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This is Burning Man

Reason magazine associate editor Brian Doherty drives up at 12:30PM June 22, 2004, in a white Subaru. It looks like a pigsty inside. Books, magazines, newspapers, wrappers, dental floss, pillows...

Brian jumps out. He's short, grey-haired, and bookish.

We sit down for lunch and discuss his first published book.

"Why did you write it?"

"I began going to the event in 1995. There were 4,000 people there.

"We're building a temporary city in the Black Rock Desert, in the lake bed, every year, Black Rock City, in the middle of the desert, 70 miles outside of Reno. I found the people interesting. How fun and funny and lively and dangerous they were to be around. It struck me from the beginning as a writer's dream. It had an underground feel to it. It felt like it would be a betrayal of that community to talk about it to outsiders.

"Last year, there were 30,000 people there. Somewhere in the middle, I realized it was not meant to be an underground secret. That was an affectation that I picked up from other people.

"I wrote a political piece about it for the February 2000 issue of Reason, a political magazine. How is it that this danger and illegality-filled event come to a reapproachment with the federal government, who owns the land (Bureau of Land Management) on which the event is held.

"I've been working at Reason since the summer of 1994.

"My first draft of the story was 12,000 words, more than twice as long as the version that ran. I realized I was sitting on top of a book's worth of material.

"Getting a book deal took three years. It took two agents and dozens of rejections. For nine months, it was my fulltime task finishing the book."

"How does being at Burning Man make you feel, as opposed to your ordinary life?"

"I didn't make myself the star of the book. But I sit at a desk all day. I'm a writer. I'm a reader. I rarely do anything that interacts with the physical world. Burning Man makes me confront the physical world in a vivid way.

"There is no life in the Black Rock Desert. It's hot. If you don't go with an RV, it's just you and the blank world and the temperature. It wipes away everything that is habitual about my life for two weeks. Then I go back to my normal life, where I read eight to ten hours a day. Most of my work involves reading. Most of my leisure involves reading. I'm constantly listening to music. When I'm at home, there's a record playing in my house. When I'm out there, I don't get to listen to any music of my choice and I don't read anything. I never drink caffeine out there. Here, I never go half a day without caffeine.

"It's an interesting lesson in your own malleability. People are very big at adopting fake identities out there. I don't do that explicitly. I don't dress funny.

"Most important, every time I'm out there, I apprentice myself to some large art project. I get to be a part of a team, something which has always been important to me. I like groups more than one-on-one relationships. I like to be part of gangs pursuing goals of interest to me. Out there I get to weld, drill, dig. I learn skills and to interact with the physical world. That's an opportunity I never get to pursue anywhere else but there.

"The event lasts a week. I usually go a week early and leave a week late. It's exhilirating, life-affirming, fascinating for me to do these things and be surrounded by thousands of interesting people. The default assumption is that you are all buddies out there."

"What do your parents think about Burning Man?"

"I don't know. They haven't read my book. I wouldn't be surprised if my dad started reading the book. I wouldn't be surprised if my mother didn't. If they do read it, I would imagine that at the end of it they would not think that Burning Man was something that they would enjoy going to and probably not something that they would approve of.

"My wife has been to Burning Man three times. She doesn't like it. She thought she might like it. After three years, she's indulged me enough. She doesn't like the kind of person you find there. That hippy dippiness aggravates her. She has more of a punk harsh face to the world. She hates the physical environment. She's not into consuming lots of food and water.

"I ended up making the book more character driven than idea driven. When I went in, I thought it would be 50/50. It ended up 95% character driven."

Brian got into punk rock in 1984 while in 11th grade in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later, he embraced the punk club scene and started playing bass guitar in various bands from 1986-95 (Misfits Trend, Target Practice, Touch N' Go Bullethead, The Jeffersons, Turbo Satan, The Sawdust Seizures, Satellite). I ran a record label from 1993-99, The Cherry Smashers.

"I never adopted the look."

"What do you think of the Australian punk band Air Supply?"

"I've enjoyed some performances of the Australian punk band Air Supply. I have a big tent vision of punk. It became in the '90s as a way of life. Short, aggressive, fast-paced songs with lyrics barked out by angry bald guys."

"What's your favorite Air Supply song?"

"The One That You Love. I once did karaoke to Making Love Out of Nothing At All."

"What's your favorite Barry Manilow song?"

"His version of Ships. 'We're two ships that pass in the night.'"

"What's your favorite John Denver song?"

"The first record I ever bought with my own money was John Denver's Greatest Hits. I still like Rocky Mountain High.

"One of the principles I try to live by is staying true to my life. I'm big on continuity but I must confess I have not maintained an enthusiasm for John Denver."

"Why don't you bring a Sony Walkman to Burning Man so you can listen to music?"

"I tend to be lazy in my preparations. For three weeks, I eat nothing but room-temperature prepared food of the canned vegetables, beef jerky variety. The same with music. I've gotten used to that it is a break from my habitual obsession to listening to music at all times. I know that I am listening to more music and enjoying it less. I am an obsessive record collector. I have about 5,000 records and 2,000 CDs. I began collecting in the mid '80s. I will buy any given thing depending on how I find it cheapest.

"Are you really a fan of Australian pop?"

"My favorite group is Air Supply. It takes me back to when I was 13 and my emotions were most honest and vivid."

"Go to Burning Man. Vivid is the word we use to describe what it is like."

"I hear there is video of you participating in a public orgy at Burning Man."

"I do not believe so. Public orgies, no? We are getting into territory here, Luke, where I will have to, due to the sensitivities of my wife who will probably read this, decline from speaking."

"Burning Man does not sound like a nice place for sex."

"It is not a comfortable place for sex. Once we break the surface of the Black Rock Playa, it becomes this fine omnipresent black rock power that has a grit to it. Most people there will be dirty and dusty and probably smelly. You are not showering as much as normal. But Burning Man does have a sensual atmosphere. I have never witnessed an orgy. I have witnessed one-on-one sex acts."

"What's the ratio of men to women?"

"I guess about 60/40 men to women. Medium age? I'd guess 25-40. Most people under 25 are not going to be able to afford it. It also happens the first week before Labor Day, the first week of my college's semesters.

"They sell tickets on a sliding scale from $145-250. They stop selling tickets at the door on Thursday night. Certain people in the community thought that the wrong element was coming out on the weekend. The man burns Saturday night. Half the city tends to leave on Sunday, and half on Monday. We're all leaving down one dirt road which leads to one two-lane highway which is 70 miles back to Reno.

"People find themselves behaving in a different way at Burning Man. They're nice. It's a communal feeling."

"What's the racial make-up?"

"Almost entirely Caucasian."

"Do you think that that accounts for the general feeling of niceness?"

Brian chuckles. "Well, that's a very interesting question.

"I believe that the self-selecting nature of Burning Man would and could cut through racial divides. That said, we haven't tested it yet. In an average year there, I probably see about ten black people.

"One year, one of the people on my work team was black. For a couple of days, he and I and some other people were digging a giant hole. Just for amusement, we began chaining ourselves together. I don't think we were thinking about the racialness of it."

"How do white people keep the word of it away from black people?"

"Word of it is spread through a nexis of a certain kind of community. Channels that are not intentionally white-only but are white-only. Hipsters who are in touch with these underground currents of culture. Hippies, punks and gearheads."

"Do you take any illegal drugs at Burning Man?"

"Yes."

"How many people at Burning Man do you think are active in an organized religion?"

"Very few. The religious vibe out there is gooey modern syncretistic pagan. There are Christian ministers, some who shout fire and brimstone. Some are ecumenical happy loving Christians. There are a lot of people doing energy stuff. I've never knowingly met an Orthodox Jew there."

"Do you believe in God?"

"No."

"I think of Burning Man as a secular reach for community and the transcendent."

"I think that is exactly correct. Community is one of the buzz words of the Burning Man world. I tend to be a shy and insular person. I don't interact with strangers."

Brian burps in the middle of the last word.

"Strippers?" I ask.

"I interact a lot with strippers out there. Not so much with strangers. People form small camps out there. I don't feel comfortable with more than 150 people."

"Do you find it aesthetically pleasing for one man to place his penis in the buttocks of another man?"

:"No.

"I've read a lot of your interviews. Do you make it a habit to ask uncomfortable questions of race and homosexuality at every interview?"

"Yes."

"I have little memory of the writing process of this book. I was on ephedra. I was sleeping three hours a night for seven weeks. I was listening to an oldies station constantly. It all became a blur.

"I've never desired a huge amount of give-and-take with readers. Reason.com's comment section is very disturbing to me. I don't want to read them but I find myself reading them. That level of laying yourself out there, I'm not completely comfortable with.

"I tend to go out of town every weekend.

"I don't vote. I'm not registered with any political party."

Joe Herman writes: "I'm an Orthodox Jew that attended burning man last year (and am returning there this year). I camped with a Jewish Theme Camp (look for the Black Rock JCC on the playa this year) - and helped facilitate Friday Night services and a communal Shabbat meal at Burning Man. We had over 100 people there, many of whom never experienced the Sabbath before. It was an amazing experience, and plans are underway to repeat the event this year."

Brian Doherty's Latest - Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement

I interview Brian by phone Friday, Jan. 19, 2007. Audio Audio Audio Audio

Brian: "I've been a libertarian since I was 16. What turned me libertarian was reading the science fiction novel THE ILLUMINATUS! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. At the University of Florida, I discovered there was a political party and intellectual movement pushing these ideas. As I wanted to learn more, I looked for a book like the one I've written and there just wasn't one.

"My first conscious reading and note-taking for this book began in the Spring of 1994.

"The intent of the book is not to turn people into libertarians. It's a book of history and journalism.

"As a libertarian activist, I believe that this book is important in helping people take libertarian ideas seriously.

"There are dozens of books on communism in the United States... To the extent that libertarianism has been dealt with in intellectual histories of the United States, it has been considered this little pimple on conservatism's left shoulder. That's why I wanted 'Radicals' in the title of the book. I wanted people to understand that libertarianism is not a right-wing philosophy.

"The only book that tries to do what this book does is Bringing the Market Back In: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism by political science professor John E. Kelley. It tries to tell in one hundred pages what this book tells in 700 pages."

Luke: "Is Stephen Levitt, author of Freakonomics, a libertarian?"

Brian: "I don't know, but there's so much economics at the heart of libertarianism. Four of the five main characters in my book were professionally economists (Milton Friedman, Ludvig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard). Economics is the central science in helping you understand that so much of what the state does is unhelpful. It's the intellectual discipline in which libertarianism is most respectable. Anyone who understands economics is going to have a strong libertarian streak. Government can't do anything without taking things. It's not a wealth-creating institution.

"Milton Friedman's son David is an anarchist. He explains how things like courts, police and national defense could be met in a free market."

Luke: "I didn't realize that libertarianism was like a religion for some people. That there's so much heretic-hunting, just as much as in Orthodox Judaism."

Brian: "Any intellectual movement that works in the shadows... Until the 1980s, most libertarians were thought of as freaks. This schisming provides much of the drama and comedy in the book. If you were going to be a libertarian up until the 1980s, you had to be a cussed and individualistic character... Freud talks about the narcissism of small differences. The heretic drives you crazy because they are so much like you, but they are missing that one thing. Ayn Rand was the queen of this. She ended up kicking out of her life pretty much everybody."

Luke: "It was nuts for libertarianism, as small as it was, to be so eager to kick people out."

"One of the first things people think about libertarianism is sexual freedom. Libertarians believe that prostitution should be legal. Yet you do not discuss this in your book."

Brian: "Because I tried to make it a character-centered story... There hasn't been a big name libertarian who has made that sexual freedom stuff their main focus. We've won most of the battles on the sex thing."

"You're not offending the average person's mores by arguing for getting out of the U.N. or cutting taxes or decreasing business regulation... Sexual stuff is psychologically fraught with danger. Sexual morality affects people on a deeper level than questions of regulatory policy. A lot of libertarian thinkers might think that there's no point in shoving people's face in this aspect..."

Luke: "How is pornography John Stagliano regarded in Cato circles? I know they take his money, but..."

Brian: "I don't know anyone who has a problem with how he makes his living. I know John. He's a generous funder of libertarian causes. At Reason magazine, he's a valued contributor. It's an honor to have his support and to have him around."

"Many libertarians are libertine but many are not. I do approve of the existence of pornography."

"For various sociological reasons, if you are going to be an active libertarian, you have to share the standard [commitment to decriminalizing prostitution and the like]... I don't meet many people who have old fashioned problems with other people's sexual behavior."

Luke: Who are the most famous libertarian apostates?

Brian: I don't know of any. "Libertarianism propagates well to the next generation."

"There's no market for a book by a libertarian turncoat. If you change your mind about libertarianism, nobody cares."

Luke: "Who were you the most excited to meet in the course of your research?"

Brian: "Barbara Branden. She was Ayn Rand's right-hand woman. She was a lot more warm and welcoming a figure than her ex-husband Nathaniel. Rand is such a goddess on the hill to libertarians. To get close to people who were close to her was exciting..."

"Most of my friends are libertarian... I long ago stopped enjoying arguing about politics."

"The kind of stuff that somebody is going to come up with verbally in a social situation is going to be stupid, and that includes me. I am not at my best verbally. When we hang up, I'm going to think of a million ways I could've better expressed things."

Luke: Have there been flourishing libertarian communities?

Brian: "There have been various attempts... Most libertarians want to be fully engaged in the larger market, so segregating yourself based on ideology is going to impoverish you. On a libertarian standard, L.A. is nightmarish with its taxes and regulations, but it's Los Angeles. It's worth it."

Luke: A lot of critics would say that libertarianism does not work because it has never been shown to work for a community. I remember Marxists arguing that marxism had never been tried.

Brian: "It is true that libertarianism has never been tried."

Luke: "A problem with libertarianism is the difficulty of assessing the externalities to a transaction. The costs to a wife and kids of a husband using prostitutes. The damage to the family structure from legalized prostitution."

Brian: "On the whole, the world will be a better place if people are free. The externalities created by government are far worse than the occasional externality produced by the free market."

Luke: "Is there a compelling psychological portrait of the libertarian?"

Brian: "A pre-existing work of literature or art that in my mind provides a full and true account of the libertarian mindset? In some ways, I hope my book provides one, without me trying to judge---I hope the stories of the lives, actions, and ideas I tell about the major libertarian figures of the 20th century--and I hope I show more than tell--provides such a portrait. In literature, I cannot recommend ILLUMINATUS! by Robert anton Wilson and Robert Shea highly enough---it presents compelling libertarian characters, libertarian ideas, and is inherently libertarian in its wild style and refusal to lock the reader into one interpretation of events or ideas imposed by the author."

Luke: "Does your book break new ground?"

Brian: "Most of the material in the book is from original research."

Luke: "What things in your book will surprise an educated libertarian?"

Brian: "My favorite story in the book that almost no libertarians know about is the connection between early libertarian financiers and early psychadelic drug culture."

Luke: "Is there a libertarian view of human nature? Do libs view us as basically good or basically bad? Does one's view of human nature affect one's commitment to libertarianism? For instance, if one views humans as tending towards moral entropy, does that necessarily mean one wants less human freedom (at least in some things)?"

Brian: "The libertarian mistrust of government---which is mistrust of what people will do when given unrestricted power over people--is rooted in understanding of a side of human nature that inclines people to benefit themselves at other's expense. Most significantly, libertarians understand that people react to incentives (that's one of the reasons why economics is such a key part of the libt intellectual tradition--economics is the soical science most mindful of incentives) and that free markets do the best job in funneling people's desire to benefit themselves into ways that benefit others, whereas the state gives people a weapon to benefit themselves at others expense. See discussion in the book on diff between "economic" and "political" means to survival..."