My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

June 22, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: Sin City

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On a necessary challenge to our Puritanical roots, and how it can go too far.

The iconic journalist and legendary quipper H.L. Mencken once wrote that Puritanism can be defined as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” (which has sometimes been adapted into “may be having a good time”). While I believe it’s easy to oversimplify the Puritans, a multi-generational transnational community that featured a variety of perspectives and ideas to be sure, all you have to do is look at the way they responded to Thomas Morton and his Maypole of Merrymount to recognize that yes, they had some problems with fun (a subject about which Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote pitch-perfectly in his short story on Morton and that problematic pole). While we’re of course talking events that transpired nearly 400 years ago, many of the Puritans’ more extreme fun-repressing laws remain on the books up here in New England, and as that hyperlinked Yankee Magazine article indicates even have the occasional effect on our day to day lives in the 21st century.

Beyond those regionally specific laws, it’s also fair to say that a culture which originated in part with the Puritans—and I do mean in part; I hope you all know how much I would disagree and have disagreed in print with the idea that the Puritans are the origin point for America—has had some issues with fun and “sin” over the centuries. It’s impossible to understand the decade-long travesty that was Prohibition without this context, for example; I would say that it’s equally impossible to understand our aversion to sex and nudity in media (compared in particular to our widespread acceptance for violence in media) without grappling with these Puritanical influences. All of which is to say, it’s quite striking that this same nation features a major metropolitan area in which gambling and prostitution are legal (compared to the rest of the country at least), in which free alcoholic beverages flow as freely as the Fountains of Bellagio, a community which has from its earliest moments more than earned the moniker Sin City. The Mathers would no doubt roll over eternally in their graves at the thought, and that’s an effect this AmericanStudier is okay with.

At the same time, there’s a single moment from my one and only visit to Vegas (my family began and ended a Southwestern National Parks trip in the city during my 7th grade year) that has always stood out to me as an embodiment of the destructive downsides when such pleasures are taken too far. I wrote about it in that hyperlinked post, but to quickly recap: we briefly entered a casino, and in our few minutes there, I saw a woman win thousands of dollars at a slot machine and immediately (and I do mean immediately—I don’t even recall her taking a moment to celebrate) begin putting those quarters back into the machine. I’m not suggesting that such excesses are always or necessarily present in Vegas, but I think even the unofficial slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” depicts a place where “sin” is free of consequence. Whereas the best way to enjoy pleasures is to make them part of our lives, not treat them as something which can be enjoyed separately and then forgotten entirely. Not sure that’s any healthier than the Puritan view, ultimately.

Next Vegas context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?

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