Have you heard? Burning Man, the annual week-long art festival in the Nevada desert, has jumped the shark. It’s been taken over by tech world CEOs eating trucked-in plates of sushi. Except no, wait, it’s actually all a bunch of dusty, acid-tripping naked hippies. Or is it candy-tripping techno ravers?
Either way, infamous Washington anti-tax libertarian Grover Norquist is going this year, so it’s definitely not worth attending anymore. Right?
Every time I read one of those articles — they are legion at this time of year and invariably seem to miss the point — I feel a bile rising, a furious urge to defend the festival I’ve attended, on and off, since 1999. This week’s New York Times style section story is a case in point. The author, Nick Bilton, is a smart guy, and he’s been to the event. He should know. But here he is telling one of many old and cliched untruths about the place:
If you have never been to Burning Man, your perception is likely this: a white-hot desert filled with 50,000 stoned, half-naked hippies doing sun salutations while techno music thumps through the air. A few years ago, this assumption would have been mostly correct.
Poppycock. That assumption has never been even close to correct. The author Brian Doherty, whom Bilton quotes (he wrote the definitive and highly recommended history “This is Burning Man“), could have told Bilton that. You have to understand, as Doherty’s readers are led to, that this is a Mad Max kind of environment.
It is, and always has been, ruled by all kinds of techno-smart futuristic punks rather than nostalgic hippies or dippy ravers.
Consider: this is a week-long art party in a handmade city in an environment that is doing its level best to kill you. Either the sun is baking dry ground that is blinding white, leeching water from your body, or the wind is blasting mile-high storms of dust across this enormous barren plain at ninety miles an hour, or a starry desert night is damn-near freezing you to death.
Occasionally the climate likes to remind you you’re actually partying on an ancient lake bed — the playa — and rains for days until the solid dusty ground turns to thick soupy mud that adds inches to your shoes in seconds.
Who thrives in that environment? People who are a little bit crazy, quite a bit determined, and a whole lot of wiry and smart. People with an Iggy Pop-style lust for life. Here are punks of all stripes: cyberpunks, steampunks, biker punks, punk punks. People who do what it says on the ticket — voluntarily assume the risk of death. People who are brought roaringly to life in this killer of a desert, and fight fiercely to build an all-inclusive volunteer-driven civilization that lasts for as long as a mayfly.
Sure, you’re getting away from some of the trappings of civilization — though certainly not all, because the county police are as numerous and visible a presence in Black Rock City as in any American city. It is also Federal land filled with BLM rangers, who work hand in hand with the Burning Man organization to make sure this party on protected land gets its usual world-class cleanup.
Burning Man is crawling with law enforcement and officialdom; they’ve just gotten very good at blending in. The notion that you have complete freedom to openly flout federal or Nevada state law is a dangerous myth. The idea that, as Bilton suggests, “drugs are easier to find than candy on Halloween” is what leads the guy carrying the “I Need Drugs” sign to his inevitable arrest on the city’s main drag, the Esplanade.
Notice, newbies, that when I keep calling it a city, I’m not speaking metaphorically. This is a city with roads, street signs, with a volunteer force of street gas lamp lighters, with public services like coffee and porta potties and sewer trucks and water trucks to douse the roads, all included in the price of your taxes — er, ticket.
Grover Norquist is, I hope, going to have something of an epiphany on the playa. The anti-government crusader will see what people do in what he thinks is a post-government kind of environment — they band together and rush headlong towards a system of collective survival infrastructure, also known as government.