Is It Hopeless? A Freewheeling Conversation with Brian Doherty
"We HAVE to base human society on threats of legalized violence! Otherwise, how can we be CIVILIZED?"
Somehow, not believing that has come to be considered crazy. Anyone who happens to think it might be a better idea to base social order on peaceful and voluntary cooperation is probably pretty used to being treated like a numbskullat the same time that we're all increasingly dominated in more and more minute particulars by bureaucratic machinery from which it seems difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
I haven't managed to accommodate myself very well to either of those circumstances, but especially the latter: as always happens in territories controlled by governmentsthat is to say, pretty much all of the planet's territoriesplans for personal freedom are constantly being thwarted by bureaucracy. In my case, though I own, outright, a good sized chunk of land on a remote desert mountainside somehow I still find myself hemmed in, hounded by, and dictated to by bureaucrats.
Author and journalist Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine, former punk rocker and label owner, and long-time Burning Man veteran.
As an anarchist and former Burning Man participant, I thought that maybe the author of two of my favorite contemporary works dealing with personal libertyThis Is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movementmight have ideas about approaches to personal freedom in our progressively less free civilization.
Brian Doherty: In terms of commercial success, Radicals for Capitalism did way better than the Burning Man book. Which is not at all what I expected. I had been working on Radicals since the mid-nineties. That could have ended up being my first book. Obviously, it was way more ambitious a project than the Burning Man book, but when the Burning Man option came up, I'm like, I'm going to put Radicals on the back burner and finish this first because I actually thought, in terms of my career, that it would be better, because I knew that there are way more people in the world deeply into Burning Man than there are people deeply into libertarianism. But what I didn't getand I'm exaggerating slightlyis that none of the Burning Man people read, really. And to a certain extent, some of them are aggressively against the notion of reading about Burning Man. I've had people actually go, "Oh, it's all about LIVING!!" I'm like, you know, a book is a bunch of words on a page. What do you do at Burning Man? From the minute you get there to the minute you leave, are you running around, screaming, and, like, shaking? We talk. At Burning Man, half the fucking time, you're talking. That's words. A book is just the words on a fucking page. It's not really that different, ultimately. But they take the tribal thing to where we're now pre-word!
Doc: So you found that a lot of people whom you would've expected would read a book about Burning Man
Yes. I have a handful or more of personal anecdotes of that variety, like, "Oh, yeah, good on ya, that's great, but I'm not gonna read a book about Burning Man, because to me, that's not what it's about."
That's almost a religious attitude.
Yeah. Just in terms of the numbers, the book has sold a little over seven thousand copies to an event that draws fifty-thousand fucking people now.
I expected it to do better than it did. Obviously, as with any book, the publisher doesn't really promote it. At all. Ever. So it struck me as a peculiarly good audience for word of mouth. And it has been, to some extent. I still will find people who've gone for four years, and if the topic comes up, I'll learn that he had no idea that there were ANY books about Burning Man. Or, at the very least, that they didn't necessarily know mine, because mine doesn't have a lot of pictures. Which was very deliberate.
I was specifically interested because I knew that yours wouldn't be coming from some goofysay, Marxistperspective. I figured you might be approaching it in a similar way to how I was, and when I had the book in my hands and flipped through it, I also saw that we know some of the same people. And there was a sentimental element to it, because we were present at some of the same happenings. So there was a sort of "yearbook" aspect, I guess. But I thought the treatment was fair. It wasn't fawning.
I will also say that the reaction to it among those who have read it has been super gratifying. The only complaint I gotand it was an ideological oneis that I didn't feature enough women. Which is honestly an issue I didn't think about at allwhich is I guess why it happened, because if I had been thinking about it, I might have deliberately thought, "oh, yeah." And there were instances where characters played certain roles that I had pre-determined, like, this point has to be madewhose story can I use to make this point? And there were many cases where I could have used a woman and I didn't, so if I had been thinking in those terms at all, I would have.
I guess even Burning Man kind of still is a man's world, in some ways.
[Another criticism was that] I didn't do enough about some of the bureaucracy. I don't think these words are in the book but here's the way I look at it. It takes a different kind of person to have been active in Burning Man from 1990-1995. The type of people who made something like Burning Man. But the type of people who [became involved] when there was a job that they could fill in the running of Burning Man are just inherently less interesting. It doesn't mean they're bad people. The builders built the thing and now the bureaucrats are going to take the jobs that are now necessary because the builders built the thing.
Agreed. I didn't fault the organization for things that occurred just because the event got bigger. I just think it's almost impossible for anything to be both big and ethically good.
This is another random thing I want to say about why I wrote the book. I realized at a certain pointand this might be retrospectivethat people like [those featured in This Is Burning Man], I feel like their cultural impact is largely because they were all really good publicists. It was just this little coterie of freaks that managed to talk about themselves so much and were well connected enough in publishing. I wanted to get that ball rolling for this particular circle of weirdo bohemians that started Burning Man. I think it hasn't revved up as much as I'd hoped but there have been a couple more major books. RE/Search, which meant a lot in the eighties but doesn't mean nearly as much nowwhat V Vale did was so important to my life and the lives of everyone I knew in the eighties. But he has become so bitter because the social world in which he played a role of vital significance has been completely superceded by technology. To be the curator and provider of weird and arcane knowledge is an absolutely meaningless skill nowadays, for the most part. And it hurts. You're probably like me in the respect of having built up a lot of social capital when young by being the dude who knew a lot of weird shit. Meaningless, now. The Internet has taken over his role in life, so that he thinks that modernity really sucks. On his own terms, I don't think he should feel that.
If I were V Vale, I'd think that I had done something that mattered.
I'm sure we'll grow into learning what that feels like but I don't know what it feels like so much yet, to be The Guy Who Did the Thing. You want to feel like The Person Doing the Thing. I had my first taste of that because I used to work with Chicken John's Circus Redickuless. I never did a whole tour because I had a job but I would work with him when I could and a couple of years ago we started doing "reunion shows." That deliberately slaps you in the face with, "Oh, we're no longer doing thingswe are now memorializing the fact that we used to do things." At age 41, which is how old I am, I've become, perhaps, a little overly obsessed with the feeling of each passing . . . well, it's kind of interesting and I don't know how to adjust to it and I don't want to be a boring old man about any of it. But Burning Man brings that out in people who've given it a lot of time.
Of course, Burning Man, also, has become a set of cultural signifiers that dominate it that both you and I couldn't care less about, like, fire-twirlers and quasi-decadent cabaret-ish bullshit, which was never anything at all of what I like about it. Not that I don't like looking at people on stilts, but it's weird that as "the Burning Man guy' [because of the book], I have almost zero interest in any event outside of Burning Man. Like decompressions, or whatever. Once or twice a year maybe I like being around a bunch of people on ecstasy or whatever, it can be kind of fun but there's a little bit of a sense in which I feel it makes it culturally effete in terms of what people actually think of when they think of Burning Man. Whereas I think of some bit of machinery made out of junk, others think of someone in fake fur throwing fire sticks.
This Is Burning Man got me to go back to Burning Man after I had sworn off. I totally got suckered in by the book and it pulled me back in. It was a good read and good work, because you were a part of the phenomenon.
Did you regret going back?
No. I went back in 2005 and 2006. Haven't been back since. But I feel like we must have met at some point. We were at so many of the same places you talk about in the book. Life-Size Mouse Trap, in 1996, when the car was on fire, being towed into the blackness with little drips of flame coming off the back. That's one of my most vivid memories of Burning Man, ever. Of course, I was on shrooms. But that liquid flame, dripping in the night. And that car wasn't supposed to burn. I remember someone screaming NOOOOOOOOOOO. That was back when people would just burn anything. And the burning of Piano Bell.
It seems to me that there's a lot in common at the intersection of This Is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism but I'm wondering how people you know react to you. I often get treated like some kind of brain-damaged idiot for not believing in the authority of the state. Do you find that you get a lot of head patting and that sort of thing?
There are two levels to that. This will sound very insulting to many people I know but people of a standard modern American liberal mindset, I find, live in a world, on one level, in which they feel really embattled, and that the world is full of evil Republicans who are against them, yet also they never meet any of these people. They're all these media constructs. They believe that if they met you and they've dealt with you on a kind of personal level and they like you, that you must believe all the same things they believe, because decent people that they like all believe those same things. I think most people, there's a level where some of them probably are not aware at all that I have weird political beliefs.
Really? But they know you've written books, yeah?
A lot of them maybe just know the Burning Man book. It depends on how well they know me. A lot of them may have this vague sense that I might believe some weird political stuff. The other thing is, "edgier" modern liberals, to the extent that they understand libertarianism at all, or think they have a vague understanding of it, often think that they kind of jibe with it, in a way that they really don't. It's very easyI use this trick when trying to "sell" libertarianismthe vaguer you get with libertarianism, the more you can get people to agree with it. At the very highest level"I believe that society should basically be run with a minimum of violent force and threats, dictating what happens." Doesn't that make sense? That makes sense to almost everyone, especially almost everyone you're going to meet in the Burning Man world. Though the Burning Man world also has a lot of rather intelligent kind of like hyper-militarist types: "No, fuck that shit! We NEED more strong people." I can debate that, and that's respectable, that's a well thought-out position. I believe this quote is in the book (my book knows more about Burning Man than I do, at this pointa lot of it has slipped my mind): one of the early [Black Rock] Rangers, who I think is in the book, talked about how, when he was out in the early days with all these freaked-out morons with guns, damn right he was gonna have a lot of guns on him! So there's that route, where people sort of say, "Oh, yeah, libertarianism, that's cool. I get that." But really, the more they understand about libertarianism, the more completely NOT cool it would be with them. In which case, in terms of my personal relationships, it's to my benefit that they only vaguely understand libertarianism. How vaguely people understand libertarianism always freaks me out, because it seems to me it's the one political ideology that you really can know just one or two things about it and if you think things through, you can understand what the libertarian would think about everything. I have really intelligent guys who spend five hours a day watching cable TV news, I mean, real news junkie type buddies, who'll constantly be asking me, "So, what's the libertarian take on this?" And I'm like, "Why can't you figure out what the libertarian take would be on this, that, or the other thing?" It's really fuckin' simple.
Once, as an experiment, I ran for state legislature, and when interviewers would ask what my policy on this or that issue would be, I'd tell them that if you know my principles, it's simple to guess what my policies would be.
I understand that to know the Democrat or Republican take, you need to know a bunch of weird sociology and history and what interest group might like this or that, but the libertarian take is really easy to figure out. But a lot of people can't guess, so I guess what I'm saying is, to the extent that I've avoided it being a social problem, it's A) because on one level, people just assume that if you seem like a nice guy, you must think all the same things all other nice people think. Secondarily, that libertarianism in its vaguest sense sounds kind of cool to them. Which it should! I'm glad it does. And beyond that, most people in the Burning Man world are not really, like, watching cable news, or thinking about politics a lot. Which is great, it's one of my favorite parts of that world. It's a world of people who actually have vivid, interesting lives. I won't name the names, but two somewhat prominent characters in my bookgreat old school Burning Man types, totally interesting, fascinating guys, whom I adoreone night, shortly after 9/11, I ended up staying up all night with them, drinking, and all they wanted to do was argue about the threat of radical Islam. One of them was sort of radicalized in a kind of right-wing way by 9/11, where it all became like, "Yeah, these people are fuckin' bullshit and we can't peacefully co-exist with them," and the other had a more standard liberal view, and I was listening for hours to these guys talk about this, and I don't think I said this, because I was just lying on the couch being bored, but I'm like, you know, guys, your opinions are absolutely the least interesting thing about you as human beings. [Laughter] Listening to you just talk about your opinions about this gaseous international bullshit is the least interesting thing for you guys to be doing with your time. Even on the level where we're sitting around drinking and bullshitting. These are guys with great lives and vivid stories they could tell. Who cares what you think about what we need to do about this? I think the Burning Man world is fortunately full of a lot of that. People don't really care. They kind of care a little bit. Facebook has become a horrific revelation about this because Facebook makes it easy for people to reflexively spout what they think, in terms of what they decide to email around or whatever. But luckily, politics isn't a big deal to most people I know in the Burning Man world.
To turn it around the other way, the people in the libertarian world are amused in that weird, quasi-prurient way of whatever vision they might have of Burning Man. Drugs, orgies, whatever. My Burning Man book came out [before Radicals for Capitalism] and some in the libertarian world were like, this is an unworthy topic for you to spend all this time on.
Really? It's kind ofI hate to use the word experiment again, and I know it's not really "real" in most waysbut it seems an interesting experiment.
Not all libertarians. But a lot of libertarians are very culture-boundwhich is a weird thing for a libertarian to be.
I'm really a straight anarchist but when I'm trying to be respectable I'll maybe use the word libertarian.
To insult my other constituency . . . I don't like hanging out with most libertarians.
The people with the button vests? Don't worry. I won't tell 'em. I almost always show interviews to my subjects before they go live. I've even taken stuff out that they thought would hurt someone.
I'm not against that.
You're a journalist, thoughI'm not gonna show you!
Journalism is a weird confidence game. It's actually indefensible in many ways. You don't want to give people a second chance to think about things that they inadvertently said. There are times when, I'm really pleased that you said that to me on the record, and I really don't want to flag it to you.
Someone I recently interviewed said a couple of exceptionally interesting things that I later took out at this person's request, because they concerned someone that this person still had to deal with. I really, really didn't want to take the quotations out, because they were great. But I'm not trying to cause anyone any trouble.
You're a real human being. You're being a good person, not a journalist.
On the other hand, if you were a politician, the gloves would be off! Anyway . . . about hanging with Libertarians?
Libertarians' big problem is that they're so used to the notion that they have to explain themselves in great detail to the world that they don't know how to shut that off. You could be sitting next to someone in some libertarian supper club and have them spend twenty minutes explaining to you why health care is not a right. Yeah, we know. We all know that. And we know you know.
I think it's interesting how people will use Burning Man as an example of whatever their political bent happens to be. The worst for me was this time a guy in the Burning Man organization was nice enough to put me up at his apartment during an art car event but I ended up taking off after one night because he was a Marxist who wanted to harangue me about how Burning Man is a perfect example of Marxism. He also had that Marxist thing, that attitude of "If you're not a Marxist, you just don't know anything." He's a nice guy and this took place in Berkeley, after all, but I left first thing in the morning and didn't go back. He's the only person who ever quoted to me, in all seriousness, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." That would require coercion but who's enforcing that at Burning Man? Nobody.
Making the case for Burning Man to libertarians is a lot harder, now, obviously. People don't understand how heavily policed it is. Some people actually still have this weird Shangri-La notion in their head that Burning Man is not crawling with cops. Per capita, it's got to be way more crawling with cops than the city that you're usually in.
You can still spot the undercover ones. It's the no-neck goons in giant tie-dyed shirts going, "Hey, what're ya guys DOIN', man?" And they have the best CamelBaks. They stick out. I think it's a goodI hate to use the word lessonbut just the idea that you can't even go to buttfuck nowhere without the statists STILL caring if someone's smoking a joint. That's an important fact. I think most people don't have their radar up for this. I hate all the ten thousand ways the state fucks with things every day. But they probably still believe police officers are their friends. They don't confront the idea that any infraction has the potential to land you in a cage where you're raped up the ass. Which reminds me, somehow: I noticed that on your Facebook page for your political views, you put "Against roads." I assumed that was a jibe against the people whose first reaction to any suggestion that government be reduced is, "WHAT ABOUT THE ROADS?!?"
Yeah, I stole that from Peter Bagge. I don't know whether he invented that joke but he was using that on his Facebook page to say that he's a libertarian.
You can be talking to the most intelligent people and that'll be their reaction, and they just can't get past it. "WHAT ABOUT THE ROADS?!?" I think belief in government is more or less a form of gnosis. When people say, "WHAT
ABOUT THE ROADS?!?" I don't believe they're asking to hear any alternatives to coercive bureaucracy. Not that I'm skilled at debateI'm notbut I can at least point people to things they could read about it. Yet when I do, there's usually the instant, dismissive "No, thanks."
You're touching onI love ranting about thismy newly developed Theory of Conversation. There are certain things that are not meant to be actually dealt with in conversation. They're not appropriate for people to talk about. People reject this idea vehemently but I'm absolutely convinced it's true. I expressed it this way to someone who was trying to get into an argument about Milton Friedman. I'm like, "Let me tell you something. I wrote a whole book on this area"
(I wish I could say that!)
"and there's a section in my book that discusses this and it's about 2,500 words. You know how long it takes someone to speak 2,500 words? I speak about 150 words a minute. So what you're askingand we're at a fucking New Year's Eve Burning Man party!you're asking me to shout into your ear for seventeen minutes in order to actually rigorously deal with this thing you're asking me. That's not going to happen. What you're asking cannot actually be dealt with conversationally.
Especially since, when you're done, they're gonna go "Pfft!" anyway.
Exactly. I could tell you all sorts of shit but I could be making it all up. This shit is for the letter columns of learned journals. Conversation is for gossip, comedy, and so forth (by gossip I mean stories of human beings and their doings).
Changing one's mind about this kind of thing, I'm convinced, almost requires some kind of a road to Damascus experience. There needs to be a light that shines into the brain or something. I'm not going to overcome years of brainwashing and suddenly convince you that the state is evil and in an instant you'll go, "Hrm. Yes. Wow!"
Yes. These are moral and prudential positions that I came to over the course of many years, through the reading of dozens of books and articles, and I'm not going to be able to get that across to you.
And there's just something about humans that we're probably not going to do that, anyway, because in almost any conversation like that, there's going to be an adversarial element. Most people aren't leaping Kierkegaards. "OhI DO accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior!"
I have this writing buddy. We get together and write fiction. We're not writing together but we just physically get together at her house and write. She didn't really know what I did for a living, so she started asking me about it. She's an actor, so she is really good at reading people's body language, and the instant she asked about politics, I kind of started going into a thing, and she was just like, "You don't want to talk about this at all, do you?" I'm like, "No." And she totally read back to me everything that was going through my head. She says, "You're often the smartest person in the room about this shit, butů" and she just read it all, and I said "That's all exactly right, so we're going to stop talking about this right now." [Laughs]
The condescension is what hurts the most, from friends. As if I'm such a moron that your characterization of anarchism could possibly be what I actually think.
[A moment after transcribing the above, my favorite director wrote on Twitter: "Apropos of nothing. My definition of a stupid person. A stupid person is a person who treats a smart person as though they're stupid."]
(Continue to Part 2)