“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
–Motto of the American Grange
I began my career in the desert sleeping out of doors in the lee of a truck. The next year I brought out a low-slung two-man tent that accommodated my belongings and a sleeping bag. This arrangement was succeeded, after a period of years, by a series of ugly RV’s. Eventually I bought my current trailer; though battered by eight winters in the desert, it is still quite sleek and tighter than a can of tuna. It is an elegant home. Sometimes I half-humorously refer to this as the higher survival. I chronicle my history of upward mobility because I don’t believe this story is unique. Feathering one’s nest is a perennial human aspiration. It is amenities that make a house a home, and everyone should have a right to practice home improvement.
In the midst of the current controversy about Plug and Play camps, there has been a great deal of talk about equality, but I think that much of this misses the mark. Scan Burning Man’s Ten Principles, and you will not find radical equality among them. This is because our city has always been a place where old and young, and rich and poor, can live on common ground. The word for this is fellowship, as in the fellowship of a club or lodge whose members, however diverse, are united by common values and a sense of shared experience. But common ground is not a level playing field, and should not be interpreted as mandating equal living conditions.
This issue of equality almost amounts to a straw man. I do not believe that most people would want to live in a city that is the equivalent of a Marxist State, a place in which the prying eyes of envious neighbors are forever trained upon one. Instead, I think the current controversy over Plug and Play camps is not so much about equality, but concerns a very different though related concept: inequity – a basic sense of unfairness. Whenever a select group is allowed special access to tickets, especially when these tickets are in short supply, this can inspire ill feeling. This is doubly so if such a camp is widely perceived to be flouting nearly all of Burning Man’s Ten Principles. This is what has stuck and rankled in the public mind. It is as if these camps have been allowed to parade past the Main Sale ticket queue and insert themselves at the head of the line.
We do of course afford such a privilege to placed theme camps, collaborating artists, and many other quasi-public groups. This takes the form of a separate sale of directed tickets. However people don’t complain about this practice because it is now widely acknowledged that these camps are making special contributions to the life of Black Rock City. Unlike Plug and Play camps, which make up less than one percent of our city’s population, these activist camps are helping to knit together our city’s culture. They accomplish this by giving gifts that are above and beyond the common call of duty.
It therefore follows that the best reform we can enact is to stop placing these Plug and Play camps in a category that sets them apart from others. This was done informally, it was not fully thought out, and we apologize for this mistake. To rectify this error, we now intend to make these camps subject to the standards that have regulated theme camps and related groups. This means that in order to receive placement, early arrival passes to the event site, or access to preferential tickets, they must demonstrate what they propose to give to their fellow citizens. Not only is this fair, we also think this will lead to deeper and more heartfelt change. No amount of preaching can replace immediate experience, and we believe that constant interaction can be the best teacher of all.
This leads me to another aspect of inequity. Is it fair that Burning Man sells a limited number of higher-priced tickets that provide better access to the event? In order to adequately answer this question, I will first recount a little history. As everyone in the world now seems to know, in 2012 Burning Man went through a crisis. In that year demand for tickets exceeded supply by something like a 3:1 ratio. At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management, our Federal landlords, had placed hard limits on our city’s growth – it was the perfect storm, and many ticket buyers, long accustomed to unlimited access to the event, reacted angrily. People wanted a commodity that’s called a ticket, and over a span of several weeks, any sense of fellowship flew out the window – it was like a riot at a Blue Light Sale. Many people offered plans to solve this problem, and yet it often seemed that these solutions were actually crafted to ensure that they would receive a ticket. Amid much finger pointing and scapegoating, even theme campers were denounced as a privileged elite.
To look at this charitably, it’s clear to me that none of this would have happened if Burning Man were merely a consumer event. The passions that many people have brought to this issue are the result of a deep-seated commitment to an experience that has changed their lives. But as it was then, during the great ticket furor, so it is today; now it is being said that wealthy people – imagined as one-per-centers and gentrifiers who are taking over America – are actively demeaning and oppressing ordinary citizens, and that event organizers, motivated by greed, are selling out their principles. It is even said, bizarrely, that we’re scalping our own tickets. Such a picture has all of the advantages of melodrama, but the real story, especially as it relates to money, is very different.
We have sold a limited number of higher-priced tickets on a first-come first-served basis since 2008. In 2014, 3,113 of these tickets, priced at $650, were sold as part of our early Pre-Sale program. The advantage to the customer was that it was possible to order four tickets at one time – twice the number of tickets allotted to purchasers of $380 tickets in our Main Sale. There can be no doubt that this was preferential treatment and, on the face of it, this appears to be the sort of inequity that has angered people. But the mystery of our motive is revealed by another statistic. In 2014, we sold 4,422 Low Income tickets priced at $190, and this more than mirrors the number of higher priced tickets sold through our Pre-Sale program. We took money from the rich and subsidized the poor; and this seems fair to us.
This account of how money flows through our organization also has another dimension. In 2014 the owners of the Burning Man event transferred their shares to a not-for-profit corporation called the Burning Man Project, and the event is now nested within this new organization as a wholly owned subsidiary. The mission of the Project is to spread our culture throughout the world. This is an ambitious goal, to say the least, and such a start-up enterprise requires money. Over a span of three years, the Burning Man event has spent quite a lot of money in order to create this new non-profit and fund its operations. In other words, the Burning Man event has been the Project’s chief contributor.
We hope the Burning Man Project will soon become completely self-reliant – The Little Engine That Could can’t really pull many more cars. But until that time arrives, a portion of our ticket sales will continue to benefit the Burning Man Project. Since 2012, when tickets first became a scarce commodity, I think some people have become so obsessed with squeezing through the narrow aperture that leads to Black Rock City they have lost any sense of a wider perspective. But from our point of view, by giving money to the Burning Man Project, we are making it possible for thousands of people, who might not ever come to Black Rock City, to participate in Burning Man’s culture.
This brings me to examine one last notion that has been in play throughout the present controversy over Plug and Play camps: the idea that these camps are guilty of committing some great act of wickedness – this is called iniquity. There can certainly be no doubt that there are conspicuous camps in Black Rock City that have practiced what I call concierge culture, and their missteps have been many; they have fielded members-only art cars, they have withdrawn from surrounding neighborhoods, and it would appear a few of these camps may have stationed security guards at camp entrances – they have, in other words, swaddled their members in a kind of cocoon that bears a strong resemblance to a gated community.
This kind of behavior is certainly an affront to our culture, though I find it hard to believe it has hampered or injured anybody. The curdling gaze of celebrities or the intimidating presence of the wealthy cannot possibly inhibit the remaining 99 percent of our citizens from participating. What I think these camps are really guilty of is being gauche. This is not so much about morals, it is more about manners, and we’re convinced bad manners can be mended; we can regulate the use of art cars, we can fashion guidelines for the funders and producers of Plug and Play camps, and we can make a systematic effort to monitor the result of these changes. Anyone who knows our history must be aware we have done this sort of thing before. In 1997, we enacted reforms that regulated access to the event, eliminated use of firearms, instituted speed limits for motor vehicles, and required cars be anchored to camp sites.
And yet, with all this talk of regulation, I hope everyone realizes we are beginning to move down the path toward a society that is ever more rule bound – and that should not be our objective. If Burning Man is about anything, it is about affording individuals as much liberty as possible, and critics who call for drastic and punitive measures are acting as if the Ten Principles are the Ten Commandments – but these principles are in no way commandments. They represent an ethos that arose from the lived experience of a community; this means these values need to be internalized, they should become a kind of second nature, not a set of literal and unyielding rules that are imposed upon us. The only thing that our tasked government can do is create new social contexts in which people can connect and meet on common ground. That is what we’ve always done, and will continue to do in the future.
[Editor’s Note: Please read Turnkey / Plug and Play Camping in BRC, a companion piece to this post.]