Burning Man

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"!)

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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.