Last year we had the celebrity invasion, with a big deal made about big names like P.Diddy, Susan Sarandon, and General Wesley Clark attending Burning Man.
Will this be the year of the Political Invasion? Politician Grover Norquist, a prolific tweeter who campaigns against taxes, has caused a media stir with his announcement that he is going to Burning Man this year. Grover is a Republican, as supposedly is Burning Man itself – according to the Washington Post, who wrote a story about The Mainstream Republican Values of Burning Man.
SF Gate responded to the news by saying “the shark may have been jumped on the Playa”.
The New York Post acted all Burnier-than-thou by correcting Norquist’s use of “it’s” (apparently proper spelling and punctuation is a requirement for tweets), and pointed out that he’s a regular entrant in the “funniest celebrity in Washington” contest.
A scene from 2007, before Burning Man died
Vanity Fair described the announcement as “The Day Burning Man Died”:
After being injured repeatedly by an ever-increasing celebrity population and an onslaught of #brands, the Burning Man festival died on Monday, July 28, 2014. The final, fatal blow came when Grover Norquist, a 57-year-old tax policy agitator and the president of Americans for Tax Reform, tweeted that he would be attending this year’s iteration of the festival.
First Diplo and Diddy, and now this? Our condolences for longtime attendees, who may have to get dusty (and dusted) elsewhere.
The LA Times has suggested some Things For Grover Norquist To Do:
- The Spank Bank. As the Burning Man website says, this is “a sensual playa spanking experience” where you can “have your bottom spanked while being treated to a cocktail.” If he’s not into having people spank his behind, he can get spanked by a robot. Either way, a good reason to drop trou in the desert. Afterward, he can recover by paying a visit the Hiney Hygiene Station.
- Pole Dancing. Norquist. Pole dancing. In a genie bottle. The mind reels.
- Sideshow Freak Confessional. Might Norquist confess that he sometimes drives on tax-funded highways, visits tax-funded national parks, and eats foods for which farmers have received tax-funded subsidies? Nah.
- The Orgy Dome. Pack a towel.
- The Bad Idea Bar. A place, besides Washington, that actually wants bad ideas.
The National Journal quotes Grover as saying that Burning Man was the reason the Republicans lost their last election, because their National Convention takes place in the same week as the festival:
How did a conservative activist like Norquist get interested in Burning Man? He tells the story like this: A couple of years ago, Larry Harvey—the founder of Burning Man—was in Washington to negotiate with the National Park Service about land use for the festival, which takes place on federal land. Harvey later stopped by Americans for Tax Reform’s weekly Wednesday meeting, and [ended] up going to dinner with Norquist and his wife, Samah Alrayyes Norquist. “You’ve got to come out!” Harvey told them.
Unfortunately, the stars did not align for Norquist that year—the Republican National Convention was scheduled for the same weekend as Burning Man. In July 2012, Norquist tweeted, “Which idiot put the GOP convention the same time as ‘Burning Man‘ in Nevada? Is there time to change this?”
“It wasn’t doable with schedules and so on because the Republicans put their convention right on top of Burning Man, silly people,” Norquist told National Journal on Tuesday. “That’s why they probably lost the election.“
Burning Man “founder” John Perry Barlow, also a Grover (and Dick Cheney’s campaign manager), figured out the way to get around this in 2004:
If someone like Karl Rove 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 … when they have an art car to build.
…Barlow then admitted that despite his polemic, he would be going back to Burning Man this year — although not for the entire week. For the first three days, he will be at the Republican National Convention in New York City, and he wondered how many other Burning Man devotees would similarly split their time.
Despite never having been to Burning Man, Norquist’s dinner with Larry Harvey two years ago entitles him to explain to us the political kinship of the event:
Norquist insists that the drug-filled utopia in the desert shares some common values with his own group, Americans for Tax Reform.
“Burning Man was founded in ’86, the same year as the Pledge, and the first Burning Man had 20 people at it, and our first Center-Right Meeting—the Wednesday Meeting—also had 20 people. So I think there’s a real kinship there,” Norquist says. “These are very similar operations, except we tend to wear more clothes perhaps at the Wednesday Meetings.”
Burning Man relies on a “giving economy” where attendees are encouraged to give goods and services free of charge—a system that Harvey has called “old-fashioned capitalism.”
Old-fashioned capitalism, in the sense that Robber Barons and Feudal Lords are old-fashioned.
…this is hardly the first instance of capitalists like Norquist being drawn to Burning Man. In recent years, Silicon Valley’s elite, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, have flocked to the event.
Order from Chaos
Norquist says the festival is a good example of the theory of spontaneous order. The theory, which was promoted by Austrian economists like Friedrich Hayek, holds that a natural structure will emerge out of a seemingly chaotic environment without need for outside intervention.
“There’s no government that organizes this,” Norquist said. “That’s what happens when nobody tells you what to do. You just figure it out. So Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.”
No-one telling you what to do, huh? Grover should probably read the Terms and Conditions of his ticket, which 5 years ago in 2009 were just over 2 pages long, and today are 9 pages long. The rules include “I hereby appoint Burning Man as my representative to protect my intellectual property or privacy rights”, a clause that is not limited by any trivial concerns about scope or context. Upset about NSA spying? Don’t worry, BMOrg are protecting you.
“This is a fun, exciting, cheerful collection of people being free of state control and doing stuff they want to do,” he continued. “If somebody wants to sit in a corner and read Hayek, I think that that’s allowed. If people want to run around with not as much clothes as they normally do, I think that’s allowed as well.”
Once he gets to Black Rock, he doesn’t have an objective. “I’m going to chat with people who have done it before and who are there, and go with the flow,” he said.
In the past, Norquist has supported federal tax breaks for marijuana growers. So, will he be partaking of the buffet of drugs that Burning Man has to offer?
“I think lots of things should be legal that I don’t do,” he tersely replied.
Norquist said he needs to figure out what items to bring to contribute to the “giving economy,” and joked that he would bring signed copies of his new book. But he admitted that in the playa, a bottle of water is more valuable. That’s the beauty of the market at work.
The drugs buffet starts at Center Camp each day, from 6am to 10am. Alcohol will not be served, bring your own.
Burning Man’s first historian, Brian Doherty, interviewed Grover about the controversy caused by his Tweet in Reason:
…Norquist even invited Harvey to one of his notorious Wednesday morning meetings of various representatives of the small-government coalition, the whole “vast right wing conspiracy” in a room, and Harvey attended. Harvey and I discussed Norquist’s interest in the event back in 2012.
The reaction to Norquist’s announcement has been, well, peculiar. Lots and lots of inexplicable shock and hostility. I should think after all these years, “anyone goes to Burning Man” stories shouldn’t be that interesting. That it is the “bonfire of the techies,” a magnet for high-end superrich tech industry folk from Bezos to Page, has been discussed since 1997 and is now a cliche. The festival is very officially dedicated to the principle of “radical inclusion.”
Hell, I traded stories about wounds with former NATO commander and Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark while stuck in line because the gate was inexplicably closed for a few hours just last year at Burning Man. My tracheotomy scar from Guillain-Barre, Clark’s bullet wound in the hand—it was part of a game this lady made both of us play. Clark admitted, in a candid moment inspired by the game, to feeling the desire for vengeance on the man who shot him. No one called him out publicly on being who he was, though at least a few people involved in the extended conversation did know.
Any and everyone who can afford a ticket is very officially welcome [even sex offenders – Ed.]. That’s the very definition of the “spirit of Burning Man.” Lest you wonder what a small-government warrior like Norquist might see in it, note that “radical self-reliance” is another of the principles meant to animate the event.
Norquist told me today that he is tickled by the idea of Burning Man because of the radical inclusion and the “radical individualism” and that “anyone who thinks people should run their own lives should be into” the idea of Burning Man. He expects it to be like “sitting on the Left Bank of the Seine watching the world pass by on hyperspeed”—that he hopes to encounter a variety of human lifeways, art, and fun of an unparalled variety, in essence. If he wanders around enough, he certainly will. He adds that it took a while to convince his wife to agree, and hopes he can sell her on the motorcycle rally in Sturgis next.
What does he make of the shock about this eventful news, Grover goes to Burning Man? “The right has a good idea of what guys on the left are like. We live in a world and a culture they dominate, we know what they think. They tend not to have a clue what conservatives do and think, all they have is a caricature.” Norquist notes that it’s pure ignorant prejudice to assume someone who wants to lower taxes can’t possible appreciate, understand, or enjoy a culture filled with those who don’t, or might not.
I have in the past mocked the notion of the event having ideological principles at all. But if you are supposedly standing up for what “Burning Man is all about, man,” making ignorant and unwitty “gee I guess Burning man is officially over now!” comments (see Slate and Vanity Fair) or even making subtle or not-subtle threats on Norquist if he shows up, as I’ve regretfully seen twice in social networks in the past day, shows you just have not the slightest idea of what you are talking about. A strong libertarian tendency ran through many of the early shapers of Burning Man through elements in the Cacophony Society, though not through Larry Harvey himself. Harvey, at the very least, tolerates and appreciates interaction with those who disagree with his own politics.
Or it could be those upset about this news are so dedicated, in their open liberal tolerance, to refusing to have anything to do with people who disagree with them about capital gains taxes that their thought processes are short-circuited.
Way back in 2000 I wrote this Reason cover story on the complicated evolution of the festival’s relationship with government, internal and external. The event rose in anarchy and despite the presence of cops—lots of cops—in actual functioning, the city that is built and inhabited each year to constitute Burning Man is essentially anarchist, with public services of sorts—porta-johns and graded roads and some partly-funded public art—arising from freely paid ticket prices, not taxes. While commerce is officially discouraged—you aren’t allowed to vend there, aboveground—the spirit of the event is otherwise all about do your own thing, but don’t harm others. Perfectly libertarian, and perfectly in keeping with Norquist’s particular “leave us alone coalition” brand of conservatism
Tax reform? Bring it on. Maybe “Disneyland In Reverse” can change the world. Will Norquist partake of the diverse array of organic and pharmaceutical mind-altering substances on offer? Let’s hope so.
when it was his turn to speak, Harvey, in his typically elliptical, muttering style, took a different tack. He described standing on Golden Gate Park’s Hippie Hill in the 1960s, feeling convinced that a great wave of enlightenment would soon roll over the entire world.
“I was peaking,” he admitted, to much appreciative laughter from the audience. It was a fallacy to believe that personal experiences of awe led to appreciable change in the world, Harvey said, and it was never his goal to make Burning Man into more than an “initiation”.
Is Grover going to be initiated into our cult too? At the very least, somebody give the man a pink parasol.