Burning Man For Dummies: Everything You Need To Know About The Festival In The Desert Where Rich Kids Play Hippie

Flickr Bexx Brown-Spinelli
Flickr Bexx Brown-Spinelli

Burning Man 2015 has officially ended. The immolation of the giant faceless male effigy—which, excuse me for livin’, reminds me of a sinister hybrid of a cross burning and a lynching—was accomplished Saturday night as tens of thousands of very high, impossibly rich, and astronomically pretentious mostly Bay Aryans found incredible meaning in this essentially meaningless act. They are now back home, freshly showered while living on their trust funds and nursing their Ecstasy hangovers.

Not all of us have a week of free time and at least $1,000 of spare money to venture into the northern Nevada desert every late summer in order to act primitively. So I’ll spare you the expense…and the stench…and summarize what you should be grateful for missing.

1. It poses as an anti-capitalist event yet appears to make millions every year.

In a sanctimonious gesture against capitalism and in favor of communal living, the exchange of money for goods is strictly verboten at every annual Burning Man event. This is, of course, after you’ve paid the hefty entry fee, which was $390 in 2015.

According to the official Burning Man website, itemized expenses for their 2013 shindig totaled just over $10 million. But reported attendance at the event was 69,213. Assuming everyone had to pay the $380 ticket fee for that year (minus the 4,000 tickets that were sold at half-price as part of their “Low Income Ticket” program), revenue from ticket sales alone was over $25 million. Burning Man’s organizers have been repeatedly criticized for a lack of financial transparency. All they have to do to rectify this is explain where the other $15 million went.

2. Demographically, its attendees are whiter than the crowd at a Beach Boys concert in Alaska.

It is unacceptably problematic to criticize an event for being “too white” in the same spirit that nothing could be “too black” or “too Jewish” or “too Chinese”—that is, unless its attendees are the insufferable type of white people who are always criticizing things for being “too white,” which is de rigueur among the sort of posh coastal leftists who people such events as Burning Man.

Although one of the event’s Ten Principles is “radical inclusion,” it was recently reported that a piddling 1.3% of its attendees self-identify as black. England’s Independent described this demographic dilemma as a “diversity problem.” When confronted about this alleged “problem,” Burning Man founder Larry Harvey said that it’s because slavery induced a morbid fear of camping among black people:

Remember a group that was enslaved and made to work? Slavishly, you know, in the fields….This goes all the way back to the Caribbean scene, when the average life of a slave in the fields was very short. And so, there’s that background, that agrarian poverty associated with things. Maybe your first move isn’t to go camping. Seriously.

Seriously?

3. Participants will tell you it’s not a “hippie,” event; it’s punk. Or cyberpunk. Or steampunk. Or something.

No matter which way they try to slice the Molly tab, the fact remains that this event has its origins in San Francisco, the city that ruined punk rock by fatally injecting hippie politics into it. Before San Francisco got its fluffy hippie paws on it, punk rock was rooted in hard drugs, anomie, sociopathy, and violence. It was originally a severe reaction against hippie culture. But once punk was filtered through San Francisco’s kidneys, punk rock politics and hippie politics became indistinguishable from one another; the only differences were in haircuts and how much leather one felt comfortable wearing without feeling guilty.

Stylistically, Burning Man is directly rooted in the miscegenation of rave culture and the cornball multicolored “cyberpunk” movement of the early 90s. But let’s set aside labels—this is a yearly weeklong event for relatively wealthy, overwhelmingly white people to temporarily shed their “wealth guilt” without shedding their wealth.

4. Its acronym is the same as that for “bowel movement.”

Burning Man = Bowel Movement = BM.

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5. In 2013, Mark Zuckerberg flew in to Burning Man via private helicopter in order to help make some “artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches.”

Does anything scream “subvert the dominant paradigm” and “occupy your own temporary autonomous zone” more loudly than that? Other insanely well-heeled tech giants to have attended this anti-capitalist communal experiment in safe atavism include Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page.

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6. Burning Man’s critics are very good at making it sound ridiculous…

One example:

It’s middle-class people behaving embarrassingly. The tales of spiritual enlightenment gained after six hours of dancing on ecstasy are as hard to hear as they are dubious. If I ever have to hear a story about how amazing a fire twirler was, I might actually light myself on fire….I have no problem getting so high that I shit myself….[But if] I wanted to hang out around a bunch of pseudo-bohemian trustafarians and smug yuppies slumming it, I’d move back to Portland.

And another:

There has always been a complex and uneasy relationship in San Francisco’s club scene between people who enjoy dance music, and rich hippies prancing around in hula hoops and swinging flame sticks or whatever the fuck….That, and the horrible fashion and steampunk. Vom….[It’s] just a big dusty playground for rich dicks to get high and “connect on a higher plane” while hoping to grope some boobs.

7. …yet they’re not nearly as good at making it sound as ridiculous as the event’s own promoters are.

“We achieve being through doing,” boldly proclaims the official page for “The 10 Principles of Burning Man.” Exactly how much Special K and X does one have to swallow in order for that to make sense? I have a better slogan—you achieve nothing through everything.

Burning Man founder Larry Harvey got the whole shebang rolling during the summer solstice in 1986 when, reeling from heartbreak after a breakup, he decided to publicly burn a wooden man on a San Francisco beach. Out of this supremely silly fallow ground—basically, that many people on psychedelic drugs tend to have a bit of pyromaniac in them—sprouted an entire “movement” that has lasted nearly three decades. According to Harvey, “Communities are not produced by sentiment. They grow out of a shared struggle.”

In the real world—not the weeklong fantasy-land bubble-blowing body-odor party that is Burning Man—I’d imagine that the biggest “struggle” these people share is the stress of choosing which feathered boa best matches their silver jumpsuit. Well, there’s that, and the agonizing decision over whether this year they should transform their VW minibus into a giant spider or a giant crab. TC mark

Jim Goad

Stop worrying about good and bad...and start thinking about true and false.

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  • http://anieksteph.wordpress.com anieksteph

    I really enjoyed this play by play- it confirmed a lot of things I always suspected.

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