The following article by right wing American political operative and commentator Grover Norquist was published yesterday in The Guardian. While I don’t see the “default world” quite the same way as Mr. Norquist, the anti-tax crusader who hangs with George W. Bush, Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, it’s clear that we had a shared experience at Burning Man. I think it’s best that you read his take on Burning Man before I publish my comments (with photos) sometime over the next day or two. You’ll get a better understanding of where this liberal from Canada is coming from after you read “My first Burning Man: confessions of a conservative from Washington.”
My first Burning Man: confessions of a conservative from Washington
To everyone who whined about this free-market crusader from DC joining liberal hippies in the desert: listen to the Burners!
What is Burning Man?
It is a larger version of … what? Woodstock? That was a bunch of teenagers coming to watch artists perform. At Burning Man, everyone is expected to be a participant. Burners bring their art work, their art cars, their personal dress and/or undress: everyone is on stage. The story of Woodstock was thousands of young people, without the sense to bring their own food and water, being rescued by the state police and sensible bourgeois rural folks. The story of Burning Man is one of radical self-reliance.
It is a more intense than … what? Not quite the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Burning Man is an arts festival in the middle of the Nevada desert. It takes hours to get there, and you must bring what you eat or wear or need: you cannot buy anything there. Burning Man is more like Brigadoon – a western ghost town that springs to life. Dust storms. Cold nights. Black Rock City is completely built and then taken apart and disappeared each year, by 65,000 people.
Burning Man is greater than I had ever imagined. I have been to large demonstrations in favor of the environment, and the trash left behind is knee-deep. At Burning Man, you are hard-pressed to find a cigarette butt on the ground. There are no trash bins. Participants carry it in, and they carry it out. I have been to the Louvre. It is a very big place with many nice paintings. I knew that. I was not disappointed. Burning Man is more like Petra, the lost city in Jordan, which I found more impressive than its advance billing or reputation.
My wife and I had planned to join the “event” in 2012, but some idiot scheduled the Republican National Convention in Tampa for the same week. I objected, but the overlapping bit of the Venn diagram of Burners and Mitt Romney enthusiasts was perhaps not as large as I had thought.
Some self-professed “progressives” whined at the thought of my attending what they believed was a ghetto for liberal hippies. Yes, there was a gentleman who skateboarded without elbow or kneepads – or any knickers whatsover. Yes, I rode in cars dressed-up as cats, bees and spiders; I watched trucks carrying pirate ships and 30 dancers. I drank absinthe. But anyone complaining about a Washington wonk like me at Burning Man is not a Burner himself: The first principle of Burning Man is “radical inclusiveness”, which pretty much rules out the nobody-here-but-us liberals “gated community” nonsense.
Before my wife and I arrived in Nevada last week, we were showered with kind comments from Burners disassociating themselves from the idea that Burning Man belongs to any political camp. Indeed, I found political allies who gave me wonderful advice – they had been participating for years.
A community that comes together with a minimum of “rules” demands self-reliance – that everyone clean up after themselves and help thy neighbor. Some day, I want to live 52 weeks a year in a state or city that acts like this. I want to attend a national political convention that advocates the wisdom of Burning Man.
I was invited to speak to a group one night for an hour. Moments before I spoke, I was told that I was the last speaker in a series focusing on psychedelic drugs. My talk was on freedom. I left untouched the cup of coffee and opened soda at my side. The questions lasted two hours. We had a ball.
Looking at the effort behind each camp – each art car, each public art display and sculpture – I was reminded, à la The Princess Bride, that this word “bohemian”: I do not think it means what you think it means.
One sculpture was the three-story “Embrace” – two upper torsos and heads facing each other. They took two years to create. Three weeks to assemble in the middle of nowhere. Maybe an hour to burn on Friday morning. This is hard work. Indeed, there is entirely too much work involved at Burning Man for lazy people to get to the Playa, nevermind build a camp or feed yourself.
You hear that Burning Man is full of less-than-fully-clad folks and off-label pharmaceuticals. But that’s like saying Bohemian Grove is about peeing on trees or that Chicago is Al Capone territory. Burning Man is cleaner and greener than a rally for solar power. It has more camaraderie and sense of community than a church social. And for a week in the desert, I witnessed more individual expression, alternative lifestyles and imaginative fashion than …. anywhere.
The demand for self-reliance at Burning Man toughens everyone up. There are few fools, and no malingerers. People give of themselves – small gifts like lip balm or tiny flashlights. I brought Cuban cigars. Edgy, but not as exciting as some “gifts” that would have interested the federal authorities.
I’m hoping to bring the kids next year.
On my last day of my first Burning Man, at the Reno airport, a shoeless man (he had lost his shoes in the desert) was accosted by another dust-covered Burner carrying sneakers: “Take these,” he said. “They are my Burning Man shoes.” The shoeless man accepted the gift with dignity.