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COMMENTARY: The Believer Festival: At the intersection of groupthink and dogma

I received an invitation to the 2019 Believer Festival, a three-day annual arts event hosted by The Black Mountain Institute (BMI) and its flagship magazine, The Believer. I enjoyed the festival’s inaugural outing in 2017, which featured idiosyncratic speakers such as Miranda July, Luis Alberto Urrea and Carrie Brownstein. The event promised to be a great addition to the Las Vegas cultural scene.

Sadly, this year’s lineup, set for Thursday through Saturday, suggests that BMI has succumbed to the tedious toxicity of identity politics. The role of art to provoke and question has been supplanted by a pandering to groupthink, intolerant of dissent.

The festival website proclaims the 2019 event as “a place to investigate the dire concerns of modern life and, in particular, the concerns of ‘la frontera’ or the border.” Saturday, for example, will began with “a performance conversation” of U.S. asylum laws and practices “and the ways in which these structures perpetrate the abuse and dangers immigrant women are fleeing.”

There was more about Saturday evening, when “special guests from the worlds of music, comedy and writing make a safe space to explore the vanguard of feminism, trans-rights and justice.”

The roster of celebrity radicals allotted prime stage time evinces the politicization of the event. Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, self-described on her website as “a black, queer, gender non-conforming activist” is thus “featured in conversation” with Jill Soloway, a TV producer who writes of her goal “to topple the patriarchy.” The party line continues with Anita Sarkeesian, founder of the site Feminist Frequency, a “resource for feminist media criticism.”

Grandly, the festival promises a night of “revolution from the vanguard of intersectional power.” Intersectionality, for the blissfully unaware, is fancy jargon for a perverse attitude that sees the world through the lens of privilege and oppression, a never-ending set of victim-combinations of race, gender, age, sexuality, physical disability, etc. etc. The word is liberally sprinkled on the event’s website. As practiced on college campuses, intersectionality promotes simplistic good versus evil thinking, a mindset that sees invited speakers physically attacked and shouted down.

Of course, Believer is also a literary event. But here, too, the top-billed authors stay in the identity politics lane. Tommy Orange is slated to discuss his critically acclaimed novel “There There,” which explores the lives of Native American characters in an urban environment. Kiese Laymon’s memoir “Heavy” deals with a black child struggling with weight (see intersectionality above). Mira Jacob’s “Good Talk” is described by her publisher as “a graphic memoir about American identity, interracial families and the realities that divide us.” While these books, and those of other invited writers, may have merit and contribute to a valuable dialogue, as a package they reinforce the bias of an event for which the concept of the individual seems anathema.

All this gloomy uniformity suggests that BMI is taking a stance that would stifle debate rather than promote critical thinking. And this should concern us all. Art should be a stressor, not a servant of politics. The recent past has thrown up enough examples of art as a tool of totalitarian tyrannies on the left and the right. In its highest form, art should challenge orthodoxy, make us question our views, be honest with ourselves.

The Believer Festival may not be the only hint of virtue signaling at The Black Mountain Institute. Consider the recent, not-so subtle change to the biennial Jim Rogers Contrarian Lecture. Founded in 2015 in honor of the late Jim Rogers, a man described on the UNLV website as “a fierce and renowned contrarian,” the series invites “a celebrated writer and intellectual to quarrel with conventional wisdom.”

In 2017, Walter Kirn presented the Contrarian Lecture and showed how exciting a literary event can be. Kirn, whose topic was “fake news,” discussed the insidious effect of social media on our ability to be skeptical. He spoke about the importance of fiction in discovering truth. Days later, though Kirn made no mention (that I can remember) of the author, I stewed over the old debate of whether one of my literary heroes, George Orwell, fabricated parts of his essay “Shooting an Elephant.” I won’t digress, except to say that Kirn’s lecture helped me better appreciate the beauty of fiction in a time of Fox News and HuffPost. His talk elevated art, not ideology.

Sadly, the Jim Rogers Contrarian Lecture, like the Believer Festival, may have strayed into BMI’s politically correct cross hairs. This year’s event, on March 25, eschewed “a traditional lecture on a weighty subject,” instead offering “a live experience … a panoply of voices from residents.” While Amanda Fortini read her essay “The People of Las Vegas,” which was contrarian only in the sense that it corrected cheap tropes about our city put forth by, in her words, “mostly men” journalists, six speakers of diverse background interjected with brief comments on their Las Vegas experiences. One speaker promoted The Intersection (that word again); a multicultural resource center explicitly described on the UNLV website as a “safe, healthy, physical space.”

Ultimately, what’s tragic is that the Believer Festival and the Rogers Contrarian Lecture gave the Las Vegas literary community hope; an anticipation of something provocative and inspirational. Recent developments suggest BMI is steering a port side course to dogma.

Andrew R. Hatherley is a Las Vegas writer. Follow @ARHatherley on Twitter.

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