Grover Norquist at Burning Man. Grover Norquist at Burning Man. Grover ... Norquist ... at ... Burning Man. I can’t be the only one getting images of a shirtless, sunscreen-slathered Norquist dancing riotously on the dust-swirled playa, his marshmallowy form stuffed into a leather loincloth.
Sorry. But, inasmuch as the National Journal can be believed, the conservative activist and founder of Americans for Tax Reform will be there this year:
So, how did a conservative activist like Norquist get interested in Burning Man? He tells the story like this: A couple of years ago, Larry Harvey—the founder of Burning Man—was in Washington to negotiate with the National Park Service about land use for the festival, which takes place on federal land. Harvey later stopped by Americans for Tax Reform's weekly Wednesday meeting, and ending up going to dinner with Norquist and his wife, Samah Alrayyes Norquist. "You've got to come out!" Harvey told them.
And the seed was planted. But the why is more interesting than the how. How to reconcile the apparent tension between a conservative anti-tax activist and an ostensible counter-culture festival of organized, mass-scale, art-fueled, communitarian whimsy — or what the National Journal, lips grimly pursed, disapprovingly refers to as an “annual festival of debauchery”? What could the two possibly have in common? A-ha:
"There's no government that organizes this," Norquist said. "That's what happens when nobody tells you what to do. You just figure it out. So Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature."
Finally, someone comes out and says what Burning Man is all about. Why, all along, turns out it was a living crypto-libertarian diorama that shows noble, Rousseauean pre-government humankind living, sharing and partying, free of the bonds of the state! And here we thought it might be a spectacle-fueled rejection of passive consumer society, or a playful pop-up barter economy, or even an example of successful private-public partnerships that promote responsible, profitable and culturally productive use of federal lands. Of course, it’s all those things, and more. An event as large, resonant and unusual as Burning Man is bound to become a mirror that reflects our fears and desires — whether we’re nunnishly worried about debauchery or we dream of a utopia where we can trade Fiji water for Marlboro Lights without The Man looking over our shoulder.
That’s what’s troublesome about Norquist’s assertion — besides the fact that this “Burning Man-as-‘refutation’-of-government” requires permits, contracts, negotiations, fees, and besides the fact that Burners are subject to a suite of very un-Mad Max-like rules and regs — not to mention the existence of Burning Man cops known as The Black Rock Rangers or the litter police known as the Earth Guardians (yes, breaking news: Even in this fugitive desert utopia, there are cops): the reductionist mindset of ideological appropriation that turns an international cultural wave into a conservative talking point.
Drawing notice to the necessary organization of Burning Man isn’t intended as a gotcha! move on a naked emperor. It’s merely to point out that Burning Man has become a big, interesting, complex thing. Some observers, considering Norquist’s gaze to be some evil, curdling beam, have declared that Burning Man is dead — that his sanction signals a hopeless infestation by powerful corporate egos that the festival’s spirit militates against (see also Burner Google CEO Eric Schmidt). That could be one unfortunate scenario — but only if the Burners who embrace the festival in all its muddled, manifold ethos flee to leave room for the guys in ties who want an intoxicating taste of Ayn Rand boot camp.