Grover Norquist at Burning Man: The Pointless Controversy (Or: Oh No! Someone I Might Disagree with Will Be at My Festival Dedicated to "Radical Inclusion"!)


Somewhat libertarianoid conservative movement leader and fixer Grover Norquist—from Americans for Tax Reform, dedicated mostly to the low-tax, shrink government part of the larger coalition, not the war and religious right anti-gay marriage and drug war crap—made news by tweeting that he and his wife were finally going to Burning Man, the annual festival of art and free expression held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

This wasn't news to me. Norquist publicly complained back in 2012 about how the Tampa GOP convention conflicted with Burning Man. (I had the same problem—my coverage of Ron Paul caused me to have to miss the first half of Burning Man.) That was the first year he seriously contemplated going, after meeting Burning Man founder Larry Harvey through mutual friends when Harvey was in D.C. doing lobbying work on his event's relationship with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM is essentially Burning Man's landlord as the event is held on permit-required federal land.

They liked each other—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. 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 possibly 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.

See also the Burning Man's first biography, This is Burning Manwritten by a libertarian—me. Fans and those who missed it first time 'round, expect to see in time for this year's event a special e-book only 10th anniversary edition with a new introduction.

NEXT: Senate Takes Stab at NSA Reform. Can It Do Better Than the House?

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  1. Lots of libertarians go to Burning Man. We just ignore the bullshit about gifting. We like the old barter system. Nobody wants your stupid trinkets, hippie!

  2. "The festival is very officially dedicated to the principle of "radical inclusion."

    And therefore liberals think they're the only ones who belong there.

    1. "I will not tolerate intolerance!!!!!"

      1. "I will not tolerate intolerance!!!!!"

        ?or the Dutch!

  3. As Norquist is coming with his spouse, maybe isn't not about him but that the crowd at Burning Man are a bunch of Islamophobes.

    1. Spouse(s) Samah Alrayyes Norquist

      co-founder of the Islamic Free Market Institute

      Interesting, I had no idea. Fucks with the narrative, I guess.

      1. So Nordquist is into low taxes, large events in the desert that often involve the use of hallucinogens, and Middle Eastern women.

        Holy shit, he must be my real father.

        1. His wife should be right at home this year. the theme is 'Caravansary', so you know the belly dancers will be out in force.

  4. I'd like to check out BM. Looks like something worth experiencing.

    1. Meh. The women are hotter and the weather is better at Bonnaroo.

    2. Same here. Radical inclusion, huh?

  5. i was invited to attend burning man with my buddy glenn back in 2003

    he had gone every year for the last 3-4 years. He was one of these people who showed up early to help set things up.

    Glenn was a former Air Force CCT who had served in Gulf 1. He had interesting stories about what happens to people inside tanks when a uranium-tipped shell passes through it at supersonic speeds. The word "slurpee" was involved.

    I had to pass on it because of work demands. he died the next year due to sudden onset of Acute Mylogenous Leukemia, apparently connected to his service in the gulf.

    I wish i had gone. I have no desire to go anymore.

    1. Interesting story but there is no Gulf War Syndrome.

      1. who said 'syndrome'?

    2. My sister went to a few. It sounded interesting, but uncomfortable (sleeping in tents and shit is not my idea of a good time, not since I was 15). She liked it.

      1. You prefer Warty's basement?

  6. When is Reason going to start the Burning Monocle festival?

  7. I have gone to Burning Man four times between 1999 and 2008. Having talked to many people there I am not surprised by the comments on the other sites. Many attendee's understanding of radical inclusiveness is very shallow. If Burning Man is a supposedly a 'gift economy' and there are no taxes, why are so many who want to replicate Burning Man to the society at-large, angry with a guy who is against taxes?

    1. "" why are so many who want to replicate Burning Man to the society at-large, angry with a guy who is against taxes?""

      Cultural elitism?

      1. I'm assuming it's a rhetorical question.

    2. What they think is that people they dislike should pay taxes.

  8. Speaking of "cool kids bitching about the fratguys and jocks ruining the hip-scene" =

    when in college, i sometimes split my time in between the 'philosophy dorm' (read: the hipster kids) and the frathouses.

    The hipsters liked to stay in their rooms, smoke weed, take DMX/shrooms, etc. and have long debates about shit that went nowhere. The frat guys liked to drink beer, drink more beer, take shots, go "Whoo hooo!" a lot, get into fights and puke in the bushes. And pretend to listen to dumb girls.

    I was affiliated with both camps for different reasons. But while hanging out with the hipsters, there was a consistent droning complaint about 'the frat guys' =

    how much the 'frat guys' hated them, how the frat guys would be so pissed if the hipsters showed up at their parties, how much the frat guys hated their taste in music, how the frat guys were probably only got laid via date rape, how the frat guys were only nice to them because they wanted to buy weed from some guy... etc.

    at one point, they realized *I* was more or less friends with all the frat guys, and asked me, "Isn't it true that the Frat Guys really hate the hipsters"?

    I took a puff of their dope and observed that the Frat Guys didn't know they existed, never talked about them, and didnt care about them one way or the other, and probably wouldn't even notice if they all showed up at the house for a kegger and spent all night there.

    The funny part was how much this depressed them.

    1. It's probably because the hipsters actually define themselves internally as "not those frat jock guys". When your identity is directly based on someone else's, they become much more important to you.

      1. Yeah, that was my observation as well.

    2. This story reminds me of "Are You a Slut? That Depends. Are You Rich?".

      Except the two camps of women were well aware of each other and hated each other.

  9. Inclusion is only for the right kinds of people.

  10. This is so very delicious.

  11. Grover goes to a Rainbow Gathering I'll be impressed.

  12. Burning Man would be a lot more true to its name if a whole mess of napalm was dropped on it.

    Also, I would not publically admit to speaking with Weaselly Clark. *Spit*

  13. Several years back, there was a report of some dust-up over the ownership of the organization, with the local rag staging it as a dispute over the 'spiritual direction' or some such bullshit.
    Natch, the founder 'lives simply in his $250 apartment'; IOWs, he's been subsidized by his landlord forever. I can only hope he's thanked the landlord.

  14. I think the hate that progressives have for Norquist says a whole lot. He's a socially tolerant guy that simply wants to cut government spending. The former is never acknowledged, and the latter makes him one of the most dangerous people in America.

    It's like the vitriol they have for Milton Friedman. This soft-spoken, respectful old man, who was always for civil discussion about how to best improve people's lives, is depicted as the devil.

    1. As do the green/lefties concerning Borlaug.

    2. Friedman was many things, but soft-spoken was not one of them. I never heard speak rudely to anyone (as an aside, can you imagine a time when socialists/Keynesians could debate free-marketeers without calling them names? The world before Krugman was so much more refined), but he was a ferocious debater.

      The left hates Friedman because he was a refined and convincing advocate of markets. They were and are afraid of him.

  15. Despite being probably one of the most straight laced people on the planet, I remember first reading about Burning Man when I was about 13 and it sounded awesome even to my very nascent libertarian sensibilities. Spontaneous order, everybody doing their thing without any central direction, burning shit up. I always wanted to go even if just once to experience it. By the time I got old enough it had long since turned into its modern incarnation as the Coachella annex filled with assholes like those called out in this article, and the appeal was gone.

  16. Maybe I missed it, but I went through the article several times, and none of the links are about "the reaction to Norquist's announcement."

    1. Nevermind, the Slate and Vanity Fair comments. Noticed them finally.

  17. Well, it ain't Porcfest.

    1. Meanwhile, Mark Shea has proclaimed that PROCFest is "Burning Man for Libertarians" (he insists on capitalizing it in references which have nothing to do with The Party), which apparently is self-evidently Bad.

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