Today's Burning Man: Anarchy? Not so much

The San Francisco Chronicle/August 31, 2009

The drug-glazed memory of Woodstock has become a little moldy in its 40-year-old nostalgia display case. Cold and clear-eyed historical review hasn't been entirely kind to the romance of that mud-in.

So where can we turn now for that crazy sense of exuberance and idealism, creative experimentation and communal chaos?

No, not Google.

It's Burning Man, of course. After nearly two decades of "radical self-expression and radical self-reliance" out in the northern Nevada playa, this week about 50,000 people are again making an entire desert city, Black Rock, out of Mad Max art and impulse.

But from chaos comes order. Now it's Burning Man, a limited liability corporation. Tickets can cost more than $300, and reportedly cell and texting bandwidth is available for the first time. Participants must sign a "terms and conditions" contract that seems potentially harsh in this free-form, anarchistic expressionist environment: "NO USE OF IMAGES, FILM, OR VIDEO OBTAINED AT THE EVENT MAY BE MADE WITHOUT PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM BURNING MAN, OTHER THAN PERSONAL USE."

Bummer. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco digital-rights nonprofit group that includes a lot of "burners" among its members, accused Burning Man of "fast and easy online censorship." Burning Man's Andie Grace fired back that the foundation's hit was "a startling disappointment" coming from a fellow traveler counterculture group, as both organizations are Bay Area-bred and dedicated to free expression. Burning Man is just trying to protect privacy and counter "the creep of ... commercialist wolves," she insisted.

It's like a battle between two giant, fluffy, white do-good rabbits. But this is serious business. With its organized, semi-circular village and plotted roads, more rules than the Department of Motor Vehicles (it has its own DMV), new Cooling Man carbon-offset plans and patrols by federal agencies, Burning Man has become more like the man.

The big dose of reality came two years ago, when a guy who torched the iconic, 40-foot-tall effigy Man four days before the scheduled, annual last-night burning ritual was sent to the slammer for a few years. Radical self-expression seems to have its limits when it conflicts with the official plan.

I understand the dilemma. You have to figure out what the practical boundaries are for impractical behavior when you've got a group of "friends and family" the size of Ames, Iowa. And Burning Man is hardly Altamont.

But what happens in Black Rock City won't stay in Black Rock City. Who in his right mind believes that dancing naked in front of 50,000 partiers is a secret?

Historian Will Durant said, "Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty and dies with chaos." Burning Man is a little bit the reverse of that, but its organizers shouldn't let a contemporary fun, Woodstock-like insurgency die out of a need for order.

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