Las Vegas–I am here for a gathering of the alumni of YouthBuild USA. More about that tomorrow. Meanwhile, unlike Boston, Milwaukee, or Atlanta, Las Vegas makes you ask: Is this the real America? Is this our distilled essence?
It is arbitrarily here. It has no historical roots other than what you might find in the Mob Museum. It is totally dependent on technology: the Hoover Dam, air-conditioning, and slot machines. It is relentlessly commercial, all of its landmarks basically advertisements. It makes nothing except opportunities to strike it rich by sheer luck. Its public spaces ring with the literal sound of money clinking: audiotaped money, not the real stuff. It is vulgar but inventive, often inventively vulgar. It is as subtle as its massive exploding desert fountains. It is profligate with water, carbon, alcohol, jumbo shrimp, and people. Its lumbering visitors care nothing for social rank but expect to be excluded from the blatant displays of wealth and power. Its shining towers of commerce are ringed–first by dusty slums, then by encampments of ranch houses, and finally by treeless mountains that look down in contempt.
“All America is Las Vegas” is the kind of thing that Jean Baudrillard would say. (Maybe he did say it: I haven’t searched.) I resist the formula. Why isn’t America equally reflected in some of the other places I have visited already in 2011, such as Gainesville, with its 65,000 wholesome and diverse youth filing to classes under Spanish moss? Or downtown Oakland, the place alleged to have “no there there,” which still proudly raises civic buildings across the bay from San Francisco’s glamor? Or the town greens of Middlesex County, whose cannons and puritan gravestones are lost deep under crusty snow? Finding our national essence in Las Vegas is like identifying the French with Brigitte Bardot’s Riviera or the English with a fox hunt: it is a hostile interpretation.
But it is worth worrying about.