What Dreams May Come – Part II: The Introduction

[Part I]

The people have spoken. And it’s as I predicted: most think there is room in the world for more than one Burning Man-style event.

So far in our poll, about three quarters are in favor of something new. A fifth think there can only ever be Burning Man in the world, and that’s it. Even the Regionals can never compete. For these people it’s capped at 70,000, so inevitably will become more exclusive. Every year, more Veterans can’t go, which this group sees as a good thing. A different group, only 4%, think the future is in the Regionals controlled by BMOrg. I think it would be fair to call that segment of our community the Kool Aid drinkers.

We’ll see what happens when more Burners return from the Playa, maybe they’ll go back through this blog and read this, and maybe they’ll vote differently. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

Burning Man is a festival of creativity first, and art second. Creativity could be MacGyvering a tool to solve a problem in the middle of nowhere. It could be figuring out a way to get that hot girl back to your tent. It could be working out how to get water when you run out and your survival is at stake.

Whatever form it takes, creativity thrives on freshness. And Burning Man is becoming stale. If it has jumped the shark, then we’re the shark.

And we’re swimming around a great big ocean, looking for more good times.

“Enough bashing Burning Man!”, cry the readers. “What are we going to do about it? Do you have a vision for something better, or can you only criticize others?”

Good question. So permit me this long answer, which is going to require several parts. It takes a few iterations before a vision becomes simple to explain. And this isn’t just about my vision – I want to hear your ideas too. If we create something together, what’s that going to look like?

I have put a lot of work into this blog in the last 2.5 years, and if it’s going to continue – go to the next level, even – then it’s going to take a lot more work. More than one person can do. I’m going to need allies, Burners and Camps and tribes that share a vision of trying something new. Of doing it better. We will risk failure, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The prize would be the preservation of the awesome bits of global Burner culture, and encouraging it to evolve in a direction to help the planet as well as ourselves.

Forget Leave No Trace – I want to Leave It Better.

If we’re to imagine something wonderful together, Burners, then it’s important to me that you understand where I’m coming from. If there’s a war between the inclusive Burners and the Burnier-Than-Thous, then I want to make it clear which side I’m on. It’s the side of the Burners. The rebels, the freaks, the cyberpunks, the nomads, the international adventurers. If you’re reading this blog now, then you’re probably not at Burning Man, and maybe some of you are interested. Or you’re back from Burning Man, which means you’re definitely interested.

Think of this as About Burners.Me, the Extended Edition.

Buckminster Fuller is a hero of mine. Up there with Tesla as one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He once said:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
R. Buckminster Fuller

I have no interest in fighting Burning Man. They can do their thing, and we’ll keep writing about it. It’s definitely grown to become a big event on the annual Burner calendar, like a week-long Halloween. There is plenty of other time in the year for more things to go on in more places. As Burner culture spreads, the one event becomes less and less significant overall. 75% of Burners say there is room for something more. I think there’s a great deal of room.



This new space we’re dreaming up needs a name. To get started I’m going to call it Burnland. Think Disneyland, but a cool one for Burners, not the cheesy one for kids with its Mickey Mouse Club spewing out pop idols.

I see Burner culture as a movement. It’s a big, worldwide movement, bigger than me, bigger than you, bigger than Burning Man, bigger than all of us. It’s the future, manifesting into reality through art and music and imagination and inspiration. Through skill and connections, through access to capital and audience. Makers and designers and inventors and artists and promoters and performers.

The section of the movement I’m interested in for Burnland, is not the same as Burning Man’s demographic. Ours has members. If you’re in, you’re in – you’ve made that choice. You want to be a part of Burnland. Sure, you can invite your guests to come play with you, even if they’re not members. Some events are members only, some are open to the public. You can check it out casually, no strings attached. Just buy a temporary member ship, for a night or a week. You don’t have to be “acculturated” or “brainwashed” to attend. But no-one is part of “we” until they freely and explicitly choose to be.

Membership does not have to be unlimited, and open to all comers. There is no need for grand ambitions, or to take over the world. Let’s just try to make something awesome, something that is simple and appealing and scaleable. Something we can teach others to replicate in their home towns and also profit from. Something that the community can all benefit from together. Something that can give back and Leave It Better.

Burnland is something I’ve been envisioning for some time. I guess you could say it’s my Burning Man art project, the thing that I was inspired to dream of from the first time I went out to the Black Rock Desert. Even before that, my friends and I had been doing “raver camping” in bigger, badder deserts in the Australian Outback. Creating techno micro-villages for the weekend in the middle of nowhere, with solar panels and wi-fi. In my case, glamping – I had an off-road caravan with solar-power air conditioning, formerly used by a demolitions expert working for the mining companies. It had a bathroom, a shower, and a mirrored table like it was a suite at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. I towed it with a 14-seater offroad mini-bus called an Oka. We could go anywhere, and we did.

If you ever get the chance, go to an Eclipse party. Many of the people on the Eclipse circuit (yes, there is one, just like there’s a festival circuit) go to Burning Man too. It’s a great time, and a magical event to experience with a crowd of 10,000+ people in the middle of nowhere.

Instead of an art car, I contracted an engineer to construct me a road-legal custom hot tub trailer. It had a gas heater and a generator which ran the whole camp as well as the pumps. We could go miles from anywhere, pump water in from a fresh mountain stream, and be partying outdoors gazing at the stars from the hot tub in 45 minutes. We had the music pumping as loud as we wanted, all night long. And we wanted it loud. I’m talking parties around 30-40 people, a small group of friends getting together for a weekend adventure. With a laser or two. Some of us would DJ, we’d drink from a cooler and sit on camping chairs around a fire. Nothing fancy.


We had a really, really good time. A large amount of fun. We called it Chicken Madness.

If you think that makes me a douchebag, well, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not going to be welcome at my party. Have a nice day.




Something to listen to while you read…

When I first went to Burning Man in 1998, I recognized some similar elements from our camping parties. Instead of embracing the temporary, transitory, destructive, oasis in the desert is-it-all-illusion nature of the event, Burning Man inspired me to think of permanence. There was finally a location that I could go to be me.

And what me did I want to be? How did I wanted to express my radical self? I wanted to turn my stereo on and blast my favorite tunes.

Doof Doof Doof Doof

What if there was a city, somewhere in the world, that you could go to any time you wanted, crank the music up, party, and in doing that you’re actually being friendly to all your neighbors. If you like loud music, there are not many places you can go and do that. Sure, there are places you can go and listen to the loud music of others. Mostly nightclubs. And there is your  home, where your neighbors are liable to rat you out to the police if you turn your stereo above a certain volume. Or worse – I’ve been in situations where murder was threatened over my stereo volume. Even though we’d already turned it down.

angel of deaf cartoonWhen I first went to Burning Man I thought that’s what it was, a place where everyone had gone all the way into the middle of the desert so they could do what they want without annoying the neighbors. A festival of freedom. As it has grown the imposition of ever-increasing noise restrictions, and venom towards the Sound Camps from the founders, has been pushing it away from that. Not to mention police with sniffer dogs, pulling Burners over because their bike rack blocks their license plate when they’re not even on the public roadway.

I used to live on a beautiful 300 acre woodland property in Australia. My own private forest. A famous musician lived next door, and I’d hear his parties all the time. It wasn’t doof though. No subwoofers involved. When I turned my own stereo on, the kangaroos loved it, and would come closer to the house. They’d laze around on the lawn all day listening to it, basking in the sun and feeling the beats. I never actually got a noise complaint, but one time came close. 14 police showed up at the gates to the ranch. People had complained from 2 suburbs away. I had rented 2 Funktion1 mid-range speakers and 2 subs, which would be a small system even for an art car at Burning Man. I was on the largest privately held land parcel in Melbourne, and my stereo was too loud. Where to go?

More recently, I was living on a 6 acre vineyard in Sonoma. I had no neighbors, just other vineyards. I was next to the highway, which in itself is quite noisy. My Burning Man JBL system cost me less than $3k brand new on Amazon, it plugs into a headphone jack and a 4-outlet power strip. If anyone is looking for a stereo, these great self-powered 15″ speakers are only three hundred bucks each right now.

Again, on the vineyard I never got an actual noise complaint. But it’s a small community, and some of my friends are long-time locals. Word got back to me, that people heard the music, and it was pissing them off. It wasn’t even close to full volume. I had 1 speaker and sub in the house, and 1 each outside on the deck.

I think it’s fair to say I like it loud. And I’m not the only one. And that has always been a huge drawcard of Burning Man to me. If you don’t like the music, you can go check out somewhere else with different music, or somewhere with no music. Or you can make your own. It’s open to anyone, and unlike most of the world, people who like it loud aren’t excluded. Some of this music is so good, it deserves to be turned up to 11.

So that’s got to be part of Burnland, for me – raging is a raison d’etre. It’s gonna be fucking loud, in lots of different places. Hey, there can be quiet zones too. I’m open to that. There can even be kids zones and work zones and commercial zones. But the kids and the fetish models and the naked people are not going to be mingling all together in the same spot.

The world needs more places where we can all go beserk, get crazy in a good way. Party with our hands in the air, like we just don’t care. Cast off the rules and shackles of existence, leave the day-to-day reality of our lives on hold for a little while and just have fun. A serious amount of fun.





blackjack hookersI am going to propose 9 Principles, just to show we’re starting by trying to make things easier. We don’t even need that many. Everything we need can actually be summed up in a word: karma. If you understand the principle of karma, which I believe to be a fundamental force in this Universe, then you will be naturally inclined towards acting positively, with kindness and compassion towards others. You will do good things because you understand that it is in your own self-interest, as well as in everyone’s.

Of these 9 Principles, I think they are all important, but if we were to just stick to Leave It Better then Burnland will always be improving. And that’s the main thing. If anything’s going to change, it should be the way the System of Organization of the City meets the needs of its constituents efficiently, harmoniously, amusingly, and wonderfully.

There are probably others, and these should by no means be considered as final. Let’s put our heads together, and dream together of what could be. Maybe integrity should be one. Maybe goodwill, and being present.  Consider this a first cut.

 What’s In?

  1. Fun – this is light hearted, makes us laugh, the goal is to have a good time. Leave your tears at home.
  2. Abundance – With innovation and collaboration, we want those involved to flourish and prosper, and to help them if we can
  3. Leave it Better – How Can We Make This More Awesome? We prefer to build stuff than destroy things.
  4. Environment – Permaculture with Habitat Preservation. Strive to be harmonious with the earth
  5. Magic – even if we don’t know what it is, we believe there’s something. God, spirit, luck, kismet, whatever. We have a soul and our souls can connect.
  6. Consciousness Community- aware of our actions and their affect on others.We’re all in this together
  7. Listening, Learning, Teaching. Each one teach one. The Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. How to listen, how to learn, and how to respond.
  8. Love. Kindness, compassion, caring. For each other, for those less fortunate, for the earth, for the indigenous people who are custodians of the land.
  9. Transparency – open systems, open books, integrity and honesty.

What’s out?

All this shit about Radicals. “Rules for Radicals” is a guerilla warfare handbook for the political class, the “Community Organizers” like our current Dear Leader. This is the kind of stuff that was going on around UC Berkeley in the late 60’s, a time of civil unrest and racial tension. A young lawyer named Hillary Clinton was all over it, she wrote her famous thesis on it. Burning Man endorses progressive political candidates in San Francisco, as well as promoting their ties to Washington and Nevada politics. I would rather keep politics out of it. By all means, make it rad. But the radical extremists can go somewhere else. We want everyone to have a good time, you don’t have to be acculturated to an unusual way of thinking.

What else don’t we want? Haters. Broners. Nutjobs. Heavy, militarized police presence. Gangs. Sexual assault, or indeed, any assault. Bike theft. Satanists. I’m sure we can all think of plenty more. Rather than having to memorize principles, a 5-10 minute video on the sort of things we discourage should suffice.

What about tech?

Absolutely. Google founder, Billionaire Burner Larry Page is right – the tech industry needs some spaces it can experiment with new technologies, without freaking everybody out at once. I want to create those spaces, we can rent them to the tech companies and that can fund the creation of the community’s infrastructure.

I believe passionately in the ethos of the Open Source movement. I’ll be writing more on that in the coming week or so. It built the Internet, an amazing and precious gift to our civilization from the hackers. Let’s hope The Man doesn’t fuck it up for all of us with ever increasing regulations.

The Maker Movement and Burning Man have a big overlap. Fabrication is required to make these 3-dimensional art projects. Crossover skills are required. The art cars need lighting people. The lighting people need iPad interface developers. The artist needs a pyrotechnic specialist. I think that’s a great thing about Burning Man projects and camps, the way people are encouraged to collaborate on something that is a fun project with their friends, and results in something they can all do together. Why do we have to destroy it at the end, though? If something is cool, keep it there. Add to it, innovate, leave it better.

We have enough of everything already to make this community sought-after by those who want the Burner aesthetic. It’s a little bit steampunk, it’s a little bit Mad Max, it’s a little bit Agent Provocateur. You want an art car, or a fire sculpture DJ booth? Come to us. We have the space, the resources, the tools, the people, and the experience to make whatever you can dream of. And we invite others to come and make with us.

A sculpture gallery for big art could be a drawcard. So could experimental laser and LED technologies.

I have a lot of experience in business incubation and early-stage startups. Crowd-funding is radically disrupting the VC model. I see that as being a part of Burnland too. Innovation and Imagination are to be encouraged. Most start-ups need more than just money to become reality, and just like it takes a village to raise a child, a virtual community can help build a business. Just look at AirBnB…

In Burnland, commerce will be allowed, so long as it is relatively invisible. Authentication is important, I don’t want anyone to get in trouble for serving booze or smoking prescribed medication. I’m thinking wristbands is the best technology, it’s something most people get already if they’ve been to a festival. All access passes on a lanyard are kinda lame, wristbands are a collectors item for some. I liked the way they did this at the Wild Wadi waterslide park in Dubai. I’m sure there’s a high-tech way we could do it with smartphones or biometric ID as well. You can buy drinks, you can buy t-shirts, you can buy art – but no-one has to see money changing hands. The marketplace is a zone, one part of the space, not something omnipresent. Not a big souk in the middle that you are drawn to by a giant effigy. Exit through the gift shop.

Vendors can sell their wares. Artists can sell their art. Fashionistas can display their fashion. Opulence and decadence can be part of a good time had by all. That’s what being a community means, we want to support each other, keep the money in the community if we can. Tip your server. Shop locally.  We can have a big online mall to promote our community’s creations, a virtual market place. I think that most Burner artists would find a centralized gallery where they can trade their works and get commissions to be useful. We have a few on board already for this adventure, and I’m sure there are more out there who are reading this and would like to contribute to something new – and don’t mind if they make a few bucks for themselves along the way.

A rising tide lifts all boats, and if the whole community is prospering, it will just keep getting better and better. And that’s the goal. It doesn’t have to be perfect as long as it’s always improving. The best system is one that everyone can participate in, and benefit from.



“Radical Inclusion” is the wrong principle from the start. There are 7 billion people on this planet, you have to exclude some of them. In Burning Man’s case, their 70,000 peak population limit is 0.001% of world population. 99.999% are excluded, whatever they say about inclusion.

I think better than a principle, is a rule: No Dicks. AKA Principle Number 8. With love and kindness, and all due respect, if you’re going to be a dick to others, we don’t want you at our thing. Go to Burning Man, where with Radical Inclusion the Burnier-Than-Thous will welcome you with open arms, then try to acculturate you.

Rockwall DudetteI used to own a nightclub in Melbourne, Australia, called ZoS – Zone Of Separation. I was inspired by San Francisco’s DNA Lounge, which I’d heard was started by some guys who made their money in tech; and also by my hero Sir Richard Branson, who used his club Heaven in London to ensure that his finger was always on the pulse of what the hippest people in town were into. ZoS was licensed for about 1000 people at a time, and had a 24/7 liquor license. They party pretty hard Down Under. We would get maybe 5000 through the doors every week. An armored car would show up every Monday morning, and collect six figures worth of cash. I had a private room behind a 2-way mirror, looking over the dancefloor. I could chill out, I could party with my friends and talk to them in front of the A/C, I could dance like crazy without bumping into anyone, and I could look out at my customers all happy, whistling and cheering, dancing, having a great time. Any time I wanted to get amongst the people, I could slip into the crowd relatively anonymously; if I felt like socializing, there were a variety of Zones to do that including a sumptuous VIP lounge.

The Moser Room at ZoS

The Moser Room at ZoS

I’ve been to quite a few clubs in America, and elsewhere around the world. London, Ibiza, St Tropez, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico City, Dubai. I had a professional interest in it, as well as a personal interest in the music. The best clubs have a vibe, the whole crowd is going off. I started out with the music I loved, but learned pretty soon that we had to cater to the crowd. And I grew to love the same music the crowd did. I’m proud of the vibe that we created in that club, the whole team of people who made it work. Generally, it’s the promoters that make the club, not the venue…and that’s something that BMOrg just doesn’t seem to get.

One thing you can’t escape from in a club, is exclusivity. If it’s full, it’s full. A famous celebrity might show up with an entourage of 20 people, and if you want to let them in, you have to find 20 people to kick out. That’s how it works, if you want to run a good, clean, above-board, by the books venue. You comply with police and fire regulations. That’s partly why I wanted to own a club, because I got sick of all the gangster ones, and thought Melbourne could use a high-quality commercially operated venue.

So if you manage to create something cool, you always have to be rejecting people. It sucks to be rejected from a club, whatever the reason. We’ve all been there. The drunker you are, the more it sucks, the more belligerent people are inclined to be. Which sucks for the club security. Membership solves all these problems, you know that you can put yourself and your friends on the guest list.

“Life’s about choosing the kinds of problems you want to have”, was one of the best pieces of advice I ever got, from a fellow Aussie who’d spent a lot of time in San Francisco as a public company CEO. I took his advice and got out of the club scene. Like most clubs, ours was hot for a few years when it first opened and then it tapered off and the crowd changed. I met many famous people and beautiful women. I got to hear some of my favorite DJs, playing on a world class sound system. As a former computer nerd, it was a bit like creating an art car for Burning Man: it made me more cool in the eyes of strangers, and gave me an excuse to mingle with people from different walks of life. Generally, though, I went there to do my own thing, and socialize with my group of friends. Melbourne is kind of clique-y like that. I didn’t need the spotlight, I didn’t need to network, and I didn’t need to make new friends. The after party was already full enough.

I sold that investment and moved to San Francisco. I wanted to go to Burning Man, not nightclubs. I wanted to dance to the same music, but be around people who inspired me, fellow wacky eccentric geniuses who loved to collaborate with lasers and fire and art cars and glowy shit and all that good stuff. People who don’t care how much money others have, because they have plenty of their own. A place where being cool meant more than spraying randoms with $16,000 bottles of Louis Roederer.

Burning Man today is facing issues of Exclusivity. As much as they want to claim Radical Inclusion is dear to their hearts, it’s a promise that’s impossible for them to deliver on. Not everybody can go, so that means some have to get bounced away. Whether by Guest List or Algorithm or police roadblocks, it’s getting harder and harder to get into Burning Man.

So I’d rather embrace the inevitable, and use exclusivity as a good thing to make the crowd better. If the event is smaller, and not everyone can go, then you get to be selective. You can recognize your regulars, and let them back in. You can learn who the dicks are, and put them on the NO list.

Membership is the way to go. Look at Burning Man’s only real competitor for billionaires and their sherpas, Bohemian Grove. You have to be invited to join by existing members, there is a waiting list, you have to pay. They’ve been going strong since the 1870’s, and you might be surprised how many Burners are also Grovers. I know at least half a dozen.

Is it elitist? Sure is. No dicks. Or in their case, “Weaving spiders come not here”.

Membership gives people a reason to behave civilly towards their fellow club members. And if they misbehave, the club has a mechanism to eject them.

Burnland’s  community could throw larger events, open to lots of different audiences. Camps could throw their own parties, or the whole city could come together to throw a 50,000 person party any time you want. One night could be BDSM fetish-themed, at another time you could have an all ages event. Just showing up to a party once, doesn’t immediately make you a part of its community – let alone an owner of it. You’ve got to do something, contribute, or at the very least, buy your way in. Earn your place, if you didn’t get invited directly.

In the world I’m dreaming of, Burners can have a say, their vote can be counted. Building temporary cities is a chance to experiment with all kinds of political and social technologies. Let’s try Direct Democracy. Let’s try crowd-funding led civic budget allocations, and a tax system that lets you choose where the money gets spent. Let’s try Open Source government.

Right now there is an anti-rich, anti-tech backlash firestorm swirling around Burning Man. It reminds me of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where society turns on the rich and then collapses in on itself when all the talent fucks off somewhere they’re more appreciated. Read the comments in the online forums, some people are ferociously passionate about hating on the rich and wishing they all left Burning Man.

Well, I don’t want our community to include those haters. Rich people, you’re going to be welcome at Burnland. Bring all the sherpas you want, and if you want to outdo the person next to you with amazing art and extravagant entertainment, please: be my guest. You’re exactly the kind of Burner we want at Burnland, someone who has resources at their disposal to facilitate new and unqiue forms of self expression. That’s part of what the art is, the inspirational and (for some) aspirational element. What could be done? What dreams may come?

I want to hang out with my friends, and meet their friends. A community of makers, and doers, and shakers. That’s who my friends already are, and I’m sure many of the readers of this blog who I haven’t met personally yet are in this community too. Some of my friends are broke-ass, some of them are very wealthy, so what? That doesn’t define them to me. There’s much more to life than just money, money is simply a means to any number of different ends. What’s important to me is that my friends are all pretty positive people, none of them are haters. They’re good hearted, smart and funny and inspiring to be around. Everyone has something to offer, and Burnland should be about recognizing contributions and gratitude.

It doesn’t need to be 70,000 people. It doesn’t even need to be 10,000 people. Quality over quantity. I don’t need to meet every person in the world, but I would like to meet other interesting, well travelled, fun people. That’s about the extent of “networking” that I have done in 11 Burning Mans. And I have made some amazing friendships out of it.

If we’re going to make the awesomest community we can, then I want to do it with the best people: the individuals and Camps that would come to our location(s) and participate. Whether it’s to visit and check out a party, or a destination to drive their art car around at sometimes, or somewhere they can take some space and store their stuff and who knows, maybe build their own permanent camp that they visit regularly throughout the year.




Silence, Violence, and Self-Reliance

by Whatsblem the Pro

Burning Manson - Image by Whatsblem the Pro

Burning Manson – Image by Whatsblem the Pro

“Is Burning Man some kind of cult?” seems like an uninformed question that would only – could only – be seriously posed by a total outsider with little to no clue as to what it is we actually do in Black Rock City and beyond, or why. It’s natural and appropriate to scoff at the blatherings and jibba-jabba of fairytale-addled fools who think the event is some kind of week-long ritualistic orgy designed to call Satan Himself up from the brimstone-choked depths of Hades. . . but once you set aside the obviously absurd elements of such accusations, is it possible that we ourselves are failing to see the proverbial forest for the trees?

Clearly, the mere act of building large art and then burning it for kicks has very little to do with religion, and it’s absurd to claim that it does, no matter how you dress it up with similarities and parallels from actual religions. Just as clearly, it’s dead common for older veteran burners to openly mock and deride anything that might resemble cult dogma or cult leadership at Burning Man. That mockery and derision is often friendly and good-natured, but just as often contains some measure of genuine hostility against the for-profit company that runs Burning Man, for various – and often perfectly valid – reasons, historical or otherwise. . . the point being that it’s wildly out of character for cult members to behave that way, unless their ‘cult’ is a consciously self-mocking institution like the Church of the SubGenius.

On the other hand, some Burning Man attendees and enthusiasts do, at times, display behaviors that make you wonder. . . and since the dose makes the poison, it might be the shrewd move for our community to be cognizant of those behaviors, and actively examine them.

For instance: A distressingly large segment of our community seems to have a real hard-on for making up rules for other people to burn by instead of just regulating their own actions. . . even when the ‘rules’ they’re pushing on the people around them are actually just their personal preferences or traditions, and lack any connection with any of the actual rules we are unfortunately burdened with on the playa. This isn’t a problem as long as those people remain ignorable; when they get strident enough to go beyond talking and start genuinely interfering with other people over it, though, they’re crossing a line. . . and applying strong peer-pressure to adhere to unwritten dogma regarding sacred cows is an example of some pretty cultish behavior.

But what is “interfering with other people” and what isn’t? It seems simple to me: if someone does or says something that doesn’t violate the personal boundaries that every human born has a right to, and doesn’t impede you from doing and saying what you want in response within the same boundaries, then you have not been interfered with no matter how offended you might feel. You don’t like seeing Gay Pride parades in your city? Sorry, but Gay Pride parades are a legal form of free expression. You’ll just have to put up with them, or move, or stay home on those days, or leave town, or go blind, or kill yourself. . . your choice! It doesn’t matter how icky you feel about gay sex; any queasy, obtrusive prejudices that might squirm within your tiny soul are thoroughly trumped by other peoples’ rights. Feel free to bitch and whine openly about it, though, so we all know who not to invite to parties. It’s your right!

Similarly, you may want silence during Temple burn. If so, be responsible for yourself and don’t falsely claim that the free expression of others is violating your rights, because it doesn’t matter how much you want silence or how much Lynyrd Skynyrd makes your skin crawl (did you know that the band’s original name was Gay Sex? It’s true!) You demanding the silence (or invisibility) of others is marginalizing them and is an attempt at violating their rights, not the other way around, and it doesn’t matter at all how very much you wish they were silent, or respectful, or invisible, or dead, or impossible. Find the silence within yourself, wear earplugs, or move your ass someplace where it’s silent. To insist that others cater to your desire for quiet is nothing less than an attempt to assert your dominance while you appropriate and violate the rights of others. The fact that you’re using a quasi-religious dogmatic doctrine of “silence is mandatory because the Temple is sacred” to do it pushes you over the line from control freak jerk to a creepy unofficial member of a nebulous, godless, leaderless cult.

While the Temple provides us with the most obvious and dramatic example of burners acting like brainwashed cultists pushing dogmatic rules on each other, the much-vaunted Ten Principles of Burning Man are the big wellspring of burner-on-burner control freakism. You can’t swing a flaming ball of paraffin on the Internet without hitting five or six armchair lawyer-burners. One of the hallmarks is when someone interprets “Radical Acceptance” to mean that nobody has a right to openly dislike or even disagree with anyone else in the community. That’s a false interpretation; it’s a Drainbow interpretation rooted in quintessentially phony-baloney-mahoney-malarkey concepts of blinkered positivity and universal love, and it encourages entitled asshats to think they’ve been wronged when someone else takes a turn and expresses their own opinions.

We see a lot of people get upset in the Burning Man Facebook group because they think they should be able to say anything they want without it being criticized. This is the same wrong thinking that the Temple-shushers (and the Pride parade haters) employ; people expressing themselves by disagreeing with you, criticizing you, or even openly mocking you do nothing to take away your ability to express yourself; your right to say what you want to say has not been restricted in any way. You might allow your emotions to restrict your own freedom if you’re thin-skinned, but that’s entirely your fault and your responsibility. . . so by trying to throw the big Burning Man law book at people for not being unquestioningly respectful of your words, you’re being the bad guy. You’re piggishly objecting to their right to express themselves. Just like the stereotypical hyper-Christian Right-wing conservatives who cry ‘foul’ over same-sex marriage and Gay Pride parades, you’re being a gigantic, hypocritical Tartuffe about it, and exceeding the boundaries of your own rights in a big whiny crybaby attempt to limit the rights of others.

If you take things so far as to make a credible threat of violence, or if you actually assault someone, then you’ve really crossed the line and it’s you who should be punished, not the people who offended you. . . and there are many eyewitnesses who will tell you that this did happen at the 2012 Temple burn, with the debut of “Free Bird.”

Credible (but mostly not-so-credible) threats have been popping up frequently, all year, in Internet forums like Facebook groups, whenever people talk about Temple burn and silence. People who feel that the Temple is sacred and who are ostensibly among that subset of burners devoted to peace-‘n’-love values express an inner desire — and sometimes an eager willingness — to do violence to those who break the sacred silence; they vent by making suggestions to each other as to how to use aggressive action to enforce that silence. . . a punch in the face, or a thrown object, or (less credibly) tar and feathers; if the transgressor is a sound car, vandalism. It’s almost unbelievable that the supposedly profound high-minded feelings that people claim to get by watching a building burn in silence can inspire them to abandon the veneer of universal love in favor of thinking and acting in such a low, base fashion just because the silence is broken. If you’re prepared to set aside your commitment to peace and love in order to use threats and violence to enforce your dogma regarding something sacred to you, what the hell else are you but a cult member? It may not be much of a cult, but you’re sure playing your role as a hypnotized dogma addict to the hilt.

A lot of the most common examples of what I’ve been talking about are disconnected from anything that can reasonably be called a sense of the sacred, and probably shouldn’t count at all towards Burning Man’s cult quotient; still, they’re obnoxious and constitute a minor threat to those who would prefer to burn their own way. All you have to do is read some of the comments people have made in response to things that our own Burnersxxx has written about “plug ‘n’ play camping” to see what I’m talking about; a lot of burners are vocal about their belief that you’re doin’ it wrong if you’re not roughing it in a tent. To those folks I would like to point out something that should be obvious: the expectations you have of others are like your personal deluxe recreational vehicle. You sit there inside the artificial construct of your expectations and your us-versus-them mentality, soothed by your perception of yourself as a superior being, while you rather radically exclude anyone you deem too wealthy or too comfortable to possibly be burning correctly.

Other quasi-cultish behavior that burners typically indulge in concerns ticket scalpers. “What’s the best way to harass people on Craigslist and eBay who are selling $700-$800 tickets?” asks someone in the Burning Man group on Facebook, and the answers come flying in: make appointments with them and don’t show up; report them to the Org; get the seller’s phone number and use it to post fake ads for a dozen other festivals. One person even suggested an elaborate scheme involving public wi-fi, fake names, fake accounts, and a hearty helping of skullduggery. The whole thing is peppered with mostly non-credible threats of violence against hypothetical scalpers, rather than real threats against real scalpers, but one has to wonder what kind of e-mail is being sent to the people who get called out on Facebook for posting tickets for sale on Craigslist. Never mind that scalping makes up a truly tiny percentage of Burning Man ticket sales, or that a lot of scalpers end up getting hoist by their own petard anyway when ticket prices plummet as the burn approaches; some people feel that they just have to be the Anointed Hand of Holy Burnerdom and go on a full-blown crusade against the ticket-Saracens. That’s not the behavior of people trying to protect their festival; it’s the behavior of zealots who are foaming at the mouth about their sacred cow being milked, not because it deprives them of milk, but because the cow is sacred.

If you feel, as I do, that our core tenet and most precious asset as burners is PERSONAL FREEDOM, and that entering our culture is in part a process of learning to be free of even your own hangups and assumptions, then what we’re talking about here is people who think they need to burn down our metaphorical village in order to save it, right along with Black Rock City. It’s another manifestation of what Americans have been busy at for the last few decades: shredding their own constitutional rights in order to combat terrorism. The conflict itself is false and what’s really going on is a takeover by corporate oligarchs, but if you accept it at face value, what you’ve got is a War on Terror that the terrorists are winning. Why? Because “they hate our freedom” and have successfully forced us to give that freedom up in order to fight them.

Enough hyperbole and analogy. How serious is all this, really? Am I just trumping things up to make it sound worse than it really is? People accuse us of that kind of yellow journalism all the time, and I find the accusations insultingly inaccurate. You want to know how serious these things can get? Let me tell you a story:

Less than two weeks ago, in a conversation about a short dramatic film that was made on-playa, a Temple-shusher took such great offense at people expressing the idea that maybe there’s nothing particularly sacred about the Temple that he blew a fuse. His name was Juan Antonio, and he entered the fray by asking why anyone was allowed to make a short dramatic film using the Temple as part of their set:

“So they chose to use a sacred space as a free filming location. Why doesn’t the BMORG squash this video like the insect it is?”

A lot of trivial online dick-measuring contests begin with such posts. I’m no fan of sacred cows, and firmly believe that humanity will never be free until the last king is hung with the guts of the last priest, so in typical fashion I invited Juan Antonio to instead squash his inappropriate, intrusive sense of the sacred like the hippie bullshit it is. That’s a pretty typical exchange for an Internet forum and signifies nothing; what was unusual was what came next: Juan Antonio almost immediately suggested a meeting in the flesh, making dark insinuations of violence to be meted out. Not a credible threat, to be sure, and sillier than almost any other response could have been. . . except that his menacing rhetoric included an allusion to some personal information about me that he got from Google. I noticed it, but let it pass. . . and when I made fun of him for being an Internet tough guy, he tried to save face by changing his tack to suggesting a bout in the Thunderdome, which made for a less absurd-sounding, more socially acceptable threat.

A little creepy, no? But only a little.

It gets worse: not satisfied with having made a creepy jackass of himself by being an anonymous online tough guy demonstrating his access to Google and his willingness to invest time and effort into stalking the person with whom he was having a dumb, meaningless online brawl about the sacredness of a Temple with no gods in it, Juan Antonio actually paid a website to get my home phone number, and spent some serious time scouring the web for information about me. That night, with his number blocked, he called me up and tried to intimidate me by reciting factoids about me, like my home address, my date of birth, my former occupation, etc. He was saying things like “So, what’s it like over there at [home address]? Maybe I should come over and check it out.”

A short time after that phone call, Juan Antonio posted a picture of my house to Facebook.

Well hey, I’m not that easily intimidated, and two can play that game. I’ve always heard that turnabout is fair play anyway. I didn’t have any proof that the phone call really did come from the rabid-sounding cult-gimp jousting with me on Facebook over the supposedly inviolable sacredness of the Temple, but it took me almost no time at all to find Juan Antonio’s phone number, posted for all to see in an open group devoted to the theme camp he’s with. I called that number, and sure enough: same voice. He wasn’t expecting to hear back from me, and it took him long enough to figure out who was on the other end of the line that I was able to get him to admit that he was indeed Juan Antonio. . . and then, after I identified myself, that he was in fact the person who had called me earlier, and who had posted that picture. He sounded rattled, the little dope, that I had found him so easily.

How many Juan Antonios do we have, exactly? Examples of quasi-cultish behavior abound among us, but the example most likely to lead to open violence – the controversy over how to behave at Temple burn – is still very new. While there were indeed some isolated violent incidents that very first time the strains of “Free Bird” shook the hush out of the ember-laden air, we have yet to see how the schism between Temple-shushers and sacred cow snipers will play itself out at future Temple burns. I predict there will be at least a little bit of high-profile violence at Black Rock this year over it, if burners can’t communicate with each other about it effectively enough to head that off at the pass.

Ultimately, I am really not sure how to answer the question of whether or not Burning Man is a cult, but I think it’s non-insane to take that question seriously. In general, burners are a very diverse group of people, and the truth is likely to be that while the very question “is Burning Man a cult?” is just eye-rollingly dumb in many ways, there really are those among us who might qualify as members of an almost unique variety of cult: an inverted cult of people pulling the wool over their own eyes; a cult whose dogma is strong but whose actual religious aspects are so vague and fuzzy as to be mostly undetectable, and certainly not central to the workings of the cult. A self-organizing burner semi-pseudo-cult, if you will.

Let’s take a look at the common characteristics of cults, and see how it all stacks up.

Cults, almost by definition, use techniques of undue influence to reform the thought processes of followers. What are those thought reform techniques, typically? According to the International Cultic Studies Association, this is a list of elements that in one combination or another might constitute the “mind control regime” of a cult:

GROUP PRESSURE and “LOVE BOMBING” discourages doubts and reinforces the need to belong through the use of childlike games, singing, hugging, touching, or flattery.

ISOLATION/SEPARATION creates inability or lack of desire to verify information provided by the group with reality.

THOUGHT-STOPPING TECHNIQUES introduce the recruit to meditating, chanting, and repetitious activities which, when used excessively, induce a state of high suggestibility and dependency on the group.

FEAR and GUILT induced by eliciting confessions to produce intimacy and to reveal fears and secrets, to create emotional vulnerability by overt and covert threats, as well as alternation of punishment and reward.

SLEEP DEPRIVATION encouraged under the guise of spiritual exercises, necessary training, or urgent projects.

INADEQUATE NUTRITION sometimes disguised as special diet to improve health or advance spirituality, or as rituals requiring fasting.

SENSORY OVERLOAD forces acceptance of complex new doctrine, goals, and definitions to replace old values by expecting recruit to assimilate masses of information quickly with little opportunity for critical examination.

NOTE: Not all of these features need to be present simultaneously for a mind control regime to be operative.

What I’m struck by in reading that list is that while an awful lot of those shoes do seem to fit in a weird way that is mostly suited for comedy, it’s only seriously compelling in the context of a ‘cult’ that people perpetrate upon themselves, rather than something that is being forced or foisted off on them. “Love Bombing,” “Sleep Deprivation,” and “Sensory Overload” are things we’ve got in spades, but even if Larry Harvey and his fiscal human centipede of old frienemies really are the leaders of this alleged cult in any way, shape, or form, they probably aren’t even aware of it. It’s hard to concoct any kind of scenario in which the Org actually has any deliberate hand in this at all, even though a certain amount of the cultish behavior centers around things they have actively promoted within the community, like the Ten Principles. Sometimes the role of “hippie cult leader” is thrust upon you even if you’re not Charles Manson. Sometimes by your followers.

The same insights – which I get a good laugh out of – hit me when I look at lists of the things that cults have in common, according to those who study such things.

Michael D. Langone is an American counseling psychologist who specializes in research about “cultic” groups and psychological manipulation. He is Executive Director of the International Cultic Studies Association, and the editor of a journal called Cultic Studies Review. Dr. Langone is also the author of a reasonably authoritative list of signs and characteristics of cults and cultic activities. . . and even if you scoff mightily at the idea of any whiff of cultishness in burner culture, you’ll probably find applying Dr. Langone’s analytical prowess to Burning Man at least a little bit entertaining. I know I did.

Dr. Langone writes:

Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.

Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iinorder to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.