight for, something to believe in, whether it’s our Bill of Rights (pictured on Burning Man tickets this year) or some emerging manifestation of the country. "Americans need to find our pride again," Harvey told me. "We can’t face our shame unless we find our pride."

I was still dubious, since I tend toward Tolstoy’s view of patriotism: that it’s a bane to be abolished, not a virtue to be celebrated. Harvey and I have talked a lot of politics as I’ve covered Burning Man over the past four years, and those discussions have sharpened as he has subtly prodded participants to become more political, and as burners have reached out into the world through ventures such as Black Rock Arts Foundation, Burners Without Borders, and Black Rock Solar.

I’ve become friends with many of the event’s key staffers (some, like BWB’s Tom Price, through reporting their stories). This year, one employee (not a board member) I’m particularly close to even gave me one of the few gift tickets they have to hand out each year, ending my five-event run of paying full freight (and then some). I’m also friends with my two travel mates, Kid Beyond, a.k.a. Andrew Chaikin, and Fowler, who handled field organizing for Al Gore in 2000, ran John Kerry’s Michigan campaign four years later, and was attending his sixth presidential convention.

Kid Beyond and I arrived at Black Rock City late Friday night, Aug. 22, and found the playa thick with deep drifts of dust, making it a difficult and tiring bicycle trek into the deep playa where San Francisco artist Peter Hudson and his crew were building Tantalus. But it was worth the ride, particularly if seeking a great take on the American Dream theme.

Like most creations at that early stage of the event, it wasn’t up and running yet, but it would be by Aug. 24, when the event officially began. Still, even in its static state, it was an art piece that already resonated with my exploration of how the counterculture sees the national political culture.

Tantalus looks like a red, white, and blue top hat, with golden arms and bodies around it. And when it spins around, totally powered by the manual labor of visitors working four pumper rail cars, the man — a modern American Tantalus — reaches for the golden apple being dangled just out of his reach and falls back empty-handed.

It’s a telling metaphor for such a big week in American politics.

There were plenty of political junkies on the playa, including two friends who let me crash in their RV for two nights and who left the playa for Denver after a couple of days. Fowler’s sweetie, Heather Stephenson, is with Ideal Bite (their logo is an apple minus one bite) and was on an alternative energy panel with Mayor Gavin Newsom, Denver’s mayor, John W. Hickenlooper, and Gov. Bill Ritter of Colorado.

"The American Dream to me is not having barriers to achievement," Stephenson told me. It is Tantalus getting some apple if he really reaches for it. Fowler said that it is "the freedom to pursue your own dream without interference by government or social interests." But, he added, "the American Dream is more a collective dream than an individual dream."

Bay Area artist Eric Oberthaler, who used to choreograph San Francisco artist Pepe Ozan’s fire operas on the playa, hooked up with the Philadelphia Experiment performers years ago at Burning Man — including Philly resident Glenn Weikert, who directs the dance troupe Archedream. This year they created "Archedream for America," which they performed at Burning Man and the Democratic National Convention. Weikert told me the artistic and collaborative forces that Burning Man is unleashing could play a big role in creating a transformative political shift in America.

"These are two amazing events that are kind of shaping the world right now," Weikert said. "A lot of the ideas and views are similar, but people are working in different realms."

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Tantalus. a Burning Man installation
Photo by Steven T. Jones

MEDIA, 15,002 STRONG


Kid Beyond and I arrived in Denver around 8 a.m., Aug. 25, after a 16-hour drive from Black Rock City, cruising through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado, a couple of which Obama will probably need to win in November if he’s to take the White House.

We headed into the city just as a gorgeous dawn was breaking, arriving with a few hours to spare before our Democratic National Convention press credential would have been redistributed to other journalists, who reportedly numbered more than 15,000. After arriving at my cousin Gina Brooks’ house, we showered, got settled, and jumped on our bikes to pick up our press credentials.

All week, we and others who rented or borrowed the thousands of bicycles made available to visitors used the beautiful and efficient Cherry Creek Bike Trail to get around. It cut through the heart of Denver, passing the convention and performing arts centers, which boasted a great sculpture of a dancing couple, and ran close to the Big Tent in downtown on one side and the convention hall, the Pepsi Center, on the other.

It was a great way to travel and a marked contrast to the long car trip, which felt as if we were firing through tank after tank of gas. Bike travel also proved a smart move — most of the streets around the convention were closed off and patrolled by police in riot gear riding trucks with extended running boards, with military helicopters circling overhead.

The massive Pepsi Center was less than half full a couple hours after the gavel fell to open the convention, but it filled quickly.

The broadcast media had it good, with prime floor space that made it all the more congested for the delegates and others with floor passes. Most journalists were tucked behind the stage or up in the cheap seats, and we couldn’t even get free Internet access in the hall. But journalists could get online in the nearby media tents, which also offered free booze and food.

Even though Hillary Clinton announced she was releasing her delegates to vote for Obama, those I spoke to in San Francisco’s delegation — Laura Spanjian, Mirian Saez, and Clay Doherty — were still planning to vote for Clinton on that Wednesday, although all said they would enthusiastically support Obama after that.

"It’s important for me to respect all the people who voted for her and to honor the historic nature of her candidacy," Spanjian said. "And most of all, to respect her."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tried to rally the faithful for the "historic choice between two paths for our country." She belittled the view that John McCain is the most experienced presidential candidate. "John McCain has the experience of being wrong," she said, emphasizing his economic views and his instigation of the "catastrophic" Iraq War.

There were only a smattering of protesters outside the convention center, the most disturbing being anti-abortion activists bearing signs that read, "God hates Obama," "God is your enemy," "The Siege is Here," and one, wielded by a boy who was maybe 12, that read "God hates fags." Family values indeed.

THE ROLL CALL


San Francisco Sup. Chris Daly was giddy when I joined him in the two-thirds full California delegation during the nominating speeches for Obama and Clinton. It was partly because he was finally an official delegate, having been called up from his role as alternate a couple of hours earlier. But an even bigger reason for his joy was that he’s a serious political wonk and just loves the roll call, the only official business of the convention.

"This is the best part of the convention, roll call. It’s cool," Daly, the consummate vote counter, told me as we watched the chair ask each state for their votes. "The speeches are OK, but this is what it’s about."

And pretty soon, this kid in the candy shop was losing his mind as we watched a series of genuinely newsworthy developments in an otherwise scripted convention: California Democratic Party Chair Art Torres was saying "California passes" rather than reporting our votes, states like New Jersey and Arkansas were awarding all their votes to Obama and causing the room to go nuts, and a series of states were yielding to others.

As the chair worked alphabetically through the states, Obama’s home state of Illinois became the second state to pass. Very interesting. Indiana gave 75 of its 85 votes to Obama. Minnesota gave 78 of its 88 votes to Obama, then erupted in a spirited cheer of "Yes we can." Daly and San Francisco delegate London Breed were on their feet, cheering, chanting, and pumped.

With Obama getting close to the number of delegates he needed to win the nomination (there was no tally on the floor and I later learned Obama had 1,550 of the 2,210 votes he needed), New Mexico’s representative announced that the state was "yielding to the land of Lincoln." Anticipation built that Illinois would be the state to put its junior senator over the top.

Then Illinois yielded to New York, and the screens showed Clinton entering the hall and joining the New York delegation. "In the spirit of unity and with the goal of victory," Clinton said, "let us declare right now that Barack Obama is our candidate."

She made the motion to suspend the vote count and have the whole hall nominate Barack Obama by acclamation. Pelosi took the podium and asked the crowd, "Is there a second?" And the room erupted in thousands of seconds to the motion on the floor. She asked all in favor to say "aye," and the room rumbled with ayes. To complete the process, Pelosi said those opposed could say no, but simultaneously gaveled the motion to completion, causing the room to erupt with cheers. I heard not a single nay.

The band broke out into "Love Train" and everyone danced.

NEWSOM’S STAGE


Mayor Gavin Newsom threw a big party Aug. 27, drawing a mix of young hipsters, youngish politicos, and a smattering of corporate types in suits and ties. Although he didn’t get a speaking slot at the convention, Newsom is widely seen as a rising star in the party, far cooler than most elected officials, and maybe even too cool for his own good.

Comedian Sarah Silverman did a funny bit to open the program at the Manifest Hope Gallery (which showcased artwork featuring Obama), then introduced Newsom by saying, "I’m honored to introduce a great public servant and a man I would like to discipline sexually, Gavin Newsom."

Apparently Newsom liked it because he grabbed Silverman and started to grope and nuzzle into her like they were making out, then acted surprised to see the crowd there and took the microphone. It was a strange and uncomfortable moment for those who know about his past sex scandal and recent marriage to Jennifer Siebel, who was watching the spectacle from the wings.

But it clearly showed that Newsom is his own biggest fan, someone who thinks he’s adorable and can do no wrong, which is a dangerous mindset in politics.

Another slightly shameless aspect of the event was how overtly Newsom is trying associate himself with Obama (the party was a salute to the "Obama Generation") after strongly backing Clinton in the primaries. And then, of course, there’s the fact that his party was sponsored by PG&E (a corrupting influence in San Francisco politics) and AT&T (facilitators of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping policy).

I was able to interview Newsom about Clinton before the party. "People can criticize her, but I do think that you’ve never seen a runner-up do so much to support the party’s nominee," Newsom told me. "She’s done as much as she could do, privately as well as publicly."

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Clinton’s dramatic roll call moment
Photo by Mirissa Neff

OBAMA NIGHT


Amid all the excitement, there were scary moments for the progressives. For example, Joe Biden, accepting the vice-presidential nod, urged the nation to more aggressively confront Russia and send more troops into Afghanistan.

During one of the most high-profile points in the convention, halfway between the Gore and Obama speeches, a long line of military leaders (including Gen. Wesley Clark, who got the biggest cheers but didn’t speak) showed up to support Obama’s candidacy. They were followed by so-called average folk, heartland citizens — including two Republicans now backing Obama. One of the guys had a great line, though: "We need a president who puts Barney Smith before Smith Barney," said Barney Smith. "The heartland needs change, and with Barack Obama we’re going to get it," he added.

Of course, these are the concerns of a progressive whose big issues (from ending capital punishment and the war on drugs to creating a socialized medical system and fairly redistributing the nation’s wealth) have been largely ignored by the Democratic Party. I understand that I’m not Obama’s target audience in trying to win this election. And there is no doubt he is a historic candidate.

Bernice King, whose father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech 45 years to the day before Obama’s acceptance speech, echoed her father by triumphantly announcing, "Tonight, freedom rings." She said the selection of Obama as the nominee was "decided not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. This is one of our nation’s defining moments."

But there is still much work to do in convincing Obama to adopt a more progressive vision once he’s elected. "America needs more than just a great president to realize my father’s dream," said Martin Luther King III, the second King child to speak the final night of the convention. Or as Rep. John Lewis, who was with King during that historic speech, said in his remarks, "Democracy is not a state, but a series of actions."

BACK TO THE BURN


We left Denver around 1:30 a.m. Friday, a few hours after Obama’s speech and the parties that followed, driving through the night and listening first to media reports on Obama’s speech, then to discussions about McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The Obama clips sounded forceful and resolute, directly answering in strong terms the main criticisms levied at him. Fowler said the Republicans made a very smart move by choosing a woman, but he was already getting the Democrats’ talking points by cell phone, most of which hammered her inexperience, a tactic that could serve to negate that same criticism of Obama.

We arrived back on the playa at 5:30 p.m. Friday, and a Black Rock Radio announcer said the official population count was 48,000 people, the largest number ever. The city has been steadily growing and creating a web of connections among its citizens.

"That city is connecting to itself faster that anyone knows. And if they can do that, they can connect to the world," Harvey told me earlier this year. "That’s why for three years, I’ve done these sociopolitical themes, so they know they can apply it. Because if it’s just a vacation, we’ve been on vacation long enough."

Yet when I toured the fully-built city, I saw few signs that this political awakening was happening. There weren’t even that many good manifestations of the American Dream theme, except for Tantalus, Bummer (a large wooden Hummer that burned on Saturday night), and an artsy version of the Capitol Dome.

Most of the people who attend Burning Man seem to have progressive values, and some of them are involved in politics, but the event is their vacation. It’s a big party, an escape from reality. It’s not a movement yet, and it’s not even about that Black Rock City effigy, the Man. Hell, this year, many of my friends who are longtime burners left on Saturday before they burned the Man, something most veterans consider an anticlimax.

It’s not about the man in the middle, either; it’s about the community around it. And if the community around Obama wants to expand into a comfortable electoral majority — let alone a movement that can transform this troubled country — it’s going to have to reach the citizens of Black Rock City and outsiders of all stripes, and convince them of the relevance of what happened in Denver and what’s happening in Washington, DC.

Larry Harvey can’t deliver burners to the Democratic Party, or even chide them toward any kind of political action. But the burners and the bloggers are out there, ready to engage — if they can be made to want to navigate the roads between their worlds and the seemingly insular, ineffective, immovable, platitude-heavy world of mainstream politics.

"As hard as it will be, the change we need is coming," Obama said during his speech.

Maybe. But for those who envision a new kind of world, one marked by the cooperation, freedom, and creativity that are at the heart of this temporary city in the desert, there’s a lot of work to be done. And that starts with individual efforts at outreach, like the one being done by a guy, standing alone in the heat and dust, passing out flyers to those leaving Black Rock City on Monday.

"Nevada Needs You!!!" began the small flyer. "In 2004, Nevada was going Blue until the 90 percent Republican northern counties of Elko and Humboldt tilted the state. You fabulous Burners time-share in our state for one week per year. This year, when you go home please don’t leave Nevada Progressives behind! ANY donation to our County Democratic Committee goes a long way; local media is cheap! Thanks!!!"

Change comes not from four days of political speeches or a week in an experimental city in the desert, but from the hard work of those with a vision and the energy to help others see that vision. To realize a progressive agenda for this conservative country is going to take more than just dreaming.

Ed Note: The Guardian would like to thank Kid Beyond, who traveled with Jones and helped contribute to this report.