Culture

[Essay]

Are we swarmed by the stupid?

One historian answers critics of Las Vegas—and its visitors

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Illustration: Ami Plasse
David G. Schwartz

Visitors to Las Vegas get it from everyone. Comedian George Carlin laid it out best in his final performance at the MGM Grand in 2004: “People who go to Las Vegas, you’ve got to question their fucking intellect to start with,” Carlin reminded the paying customers. “Traveling hundreds and thousands of miles to essentially give your money to a large corporation is kind of fucking moronic.”

Ouch. In the heat of the moment, maybe, Carlin forgot that some of that money was ending up in his wallet, since he presumably wasn’t doing pro bono work in the Hollywood Theater that night. All’s well that ends well, though: A few months later, after a stint in rehab, Carlin was back on the Strip—at the Stardust.

Carlin isn’t alone. French philosophy professor Bruce Begout took on the city in his book-length 2003 denunciation of Las Vegas, Zeropolis, and couldn’t muzzle his disdain for supplicants to Sin City. Sitting at the slots, he saw only deadbeats: “poverty-stricken pensioners, obese and dowdily dressed black matrons, Southern white trash there to gamble away their Social Security cheques, large parties of convention participants who have flown in to do some slumming on the cheap, etc.”

More recently, NPR correspondent David Rothkopf likened our hometown to a “Capistrano of idiots” whose signature visitor was a boozed-up conventioneer staggering down the Strip.

Three outside opinions, one conclusion: Las Vegas is the shallow end of America’s gene pool. Could they have a point?

After all, casinos offer negative-expectation games. Mathematically, it’s a certainty that most customers will lose most of the time. Even if they don’t set foot in a casino, pilgrims to Vegas still shell out a lot of money for expensive meals, flashy entertainment and boozy nights on the town—not the most rational contribution to their future well-being.

Does this make them stupid? In his NPR piece, Rothkopf mentioned that he’d appended his insight-producing trip to Vegas to a Colorado white-water rafting expedition—surely something that wasn’t cheap. Did his memories of navigating the raging rivers of the Centennial State offer him any more value than memories of a night at Tryst or a meal at Margaritaville? He’s reading his own personal value judgments into his social criticism: Those who are unlike me are beneath me.

Fortunately, there’s no ultimate arbiter of what’s worth spending your money on. This is one of the benefits of liberty: You don’t get to tell your neighbors how to invest—or fritter away, as the case may be—their money, and they don’t weigh in on your discretionary spending.

Commentators on Vegas don’t see it that way, though: Sucking down a margarita outside of the Casino Royale is stupid, so, ipso facto, the people who enjoy that sort of thing are idiots. Because the booze is too high-octane and the entertainment too lightweight by their standards, ours is a Mecca for morons.

Luckily, the commentators are at least partially wrong about Las Vegas. In fact, plenty of smart people come here and actually enjoy themselves.

Consider Larry Gragg. Make that Larry Gragg, Ph.D. He’s a professor of history at the Missouri University of Science and Technology—chair of the department, no less. He specializes in the colonial era, the period that attracts most of the discipline’s heavy hitters. His books include Englishmen Transplanted: The Quaker Colonization of Barbados, 1627-1660 and The Salem Witch Crisis, a look at the social and cultural patterns that underlay Massachusetts’ famous foray into witch-hunting.

He’s been coming to Las Vegas since 1992 with no apologies.

Gragg started making the trip out to Las Vegas at least three times a year, playing video poker, eating at restaurants they don’t have in Rolla, Missouri, and just soaking in the spectacle.

“The reason I like Las Vegas,” he says after some thought, “is because it’s almost all the things that I am not. I’m rural American, I’m small-town America, I’m conservative in my personal finances, I’m not flamboyant, and Las Vegas is the opposite of all four of those.”

In Las Vegas, Gragg sees what he isn’t, and he’s intrigued by it. The anti-Vegas commentariat, it seems, see what they are not and are appalled by it. Much of this is no doubt driven by pure envy and insecurity.

I may be an underpaid, virtually unknown freelance writer/philosopher, we can imagine them saying to themselves in an honest moment, but I’m infinitely superior to that slack-jaw with a beer gut poking out of his Ed Hardy T-shirt or the trust-fund baby paying $500 for a bottle of vodka.

It makes for quick copy and a quicker read, but requires a willful blindness.

There’s simply no place in that narrative for the history professor sitting quietly at a video-poker machine for a few minutes on his way to dinner. But it doesn’t mean that he—and millions like him—isn’t coming to Las Vegas. The problem is, they aren’t posting videos of themselves puking at expensive Strip restaurants, they aren’t blowing their kids’ college money at the slots, and they don’t indulge in the kind of conspicuous stupidity that would-be social critics love.

They are the dark matter of Las Vegas tourism, nearly invisible to casual observation but constituting a great deal of its mass. Without them, we probably wouldn’t exist.

Walking around a Strip casino, you’ll see plenty of modestly unfashionable people having a low-key good time. Yet you never read about them. Partially, Gragg thinks, it’s because of biases inherent in how “elite” writers approach Las Vegas—and a bit of peer pressure.

“They think it’s obligatory, that if you’re from the East, you’ve got to be dismissive of Las Vegas.”

Basically, it’s the second-geekiest kid in class making loud fun of the only guy geekier than him, before the class bully decides to target him, preemptive snark on a slightly more evolved plane.

But there are those who will stand up for the dorky kid getting worked over for his lunch money. After nearly a decade of Vegas vacations, Gragg began to ask himself questions about Las Vegas—questions that didn’t have any answers in the historical canon. So, a few years ago, he started research on a book about Las Vegas. This project blossomed into books: one about the promotion of Las Vegas, another about popular perceptions of the resort town.

“It’s a fascinating research topic,” he says. “I don’t know of any other [and this includes Salem witches and Caribbean Quakers] that has interested me as much. I want to know why, for more than a century, ever more people go to Las Vegas.”

The easy way to answer that question is, because they’re stupid, stupid. But he wants to understand just what it is that makes rational people choose to be entranced by Las Vegas, without resorting to cheap stereotypes or knee-jerk judgments.

That Gragg has picked a harder route may reflect on his intellectual honesty, or his more basic status as a mensch, but it is a welcome counterbalance to the prevailing tide.

And he may get the last laugh. The last chapter of Gragg’s book about perceptions will deal with critics like Rothkopf and Begout. While they might have brushed past him without a glance as they gawked at the buffet-goers, Gragg is going to take on their arguments. He’ll carefully dissect them, noting how they compare with long-forgotten critiques from decades past. He expects to find that much of the nay-saying is more about the critic than the subject, but he’s got an open mind: Still collecting information, he is open to new interpretations.

While he may not agree with the detractors, Gragg, as an honest thinker, is taking the time and effort to examine them on their own terms. It’s just one part of his quest to learn why Las Vegas does what it does to people. And that includes the critics, no matter how shallow their understanding.

It’s a pleasant irony that though they chose not to see him or his fellows, he is responding to them with a carefully honed intellectual approach that sees the excess and the exquisite, the stupid and the sublime. We can only hope that he inspires future Tocquevilles of the Strip to take off their blinders.

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