Let me set the record straight about Mardi Gras. One: It's not a single day affair; it's a month-long parade of parades, of which Fat Tuesday is just the groggy hangover.
Two: You don't have to show your tits to get beads – in fact, you have to work pretty hard not to get beads (or, if you're a natural exhibitionist, not to show your tits).
Three: If you want to learn about disruption, close your MacBook Air, leave your downtown San Francisco loft, and go. Now. Get on a plane to somewhere with a Carnival season, immediately.
I was sixteen when I moved from Seattle to Mississippi, and I thought bumming around with street kids on Capital Hill had made me some hotshot progressive missionary into the unenlightened South. But the first time I walked the halls of my new high school, I felt the shock of being a lily-white minority in a state with a long, bloody history I knew nothing about.
The three-paragraph blurb I had learned about the Civil War (bad people wanted to own slaves, and then the good guys won) turned out to be an entire tome stretching from the 1800s to today. In Washington State History, we studied Native Americans by going to a museum and looking at their canoes and baskets; in Mississippi State History, we stared straight into the mutilated face of Emmett Till.
If the move across the country was an earthquake of sorts, my first Mardi Gras was an aftershock. It was 2002, pre-Katrina New Orleans, and I was a freshman at Tulane University at the Zulu parade, one of the largest events in Mardi Gras. I stood slack-jawed not a stone's throw from the infamous Magnolia Projects, watching black people dance in blackface in the most don't-give-a-fuck, we're-taking-it-back way imaginable, while the Mardi Gras Indians rode solemnly in counterpoint to the Klan-like hooded riders of the other parades.
Holy shit, what is this even? I thought.
Six years in the South taught me some things, namely, that the West Coast has a tendency toward breeding sheltered monoculture – so sheltered that it doesn't even know what its sheltering itself from.
Mardi Gras is a showcase of what, to much of the rest of the country, doesn't, shouldn't, or couldn't exist. Rich, poor, white, black: Everybody heeds the call of the parades, which squeeze the entire population of the city onto a narrow strip of sidewalk and the aptly-named neutral ground, the island of grass in the middle of St. Charles Ave. where the streetcars normally run.
Gutter punks rub up against hicks, who bump into tenured professors drunkenly catching beads from locals with last names ending in -eaux and can probably trace their lineage all the way back to Napoleon. Except for a few fenced-off grandstands, there are no tickets to entry. The carnival celebrates you, whether you want it or not. I once had an entire parade march into the bar I was trying to get a quiet drink in and start hammering away on washboards, steel drums, and police riot horns; it was so loud I could feel the vibrations in my eyeballs.
There's a dangerous feeling at Mardi Gras, like you might just melt into the person next to you. In behavioral psychology, the condition is referred to as deindividualization, and from soldiers to sports fans, it causes groups of people to lose their sense of self and do things they wouldn't normally do. (Pliny the Younger, the Roman writer and judge, retreated to a secluded villa during the Roman festival of Saturnalia, from which Mardi Gras originated. I can sort of sympathize.)
If primed for aggression, the crowd can loot or kill; at Mardi Gras, it drinks too much, waves its arms around like crazy to catch beads, and maybe makes out with a stranger. The myriad of multi-racial people in New Orleans – and, for that matter, Brazil, the other carnival capital of the world – attests to the powerful force that last impulse exerts.
When I moved back to the West Coast after grad school and started hanging out with who I thought were my people – San Francisco techies and Berkeley hippies – I couldn't help notice a strange gap between my view of the world and theirs. "Honestly, I don't care what people in the rest of this country think," someone once confessed to me at a house party in a vegan co-op, "or really about anybody outside of California." That who-cares-what-the-squares-think attitude was also reflected in the products being pushed, like the selfie sticks and wearable pedometers peddled as examples of some sort of "disruption."
That was around the time I learned about the Bay Area version of carnival: Burning Man, the weeklong art festival/spontaneous city built in a rural corner of the Nevada desert and populated by the Bay Area's makers and drug-takers. (It's also over 300 bucks for entry if you luck out in the ticket lottery, and you need camping equipment, water, food, and transportation to the desert to be a part of it.)
I have friends who are Burners, and I don't want to be another jaded cynic trashing their right to escape the squares and trip on acid in the desert. But if anything, Burning Man strikes me as a reflection of the status quo, not a disruption of it.
The textbook definition of disruption is taking something that's only available to select elites, making a cheaper version of it, and putting it in the hands of people who, for all intents and purposes, didn't previously exist in the minds of marketers. During Saturnalia, Romans held feasts for their slaves and crowned them kings. It was a practical Roman solution to the problem of slavery (with some bread and circuses, maybe they'll forget they're slaves for the rest of the year!), but the Romans probably didn't foresee the disruptive consequences of their actions: Saturnalia bred with Christianity, cross-pollinated with the collective drumming and dancing festivals brought to the New World via the Atlantic slave trade and voila: The spirit of Mardi Gras, where everyone, patrician and pleb, gets to be fat and drunk and merry with one another.
I wonder if it's a chicken-and-egg problem, if a place with entrenched racial and economic segregation it doesn't acknowledge can only create sheltered enclaves of carnival. The South is no paragon of racial equality, but, like Rome, it's obsessed with collective identity, which does force a certain amount of integration; even the slaves need to be accounted for in all major holidays. The West Coast spirit of individualism pushes in the opposite direction. As long as I don't see or hear those other people outside my friend circle, who cares what they think?
I dream of the day when the Burners pitch their hexayurts on the lawns of Oakland's Pentecostal churches; when the fire dancers light their flambeaux on the barbecue grills of Tilden Park family cookouts; when Mark Zuckerberg passes out on a lawn chair in the middle of Market Street and wakes up covered in beer cans and beads. Maybe one day the Stanford kids will kick it with the Tenderloin junkies and the Plinys will descend from the marble steps of their villas. Then, only then, will the real disruption begin.
Maryana Pinchuk is a bibliohpile, a polygot, and a Product Manager at the Wikimedia Foundation.