This week, the Burning Man festival – a convocation of large groups of men and women seeking sex, drugs, rock and roll, and other forms of hedonistic bliss – was flooded. It seems that a half inch of rain swamped the event, which takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, turning the dust to deep and sticky mud. The images of barely-clad neo-hippies struggling to walk through the muck spread like wildfire across the internet; even the White House was forced to acknowledge that it was monitoring the situation.
For a huge swath of Americans, all of this was simply amusing. But the rise and mainstreaming of Burning Man is a far more interesting story than its pathetic possible demise. Burning Man was founded in 1986, when some hippie types gathered at the beach in San Francisco to burn a nine-foot-tall wooden man. Over time, the bonfire became larger and larger, until eventually it moved to Nevada, where it has been located ever since. Each year, 100,000 people head out to the middle of the desert to participate in events ranging from impromptu art exhibits to orgies and mass drug use.
The fundamental principles of Burning Man are spelled out in co-founder Larry Harvey’s 10 Principles, written in 2004. These principles – 10 in number – construct a paganistic morality built around a bevy of mutually exclusive notions. For example, Burning Man is about “radical inclusion … No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” But Burning Man is also “devoted to acts of gift giving.” Unfortunately, without some form of mutuality, giving alone cannot for the basis of a functioning society, even temporarily. All of which means that Burning Man features social pressure to ostracize free-riders – a tragic violation of the radical inclusion principle.
Burning Man values “radical self-expression,” which cannot be defined by anyone other “than the individual or a collaborating group.” But such radical self-expression quickly comes into conflict with Burning Man’s call for “civic responsibility,” which surely encroaches on the unlimited right to self-expression. Burning Man also values “immediacy,” which it calls “the most important touchstone of value in our culture.” But Burning Man also calls for the community to “clean up after ourselves,” which runs directly counter to the promise of immediacy.
All of this would be sheer countercultural nonsense, except for one perverse fact: the counterculture has now become the culture. This accounts for the fact that Burning Man now seems tired and played out, less transgressive than wearied. The age of Burning Man attendees has increased over the past decade (average age in 2013 was 32, compared to 37 just nine years later); so has the average income (in 2006, 14% of Burners listed their personal income at above $100,000, compared to 27.4% by 2016). Influencers now show up at Burning Man to sell Popeye’s Spicy Chicken; Elon Musk and Paris Hilton and Mark Zuckerberg have shown up.
And herein lies the problem for the broader American culture. Our elite class used to be inculcated in the same set of baseline values as “normal” Americans: John D. Rockefeller was a regular churchgoer; so was Cornelius Vanderbilt. Today, our elites participate in drug-fueled binges in the desert – or at least wish to appear as though they do. Throughout the 1930s, even the poorest Americans aspired to dress well, wearing suits even on the breadlines. Today, even the richest Americans dress as though they shop at Salvation Army.
When elites promulgate countercultural garbage that eats at the roots of fundamental societal institutions, societal bonds dissolve. Ironically, that dissolution occurs first at the lowest rungs of the income ladder: as Charles Murray points out, “The belief that being a good American involved behaving in certain kinds of ways, and that the nation itself relied upon a certain kind of people in order to succeed, had begun to fade and has not revived.” In fact, those who live out lives of good decision-making are, all too often, embarrassed of their good choices. To promote those choices might seem “judgmental.”
That is the real tragedy of Burning Man: it’s mainstreaming. Every society has its oddball behaviors. Only sick societies incentivize their imitation.