The Grand Burners.Me Ho-tell

This is the 1000th post on this blog, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect a bit.

The official Burning blog has 1,771 posts. Their first two are from September, 2001, and liken the explosion of fire and dust of Burning Man to the collapse of the World Trade Center, asking if the images we saw were just another Hollywood special effect.

Writer Jon Fox said:

Burning Man has become another symbol of home — an androgynous man who presides over his domain, welcoming weary travelers every year. The only constant being his own fiery destruction…

This city, immense in scope was built purely on the spirit of all that works about humanity. Black Rock City is about possibility; about creating from within for no other reason than because we can. It is about art and connection; about freedom, peace, adventure and destruction as a release of that which binds us. There is no time, no money, no politics, no good, and no evil. There is what there is and it is all brought in by the citizens of the city, for when there is no city, there is nothing. Each person brings a gift, whether an engraved necklace with a picture of the man, or a song, or back rub or drink of water. Why? If you ask, you don’t understand.

The very nature of the event attracts the truly greatest specimens of humanity, for only the truly gifted would be prepared enough and interest in taking on the harsh desert environment to create a gift as magical as a city that is not there.

photo credit: International Arts Megacrew

photo credit: International Arts Megacrew

…So when I see the destruction of today and what is truly possible when a small group of people so committed to something make it happen, I take pause. If this faceless group, so committed to destruction can accomplish what we, safe and sound in America never thought possible, I shudder to think what’s possible if another group did so out of freedom, peace, love and creativity.

Burning Man is indeed a miracle and is something that we shall be thankful for forever and ever. In two short weeks, I have seen all that is good about humanity, as strange and perverse as so-called “normal” people would have us (remember, we’re the weird ones) and all that is bad.

So, I watch my physical home covered in dust and smoke and think of my (meta)physical home all covered in dust and smoke. One explosions over turned by another and the eerie similarity of the two scenes. The background is different. The foreground is different. But somewhere, deep inside at the hottest part of the fire, they overlap. It’s is in here I stand and know that everything is still alright as long as we are all creating and we are doing so together

As you can see, even 13 years ago, in the face of the greatest tragedy America has ever experienced, Burning Man’s self-importance takes center stage.

Bizarrely, the very first words on their very first post are “September 1, 2001”. This was during Burning Man, describing the attacks ten days before they happened. It’s titled “Tale of Two Cities”, by FreshieDoug.

photo credit: Ray Mikota

photo credit: Ray Mikota

The tears swell in my eyes thinking of those who lie dead covered in the dust from a modern marvel that took years to build, but only minutes to destroy. The dust is reminiscent of the playa, a side effect of our own actions out there that is as much a recurring reminder that we have our weaknesses and limitations, as it is a nuisance in the daily living. The dust from the playa brought tears to my eyes, tears of joy from the awaking of my spirit within. The dust I witnessed on the tube 3000 miles away brought only tears of sorrow and pain.

Should I put a picture side by side of the two events? They both look similar, a white cloud that looms close to the earth carrying particles that test the human strength and endurance. Should such an identical image from each event be found, it is unimaginable that the spirit underlying be as opposite from each other as possible. One place, the center of the world, the other as desolate as one can get in our country. In a white out they both look the same.

Either the first words they ever wrote on their blog were a lie, or this is evidence of a vast and deep conspiracy. I’m going to go with the former, given the number of other lies, exaggerations and mis-statements we’ve heard from BMOrg over the years.  Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels said:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”


photo from Funologist

I’m no Paragon of Virtue, but I’m also not a liar. I am a life-long student of organizational behavior, which mixes business theory and psychology. Propaganda is an established technique for population control, and the few dozen people employed full-time by BMOrg’s 6 (?) founders have a big population to control. Thousands of volunteers, some of whom have put in tens of thousands of hours to the event. The citizens of Black Rock City, all 68,000 69,613 of them last year. The broader community of people who “Like” Burning Man on Facebook, as I write this: 601,666.  The total population of Burners, the cumulative amount of people who have attended the party since it began almost 30 years ago on Baker Beach in 1986: 657,493. Obviously, some of these numbers overlap, but in recent years it has become clear that BMOrg have a deliberate policy of “out with the old, in with the new”. 36.5% were Virgins in 2012, 40% in 2013. 70% have been 2 or fewer times. BMOrg are able to shape these numbers, because their system of Burner profiles and STEP forces Burners to declare how many times they’ve been, before being lucky enough to get chosen by some invisible black box to get tickets.

In just under 2 and a half years, Burners.Me’s online community has grown to 55,200 (Facebook), 1271 (Twitter), and 586 (WordPress) – a total of 57,057. We’re now the second biggest online community of Burners in the world, neck and neck with mobile Burning Man sound camp and East Coast warehouse ravers Robot Heart: 56,956 (Facebook) and 588 (Twitter), total 57,544. We’re bigger than the Burning Man party itself ever has been (56,149), with the exception of last year when the population cap was increased by the BLM to 70,000. Our posts are frequently in WordPress’s Top 100, and some weeks our reach on Facebook exceeds half a million people.

This audience has been built by sharing opinions about stories related to Burner culture found on the Internet, rather than propaganda, deception, and the pursuit of commerce.

We’ve been accused of bias, and I can accept that: we are biased towards the truth. Often this positions us against BMOrg, but that doesn’t mean we’re against Burning Man. You see, I don’t believe that BMOrg makes the party. I believed them when they said “no spectators”, and it’s clear to me – as I’ve tried repeatedly to demonstrate here – that Burners are the ones who make the party.

trollWe’ve been accused of lying, and this I vehemently dispute. Any time a member of the online shill and troll army accuses Burners.Me of disinformation or falsehood, I ask them to prove it. Or even, just to give us a specific example of it. They always vanish into the ether, or hijack the thread with ad hominem attacks. Yet the meme persists, “Burners.Me is a disinformation site, Burners.Me is just like the National Enquirer”. Ask yourself why is that, and where does it come from? I’m just a guy on the Internet, I have no inside knowledge of whatever happens at Burning Man, but what gets published on this blog is true – and we provide references to our sources. If it’s speculation, or unsubstantiated rumor, we say that; this doesn’t mean that we publish unfounded speculation or simply any rumor that hits our inbox. If a source asks to remain anonymous, we respect that; if something sounds untrue, we do our best to verify it. Believe me, there’s plenty that we haven’t published.

photo credit: Aaron Muszalski

photo credit: Aaron Muszalski

There was one post that turned out not to happen, “Busting Man: RIOT calls for general strike at Burning Man”. Was there really a group of disgruntled DPW volunteers out on the Playa, ready to strike over the excessive police presence? I think there was, but I wasn’t there at the time myself to verify it first hand. Certainly, the police presence last year was stronger than ever, with sniffer dogs being brought in from the US border. Business Insider said “Federal Agents Swarming Burning Man”, Boing Boing said “the pigs are here”, even BMOrg’s own blog spoke of “Holy War”. Although a strike was avoided, right after the event BMOrg suddenly settled their lawsuit and caved to all Pershing County’s demands for money. I’m pretty sure the heavy handed police tactics were a contributing factor to that, we’ll see if things are any better this year. The author of that piece, Whatsblem The Pro from Reno,  has not written for Burners.Me since December 2013, and despite his threats at the time that “your traffic will be nothing without me”, has not written anything at his own Burner blog either.

The haters are vocal, but the Likers are clearly in the majority.

It’s always amusing to me that Burners.Me gets accused of making things up or lying, when all we’ve done since the beginning is expose lies and hypocrisy of others. BMOrg used to be a sacred cow, magically above criticism. Anyone in the community who spoke out against them could expect to be shunned or publicly attacked. Steven Jones, aka Scribe, was openly critical of BMOrg’s stated plans to become a non-profit in his column at the SF Bay Guardian. In the face of all the online backlash, he retreated and penned a piece “how I learned to stop worrying and just trust Larry” – which was promoted in the BRC Weekly.

1998 ticketI have been to Burning Man 11 times now, and always enjoyed it. The first time I went was 1998. Officially, there were 10,000 people there; it seemed more like 7 or 8 thousand. There were some art cars, some naked people, some big art, and some theme camps. There was a lot of fire. Mostly, though, there was a sense of camaraderie – that we had all made this journey to the middle of nowhere, into about the harshest conditions you can find in the United States, just to be together. Just for the purpose of a party. You could walk up to anyone and talk to them, you could walk into any camp site and be welcomed. People would offer you things purely from a spirit of hospitality; there was no Principle that said Gifting was required. The ticket said “no spectators”, but the event itself was less of a spectacle, and more just a bunch of people camping in tents and RV’s. After the Man burned, people used to throw their own things into the bonfire – sometimes even their entire camp, wooden structures built to live in for a week and then destroyed. The idea of “letting go of the past” that is now associated with the Temple, was associated with throwing objects with symbolic meaning onto the blazing pile that was the remains of The Man. There was a real anti-establishment celebration of freedom to the event. We were burning The Man, we had come all this way to get away from The Man and do whatever we want without adult supervision. It felt like a crowd, maybe even a big village, but not a city.

Today, it is a counter-culture phenomenon. It’s most definitely bigger and more city-like. There is an airport and a census, there are hundreds of art cars and thousands of theme camps. There are billionaires and celebrities and Presidential candidates. The Esplanade has become so crowded it’s hard to cycle through it – last year, even the Playa itself between Esplanade and Man was getting crowded. The event has its own language, customs, and rules. There are Ten Principles for Burners to memorize, and castigate others with. There are adults who have been going since they were small children, they have literally grown up living in Black Rock City. It has been wonderful to watch this explosion of culture and innovation.

However, I am under no illusions that anyone is changing the world here. It’s a party, if you go for reasons other than the music, you still can’t deny that the music is a major component of the event. Just like the drugs are a major component: anyone who thinks the majority of the people there don’t consume any illegal drugs is clearly on drugs themselves. It’s a rave, and in terms of area, the world’s biggest. It’s an art festival, but not of contemporary art like Art Basel or the Venice Biennale. A third of Burners consider themselves artists. Burning Man has been called “the Special Olympics of Art”. Larry Harvey likes to boast “no artist has ever put their name on a piece at Burning Man”. Although this is not true, it is indicative of Burning Man’s place in the art world. The after-market for Burning Man art is small, and large sculptures with electro-mechanical components that have been exposed to the harsh alkaline environment of the Playa are more likely to deteriorate in value than appreciate.

Republican-Burning-ManI have no particular ax to grind with BMOrg, somebody needs to organize this event and pay the cops. Are the 17  members of the Board of Directors the ideal stewards to bring our culture to the rest of the planet? I don’t think so. The whole thing is shrouded in secrecy, and it seems like the potential for conflicts of interest is high. Their previous charity, the Black Rock Arts Foundation, has a terrible track record of money raised versus money given away. The Founders are cashing out, and their succession planning is unclear. Many changes have been “coming soon” for years. As they “transition to a non-profit”, it seems like the structure and operations of the organization are becoming more similar to conventional profit-making corporate groups. Like Google and Apple, they use multiple companies governed under one umbrella to reduce their tax bill, maybe even avoid it entirely. Many of the core long-term members of the BMOrg team (eg. Andie Grace, Joseph Pred) have left over the last couple of years. The new generation, like Burning Man’s globe trotting Social Alchemist Bear Kittay, are unproven as leaders. Do the self-indulgent, entitled Millenials even get Burner culture? Can they? Or does all Burner culture worldwide have to change into what Burning Man’s 70% n00bz think Burning Man is today, just because the population of this one annual party is ageing?

I firmly believe that what we’ve collectively created at Burning Man over almost three decades is something amazing. A celebration of human ingenuity, at once funny and inspiring and maddening. Elon Musk complained about the hilarious new Mike Judge TV show “Silicon Valley”, saying “to really understand Silicon Valley, go to Burning Man”. In a way that’s true, but wouldn’t it be great if Silicon Valley WAS like Burning Man? A couple of public sculptures here and there aren’t enough. The Bay Lights cost $8 million, including $1.6 million from WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. Now the lights have to come down, and they are trying to raise $20 million to put them back up. Think about how much “Burner Art” could be displayed in towns around America and the world, permanently, for that kind of money – benefitting the towns, the artists, and the culture.

google-bus-640-craig-frost-twitter_large_verge_medium_landscapeRight now, Silicon Valley is in the midst of a class warfare battle with the people of San Francisco. Larry Harvey has claimed Burning Man was the impetus for the shift of the tech industry’s capital from Palo Alto in the South, the heart of the Valley, to the city itself. Many people in the city don’t like this latest “tech boom”, and their protests have included slashing tires on Google trucks, bashing glassholes, and puking all over Yahoo buses.

If Burning Man, and Burner culture, could play a part in solving these social problems then maybe there is something good for the world in this. Maybe it is “more than just a party”. Shooting the messenger is not the answer, neither is selling more merchandise. I really appreciate everyone who has read this page and shared their own thoughts and comments, whether they agree with me or not, they are contributing to a conversation about Burner culture that is on the digital record. I’d particularly like to thank repeat commenters Nomad Traveler, A Balanced Perspective, T_Groan, Burner Jim, Senor Spamdump, Blues Bob, Piko, Toburn. And a special giant thanks to our cartoonist Christopher, who has shared his work for free.

Will I keep spending my time and money to give you another 1000 posts about Burning Man for free? I don’t know if I can write another 1000 posts about Burning Man, we’ll see. “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans”, said Woody Allen. For the time being, I will continue to share my opinions about Burner culture. You don’t have to agree, you don’t even have to read. As they say at That Thing In The Desert: “if you don’t like it, start your own!”