Here's on old song by Ray Charles about a typical victim of Las Vegas.
We have decided on the destinations for our summer vacation this year. We are going to spend a couple of days in Las Vegas, then go up to Bryce Canyon for a day, and last but not least, stay for a couple of nights at a lodge right on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The kids are excited because it will be the first time that they will travel outside of the state of California. What they find most exciting, however, will be the chance to get free ice cream on the way to Vegas at the Dairy Queen owned by their uncle. One of the great things about kids is their ability to get excited about the little things.
I am ready to go out and hit the open road as well. The only problem, however, is that I am feeling a little guilty about the Vegas part of the trip. This is not because I am planning on indulging in all of the sins for which the city is well known. Gambling has never been my thing anyway, and this is a family trip, after all. The plan is to hang out at a fancy resort and show our kids a little bit of the ridiculous spectacle of the city with all of its bright lights and gigantic buildings. My guilt instead comes from knowing the historical origins, economic foundation, and environmental impact of this crazy place sitting out in the middle of nowhere.
At a used book sale a few weeks ago, I found some good history books, one of which was called, “The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and its Hold on America.” In honor of our upcoming trip, I decided that I should read this book first. I have read about 1/3 of it so far, and I already have a good understanding of the author’s basic thesis. Ever since Las Vegas started to build up in a significant way during the 1930’s and 1940’s, it has been financed, owned, and operated by organized crime networks. Nevada, a state that was going nowhere, turned to legalized vice in the early 1930’s as a means of developing its economy. Gambling was illegal in other states at the time, and the end of prohibition dried up bootlegging activities, so Nevada became a Mecca for people looking to make money from “sin.” In a sense, the state of Nevada sold its soul to the devil, and Las Vegas evolved into a national capital not only for gambling but also for laundering the money earned throughout the nation from selling drugs and conducting other illicit activities.
The connection of Las Vegas to organized crime is one of the best-known “secrets” in the United States. What this book seeks to emphasize, however, is the degree to which Las Vegas is the central place in organized crime networks that permeate life throughout the entire country (and world), with public officials being complicit in all of these activities. Meyer Lansky, the man who ran much of the national crime “syndicate” in the early 20th century and who helped finance the build up of Vegas, learned two things early in life: public officials can be bought, and the only people who make consistent money in gambling are the ones who control the game.
While many people are aware on some level of the “dark history” of this city, I get the feeling that few are really bothered by it. This may be partly because they either fail to realize or refuse to believe how powerful organized crime figures really are. I would also argue, however, that Vegas’ connection to organized crime is part of its appeal. The city sells itself, after all, as a fantasyland where anything goes: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” It’s a place where you can be bad, and we all know that bad is fun. The fact that the “baddest” people in the land built it adds to the mystique.
Now while some may be able to ignore or deny the dark forces behind the city of Vegas, it is impossible to be unaware of its environmental impact. Here is a city in the middle of a desert wasteland that is filled with huge, air-conditioned casino hotels; giant water fountains; perfectly manicured golf courses; and the brightest glowing lights on planet earth. So where does all of this energy and water come from? How is the environment of the areas that supply Vegas impacted by this mass diversion of water and electric power? Is this an efficient use of resources, particularly in a God-forsaken environment like this?
Las Vegas, from what I can gather, makes no economic and environmental sense. Once again, however, this may be part of the appeal. It is the ultimate example of a magic oasis in the desert, a place where you can escape reality and indulge yourself a little (or a lot). This city produces no tangible commodity. It does little - if anything - to benefit the nation, and it probably does many things that harm us all. Las Vegas’ main commodity is an image of itself, and its primary goal is to suck us into that image and separate us from our money. It’s a business model that is all about taking and leaving nothing tangible in return. (It’s even worse than Wall Street.)
I know all of this, and yet off we go. So how do I justify this behavior? Ultimately, I recognize that dark forces are out there no matter where you go. At least in Vegas, this reality is somewhat out in the open. Also, Las Vegas may be the ultimate symbol of my flawed, fascinating, frustrating, fun loving, “f_ _ _ ed up,” freedom loving country. The United States is a land of excess, and Las Vegas – not New York City, Hollywood, or Washington DC – may be the best place to find out what makes Americans tick. It’s educational, and hopefully, I can score a good buffet or two. Of course, in order to maintain my integrity, I will read my anti-Vegas book a little at the resort. I’ll have to keep an eye out, however, in order to make sure that “The Mafia” is not watching.