if you have come to this post hoping that it will be discouraging of people attending Landmark Education’s Forum course, you will be disappointed. My overwhelming impression is that the Forum helps people get out of their own way and improve their relationships with people who are critical to them. If you have personal problems that your friends and therapist cant help you with and you can afford the Forum course, you should probably go, it is extremely likely to help you. i have a number of critiques of the program, which i will touch on in this post. But what i really want to talk about is my own peculiar set of excuses for not doing Landmark. [If you want to read critical things about Landmark there is an article in Mother Jones and a more "balanced" on in the UK Guardian.]
At first blush it is no surprise that i am attracted to Landmark forum, it is a very intentional attempt to be a memetic structure. As with most successful religions there is a proselytizing aspect built into the program “This has done great things for me, it could do great things for you (=person that i care about) too!” Some people find this creepy or scary, i think it is clever and useful, especially if they are (unlike many religious practices) bringing tangible benefits to those who practice the belief set.
Many of my intimates have take the course. Hawina, Sky, Shal, Kassia, Tobias (aka Frodo), Shana and most recently Marta and now Clementine. They all think positively about it and several of them do it on a continuing basis.
So why dont i go to it? The reasons have changed over time. When Hawina and Frodo and Sky were taking it, one of the central projects i was working on with Shana and Joy and Hawina was the co-empowerment program (sadly there are not functioning links to this material now).
Co-empowerment was a loose collection of tools designed to help people get unstuck and get more of what they want from life. In this way it was very much like Landmark. When you sign up for Landmark you agree to protect their intellectual property. Were i to go, the many tools which Landmark employs to get their great results would be taboo for my re-use. Since some of the co-empowerment tools i was already using were similar to Landmarks stuff it was easier just to avoid confusion as to whose clever tools i was working with.
Another reason i dont want to go is i have an addictive personality and Landmark is designed to be addictive. Several Landmark participants have said to me “You would make a great Landmark Forums course leader.” This is of course a compliment. And it is a warning sign. I dont want a big part of my life to be about Landmark, i certainly dont want a job with them. And if i dive in and fall desperately in love with it (or get addicted) i might well be inspired to rise in its hierarchy (all in the name of serving people and advancing the revolution) to a staff position. i have a more “roll my own”/independent path set out for me.
Sara’s critique, which i share, is that Landmark is classist. It is expensive to go to and it does not really care organizationally that it is largely inaccessible to many people. A sliding scale would be easy to implement and far more fair. People criticize it for being a for profit entity which benefits a small number of owners and paid staff, with many unpaid enthusiastic volunteers. This is a trivial concern for me, if you want to talk about problems with for profit organizations lets focus on Apple and Amazon, which are doing some very serious damage.
Landmark is not a cult, as it is occasionally described in the mainstream media. But people fear that it is because it often changes the way people think about things and especially themselves. From my perspective a lot of people need to change the way that they think, so these “dangerous” tools are completely appropriate.
There is lots more to say on this topic, but i want to get back to posting more regularly, so i will let it go at this for now.
Okay, lets start with and quickly dismiss the most obvious points.
Burning Man is completely unsustainable. Even the significant efforts of the Alternative Energy Zone sustainable energy theme camp do very little to mitigate the huge ecological footprint of the camp. Does this event use more power than a nuclear aircraft carrier (which supports 1/10 the population) ? No, it certainly uses less, but we are an even longer way away from the discussion about a sustainable military. If sustainability is your personal primary objective, you can bail on this post and this festival here.
The place is dirty with cops. My last visit to BM in 2009 was ruined by the police busting in and busting people in our camp. Almost all these charges were dropped in the end, after tremendous hassle. One of the design constraints of the Transformus regional Burning Man event is that it has to be fewer than 2000 people; that way they can have their own security rather than the police from outside. The 50,000 plus person event in the Nevada desert does not have this luxury and correspondingly there are police of all different stripes at the event, busily spying, entrapping and otherwise ruining this event which is not running over anyone else’s rights. There is this scary acceptance at BM that the police are there and nothing can be done about them. To me, in this regard Burning Man has given up its political power and said “We need to integrate the police state into our party.” There are dozens of things either organizers or participants could do to reduce the police presence at the event, and these things are not being done. The wikipedia entry on BM gives a very low number of arrests and lists citations in the hundreds, but this does not include the Nevada State police arrests, a much higher and unreported number. [One commenter on this post says police presence has decreased significantly since my fiasco in 2009]
BM is sexist. Okay, it is much more complex than this. There are lots of women taking organizing and leading roles in this event, including lots of women doing very serious construction work and getting seen and appreciated for it. Burning Man is also a liberated zone, where women can go topless should they want to and it is not a very big deal. And the stereotypical beauty models and the objectification of womens bodies runs pretty fierce thru the camp. There is a bit too much of a frat party feel to Burning Man for my tastes. The type of partying which happens at BM does not lead me to believe it has a good consent culture.
Burning Man is classist. The tickets run between $240 and $420, plus the location necessitates significant travel, housing and food expenses. Add to this the cost of costumes, art cars and their registration, desert protective gear and so on. And of course, no one is requiring you to go to this remote expensive event. But because it is so pricey, the people who go represent not the 1%, but certainly a more affluent class. Funologically, BM is often contrasted to the Rainbow Gathering, which is also often remote, but has free admission and a much more generous internal culture in which all kitchens give food to all comers. Part of the magic of BM is the spirit of generosity of the event; and it has a ways to go to be more inclusive, particularly for less affluent participants.
Burning Man Inc. Burning Man is a big company which uses lots of volunteers to make money for themselves. Certainly millions gets turned around into art projects and critical infrastructure. And BM advances a DIY effort; it is the ultimate crowd sourcing event. I wonder if BM were more like the Rainbow Gathering, if they would keep sticking with this piece of desert which costs them $1 million/year – there has to be an equivalently wonderful piece of desert (perhaps privately owned) which costs less. But even more important than the land, there is something slightly problematic for me about this basically anarchist-organized event that has a bunch of paid staff making decisions, some of which are irreversible. The latest fiasco around this is the problem with getting tickets. Bureau of Land Management rents out the site and restricts BM to about 50K tickets. Now that the event is regularly selling out, how to fairly distribute the tickets if hugely problematic. BM Inc is bad for democracy.
[This article is the second part of a two part series, the first of which is on why Burning Man is Funologically Significant - the upside of the event.]
Other articles you might be interested in if you liked this one include:
- The Temple versus the Man contrasting the closing rituals for BM events
- Super Meme Construction Kit ideas which self replicate and change the world
- Definition of Funology and it’s metrics
This blog post continues to be popular, in part because it is posted in this clever blog series on reasons not to go to Burning Man.