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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.

Comments

bradhicks
Sep. 1st, 2007 01:25 pm (UTC)
Postscript
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?
kayleetvs
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.
pixxelpuss
Sep. 1st, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
woot. You rock.
bradhicks
Sep. 1st, 2007 08:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
The question is, what exactly do anarchists and pacifists want done about it if I kill them? The anarchist is saying that he wants no government to enforce anti-murder laws, so if I'm strong enough to kill him and to survive any attempt by his friends or family to avenge him, why shouldn't I? Isn't that in accord with his most dearly held wishes? The pacifist is saying that he wants no violence to be done to me; how does the pacifist propose that I be punished for murdering him if there is no threat of violence to enforce any sanctions that are placed on me? Does he intend to persuade me to voluntarily jail myself?
ponsdorf
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
I like that observation! It nicely describes what a 'social contract' is and isn't. I'm reminded of Gort's job in "The Day the Earth Stood Still".
pope_guilty
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
Your use of straw men is uncharacteristic. I can understand ignorance about anarchism, but you personally being this ignorant about pacifism? I have a very hard time believing that you're engaging in this particular discussion in good faith.
bradhicks
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:21 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
Why is it a straw man? Extreme case, yes, but straw man? On the contrary; when anarchist Paul Addis torched the Burning Man statue, the only reason he made it out of Black Rock City without becoming a victim of severe violence is that the police protected him. Isn't it rather hypocritical of him to accept their protection? In his ideal society of no police, who does he think was going to successfully protect him from 46,000 very angry people?
pope_guilty
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
Why do you keep calling him an anarchist? Is this bullshit post-modern "If you call yourself something, that makes you one! Words have no meaning!" twaddle?

He's an idiot. And in an anarchist society, why do you believe that the response to such idiocy would be to do him harm?
bradhicks
Sep. 1st, 2007 10:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
... and suddenly we're at that classic point where anarcho-capitalists and anarcho-libertarians and anarcho-socialists and so forth start demanding that we only call them anarchists and not the others.

Are you kidding? Are you arguing that the only reason the people at Black Rock City were angry enough about what he'd done to want to injure or kill him was because the government told them to be? When did this happen? Is this some variation on Rousseau's "noble savage" BS, claiming that if they didn't have governments, people would all naturally be nice to each other?

That's been tried, you know. The result has never been spontaneous niceness. It's been tribal clan based savagery, for perfectly scientific neurological reasons. In order to deter others from hurting you, you need to hurt somebody back just as hard as they hurt you. But it is beyond the capacity of the human nervous system to perceive harm done to others as clearly as harm done to oneself. Try this common experiment: you and a friend get together. Punch him in the arm, just hard enough to sting a little. Now tell him to hit you exactly as hard as you hit him. Then hit him back exactly as hard as he just hit you. Try this with somebody who isn't a friend, who doesn't credit your good faith, and you'll end up killing each other; the level of force will escalate with each cycle, because that's how the human nervous system works.

That's why we created impersonal collective institutions of justice. And the word for an institution that does that is "government." The word for someone who opposes that is "anarchism." And both history and basic neuroscience demonstrate that the consequence of anarchism is tribal savagery, clan-on-clan warfare.
Re: Postscript - pope_guilty - Sep. 2nd, 2007 12:08 am (UTC) - Expand
dawnshadow
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
I'd say that the pacifist probably wouldn't mind you being punished for murdering him, as long as the punishment in itself isn't violent. Beating you or killing you would be bad. Fining you, exiling you, or throwing you in prison for the rest of your life probably be acceptable, as long as the most non-lethal, non-damaging available ways of making you obey are used. (For example, using a hypothetical hand-held version of an ADS instead of a typical gun. Both of them hurt a lot, but the ADS does no permanent physical damage.)
bradhicks
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
And if I refuse to pay the fine, or refuse to go to jail voluntarily, how does the pacifist suggest that society make me do so without using violence or the threat of violence against my person to make me do so?
kayleetvs
Sep. 4th, 2007 11:44 am (UTC)
Re: Postscript
Like pope_guilty said, the concept that a pacifist will never engage in or condone violence under any circumstances is a strawman. We're talking about pacifism, not Jainism -- pacifism is not an absolute position.

If someone committed a crime and refused to voluntarily submit to justice, the minimum necessary violence would be used to apprehend them, preventing them from committing more violence and, even more importantly, preventing the inevitable descent into warlordism and/or oligarchy brought about when laws are passed but not enforced.
brooklynite
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
As I implied in my last comment, there are plenty of acts that I consider immoral that I don't believe should be punished by the state. I don't think you should go to jail or be subjected to physical violence if you curse out my grandmother for counting her change too slowly at the checkout line, but that doesn't mean I consider it to be a moral act, or that it's "in accord with my most deeply held wishes" for you to do so.

A person can consider an act immoral without believing that it should be illegal, and a person can consider an act immoral and not believe that it should be met with physical violence.
pope_guilty
Sep. 1st, 2007 03:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
But isn't an anarchist somebody who has specifically requested that no government intervene to protect him from would-be killers?

An anarchist is someone who wants the social contract drawn up by equal parties and not by authorities telling the rest of the populace how the society will be ordered. I pay taxes. I'm happy to do so, in fact, as it's pretty much the only form of large-scale collective action that is really possible at the moment. If the cops choose not to protect me because I'm an anarchist, that's pretty much fraud- they've taken my money but refuse to provide me with the services I've paid for.
brooklynite
Sep. 1st, 2007 03:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Postscript
I don't follow you.

Let's say we live in a country in which people who are found guilty of vandalizing other people's homes are tortured by the government. I tell you that I think this is morally wrong, and that I could never give evidence against an accused vandal if he faced torture on conviction.

Have I given you permission to vandalize my home?