This Week's Reads

Philip Gold and Brian Doherty.

Take Back the Right

By Philip Gold (Carroll & Graf, $13) Philip Gold once plunked a manuscript down in front of Bruce Chapman, his boss at Seattle's conservative Discovery Institute think tank. After reading it, Chapman pronounced his verdict: "Philip, this is crap!" It couldn't have been much of a shock for Gold, an occasional SW contributor who has made a life out of dropping turds into punch bowls, according to his new memoir/critique of the conservative movement. Whether as the class smart-ass in his native Pittsburgh in the '50s, or as an Ivy League Jewish Marine in the '60s and '70s, or as a not-PC-enough professor at Georgetown in the '80s, or as an anti-Iraq war apostate at Discovery in the '00s, Gold has been an anomalous creature: an unconventional man of deep, conventional convictions, one who believes in traditional virtues yet finds himself out of step with his times and his chosen clan. Apparently, he thrives on the dissonance. One sign of that is this book: It's definitely not a piece of crap—how's that for a jacket blurb? OK, try this: Philip Gold is one of Seattle's largely undiscovered intellectual gems, and this mildly eccentric book is a marvelous walk in the park with a beautiful mind as it riffs on the political landscape of today—one that's been largely laid to waste. He ambitiously attempts to summarize the sorry state of our political discourse and, more importantly, how both the left and especially the right have failed to cultivate a better civilization. Indeed, he makes a profound observation about the current state of affairs: " . . . The most horrific fact about civilization is not decadence. It is that our civilization does not need us." Drones it needs, sure, but thinking people? Moral people? Civically engaged people? The right, Gold thinks, ought to know better, but has gone seriously wrong. He tracks the last half-century of conservatism from Goldwater to Gingrich to "God, gays, and guns" to George W's neocon imperial adventurism. He argues that the movement has betrayed true conservative values for power, using fear and culture war to move the masses. At the same time, Gold doesn't spare the left for its failings. He particularly detests how its rather solipsistic, victim-driven rhetoric debases debate and sometimes has made progress (say on gay rights or globalization) more difficult. But the truth is, the war between right and left has embarrassed both sides, described by Gold as "two hokey wrestlers, so intent on staging their match that they didn't notice the audience leaving." The right can regain itself, Gold maintains, by becoming, well, more liberal. Conservatives need to embrace change, not oppose it. If they stand for liberty and freedom, they have to ditch the "my way or the highway," Manichaean worldview of the religious right and the neocons. They need to get back to basics: honor, work, tolerance, courage. They must come back to the ideas of our nation's founding fathers and the ancient Greeks (Gold loves the Stoics) to help build a civilization that is based on the will of the individual and a will to act responsibly. Civilization isn't self-renewing; it requires standards and stewards. My greatest fear is that the good Seattle liberals won't read this book because they already "know" the right sucks. But Gold's ideas are too important to be so easily ignored by partisan pouters at either end of the political spectrum. His most interesting notion is his idea that we must begin to imagine what he calls an "acentric civilization," one without a single dominating power center, a concept not likely to please the Christian Taliban. It's political and cultural paganism, not monotheism, he espouses. And why not? Isn't the conservative ideal to return centralized power to the people? Especially a people who take responsibility for their actions and have the will to nurture a creative, dynamic civilization that can uplift us? KNUTE BERGER Philip Gold will appear at Town Hall (206- 652-4255, $5), 7:30 p.m., Mon., Sept. 20. This Is Burning Man

By Brian Doherty (Little, Brown, $24.95) Well, you missed it again this year, and you regret it, don't you? The party/art installation/temporary social experiment that rises from the Nevada desert the week before Labor Day is winding down even as I type. But those who have been curious about Burning Man—or those who, like this four-time veteran, have attended and want the back story on Danger Ranger, Dr. Megavolt, and Bianca's Smut Shack—can turn to Brian Doherty's book. It's an absorbing, thoughtful gathering of the event's history, reflections, and anecdotes that will, if anything will, make you want to attend. Having been a Burner for a decade, Doherty interviewed dozens of participants, in particular Larry Harvey, who more than anyone has been BM's visionary force and public spokesperson. A San Francisco odd-jobber and avant-garde landscape gardener, Harvey in 1986 persuaded a carpenter friend to help him build an 8-foot, lumber-and-burlap, kerosene-soaked effigy and burn it on the city's Baker Beach in a party/ritual that became an annual tradition. After the Burn began to attract large crowds and police attention, organizers moved it to the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada, acres of table-flat cracked clay without a molecule of vegetation. Eighty people showed up on Labor Day weekend 1990 to inaugurate Burning Man, Stage Two: a celebration, as veterans remember it, of tequila, guns, and setting shit on fire. Doherty relates a few legends, debunks a few, and explores how the early-'90s Burns metamorphosed into the current template—to the irritation of those old hands who, as Doherty puts it, indulge in "whining that the old days were better/cooler/purer/more fun." The 1996 Burn was a peak both of anarchic what-the-fuck spectacle and of political turmoil among the organizers. The plug could have been pulled right then, if not for the organizers' shrewd realization—and this is the crucial point in Burning Man's development—that an artful mix of chaos and cosmos is the best soil for enabling people to do cool stuff. Gradually the gathering had taken the form of a city, establishing smoothly functioning if prankish equivalents of a post office, two newspapers, a community center, and other civic amenities; a grid of named streets; and some common-sense zoning regulations (noisy 24/7 rave camps go on the city's edge). Consequently, Burning Man drew artists to do things they couldn't do anywhere else, like the two big public-art jaw-droppers from the 2003 Burn: Zack Coffin's Temple of Gravity (70 tons of granite slabs suspended from two metal arches) and Rosanna Scimeca's Cleavage in Space (aka "the Chandelier"), a good shot of which closes the book's too-brief photo section. Each Burn raises questions practical and aesthetic about the tradition's future: Is it too slick? Too un-anarchic? Too damn big? (They set attendance records each year; the 2004 event drew 35,000.) Doherty provides generous space for participants to weigh in; his book's a rich mix of oral history, reportage, and research in a tone that's warmly affectionate without being too gee-whiz or touchy-feely. Only gingerly does it touch on the big self-conscious What Does It All Mean questions that drive some Burners nuts. The book's strength is that it's very pointedly not a how-to guide. Trying to reproduce the experience in any medium misses the point: Burners work very hard to create an event that's about immediate experience, not observation. They also work very hard to create an event that eludes easy one-sentence descriptions like that last one. The conflict between living it and talking about it is one of the constant threads of Burning Man history, and Doherty's excellent and engaging book reconciles the conflict about as well as can be imagined. GAVIN BORCHERT Brian Doherty will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m., Tues., Sept. 21.

 
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