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Forcing Jesus Into Burning Man
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Arizona: Could be the water, could be the lack of it

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The Jerky Boys
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Why I Left Burning Man -- and Why I'm Returning


Is It Hopeless? A Freewheeling Conversation with Brian Doherty

(Part 2)

by Deuce of Clubs

(March, 2010; Part 1, if you missed it)

 

Your wife [Angela Keaton] is with AntiWar.com, right?

Yes. She's flying to a libertarian conference, in fact.

Oh, wait—the one for the Free State Project?

I think that's what it is.

What do you think of the Free State Project?

I would never participate because I don't want to live in New Hampshire. It's an interesting example, I think, of the sort of performative contradiction in American libertarianism that my colleague Nick Gillespie has pointed out (and made a lot of people mad) that, clearly, even very libertarian-minded people don't always make their living choices—in an American context—based on where they can be most free. Within the overall context of wealthy Western modernity, there are things that are really more important to us about our lives, than taxes. People in the rest of the country are really against California. They have a sense that L.A. is a hellhole, for some reason. "Oh, my god! You're living in L.A.?" I can't figure out why they think so. I have to assume they think there are too many Mexicans around or something. But the point I was getting at was, I have certain facts about my life that make it very easy for me to live in L.A. I am currently childless; I am a renter and not a property owner; I am an employee, I don't run my own business. So, everything that's really a pain in the ass about the state, I'm kind of evading all of it. You really start to hate the state when you're trying to run your own business, when you're a property owner, when you have kids that have to deal with the various systems that the state has created for kids. So I get why a lot of people find this overly regulated, overly packed big pain in the ass, but the facts of my life allow me to just enjoy other things about it. I enjoy the weather and I enjoy the people and I enjoy having something that's urban in terms of what's available to you but is also very suburban in the way you're actually living. I wouldn't want to live in a Manhattan, where you walk down the city streets and there's all these people. That, I don't like, except for one week out of the year. But it still feels really easy to get away with shit in America.

Really?

The very same thing that led the Burning Man people to the Black Rock in the first place (before they realized that cops were going to find them there)—people I know in L.A. still do a fair amount of, within a few hours of L.A., public land, desert bullshit. You're taking a chance, because you never know when the ranger patrol is going to find you, but if you are aware and get to know your terrain, there is still a fair amount of empty land where you have a good chance of being able to do certain things unmolested. And even at the very least, when the rangers do find you in a place like that, they don't really have the capacity to arrest you for anything, really, or arrest all of you. Mostly what they do is they will tell you to stop doing some particular thing that they didn't like about what you were doing. While everything is theoretically illegal—we're probably breaking nine laws right now as we sit—in practice, I don't feel constrained on a daily basis.

Don't you?

No. I really don't.

I sure do. I have twenty acres in the middle of nowhere in the desert. And the bureaucrats are just fucking on you. Even way out there. They do flyovers, they use satellites, I can't build what I want—I'm not even allowed to live there, more than a certain amount of time. On my own land.

This is in Arizona?

Yeah.

Really?

Yeah!

See, you're a land owner. I stick to the public lands.

I have to pay them $2,000 a year just to keep them from stealing my own land from me.

Yeah, you have a more realistic perspective. I live, again, the carefree life.

It's funny, though: you're in the city—you'd think you'd be the guy who's oppressed. Yet I'm in the middle of nowhere and they're all over me.

I get to go out and abuse public land with my friends occasionally. Yeah, I might be living in a fool's paradise. I personally crafted a life where I don't feel a super-duper constrained.

I also spend considerable time in a van and boy, you really will feel the breath of the law on your neck when you do that.

In cities?

Yeah. They'll roust you anywhere. Maybe with the economy, so many who lose their homes will be forced into vans and cars and RVs that the cops will have to bother someone else, I don't know. This neighborhood where we're sitting [in Venice, California], in fact, is a mecca for people who have been reduced to living in their vehicles.

So do you not have a standard, normal "homestead" at all—you have your land, and . . .?

I sold my house, bought the land, and I want to build an earthbag home. They're strong, can't burn, nothing can happen to them, really. Well, the county says you can't build one. Not allowed. Not in the "code." Sometimes I'll say to a county employee, "You realize those codes weren't instituted primarily for safety but to benefit manufacturers and suppliers, right?" Of course, if bureaucrats and their lackeys cared about reasons why, they wouldn't have ended up as bureaucrats and lackeys in the first place. So then I was thinking of building a structure I would term a "storage" and just living in that. I don't need much space. So I wanted to know what the minimum square footage of a structure has to be before the county will demand to inspect it. Some counties have a 100 s.f. minimum, others it's 300, and so on. Pinal has nothing like that. They say can't tell you the amount by which a new structure will increase the amount of the property taxes they'll demand from you until after you build it. But in any case, they told me they'll force me to get a building permit to build a house first, and then they'll "let" me build a shed.

Why's that?

She said, "We're afraid you might live in it." I asked why that was anyone's business but mine and she goes, "We can't have you living in a storage." Why not? "Well . . . if the roof fell in on your head, you might sue us." I told her I'd be happy to sign a statement affirming my willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of my own actions. Of course that's not allowed.

But this lady, bless her heart, she actually tried to be helpful, and she said she had a great idea—"You could get the storage shed itself permitted!" Well, what's involved in that? "Well, the shed would have to have a kitchen and a bathroom. And then pass a regular inspection, as if it were a house." There's just no point in talking to people like that.

Another time, a different woman at the county office told me that before they'd let me build on my own goddamned land, I needed an "address." I told her I had no need of an address. "Well, what if there's a fire?" she wanted to know. There's no fire department out there! "What about utilities?" Utilities? There aren't any utilities! "What about mail?" There's no mail delivery! So then she says, "Well . . . we require that you have an address. We don't give you the choice." I was pretty steamed by that point. "I told you I don't want one and now you're telling me you're going to force me. So why were you pretending to try and sell me on the 'benefits'? When you're raping somebody, you don't gotta sweet talk 'em! Just fuck me and get it over with!"

I should probably start taping these conversations.

What kind of road goes out to your land?

WHAT ABOUT THE ROADS? [Laughter] Just a dirt road. And does the county grade it? No. Residents do. The county slugs perform no useful services. And nobody wants them to. We just want to be left alone out there.

They regularly, actually, cruise by?

They do flyovers, and they compare satellite photos. And they'll use any excuse to throw their weight around. Last year a woman out there was caretaking a house for this guy and she killed herself. Inside the house, too (thanks!). I wish she'd have done it outside because doing it inside means doofuses with badges will invite themselves in to "investigate." So here's the grieving people in the house and who shows up but the fucking building inspector? The cops called him. So he threads his way among the mourners with his little clipboard and writes up a bunch of code violations. Can people really be so heartless?

See, yeah, you live in the real America. I live in this cosmopolite fantasy land.

Isn't that backwards, though? It doesn't make sense. You're willing to deal with the bullshit and you get less of it, while I'm not willing to deal with the bullshit, and I get more.

If I owned something in L.A., I'd probably feel that oppressed. That is pretty insane. That's horrible. Um . . . rent! [Laughs] Then you're paying someone else to deal with it!

I thought I could be done with it all!

You're right. It is hopeless. This is the kind of thing where you get the kind of talk where people then say, "And we must rise up in arms and kill them all!" I'd be just, "Yeah, I guess . . . we should."

I have that in me. Totally. That's probably how I'll die. Because one day I won't be able to pay the taxes they demand and I won't be thrown off my land. But what good does it do? There are so many stories, but—how many people know who Carl Drega was?

And no one's sympathetic. Some libertarians I knew thought the people at Waco were getting what they deserved.

By and large, people just go along, as long as they've been gotten to early—which we all have, through the government schools. It's a miracle anyone escapes that. I think I escaped only because my sister taught me to read when I was three. I was checked out of school before I was ever even enrolled. Sixth grade you're still doing spelling bees? I've been sitting here for nothing for six years already!

I even wish that the one sort of psycho-social benefit that you'd think we might have gotten out of the years of "GRRRGEORGEBUSHHITLER" or whatever, is that that type of person would start to not love government so much. It doesn't seem to have made them love government any less.

I wanted McCain to win, because all that capital that the hatred of George Bush had built up was lost in one night. It was so comical to me—it would be disheartening if I let it be—but it was just comical, this idea that, "Oh, it's all going to be DIFFERENT now!" Seriously? So, you think someone who is NOT an ordinary politician just got elected? You REALLY believe that?

I know a lot of people who did.

So where do you see things going, in terms of any expanded realm of individual experiences of freedom?

It's amazing how many friends of mine who hear me give the five-minute version of libertarianism feel like, "Yeah! I must be a libertarian!" I think, I'm glad you think so! That's always great, and I'm willing to stop at that point, and not go, "This is why we shouldn't have a Food and Drug Administration!" I leave that stuff alone. But I've developed a really good hippie-dippy-sounding way of explaining libertarianism that makes a lot of sense to people: "It's all about peace and love, man—I just don't want someone with a gun telling me what to do."

But they can't seem to extend—as soon as you say "gun," they immediately go, "Oh, you're talking about cops!" not getting that the root problem isn't police brutality but legalized violence.

It's usually pretty easy to walk them through what happens if you disobey a law, like, what's the ultimate penalty for a parking ticket? A bullet in the head.

But then they always say, "THEN JUST PAY THE FUCKIN' TICKET!" But am I paying it because I think it's right? No. I'm paying it because they can fuck with me.

That's the problem with libertarians because there is this hyper-stand-up-for-what's-right version of libertarianism that is completely justifiable, on the moral logic of libertarianism, arguing that we all should basically be going down in a blaze of glory every day in a shootout with cops. I guess I'm just not that brave. I knuckle under. I'm just trying to fucking live my life. If I get a super-excited libertarian who's trying to tell me why we really need an armed revolution right now, I actually don't have a very logical argument that's convincing to me against them. I get that. That's not what I'm interested in doing with my life. In terms of political justice, I totally get it.

I would, if it would do any good. It's a big machine, and you can't swap out its interchangeable parts, which is all you'd be doing. They'd just swap another one in. They used to assassinate SS guys and look what happened: reprisals. It really has to be an almost religious conversion, in a way. An awakening. Because you're indoctrinated in schools, it really does almost require that Damascus-type experience to get out of it.

Did you read all of Radicals for Capitalism?

Yes.

Leonard Read—I still don't think strategically we've advanced beyond that. Until we have a world with a sort of "tipping point" number of people who actually think this way. . . .

And only a crisis is going to get you there, I think. People are too comfortable.

When that book came out—and I kind of believed it then, because this was before the current crisis—that libertarianism had made really significant inroads. I really did believe it, but the reaction to the economic crisis has completely disabused me of that notion and I'm actually very depressed about the response of libertarians. All kinds of economic bullshit that I thought had been largely wiped out of the public mind came out with a vengeance: it's all "stimulus," it's all Keynesianism, it's all government spending. None of the people writing about Timothy Geithner—and this is not really an insult to them, per se—they don't really understand any of this. They literally don't know what this guy is doing. I don't necessarily believe that he knows what he's doing. And they don't even try to explain it. Even in long-form journalism in serious publications, where they have eight thousand words to do it, they don't actually try to explain the logic. They never even try to walk you through it. Even business magazines. I think the writers don't really understand it themselves.

I think they understand the flavor of what they're supposed to be putting across, in terms of whichever establishment they're writing for. I don't think someone in that position would go, "You know, I'm really going to dig in!" And then once they dug in, would go, "OH MY GOD!" and then tell the world. They're getting paid to bolster a view, and they do it. It's ludicrous how easy it is to brainwash people. But at the same time, looking forward, by negative example, Hitler was in power for only twelve years. If you have a generation of kids that you can have for that long, if you could turn one generation to look to themselves. I don't know how that would happen.

Burning Man!

I actually did think people would learn lessons from Burning Man. If they were around in the 90s and watched what happened to it—I mean, it drove me out. I thought, if I want to be told what to do and have cops all over the place, I can stay in a city and get that!

Everyone has this very sensible streak. "Well, surely. We can't."

I'll put Burning Man's fatality rate against the regular Labor Day fatality rate any day.

The reality of the fact that they have to negotiate yearly with the Federal government makes it difficult for them to make arguments like that. But why people who've lived through the Burning Man experience can't glean a better anarchist point out of it? A lot of people aren't spiritually inclined to enjoying chaos and danger. It's disturbing to them. You'd think that type of people wouldn't be attracted to Burning Man in the first place.

It says right on your ticket! They've never before been to an event that says that on their ticket, ever!

People want to be safe.

I think people do feel safe at Burning Man. Don't you?

I do.

I always felt more safe, because I felt like people knew they had to be looking out for themselves and for others.

I learned a lot of bad lessons about fire, in particular, and how hard it can be to set things on fire! To really get a fire going? How do these out of control building fires even happen?

All you have to do is use your tiki torch inside your tent!

[Tiki torches were banned at Burning Man after one of the Burning Man organizers accidentally burned down his own camp.]

[Laughter] Were you at that fire?

Yes. We had the same reaction you describe in the book. We all said, it's too early for a fire like this. This can't be intentional. So we went over there. (Later, in San Francisco, there was a party we knew Joegh Bullock was going to be at, but we were going to burn & singe clothing and all go as Joegh Bullock.) We all thought the tiki torch incident was hilarious, frankly. It didn't need to be the occasion of a "law." It needed to be the occasion of a tribal understanding—"this is why you don't be a dumbass in your camp"—instead of a rule that says, NO TIKI TORCHES.

What do you think is going to happen with the economy?

There's what I intellectually think (and I've thought this since 1980, when I think I first "got" how paper money worked): this is completely insane; it's absolutely unsustainable; it's gonna collapse. Certainly I feel like we're facing the greatest crisis to the paper money system in my lifetime. What we see happening in Greece and Portugal is a sign that merely being a sovereign nation is not good enough to ensure that suckers are going to keep lending you money in perpetuity. People are finally beginning to make noises about downgrading U.S. Bond ratings. The U.S. seems completely dedicated to the notion that they are going to continue to deficit spend and borrow in shockingly tremendous amounts, forever and ever and ever. The best I find people coming up with when you point all this out to them, is: "Eh. Where else are people gonna go?"

"We're all in the same boat," people keep saying.

It's a wonderful game they're created with inflation, where about the only way to totally ensure that inflation doesn't totally destroy you is to lend money to governments.

I haven't completely abandoned the dollar in my own life. I haven't invested 80% of my wealth in gold. I lack the courage of my convictions. It's difficult. It's one thing to go, "Oh, I believe all this crazy shit that everyone thinks is insane." I have enough intestinal fortitude to be that guy, but then to go, "I'm actually going to risk what I own on the notion that I am really smarter than the rest of the world." That I haven't done. I'm more in gold than the average human being is, butů. It's the kind of thing where whatever happens, I'm guaranteed to feel like a fuckin' chump because if it does all down, I'm ruined! [Laughs] But if gold goes back down to $400 in five years, I'd be like, I sure lost most of that money I invested in gold. That's what hedging is all about, obviously, but most hedging is done within the dominant paradigm. "Well, if this goes down twenty, this goes up twenty, and that's fine." To me, gold feels like you're betting outside the game. It's like you're at a casino and you're betting that a meteor's going to hit the casino before the fuckin' roulette wheel stops dead. Can you make that bet? It feels, psychologically, like a different kind of bet. That said, I'm very pessimistic about the prospect of the existing financial system. But you sound like you're in a great position.

I've got land.

You've got land that you're not allowed to live on, butů. I was thinking about your situation—I'd love to go to court with the You've Got To Be Fucking Kidding Me defense.

Yeah. Individual officials I deal with will acknowledge the wrongness of it. Anytime I talk to someone in a bureaucracy, I always make it a point to say at the end of the conversation something like, "You realize that what you're doing for a living is wrong, don't you?" And only one person has ever disagreed with that statement. So why do they do it? They always give the same basic answer: "I gotta feed my kids." They know! They know! But it's the machine.

I really wish you could rely more on their laziness.

So do I, but it seems less likely now, with bureaucracies everywhere that have overspent themselves and will—as always—do anything to get money.

I work a lot of "normal" festivals—I do roadying—and there are all sorts of weird altercations with security bullshit and what I always say is, "Do you realize that all of our days, nights, whatever, will be so much better if you stop talking right now and we keep doing what we're doing and you do what you do—do you not see how much better, for everyone, that would be?

And how does that work out for you?

It never works. [Laughs] But I don't know why it doesn't work! Do they want to work hard? Would you rather do this today or would you rather do nothing today? Wouldn't that be better?

It's probably just inertia. For them it probably feels like, "If I don't do that thing that I always do, that means I've made a choice. I've made a decision. And then . . . awwwww fuck. Now what do I do?"

So, I really don't know where I go from here. I just want to be left alone on my little patch of beautiful desert.

There may have been a happy beginning and a happy middle but you don't see a lot of happy endings to choosing to be a weirdo bohemian in modern America.

Well, I don't know about that. I'm the happiest person I know.

You'll die unsheltered on your land. [Laughs]

 


 


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Articles by Brian Doherty

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