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I think I may have offended a friend, the other day, by not having any sense of humor at all about the news story that there was an arson attack on the central symbol of Black Rock City, Nevada, the Burning Man, last Tuesday. I feel like ranting about this at some length, and maybe even explaining my feelings and my thoughts about it in the process. But first, two points. For the fullest story, including all available links, see the summary on LaughingSquid.com, "Burning Man Set on Fire Early Due to Arson," 8/28/07 et seq. Secondly, by way of disclaimer, I am technically a "burner" myself, having attended the 1998 Burning Man festival. But my reasons for being angry about this have nothing to do with my particular ox being gored, with a piece of art that means something to me personally being attacked, and everything to do with history and principles. But then, of course, I'd say that, now, wouldn't I, whether it was true or not? Or at least, people would say so.

What does the symbol of the Burning Man mean? Do you think that nobody has ever asked the artist in charge of it, Larry Harvey, that question? He has been asked that question in every interview he has given in the last two decades. Never, ever, not even once has he even hinted at an answer to that question. And it's not because he's incoherent and unable to give a clear answer; he's justified everything else about his artwork at tremendous length, in manifestos you can judge for yourself if you read them at BurningMan.com. The reason he won't tell you what the Man "really means" isn't that he can't, but that he has decided very specifically not to tell you what it means. Any 1st year art student could glance over it and tell you some of the various symbols that it evokes, highly emotional symbols such as Julius Caesar's war-propaganda claim that Celts used a cage shaped like a wicker man to burn prisoners alive, or the centuries' worth of European agricultural festivals in which symbols of the old harvest are burned, or Native American potlatch ceremonies in which art and other valuable possessions were burned in a conspicuous competition to display wealth, or the ubiquitous symbolic protest of burning a public figure in effigy, or even the mythical phoenix that, like the Burning Man, burns completely to the ground and is born again fresh each time. And those are just the obvious associations. No, what he stumbled upon as an artist burning a sculpture on the San Francisco beach back in 1986 is a symbol so ambiguous and yet so potent that it can mean anything you want ... to you. And Larry Harvey has been telling people, for as long as he's been putting up the man and burning it, that whatever meaning you take away from the ceremony is your meaning, and perfectly valid for you.

That's not good enough for some people.

You see, the expansion of the Burning Man festival collided with a completely unrelated phenomenon early on. In 1991, anarchist theoretician and self-annointed Sufi mystic Hakim Bey (born Peter Lamborn Wilson) published his most influential book, Temporary Autonomous Zone. It's less coherent than almost anything that's ever been written about it, and certainly less coherent than this summary will be, but his basic thesis goes like this. Even if you managed to wave a magic wand and free everybody on earth from all government, there'd be nothing to stop any of those free individuals who wanted to from setting up governments. And no government will tolerate anarchists on their borders or within their borders for very long. Therefore, he reasoned, the failure of anarchists' attempts to set up ungoverned colonies or nations over the years should not be seen as proof that anarchy doesn't work, only that anarchists aren't willing to sell out their principles and form their own governments to defend themselves from hostile governments. He proposed an alternative model to the idea of anarchist revolution: the Temporary Autonomous Zone. Drawing on the example of the semi-permanent "pirate nation" of the Brethren of the Coast, who moved and rebuilt their whole city on three different islands over the centuries they were in existence, what he proposes is that anarchists seek out spaces where neither governments nor organized criminals bother to go, where there's nothing there to attract their attention, and simply live free, anarchist lives in those spaces. Let the word spread by word of mouth that this space is where the free, ungoverned people are living right now. If a hostile government decides to civilize or occupy or otherwise destroy and govern the Temporary Autonomous Zone, the free people should simply move along, scatter to the winds, and send out scouts looking for more worthless empty spaces to occupy: abandoned warehouse districts, empty desert ghost towns, under-used unimproved federal parks or nature preserves, any place that the cops and the various mafias just don't bother to go. Even he didn't claim it was a new idea; he was merely labeling and endorsing a recurring historical phenomenon.

Well, guess what. Not a few of people the people who read that book (or who claimed to have, a much larger number) also saw the Burning Man as the symbolic burning of "The Man." They saw in him the symbol of capitalism, corporate fascism, pervasive surveillance government, Big Brother, The State. In their interpretation of Larry Harvey's artwork, the reason that they went out into the middle of a salt flat and set up a city around it was obviously to build a Temporary Autonomous Zone, and to signal to other anarchists that this was a free and ungoverned space by burning "The Man" in effigy. For the next 10 years after that book came out, half the interviewers asked Larry Harvey if Black Rock City was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, if he was burning The Man in effigy? And each and every time he denied that it was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, that there was a difference between encouraging people to express themselves freely and encouraging anarchy. And each and every time he said that if some of the people dancing around the Burning Man as it collapsed in flames were interpreting it as burning The Man in effigy, that was their perfectly valid interpretation, but not necessarily his or anybody else's.

That's not good enough for some people. Some people are determined to impose their meaning on somebody else's artwork. And to use felony arson as a tool to do so.

Paul Addis, the man arrested in the act of using a propane torch to try to burn down the Burning Man statue for his own private purposes, has a history of his own. He is very specifically one of the asshole brand of anarchists who really don't accept that their right to swing their fist ends where the other person's nose begins; to him and to guys like him (and it's almost always guys, and, as Randy Milholland pointed out, usually the same wimpy guys who'd get the crap beat out of them if their fantasy ever came true) that's an unacceptable limitation on human freedom. And in fact, his longest running art piece of his own speaks volumes to his ignorance: he has proclaimed himself the symbolic heir to, and the rebirth of, Hunter S. Thompson. What you may not know (and he surely doesn't seem to realize) is that there were actually two Hunter S. Thompsons. One was a sports journalist who dabbled in political satire. By all accounts from his friends, he was a pretty nice guy. The other was the character of "Hunter S. Thompson" that Thompson wrote in his pseudo-biographical essays and novels ... who never existed. Even trivial attempts at fact checking show that most of it was made up. How much more evidence do you need than for me to point out that for a professional writer, isn't it awfully obvious how little time the character of "Hunter S. Thompson" actually spends writing? The fictional "Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Journalist" is a fantasy wish-fulfillment character, a totally heartless sociopath who gets away with it over and over again. That Paul Addis thinks he's re-enacting Hunter S. Thompson by acting like "Hunter S. Thompson" tells you an awful lot about why he'd destroy a several thousand dollar piece of artwork for his own political purposes. It's exactly the kind of thing that the fictional "Hunter S. Thompson" would have done, that the real Hunter S. Thompson never did.

But yeah, Paul Addis has also explained to several reporters, in a level of detail that will doubtless give whatever lawyer the morons who are funding his legal defense fund come up with severe indigestion, exactly why he engaged in felony arson. Over the last several years, the Black Rock Arts Foundation and Burning Man, Incorporated have done things that violate his personal interpretation of what the burning of The Man is supposed to mean. To him and to the pseudo-intellectual anarchists who agree with him, if the Burning Man doesn't symbolize the destruction of capitalist democratic society and the liberation of the masses into a happy and violent and dangerous world without the evils of law or money, then it's completely meaningless; no other meaning is imaginable. And if it's completely meaningless, then it's entirely appropriate for him to destroy that meaningless symbol, even if it doesn't belong to him, even if it did cost thousands of dollars of other people's money, even if it was a work of somebody else's art who is demonstrably several hundred times the artist that Paul Addis is, even if it's a work of art that dozens of people worked on under grueling desert conditions and had to do all over again under very tight time constraints.

Excuse me if I don't think that that's at all funny, let alone appropriate in any way. Way too many of the people who think it's funny are the kind of people who think it's funny any time anything bad happens to a hippy. Where they come by the weird idea that there are hippies at Burning Man, I have no idea; I didn't see a single one when I was there, and haven't seen one yet in any photographs of the event. But however many things you may blame the hippies for (and even I have a few), thinking it's funny when bad things happen to them doesn't say anything nice about you. But more people think it's funny just for the irony that they were going to burn him anyway, and here they are getting all angry that it got burned. Yeah, well, Burning Man's seen that form of idiocy before, too. One year a group of people showed up with portable propane torches like Addis's and walked around trying to set every piece of art on the playa on fire. They got arrested and evicted, but only after destroying thousands of dollars' worth of other people's property and creating not a few public safety hazards. Even if you are such a barbarian that you would intentionally destroy the set and the props for somebody else's performance piece, which part of "it's never okay to destroy somebody else's stuff without their permission" is unclear to them, or to anyone? Destroying other people's property, let alone their art, wasn't funny then and it's not funny now, either. And after the first time, it's not even an original way to be a jerk.

And if the "Temporary Autonomous Zone" fans don't like what the rest of the world has done with an outdoor art and performance event that they didn't create, that they did very little to help, and at which they've done very little but create trouble for other people, then there is only one appropriate thing for them to do: start their own event. Nothing's stopping them. Several of them have tried. But then, there's a long history of bitter, unsuccessful artists burning the work of and otherwise attacking skilled, successful artists, isn't there? If all of these morons and losers packed up their toys and went to play elsewhere, nobody but the few of them would even notice. I'm sure that the anger they feel over that had a lot more to do with Tuesday's crime than any artistic or political statement that Paul Addis says he was trying to make.

And he may be more trouble, and in more trouble, than we even know yet. The day after he made bail, he told several reporters that he had co-conspirators, all of whom committed suicide rather than be taken in for questioning. That same day, Black Rock City found its first suicide, a guy who'd hung himself from his tent poles. Last I heard, nobody had released the name of the deceased yet, so we don't know if the guy has any connection with Paul Addis. Maybe it is just a statistical quirk, totally random and unrelated. But if Paul Addis not merely engaged in felony arson in the middle of a crowded campground at 3:00 am and then assaulted a cop while resisting arrest, but also persuaded another person to commit suicide in order to cover up some or all of his crimes, there went any plea bargain that even the best lawyer money could buy was going to get him. They may well lock him up in a very unpleasant place for a very long time. And I hope they do. Because periodically society has to make an example out of psychopaths in order to keep the other psychopaths too cowardly to be the kind of psychopath that Paul Addis has shown himself to be.


( 92 comments — Leave a comment )
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Sep. 1st, 2007 01:25 pm (UTC)
P.S. This seems like an interesting time to ask, by the way, why it's considered morally wrong to kill an anarchist?

I understand why it's legally wrong. And I understand why it's emotionally and psychologically risky for whoever would do the killing. But isn't an anarchist somebody who has specifically requested that no government intervene to protect him from would-be killers? How does that not qualify as giving everybody in the whole world permission to kill them if they want to and can?

P.P.S. Same question, pacifists?
Sep. 1st, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
P.S. Because we don't necessarily apply someone's own moral standards in our own interactions with them. Just because someone gives me permission to kill them doesn't mean that their moral values override my own. I have to make the decision on whether to take advantage of that permission, so my morals then come into play.

Since my morals dictate that one may only kill to prevent killing, whether someone is an anarchist or not is ultimately completely irrelevant to whether I am willing to kill them.

To put it another way, someone being an anarchist does not mean anyone should be allowed to kill them any more than my being a lesbian means that all women should be attracted to me. It is up to others whether they wish to supply what we want to receive from them.

P.P.S. I think I'm missing your point on this one.

Pacifists believe that violence should be kept to a minimum and eventually reduced to zero. I don't know any pacifists who are opposed to the existence of the police; even in a wholly pacifistic society there may be a great deal of crime needing investigating. I think the ideal is to make violence so socially repulsive that people would be unlikely to consider it.

Even the most gung-ho pacifists I know admit that we'll never get rid of violence completely. I've encountered a LOT of anarchists who think we can get rid of government completely.
Re: Postscript - pixxelpuss - Sep. 1st, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 1st, 2007 01:56 pm (UTC)
Have you ever been?
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(no subject) - jahbulon - Sep. 3rd, 2007 08:33 am (UTC) - Expand
That was exactly his point - nosrialleon - Sep. 1st, 2007 04:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
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your link is massively aversively-racist. - jsl32 - Sep. 4th, 2007 07:18 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 1st, 2007 01:57 pm (UTC)
What I get from your essay is that even an anarchy will require some rules to be workable.

It does seem a sensible conclusion.
Sep. 1st, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)
It's so sensible, in fact, that every actual anarchist in the history of ever has believed in it.

Retards like Bey and J. Random Punkrocker, on the other hand...
(no subject) - bradhicks - Sep. 1st, 2007 08:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 1st, 2007 02:06 pm (UTC)
If you read the history it was artistic anarchists who suggested the Black Rock Desert in the first place.




So there is more to it than just one man's assholeness.
Sep. 1st, 2007 02:48 pm (UTC)
complete aside
my biggest beef with the hakim bey TAZ stuff is that it appears to be a wholesale appropriation of william s. burroughs' work (dead roads trilogy stuff) which was written in the early 80's if i remember right.
Sep. 1st, 2007 03:07 pm (UTC)
Is it actually illegal to talk someone else into committing suicide? If suicide is illegal, then I suppose there's a potential conspiracy charge there, but I don't know that convincing someone rather than conniving in a suicide they'd already intended makes it more illegal.

I read one of Bey's books, and I was tracking what he said about children's rights. It seemed as though the only one he was interested in was the right to have sex. Sounds like he wasn't exactly interested in children's general welfare.

As for Addis, there's no reason to think that spoiling people's fun in order to forcibly enlighten them is likely to work, and I'd expect that anyone who talks that way is actually just looking for an excuse to spoil people's fun and then feel superior about it.

I can see his point that spontaneous events get more and more organized, but I can't think of anything to do about it except to have a generally free enough society that people can start new spontaneous things.

Brad, some of the commenters at laughing squid and wired were saying, not just that there was one early year with some arson, but that arson and vandalism were standard features of the event in the early years. Were they exaggerating?

IIRC, Addis wasn't arrested in the act of trying to burn down the Burning Man--he was caught somewhat later. I don't know how anyone figured out it was him, but he's sure talking like it was.

As for co-conspirators, he claims they helped clear people away from the effigy before it was set on fire. If so, those people will probably be remembered.
Sep. 1st, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
It seemed as though the only one he was interested in was the right to have sex. Sounds like he wasn't exactly interested in children's general welfare.

Leaving Out the Ugly Part- Hakim Bey / Peter Lamborn Wilson is a pretty good article.
Sep. 1st, 2007 03:07 pm (UTC)
I'd just like to point out that Hakim Bey is a pedophile piece of shit whose conception of anarchy is as completely disconnected from the historical tradition of anarchism as the "anarcho-capitalists'" are. Anarchy is not about wild chaos, and that it is is the oldest calumny against it.

And frankly, I'm almost as angry at you on this as I am with Jackass McArsonist here. He's a douche. An idiot. Does he have a stupid, childish concept of anarchy as meaning "do whatever you want"? Sure. But given that he appears to be a retard in the rest of his life, that's not too surprising. There's always going to be people who take the advice of elitist assholes like Bey who shit on the anarchist tradition by separating it from reality and imposing their idiocy on it. But you? Shit, man, you of all people ought to know better. You're way too smart for this shit.

Bey and his fanclub are not anarchists. They want no government. We want self-government.
Sep. 1st, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC)
There is no sarcasm here, I really don't know anything at all about anarchism. What would this "self-government" entail? Isn't it what democratic nations already have?
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Sep. 1st, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC)
I take great delight in the mocking of sacred cows, as I don't think they have any place in a rational society, and by your reaction to this incident you certainly place the "man" in that category. You've got every right to be offended, and I don't dispute your opinion of Paul Addis at all.

I'm curious as to how he was able to set fire to the thing. Was there no security? Did the people just assume, as is often the case with sacred cows, that no one in their right mind would do such a thing, and thus there was no need to protect it?
Sep. 1st, 2007 08:44 pm (UTC)
No, I've gone way out of my way to adjust for that reaction. I'm all about mocking sacred cows myself. The same guy hung a pair of giant silver testicles on the Man one year, and everybody thought that was pretty funny. One of the Cacaphony Societies, I forget which, snuck up there and put a electroluminescent wire "smiley face" on the blank face of the Man, and everybody thought that was funny and clever of them. But neither prank did any damage to the Man, nothing that wasn't easily reversed.

This, however, is felony arson. Of a piece of art. That's not mocking of sacred cows, that's a crime against what it means to be human.
(no subject) - loosechanj - Sep. 1st, 2007 10:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 1st, 2007 04:38 pm (UTC)
Given everything else that has happened there over the years, I'm surprised that it took this long for this to happen. I think the only thing left that hasn't taken place is murder, a record I really hope they can maintain for as long as possible.
Sep. 1st, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
I've always thought about that as well. Have there been other attempts, which got squished and thus never made news?

Although I still think this guy was a jerk for doing it. I don't think the argument of, "Well, they were going to burn it anyway" is a viable excuse for his behavior. He ruined a lot of people's vacations with his act, not to mention the monetary costs involved, and the artists who are now scrambling to recreate the sculpture.

If, as Genericus quoted above, he no longer agreed with the vision or direction or reason for the Burning Man event, doesn't give him the right to play arsonist and destroy property that is not his.

He's obviously not in his proper mind. Reading "The day after he made bail, he told several reporters that he had co-conspirators, all of whom committed suicide rather than be taken in for questioning." just confirms that thought. Who would rather be dead than spend jail time for a crime they knew they committed? That's some serious imbalance, whether it was their own decision, or whether they viewed Addis as some kind of cult hero and were willing to follow his every suggestion.

I don't think I've seen any articles that suggest Addis did it simply for gaining publicity for himself - after all, he is supposedly an artist of some kind. Perhaps he thought he'd do it for the publicity, but knew he couldn't "simply" do it for the publicity, and cooked the rest of the "ideology" up?

It will be interesting to see how this action influences the Burning Man in the years to come.
(no subject) - pope_guilty - Sep. 1st, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 1st, 2007 05:10 pm (UTC)
Never having been part of Burning Man, I appreciate the context you provide.
Sep. 1st, 2007 06:27 pm (UTC)
i think it's interesting, and telling, that there has been more furor in the media and on lj about the prematurr burning of the Man than the fact that the guy who committed suicide hung there for TWO HOURS before anyone realized that he wasn't just playing.

i don't know whether this says anything about anarchists or artists, but it certainly tells me something about Burner priorities.
Sep. 1st, 2007 06:57 pm (UTC)
I'm guessing that you haven't been to Burning Man. It could easily take two hours for someone to _notice_. You may have noticed that the fire was put out by the camp fire department. They also have their own security, the Black Rock Rangers. Most of these people are RL police, fire and medics who also happen to be Burners.

Sep. 1st, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)
Where they come by the weird idea that there are hippies at Burning Man, I have no idea; I didn't see a single one when I was there, and haven't seen one yet in any photographs of the event.

This is a subtle but significant point, I think.

There's a lot of cross-pollination between the burner community and more traditionally hippy groups and events, like the Rainbow Gatherings. At least out here, in Austin, TX, I see that the local burn community has absorbed a significant number of original hippies. One of the most common epithets that burners will throw (endearing) at each other is "Fuckin' hippies!" It's partly ironic, but also not completely so.

Really, the line between "hippy" and "burner" can be a bit blurry at times. Yeah, the aesthetic is different, and I'm sure there are plenty of hippies and burners who reject the comparison, but many see some sort of general connection, like the burners are operating in the same spirit as the hippies, or are the next incarnation of the hippies or something. There are many burners who believe that they are actively creating a new culture: one of openness, personal freedom, self-expression, art, awareness, love, cooperation, and so on. That cultural vision has much in common with the cultural vision of the hippies. Now, the purest expression of that culture is at Burning Man and the various regional burns, but the hope is that it will spread -- that it is spreading -- into the everyday mainstream culture. So calling burners hippies isn't exactly correct, but it isn't exactly baseless, either.

I point all this out to provide a little more context for what burning man means to some people. For many it is just a vacation or an art installation, but for many others it is significantly more: it's the hub of a cultural movement. It's a touchstone, it's a motivator, it's a place where people feel they can have their spirit rejuvenated. But while burning man is intensely important to these people, it can also be intensely trying, and so many have developed a healthy sense of humor towards it. There are also many who have grown jaded to the blackrock burn and feel like it's gotten too commercialized, and that the regional burn events are purer to the spirit of the thing.

From what I've seen of the burner population that I know, people generally feel bad for the artists who built the man, but are somewhat ambivalent towards Addis himself. I've seen several people say something along the lines of, "good for Addis, and good for the cops arresting him." A few reactions have even been... I wouldn't say positive, but I would say amused.
Sep. 1st, 2007 07:28 pm (UTC)
To round this out a little more: for many people, the Man is the symbol for Burning Man: not just for the annual event in the blackrock desert, but for the movement, such as there can be considered to be one. People have different levels of attachment to symbols. It's like with flag burning: some people go absolutely nuts over it, some people don't like it but think it should be legal, some people don't care, some people do it as a symbolic act, and some people do it just to get a reaction.

The difference here, of course, is that it wasn't Addis's "flag" to burn, as it were. More importantly, a lot of people put a lot of time and effort into it, and this is obviously horribly hurtful and unfair to them. That cannot be discounted. On that level, it's vandalism and destruction of property, plain and simple.

But on the other level, it's just a symbol. And while there are undoubtedly those in the burner community who are hurt by this, well, different people have different levels of attachment to symbols.
Sep. 1st, 2007 07:32 pm (UTC)
I have mixed feelings about it. Envy would conflict with Bey's vision from what I remember, and you don't necessarily want attention for your new T.A.Z. if the old one 'sold out'. But for example if he lied about encouraging suicide and some unrelated guy hanged himself, I can't suppress some Discordian admiration for the guy producing confusion. And I'm guessing you know in calmer moments that morality doesn't need to come from the government (though I admit I don't understand your Lawful tendencies fully).

Anarchist criticism of Bey, now, seems incomplete at best. Even if we need more than a Temporary Autonomous Zone (a reasonable view), I don't see how you can hope to produce true anarchism without an ongoing model and you have no chance of making one in any other way.
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
If a hostile government decides to civilize or occupy or otherwise destroy and govern the Temporary Autonomous Zone, the free people should simply move along, scatter to the winds, and send out scouts looking for more worthless empty spaces to occupy

If I can pimp my own post that's the problem with Burning Man. It was a great idea, but when the government decided to occupy, civilize, destroy, and govern the Temporary Autonomous Zone the leaders decided to "sell out their principles and form their own governments".

Of course even if you consider them sellouts that doesn't justify torching their property. Had I attended this year I probably would have been stationed with Sasquatch on graveyard, it would have been my job to stop him, and I regret not having the opportunity.
Sep. 2nd, 2007 07:58 pm (UTC)
Anarchy in action

Canadian agents provocateurs

Showing up at a peaceful union protest line with rocks, some of these goons were confronted by Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union, who insisted that this was a peaceful protest and they should leave. When they kept trying to push through to attack the cops, some actual anarchists showed up, saying that they recognized these people, and that they were police agents, at which point Coles started to question them, asking them to take off their masks for photos. Their reactions throughout this, all captured on video, are - to put it mildly - not what I would expect from any of the Black Bloc types I know. Finally, after chatting for a bit with the riot cops, they "charge" the police lines, and are promptly arrested -- but, as the CP stories linked at the top point out, no charges are laid against any of them.

I realize anarchy doesn't always work this well.

"There ain't no such thing as government interference"--RAWilson.
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