The sacred and the political

How awe relates to action.

One of the highlights of the public “Awe to Action” conference on Saturday associated with the four-day research retreat on awe-inspiring experiences (see below) was a dialogue between John Perry Barlow (Electronic Frontier Foundation, among other claims to fame and Larry Harvey (Burning Man) about the relationship between transcendent experience and political/social action.

Barlow had posed a direct challenge to Burning Man and other implementations of the counterculture thesis that changing consciousness is necessary and sufficient to changing politics:

If someone like Karl Rove had wanted to neutralize the most creative, intelligent, and passionate members of his opposition, he’d have a hard time coming up with a better tool than Burning Man. Exile them to the wilderness, give them a culture in which alpha status requires months of focus and resource-consumptive preparation, provide them with metric tons of psychotropic confusicants, and then… ignore them. It’s a pretty safe bet that they won’t be out registering voters, or doing anything that might actually threaten electoral change, when they have an art car to build.

I started out expecting a debate in which I would be rooting for Barlow, but what I saw instead was one of the most sensible, intelligent, civil, civilized, informed, grown-up, and serious political discussions I’ve ever been privileged to witness.

Harvey had some very strong points to make about the success of the Christian Right in turning social connection formed around transcendent experience into political power, and the value of creating comparably transcendent experiences not linked to such a noxious political and social agenda. Barlow (who was a Republican county chairman back when he was doing cattle ranching in Wyoming and knew Dick Cheney as a back-bench Congressman) readily agreed that insofar as liberalism had managed to get itself confused with (and by) the process of desacralization, it needed to get its act together.

The whole thing was videotaped, and I think will be up and linkable soon; if so, I’ll let you know. Headlie news: At least a big chunk of the demonstrations at the RNC will be, instead of the sullen, humorless obstructionism of an anti-WTO protest, quirky street theater. One proposed tactic: flash mobs forming at random moments to recite the First Amendment, then dispersing to reform.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

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