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GP 2 November 2005: Just a Crapshoot

Knew Us Better than We Know Ourselves.  Alistair Cooke, borne an Englishman but dying an American, knew us better than we know ourselves.  An extraordinarily successful and tasteful broadcast and print journalist, he was taken to be an Englishman when here in the United States, and cast as an American when over in London.  He was famed for his “Letter from America,” his artful introductions to Masterpiece Theater dramas, etc.  His education showed good breeding, mixing up Jesus College at Cambridge with postgraduate work at Yale and Harvard.  In the old days, you might find him having a quiet moment alone for supper at some fun, but not too raucous, New York restaurant.  He had a keen nose for these United States and worked right up to the last in 2004, just before his death from congestive heart failure on March 30. 

His countryman Denis Brogan, an English historian and political scientist who spent his lifetime helping Englishmen understand Americans, also saw right into our souls.  He served as a consultant to Cooke on at least one series about the United States called America.  Each of their tales was of two countries. 

A Mirage Called Nevada.  About Nevada, Brogan said, “Every nation needs one of those.”  He did not think it a real state, but an artificial creation that would not exist except that each country requires a den of iniquity where it can act out all the impulses that it denies in its creed and in its many communities.  Drinking, and catting, and gambling , and all-nighters, and gaudy extravagance are not on our job descriptions, except when we get to Reno and Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. 

Cooke could really sink his teeth into Nevada: 

Las Vegas is Everyman’s cut-rate Babylon.  Not far away there is, or was, a roadside lunch counter and over it a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution: “Topless Pizza Lunch.” 

We suppose he knew all about the Mustang Ranch, about average citizens in grey flannel suits who turn out to be the Mob, and of infirm, well-heeled people who came from all over the States to play the slots for 24 hours because that is something they could do well, no matter how crippled their limbs were. 

One could ignore Las Vegas.  Many do.  But we will be coming back to it again in another letter because it has become curiously important.  Nevada is no longer just a place for Californians to escape their taxes.  The Senate Minority Leader hails from Nevada.  The New Yorker magazine, in its food issue, celebrates Vegas egg breakfasts that just won’t stop, requiring not one but a whole detachment of chefs.  It’s the one industry now, maybe the only one, where the cash flow never stops.  Families jump out there for the week end.  Many Americans, turning inwards, have given up on Broadway and go west for relentless entertainment.  Hunter Thompson and John Gregory Dunne chronicled its darkside with such relish that we could even mistake its basic madness for fun, though some critics would claim that no novelist has ever managed to keep up with its high jinks.  In a world that’s in utter turmoil and a world economy that’s equally roiled, the high rollers are still out shooting a little craps. 

Then There’s Dubai.  Lest you think there is only one Las Vegas, you should check out Dubai, which has no particular reason for existing except that Sheikhs there decided to plunk down an oversized airport in the neighborhood and that has attracted a stream of visitors and fueled hyper over-development that defies belief.  In this regard, one is well advised to read Ian Parker’s “The Mirage: The Architectural Insanity of Dubai” in The New Yorker, October 17, 2005, pp. 128-143, which captures in word and picture this mushroom that just won’t stop growing.  Parker says that the powers that be have been rapidly converting a Las Vegas-type town into a Singapore city-state with the help of lots of foreign contract labor.  We have just begun to explore Dubai on the Global Province in entries such as “Indubitably Dubai” and “The Scenic Wonders of Dubai.”  Just as Las Vegas provides release from the pieties of the United States, Dubai is an entrepot of all the imaginable trades for the repressed Middle East, or, at least, for the United Arab Emirates. 

A Redefinition of Urbia.  Are these many Las Dubais of the world redefining what the city is all about?  Maybe.  In our lifetime we have seen the guts of San Francisco disappear—its shipping and industrial functions all but gone, and its perch as a financial capital lost to none other than Charlotte, North Carolina, where Bank of America now hangs its hat.  It now seems to be a city of gingerbread and candy cane, none of it quite real anymore, just a carnival.  The very interesting Dallas is said by many to be nowhere, but on the way to everywhere, a state of being created by the humongous DFW Airport.  City after city is being hollowed out, and the attention is riveted on those towns that can decorate their irrelevance with the most eye-catching tinsel.  Maybe Las Vegas and Dubai are not curious excesses.  Another casino here, another state lottery there: America is taking a shine to Vegas.   

Trompe d’oeil.  For some reason the Sunday New York Times Business Section of October 23, 2005 wasted pages proving what everybody already knew.  Donald Trump is not a billionaire: perhaps he’s worth 2, 3, maybe 5 hundred million.  He’s loud on the outside, and quiet down under.  But he’s acting the billionaire part, much like modern cities that, on their outskirts, are transshipment points and, in their skyscrapers, are processors of the digital traffic that keeps our virtual lifeline running.  They’re sort of acting like cities, though, behind the florid scenes, something is missing.  If billionaires and cities have become mere mirages, our lives and economies are changed forever.  

Well, this wordy Trump article at least gave the Times a chance to pan the Forbes 400 richie rich listings, an obvious dig at the much more lively business writing shown by the entrepreneurial Forbes folks.

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