Higher Learning

When it comes to Las Vegas, sometimes the best and brightest just don’t get it

During a recent conference trip to the East Coast, I was introduced to a young cultural historian who was fascinated to learn that I live and teach in Las Vegas. Since I’ve lived in the Valley since 2000, I am by now used to the generally earnest and misguided assumptions of fellow academics, but this was a particularly memorable moment. The young woman remarked that she could just not imagine living and working in Las Vegas. I asked if she had ever visited, and she replied, “No, I could never go to that place, on principle.” “What’s the principle?” I inquired. “Well,” she responded, “it’s so inauthentic and shouldn’t really be there at all.”

Over the past decade I’ve been defending my new home region with great energy, and occasional success, against fellow academics from around the globe who imagine I live in the most unusual and lamentable place in America, or even on Earth. I remind them that desert societies are not anomalous in human history; that water comes to many places in the United States through engineered systems (Los Angeles comes to mind); that tourist-based economies are not unusual, and, like industry-based economies, experience occasional downturns; and that Las Vegas does not create simulacra of other famous places because it aspires to be like those places, but because themed structures provide visitors with stimulating diversions and pleasing reminders of cultural icons.

It’s an interesting dynamic. Essentially, I offer a crash course—let’s call it “Actual Las Vegas, 101”—for those who’ve already taken the more well-known crash course called “Evil Las Vegas: Imagined and Reviled.” That course, perpetually streamed through popular culture, has an impressive syllabus, one that generally begins in the post-apocalyptic future of Stephen King’s The Stand, where the only remaining people live in two places: The good ones reside in Boulder, Colo., and those thoroughly disposed to evil reside in Las Vegas.

I can, to a degree, empathize with the misconceptions about Las Vegas; I used to share them. In the 1990s, when I glimpsed the Strip from I-15 on my way to L.A., I imagined it as something best left behind—a bastion of cultural inauthenticity, consumer capitalist excess, the ultimate triumph of veneer over substance. Las Vegas was for me a geographical embodiment of the Gilded Age. Just as that late 19th-century period, with its corruption and poor labor conditions, is a convenient historical repository for national sins—a cozy way to quarantine our shortcomings in the past—so Las Vegas has become a comfortable regional punching bag, the supposedly exceptional place that helps the rest of America feel superior by comparison.

I was myself the quintessence of everything I now find so irritating about outsiders’ perceptions of Las Vegas. Those perceptions so often arise from a foundation of absolute ignorance about the place. The most vehement academic critics of Las Vegas are often the ones who have either never been here or don’t stay long. Western writer Timothy Egan’s essay “Las Vegas: Chaos or Cancer” (the title says it all) in his collection Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West (1999) is a good case in point. Egan, like French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, who lambasted Las Vegas a decade earlier in his book America (1989), didn’t really need to come here to arrive at his damning conclusions. Both Egan and Baudrillard spent so little time in Las Vegas, and their preconceptions were so deep, that their conclusions were virtually inevitable.

A more recent example of the Vegas-hating genre is Bernard Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (2006). Lévy clearly visited America to confirm his assumptions. Traveling through Southern Nevada, Lévy visited Spearmint Rhino, one of Las Vegas’ famous strip clubs; the even more renowned Chicken Ranch brothel in Pahrump; and the Southern Nevada Women’s Correctional Center in North Las Vegas. He interviewed, respectively, a lap dancer, a prostitute and a senior citizen on death row, ostensibly taking the pulse of the region.

In the popular imagination, Las Vegas is America Gone Wild. So one has to consider the place carefully to move beyond the stereotypes. Shortly after I moved here, there were three contentious ballot issues in Nevada. You may recall that medical marijuana was voted up, along with fluoride in the water, and gay marriage was voted down. A colleague suggested to me that Nevada’s core electorate of pot-smoking homophobes with good teeth had carried the day. Las Vegas is a whirl of seeming contradictions. But wherever there are contradictions, the tendency, particularly among cultural historians, is to resort to irony in an effort to illuminate the essence of a place. So, for example: “Isn’t it ironic that Las Vegas, a desert town, has such flamboyant water displays, such as the Bellagio fountains and lake?” Well, quite frankly, no; there’s no irony whatsoever in this. Spectacular display has been a feature of city life, in places both arid and moist, for thousands of years. Engineered water is a fact of urban living. And so are fountains.

To explain Las Vegas, one has to move beyond the Strip and focus on the fundamentals of life in the region, since there really are some remarkable developments to account for. Because of massive population increase, the majority of people who live in Clark County today did not live here a generation ago. How can we speak authoritatively about the essence of the Valley when its demographic makeup is in such radical flux? It’s unclear where the search for the Las Vegas essence will lead. But it begins with more imaginative thinking than I have encountered in the writings of fleeting visitors and the dramatic pronouncements of young cultural historians who could never come here, even for a short visit, on principle.

David Wrobel is chair of the Department of History at UNLV, where he teaches the history of the American West.