Don't Ask, Don't Tell in Las Vegas

I recently returned from Las Vegas, where I was attending the Western Political Science Association conference. What a disgusting, vile, God-forsaken hellhole of a city! What an unlikely venue for an erudite academic conference, especially a political science conference during wartime!

Looking around at casino life, I kept thinking: What does it mean for so many civilians to be playing slots and craps in the so-called Entertainment Capital of the World while American soldiers are risking life and limb elsewhere? Should I even be raising such guilty questions amidst all of the glitz and glamour, I wondered?

The academic nerds were indeed focused on the war. Many of the conference panels addressed, in one way or another, the ambient hideousness of the Bush era. For instance, I participated in a roundtable discussion on Steven Johnston's book, The Truth About Patriotism (Duke University Press, forthcoming). The book excoriates American patriotism as the main wellspring of American bellicosity, such that love of country turns almost inevitably into an invidious, militant, and deathly hatred of others. We had a lively and contentious discussion about that provocative proposition. The stakes seemed high and pressing, even though we pontificating, timorous eggheads were well aware that we were many miles removed from the front lines of the fighting.

Yet outside of those rarefied and somewhat surreal academic discussions, I saw no signs whatsoever that Americans are fighting a war. Vegas is a place full of smoke and mirrors, both literally and figuratively. It's a place that purports to be a world unto itself, a place where the rest of society's rules, laws and mores don't apply, a desert oasis for irrigated sinfulness, where ordinary and otherwise decent Americans can indulge in some naughtiness, risk, excess, and vulgarity.

Sure, maybe we all want, at times, to indulge in a bit of escapism and a few cheap thrills. Blow off some steam. Yet I kept thinking: If this place is the American Mecca, our neon-lighted shrine to unfettered capitalism (except for unionized hotel workers), where anything can be bought for a buck, the place to which hard-working middle-class vacationers make an unholy pilgrimage at least once during their lifetime, is THIS place, therefore, the epitome of U.S. freedom, the ultimate reason why we are now fighting, a civilizational clash as we've been told that it is? Could it be that Vegas (not the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon, or Hollywood) symbolizes Ground Zero in the fight against Jihadist-Salafism?

Maybe some right-winger could explain Vegas' virtues to me. (Hello, are you out there William Bennett?) Maybe some member of the Religious Right could explain why this Sin City doesn't routinely receive crusading opposition from national evangelical groups. Especially now. Even if we haven't been called upon to sacrifice during a time of war, don't we have a moral obligation to be civic exemplars to the rest of the world, at least in the minimalist sense of refraining from seedy and sordid activities in public places?

Sorry, I just don't get Vegas' appeal--but especially not now, in a time of war. Seems to be a place designed to sucker suckers out of their money. Zombies staring blankly at slot machines, enthralled like children by the fancy bells and whistles and flashing lights and dumb odds. Cigs and liquor, cheap prostitutes, cheap weddings, T-bone steak dinners for $7.99, topless revues, drag shows, male strippers, Sinatra impersonators, and a bunch of entertainment has-beens. Do I really want to spend $200 on a ticket for a Celine Dion show?

Yet, there was a highpoint to my trip, a true gem in the heart of Vegas: The Liberace Museum. A group of us took the tour, and we left inspired! The Museum houses Liberace's many elaborate pianos and his signature candelabra, his rhinestone-studded automobiles, and his fabulously ornate capes. But there was more. Here was an all-American success story, the son of midwestern immigrants who became a musical prodigy and a wildly popular performer in his day. We also learned that Liberace was simply a nice man, a generous and caring human being, a person who tried to make the world more beautiful in many respects. Even more, I want to say that he was a cultural pioneer, someone who performed in the national limelight what we would now call over-the-top gayness--and he didn't just get away with it time and again on the Ed Sullivan show and elsewhere, but was beloved for it! You can't exactly say that he was closeted, if only because he wore his extensive closet for all to see. The Museum serves as a reminder that at one time not so long ago, a good part of the American public seemed willing to celebrate, rather than castigate, such gender-bending and homoeroticized flamboyance.

If Vegas today serves as a haven for other such all-American pioneers and visionaries, I'm certainly willing to moderate and even withdraw my above rant against the city. Indeed, at the Liberace Museum, I found by-gone evidence of a kind of American patriotism worth esteeming, a latter-day declaration of independence from oppression, a proud display of the true colors of American freedom.

See the visual accompaniment for this post at