News & Politics

Castles Made of Sand: The Politics of Burning Man

Speaking with political journalist Steven T. Jones, author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How An Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

What I hear about Burning Man sounds like it’s a self-indulgent hedonistic mess. True?

Some say with a bit of regret that it isn’t the big Bacchanalian drug-fueled orgy that it used to be. In the beginning, they weren’t going out to create this big city. John Law, one of the founders, left in 1996 because he felt it was getting too big and this notion of imposing a map and city rules was very antithetical to what he and a lot of people wanted.  It still is a place to go crazy to a degree, though it’s now morphed into something much bigger. If you’re into weird freaky sex or to do drugs all week, you can find that. I’ve camped with the sound camps that are comprised of a lot of really big hedonists. Then there are people like the Flaming Lotus Girls, who are working their asses off building these giant flaming sculptures. They’re not having fun but they get inspired by what they can do artistically.

Larry Harvey, one of the founders, said, “We took the values of bohemia and created a city around it.” The basic values that the creators lay out are radical self-reliance and self-expression. It’s a de-commodified culture that operates on a gift economy. Everyone who goes is encouraged to make an artistic expression and make their gifts known and to participate actively in the creation and destruction and clean-up of the city.

But why would anyone want to spend all that time building a temporary city instead of trying to bring about actual change in their regular communities?

Throughout the book, I explore this question in various ways. I felt guilty about going to Burning Man in 2004. Some argued that we needed to put these energies and resources that we’re using at Burning Man in any given year toward changing the culture of this country. In the subsequent years, Larry Harvey chose these very socio-political art themes in an effort to nudge the event toward greater engagement with the rest of the world. But it’s ultimately a false choice.

How so?

The inertia of this event is such that it can’t really become a political organization because that’s not what it is. The time that’s spent building that city doesn’t translate easily into other realms. A lot of the reasons why people build this city are because they’re disenfranchised by the political system and with the economic opportunities afforded them.

So they’ve decided to just say “screw it”?

I don’t want to say they’ve given up but they’ve chosen to create this experimental city that’s built an entire culture around rules and ways of relating that are more authentic and organic. Ultimately I was disappointed to see that Burning Man couldn’t have that kind of impact. I describe in the book how, in 2008, I drove from Burning Man to the Democratic National Convention in Denver where Barack Obama got nominated.

I concluded that The Man, whether it be the Burning Man or Barack Obama, is irrelevant. They are defined by the movements around them. Until we have more broad-based social movements that are trying to create political reform that engages more people, there is no pathway from Burning Man to the modern political culture. For a lot of people, it’s enough for them to create this sort of demonstration city.

But then some burners got together and headed down to the Gulf Coast after Burning Man 2005. So it looks like some of them wanted to have a real impact beyond the Nevada desert.

This spawned a sort of new realm for Burning Man, the do-gooder outreach realm known as Burners without Borders. Post-Katrina, there was this huge need on the Gulf Coast for cleanup. That’s Burning Man’s sweet spot. This is a city that’s created and then destroyed by very capable people who are at the top of their professions in a number of areas like construction and medicine. At the end of the event, some from Burning Man decided they would set up an encampment there. There was a yearning for something that felt a little less hedonistic.

You have several chapters in the book devoted to Reverend Billy, who has become a fixture here in New York City. I had no clue he was a burner.

Reverend Billy’s basic anti-consumerism message really resonated out there, as this is a city that’s based around that paradigm. There’s such a symbiotic relationship between what Rev. Bill and the Church of Stop Shopping—now the Church of Life after Shopping—and Burning Man were trying to do in de-emphasizing these commodified relationships. They then entered into a partnership. The Black Rock Foundation, which is an offshoot of Burning Man, provided some funding for Reverend Billy’s movie What Would Jesus Buy? and his tour. They’ve developed a very close relationship and sponsor him when he comes out to California.

Did you find it’s better to go out there and cover the event as a detached observer or did you experience it for yourself?

I don’t believe in the notion of objectivity, but I strongly believe in fairness and in writing the way that speaks honestly and doesn’t worry about the consequences over the years. If you present stories accurately, it will work. With this book, it was important for me to do experiential journalism. I wanted to try and get a sense of why people donate months of their lives to these projects only to see them burn in the end. Who are these people and what’s motivating them? What are they getting out of this and how does this add up to what the city is about? Their perspective is so interesting that I feel really honored that I’m able to be the conduit for all these people, who have certainly affected my own sense of what’s possible, of what culture can be, and of what kind of stories I want to tell as a journalist.

And what’s the deal with “Scribe,” the name that appears under “Steven T. Jones” on the cover?

There’s a scene in the very beginning of the book, during my first camp meeting with Opulent Temple, when I discuss getting the Scribe playa name. Basically, it grew out of my intention to chronicle the culture that I was participating in. But after that first year, it really took on a life of its own because so many people came to know me as Scribe, including many people who I’d bump into around San Francisco. Even my last girlfriend, Syda, primarily called me Scribe. That might seem strange to many people, and calling yourself by a name other than the one your parents gave you does take some getting used to, but there’s also something very empowering about assuming an identity of your choosing. In a world that we build from scratch, in a culture based on reinvention, it seems quite natural and appropriate to form an alter ego and really make it your own.

What’s more interesting to cover, a Burning Man festival or politics?

This culture has become more interesting to me than mainstream politics. At this point all institutions—albeit religious, political, or labor—all seem so deeply corrupt and inauthentic. Even when it is authentic, it doesn’t seem to enact any real change. But Burning Man has had a profound effect on people’s lives because, in large part, they did it themselves. In the process, they discovered something about themselves they didn’t know they had within them.

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith and a contributor to the Guardian, among other publications. Her books include Jesus Died for This? A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ (Zondervan, August, 2010) and Starting from Zero with $0: Building Mission-Shaped Ministries on a Shoestring (Seabury Press, September 2010).