with grover norquist
FEAR AND LOATHING AT BURNING MAN
ALEXANDER C. KOUTS
following has been reprinted with permission from the Independent
two o’clock Wednesday afternoon and 90 degrees outside.
I’m furiously pedaling my crumbling bike through a whiteout
dust storm on an alkali salt flat in the high Nevada desert.
I’m on my way to meet Grover Norquist, a tax reform activist
and man referred to as the ‘Grand Central Station of Conservatism,’
at one of the most famous alternative art and lifestyle festivals
in the world, Burning Man.
attendance at Burning Man is a polarizing issue for the community
of ‘Burners’ that frequent the festival. When he
announced he would be attending for the first time last year,
it ignited a social media fire-storm. Some felt his presence
signified an end to the event’s authenticity, while others
saw it as an elegant expression of the event’s ethos of
radical inclusion. Grover fired back in his widely read retrospective
on his first Burn. The real question is: why would a man who
has spent his entire career corralling Washington’s political
elite into furthering Reaganesque reductions in government spending
and taxation attend such an event? Why, oh why, would he attend
a second time?
at the structure where we’re meeting and enter through
the mouth of a 15-feet tall laughing clown face. I duck to narrowly
miss the foot-long white teeth hanging above me. I see Grover
seated across the room atop a derelict church pew, deep in conversation
with a curly haired woman wearing a green corset and army boots.
He looks up and tells me that his new friend’s name is
Absinthe and that she’s a manufacturer of the drink for
which she’s named? -- ?using only real wormwood of course.
Grover asks me “Have you ever seen what wormwood looks
like?” I almost finish saying “no” before
Absinthe cheerfully spins around to display a foot long tattoo
of the plant on her right shoulder. Grover smiles. Welcome to
in 1986, Burning Man has become one of the most talked about
counter-culture events in the world. For one week nearly 70,000
people descend on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, and from
the dust, create Black Rock City or what some call a ‘temporary
autonomous zone’ aka the ‘Playa.’ A vibrant
un-society guided by ten inalienable principles such as radical
inclusion, radical self-expression, civic responsibility and
an uncompromising ban on an any elements of encroaching commercialization.
All night EDM parties, flamboyantly themed bars, baroque costumes,
tech-titan Bedouin palaces and mind-expanding events abound
to create an experience unlike any other. Then, at the end of
the week, to the dust it returns, with no trace left behind.
and I walk around the corner into his encampment and find an
elevated platform with chairs and a shade tent. We sit and chat
about how he met Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey in D.C.
and the two bonded over the struggle his organization had had
with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) -- a federal agency
responsible for permitting and regulating Burning Man’s
operations in the Nevada Desert. Grover recounts how he learned
the BLM was extorting the event planners into satisfying lavish
million dollar requests for amenities, including 24 hour laundry
facilities and a never-ending supply of choco-tacos for agency
staff. He saw Harvey’s struggle as parallel to the one
he’d been fighting against the growth of the U.S. Government.
They immediately bonded over their shared values, and Grover’s
road to attending the festival began.
likens the underlying ideology of Burning Man to what Friedrich
Hayek called “spontaneous order.” Free people come
together to do amazing things with no commissars or town clerks
shouting orders at them. “It’s what our government
should be. A very small list of things they do and a very long
list of things they leave alone.”
Man is the only experience I’ve had that’s substantially
more intense than I expected” he says. “You can’t
pop out to Wal-Mart and back easily . . . it gives it this sense
of glorious isolation.”
finish the interview and stroll over to BMIR -- the official
community radio station for Burning Man? -- ?where Grover is
scheduled as a featured guest. We ascend the railingless steps
into a converted shipping container with a 20-foot latticed
antenna sprouting from the roof. Inside, the long room is a
college dorm gone pirate radio outpost, all covered in a thin
layer of fine white dust. The host is an affable Burner named
Headshot, aka Headstash aka Chomo (who is also covered in a
thin layer of white dust.) He offers Grover a hard apple cider
and jumps right in.
and Headshot wax philosophical about everything from the meaning
of Burning Man to its guiding principals while the heartbeat
of the Playa -- ?a cacophony of techno bass reverbs, airhorns
and gleeful screams -- ?keeps pace just outside the door.
conversation then focuses on Burning Man’s system of governance
at which point Grover explains the overarching theme that he
finds so salient: “It’s clear that the more complex
the world is, the more diverse people are, the fewer rules you
need and the fewer rules you can afford.”
through the conversation a grab-bag assortment of white-washed
burners walk into the studio. A non-official looking man in
a cowboy hat says “I got a couple people here, I have
no idea what they need, but we’re a community radio station
first and foremost.” Headshot immediately cedes the mic
over to the group.
first announcement is from a man of Aztec extraction, covered
head to toe in tribal tattoos. He announces that a group of
dancers from the Earth Guardians Camp will be blessing the Playa
with Aztec medicine and drums at 6pm and all are welcome. Next
is brown haired girl-next-door Lauren, who needs a ride back
to San Francisco leaving tonight. Then it’s Gizmo who
needs 40 feet of low voltage wire to fix the tail lights on
his RV. Then Scott announces a Pastafarian and Pole Dancing
Party at the Spaghetti Monster temple at 8. Grover turns to
me and says half laughing, “Well, that’s a first.”
interview wraps up and Grover and I take a stroll into the center
of the Playa. With winds picking up and visibility rapidly decreasing
we make our way towards The Man -- a 60-foot-tall wooden effigy
of a man towering above the Playa that will be burned to ash
in an elaborate ritual Saturday night. A nude woman bicycles
past us, disappearing into the dust ahead, as the guttural tones
of Tibetan throat music from a nearby acro-yoga session fade
pass Grover’s favorite art installation, the Medusa Madness
-- ?a large steel statue of the mythical Greek Gorgon complete
with fire breathing hair snakes. He explains, “I like
it because it reminds me of my daughter and her wild curly hair.”
finally reach The Man. Standing underneath it looking up, there’s
an undeniably church-like vibe. It feels as if the stolid behemoth
is keeping a benevolent eye on his playa kingdom and all of
his Burner subjects. Grover remarks in amazement: “The
amount of work it takes to do all of this keeps washing over
me? -- ?it’s incredible. These people are not playing
that day, in keeping with the principle of gifting wherein every
Burner must bring a gift to the Playa, Grover performs a stand-up
comedy routine at the Steampunk Saloon, a popular theme camp/bar.
His opening joke requires a glass of bourbon as a prop. “Scotch,
no ice, neat, no water. I never drink water, Dick Cheney tortures
people with it.” The crowd erupts with laughter.
Grover is invited to speak the Palenque Norte, a lecture series
that, earlier in the week, covered topics such as Coming Down
from the Psychedelic Power Trip, Holotropic Breathwork, and
Meditation, Chanting and Discourse -- ?a perfect tee-up for
a talk on tax policy and civil liberties.
event is in a large white tent with dusty carpets strewn across
the desert flooring. The room has all 31 flavors of hippy. In
front of me is a blue haired couple who are clearly in their
own world as they caress each other for the duration of the
nearly two-hour talk.
shares allusions to the virtue of small government using examples
of marijuana legalization in Colorado and concealed carry legislation
in Florida preceding decreases in crime. The crowd is locked
in and energized, with the rare exception of one dreadlocked
man (and presumed liberal power broker) snoring on a couch in
Grover sticks around and answers questions from the audience.
In an environment like this it is easy to forget that the people
around you are every bit as civically engaged as your average
citizen, perhaps even more so.
shirtless man asks if there are scenarios in which the free
market constricts personal liberty. Grover trumpets that undue
oversight of free markets constrict career mobility by narrowing
in on the plight of convicted felons obtaining vocational licenses.
As a massive gust of wind fills the tent with dust and reduces
visibility to fuzzy outlines, a large white-bearded Burner thanks
Grover for coming a second year and “Giving me the opportunity
to evolve past loathing people with your ideas.” He then
submits an idea to use basic geometry to regulate gerrymandering.
Grover is impressed.
unclear whether Grover won any support for his famous tax pledge
during his talk. What is clear is that he generated a real connection
with the audience. Notions of sacrosanct individual liberty
and freedom from interference by policing powers deeply resonate
with his new fans.
lies the beauty of Burning Man. It galvanizes a culturally discontinuous
group of people into one family united by a love for freedom
of expression. The costumes, the ceremony, the guiding principals,
all are an attempt to create a protected context for unbridling
people from the strictures of the ‘default world’
this uniting principle, Grover has found ideological allies
in his fight to restore the American government to what he believes
it was originally intended to be: a compassionate but restrained
system of rules designed to add to the human experience, not
limit it. In this frenetic dust-filled wonderland of lights
and hippies, Grover has found the most unlikely of homes.