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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.


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?
Sep. 1st, 2007 05:50 pm (UTC)
Capitalist liberal democracies are corrupted by capitalism- it's an economic system which is predicated upon unequal power relations between the bosses and the workers. As long as there's inequalities in wealth and there are structures which can allow that wealth to influence politics, the word "democracy" becomes a hollow sham, a way of ruling people while convincing them to believe that they have a say in their lives.

What we're after, generally, is reordering society in such a way that everyone interacts as equals in all relationships, including political relationship. Liberal democracies cannot provide this equality. (This is also why social anarchists such as myself are generally loathe to consider that individualist anarchists, such as "anarcho"-capitalists, deserve the title- they're still advocating for power imbalances and rulership, only done through direct economic power and not through the state.)
Sep. 1st, 2007 08:40 pm (UTC)
And how, exactly (or even approximately!) do you intend to achieve or enforce economic equality in the absence of government? And, as even Bey pointed out, how do you intend to defend your utopia from any random group of people somewhere within it or on its edges who decide they'd rather have government, as has happened to anarchist collectives over and over again for millenia?

Anarchism at best sounds utopian, but once you start talking about implementation and other details, it gets rapidly revealed to be the stupidest idea to emerge from the mind of man.
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:06 pm (UTC)
By reminding people that cooperation and mutual aid are far superior to competition and rapaciousness.

And, as even Bey pointed out, how do you intend to defend your utopia from any random group of people somewhere within it or on its edges who decide they'd rather have government, as has happened to anarchist collectives over and over again for millenia?

Millenia? Bey's a fucking nutcase. Anarchism dates back to Proudhon in the 1800's. It's a young political philosophy that used to be represented in the Internationale until the Marxists booted out everyone that disagreed with them. It's not the ancient principle of chaos that retards like Bey insist that it be. It has repeatedly been appropriated in name only. Anarchism has nothing to do with the chaos-worship that Bey indulges in.
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:17 pm (UTC)
So, for example, the early Renaissance "diggers" weren't anarchists when they insisted that human beings needed no hierarchy or government, repudiated ownership of private property, and attempted to set up their own colonies according to these principles? Just to pick one well-documented pre-19th-century example? Proudhon didn't invent a single idea. Nor was he even the one to coin the word; the word is ancient Greek.
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:26 pm (UTC)
The Diggers were Christians who based their egalitarianism and repudiation of private property upon the Acts of the Apostles. What would the word for that be? Stateless theocracy? Gee, that's a swell idea that looks a lot like

Proudhon didn't invent a single idea. Nor was he even the one to coin the word; the word is ancient Greek.

Proudhon was the first to actually call himself by the name- it certainly wasn't anything but a slander in Greek. Proudhon's accomplishment, aside from a dissection of property that usually gets attributed to Karl Marx, was in recognising that anarchy is something to aspire to and not to use as a slander to justify harming people.
Sep. 1st, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
Also, you might check out An Anarchist FAQ. I don't really recommend the rest of Infoshop.org, but their hosting of the FAQ is nice.
Sep. 1st, 2007 08:58 pm (UTC)
Heh, isn't there some irony in anarchists requiring a neatly structured FAQ?

When anarchists have a meeting do fist fights break out?

BTW Democracy has always been a sham in fact... not just the word.

Even further off topic: What we're after, generally, is reordering society in such a way that everyone interacts as equals in all relationships, including political relationship. Tricky phrasing here... doesn't the use of the word 'generally' makes the rest of your statement logically questionable. Not intended as a trivial nit-pick, I genuinely don't understand. Human beings are not equal, we can mitigate that fundamental inequality somewhat, but never make it disappear. That's one of the primary flaws in Marxism, and, I think, anarchy.

Sep. 1st, 2007 09:04 pm (UTC)
Comments like this are why I despair. Why would anarchists be against order and structure? It's nice. It's stable. It's a lot safer than constant risk and chaos.

Tricky phrasing here... doesn't the use of the word 'generally' makes the rest of your statement logically questionable. Not intended as a trivial nit-pick, I genuinely don't understand. Human beings are not equal, we can mitigate that fundamental inequality somewhat, but never make it disappear.

I say "generally" as opposed to specifically delineating every single idea put forth by every different anarchist ideology. And it doesn't fucking matter that human beings are not equal. It does not follow from that that anyone having power over others is acceptable or beneficial.
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:27 pm (UTC)
Don't despair on my account. I consider myself a pragmatic anarchist (or maybe just a cynic). One of the aspects of that position is that I ask questions.

And it doesn't fucking matter that human beings are not equal. It does not follow from that that anyone having power over others is acceptable or beneficial. I asked the question out of genuine curiosity. That humans are not equal seems to be an item from Brad's 'Forbidden Lore'. However, what does follow from that fact is that 'order and structure' are going to be flawed constructs so long as humans are involved.
Sep. 1st, 2007 09:29 pm (UTC)
And that's something to work on, continually if necessary. Throwing our hands up, saying "Fuck it!", and handing our lives and wealth over to the aristocracy is not the way to proceed.
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Sep. 1st, 2007 11:08 pm (UTC)
Re: "I am not an anarchist in *your* sense of the word - imagine a policeman loosed upon society!"
Ah, but someone who merely opposes authoritarianism and aristocracy and abusive use of power is a reformer (like myself), and the anarchists of all stripes are in something very close to unanimous agreement, almost the only thing that they agree upon, that reformers like me are their deadliest enemies. No, to an anarchist, if the goal isn't to eliminate all externally imposed restrictions on human behavior, it's not worth arguing for, let alone fighting for.
Sep. 1st, 2007 11:55 pm (UTC)
Re: "I am not an anarchist in *your* sense of the word - imagine a policeman loosed upon society!"
I'm talking about anarchy as a state of self-government and collectivism, and not the infantile "LOL DO WHAT YOU WANT" concept that Brad seems to be insisting on (even though he says he's familiar with some anarchist writing).

But yeah, I think you're right. Anarchism isn't about removing the government right now and letting the chips fall where they may. It's about moving toward a state of anarchy in ways that don't hurt people as much as standing still does. I do believe that anarchy is possible, but only once everyone's an anarchist.
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