Monday, May 19, 2008

More on the Culture Wars

What a fantastic heat wave we had here in San Francisco. I took advantage of the great weather to bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge the other day. On the way back, my friend and I checked out Chestnut Street in the Marina. I hadn't been on that strip of shops in a long time, and I found it a refreshing change of pace to the Mission. True, there was shockingly little diversity in the faces that passed me - it seemed more like Walnut Creek in that way - but I enjoyed how so many women were wearing heels and cute sun dresses.

As we strolled down Chestnut, a group of ex-frat boy types were walking in the opposite direction. "Hipsters Suck" read the t-shirt of one of them in big bold letters. That's when I realized the silliness of all this cultural warfare. You've got the hipsters in the Mission versus the yuppies in the Marina. Like the socs and the greasers in The Outsiders. But in many ways they are two sides of the same coin because hardliners of both persuasions can be intolerant, uniform-wearing fascists.

I ran into someone who worked at The Gates with me outside a coffee shop in the Mission. She's in Cal now, writing papers on her BDSM experience and adjusting to the socioeconomic climate change from Oakland to Berkeley, as well as anti-white scapegoating by some of her classmates (not the first time I've heard that!). She describes what I'm talking about as class warfare. But it really isn't. Most of us are in the same class. It's more like consumer choice. Like fighting over whether you like Pepsi or Coke.

Like when I was in LA eating at that trendy seafood restaurant in Hollywood, which wasn't exactly cheap. The people seated next to us, who we struck up a conversation with, were a long-haired guy in a t-shirt that said "grow revolution" and a heavily tattooed Amy Winehouse lookalike. When I told her I grew up in Echo Park, she enthusiastically expressed her love of the neighborhood because it didn't have that "corporate, mainstream" feel (I held back from putting them on the spot by joking about how much better Echo Park is now that the bohemian white people have moved in! Seriously, I'll take yummy vegan cafes over gun-toting cholos any day). In fact, she confided, she owned two properties there. No this isn't about class, but about seemingly competing worldviews that in relatively peaceful times co-exist well enough. It's when everyone feels their back is up against the wall like these turbulent times we live in now, that people think they need to choose sides.

Take Burning Man. When I first went in '96, my clubber friends were bemused that I would want to camp out in the desert for a week. Back then, generators were banished to a far corner of Black Rock City, electronic music was banished a mile away, and just about anyone could shoot guns or blow things up without a second glance. Now those same clubbers who didn't get it back then all go, albeit in RVs like so many folks now. So of course a culture war has ensued over who really is an authentic Burner. I remember being out on the playa one year and there were these cute furry-dressed people gathered around a fire, having just witnessed the histrionic euphoria of an Extra Action Marching Band performance. Some members of the band came up to the fire and proceeded drunkenly berate these poor people, with some harangue about "yuppies go home, get off our playa with your stupid fur." Even though I'm a veteran of The Burn, I still get attitude from people who think they were there first, because I don't wear the "right" uniform. How fragile our egos must be that we have to hold onto such high school-level tactics of superiority.

I am all too aware of the subtle signals which people project and pick up to base their judgments and decide whether you are an "us" or a "them." Sometimes I wish I could turn it off, this ultra-sensitivity I have. At the end of the day, I think it's incredibly simplistic to make assumptions about someone based on what they are wearing - or even what kind of car they have. Like I've had a hand-me-down SUV for a number of years. It was such a mark of shame for me when I first started driving it, because all of sudden I was one of those people and I could no longer give that holier-than-thou scowl to SUV drivers. I remember I drove it to Rainbow, a health food grocery coop, and a woman with a baby threw me the look of death as I parked next to her. I felt hatred there, and I couldn't imagine how that would help, or be a good lesson for her child. But it also made me angry, how polarized and unreasonable we all seem to have become. [Speaking of going green, current issue of Wired magazine has a great article addressing environmentalism, with a lot of ideas that jibe with my own personal philosophy.]

It's a lonely road, not caving into convention on any side - be it hipster vs. yuppie, kinky vs. vanilla, altered vs. natural, pc vs. mac, organic vs. genetically modified, old Burning Man vs. new Burning Man... so many of these are false dichotomies. By not towing some party line by dressing and acting a certain way, you end up getting it from every direction. I'd rather endure the disdain, dismissals and misunderstanding. To me, this cultural extremism is frustrating, idiotic and downright scary. Whatever happened to free thinking and "no enemy?"