One Trick Towns
· A crafty or fraudulent device of a mean or base kind; an artifice to deceive or cheat; a stratagem, ruse, wile; esp. in phrase to play (show) one a trick, to put a trick or tricks upon
· The cards played in one round of a card game often used as a scoring unit
Only two towns have ever really allowed me to understand the phrase “panem et circenses,” and Rome isn’t one of them.
The human spectacle – fountains timed to music, volcanic eruptions every hour on the hour, show girls, white marble hallways and facades, camera watching event movement and a horde of humanity that’s constantly changes every weekend or every two years, that’s our new circus.
I guess you could say, I’ve only ever lived in artificial cities, or, at least, I can’t remember what it’s like to live in an actual city, and perhaps I never really have. Suburbia (another word with direct ties to Ancient Rome) and then Washington are the only places I’ve called home.
DC exists for a sole purpose. It’s the finest political theater whose brilliant white marble buildings rival the Las Vegas strip in terms of dazzling brightness and perhaps surpass Sin City for the number of lies told by the short terms residents.
The only real difference is that the lies in DC are repeated on 24-hour news networks for all to see while one of the best advertising campaigns of the past 30 years keeps the lies of Vegas in the desert where they were told.
I’ve never been more struck of two cities that should have nothing in common being nearly identical. They’re the same town.
The trick of Vegas, of course, lies within 52 laminated cards. You get a trick that beats the house, turning a tick is legal. Magicians trick audience in giant theaters and perform cards tricks on the street. I tricked my poker dealer into thinking I was someone else, he tricked me into thinking I could beat the house.
Everything is a trick in Vegas. It’s all fake.
But what makes it all so (and I can’t believe I’m going to use this word to describe Sin City) endearing, is that they all embrace it.
Caesars Palace, where I stayed, isn’t apologetic about the marble lined hallways and the fake busts of ancient Romans in the casino. The kitsch and camp is embraced and you start referring to places as being “near the forum.” The Latin inscriptions on the buildings are not found in the works of Virgil, but the wishes for prosperity and luck are real.
When you land at Las Vegas International Airport the pilot wishes you, “Good Luck.” They know why you’re here. They all know, and perhaps that’s the most honest part of the whole town.
And so, on my last night on the strip, I ate some hazelnut gelato from the Venetian and stood in front of the Mirage watching the Volcano erupt amid throngs of people taking photos on their iPads under the bright lights of the strip I thought to myself, “Bread and Circuses.”
The “Bread and Circuses” of DC is perhaps less overt and shimmering than it is in Vegas, but it exists none the less, perhaps ever more so in this swamp I call home than it is in the desert.
DC is, without a doubt, the greatest show on earth. Forget Cirque du Soleil, forget the showgirls, the District of Columbia offers a parade of politicians in ill fitting suits whose sex scandals are far more juicy than any burlesque show on the strip.
But the inherent cross-examination of politicians is hardly the main spectacle of the Capitol, that’s just a delicious sideshow to distract from the main tent.
The circuses of Ancient Rome were bloody and violent; men were killed for sport, exotic animals maimed in a space covered in the white marble that now covers (in a perhaps fitting reuse of the material) the Vatican.
The blood sport in DC is less physical, but just as vicious.
Seeing political ex-allies tear down one another on the floor of a senate hearing, or lying to hosts on Sunday morning news shows is our modern day gladiatorial arena. Scandal, that delicious “inside the beltway” drama, names it main characters (and fans) gladiators. It’s not even art imitating life, it’s art AS life. Because the show of Washington is more akin to gladiatorial fights in the sun than the fake gladiators and slot machines on the strip. Want to see a person eviscerated? Watch CSPAN.
The corruption here is contained in white marble buildings, the faces who profess to have our best interests in mind keep skeletons in their closets, all that’s missing is the laurel wreaths–and we don’t even need to change the make-up of the senate, they already are a bunch of Brutuses.
They needed a circus to distract from the government, but whatever was meant to keep us from the power and corruption of Washington failed; they’ve turned the government into the circus.
Just look at the animals that represent the major political parties here; an ass and a ringleader’s pet.
One trick towns. That’s what they both are.
Washington and Vegas exist because we, as humans, have deemed them both necessary evils and we’ve placed them far from the rest of us.
“The Hill” and “Sin City” are metonymy; they are both constructs, not real places, at least for those who don’t live there. Both are just places that represent a larger idea, not a town rooted in an industry besides the one we’ve chosen for it. Both are dens of sin and inequity, each with a sole purpose.
And sure, one could argue that all cities are one trick towns. Detroit exists (existed?) because the auto industry, New York to manage our finances, but are any other towns so rooted in one industry and, more importantly, so fake. If not for the human desire for both to exist, they would cease to be. Make gambling illegal in Nevada, or implement lie detector tests during political debates, and both would be deserted.
They both exist for a single purpose. They do one thing and at least one of them does it well.
My question is: would either city exist without the artificial need for it? Would Las Vegas just be a patch of desert surrounded by mountains? Would DC just be another small southern town, or would where I sit now be a part of Maryland?
I don’t know, of course. I doubt it, but there’s also an argument for it. The question, I think, is more important than the answer. Answers are boring, they don’t allow for any thought.
They are cities built for those not born there; they cater to throngs of people that come and go with little regard to those that call it home. They are well laid out and planned, but not for ease of the commuters. Everything revolves around the tourists and their bulging pockets, what really keeps the cities alive. There is nothing real about either. Sure, the purpose of DC is to govern, but taxes only pay the salary of a few of the city’s residents. The bottom line here is the same as it is in Vegas; it all comes from people who spend their money then leave.
And what of those rare few who choose to live in these fake cities? Those individuals who don’t show up on CNN or on those giant screens that light up Las Vegas Boulevard. I’ve always thought it would be odd to grow up in Las Vegas, but it is surely just as odd to grow up in DC. I’ve carved out a niche here, where only one of my peers, really, has a hand in something to do with the real purpose of the city. I can only imagine that’s even harder to do in Las Vegas.
Life outside the industry of either city doesn’t have to be bad. Sure, I get odd looks when I tell people I don’t work for a non-profit or on the hill and at a law office, but I can go weeks without seeing one protest these days. I live next to an embassy, so that’s unavoidable, but I would guess it’s just as unavoidable as living in Vegas and not walking past a slot machine once a day.
Circuses allow us to suspend reality. The Romans used them to pacify their citizens, keep them occupied so they wouldn’t notice what was going on behind closed doors on the Capitoline Hill. Both cities exists outside the normal human experience, reality is suspended in both. Nothing is real in either.
The circus of Washington makes politicians celebrities, and that show keeps us pacified. You get starry eyed when you first see John Kerry out to dinner in DC and you forget for a moment, any negative thought you’ve ever had about him and can only focus on tweeting that you just saw the Secretary of State in DuPont.
You can, of course, enact change in Washington, but I would bet the odds are just as likely of winning big on penny slots. You can do it. Every bright eyed and bushy tailed graduate who makes the pilgrimage to the new Rome aspires to that.
What makes Vegas more honest, however, is that they tell you the odds going in. The temples are fake, the chips are plastic, the Eiffel tower is miniature, but all that is somehow more honest than the facades of Washington, where the marble is real, but the faces within are not.
The sincere fakeness of Vegas far surpasses the false sincerity of Washington.
And that, to me, was the most striking thing about Las Vegas. They acknowledged that it is all fake, that you’re here for one reason, that they are here for one reason. It’s all out in the open, the odds and the payout are printed on the green cloth of the gambling table. It’s almost too honest.
DC pretends to be something it’s not. It’s an important place, sure, arguably one of the most important cities in the world, but it’s so power hungry and power driven that it forgets it’s only here because the people think it needs to be here. The politicians have forgotten who put them there, who really calls the shots in this town, and it’s no one who lives or works here.
If we break down the “point” of both cities and how well the cities perform towards that goal, Vegas wins, hands down. It’s a one trick town that doesn’t shy away from its existence. There are no pretensions and it’s refreshing. That awareness, that honesty, in relation to the trick it’s pulling, makes it far more honest than the Capitol.
I want to believe DC used to be that honest, and maybe I’m just jaded because I’ve lived here for too long. Perhaps there is still good in this town. There is; I know there is. There has to be. I know people who do great things with their lives here, who do help people, who are making this country and the world a better place or, at least, I hope what they’re telling me is true.
But I can’t help look at those white marble buildings, those neo-classical facades, and I can only see the Coliseum. I want to think that the next debate I see on the house floor is genuine, but then I see an ad for House of Cards and I sadly can’t help but think there has to be some truth lurking in that series. I’ve seen men and women become person non-gratia before my very eyes in this town, and that fate is far worse than being asked to leave by the pit boss.
Politics is the greatest show in the world. DC knows it. The Romans knew it. They knew they needed to hide the dirty business that is running an empire. They tried to distract from it. And maybe if they had 24-hour news networks and Twitter and fact checking groups they wouldn’t have controlled so much of the world for so long, who knows. But if DC is supposed to be that new Rome, that new city on the hill, if it wants to truly earn the blemish free creamy marble that covers the stained interior, it needs to learn from that city in there desert city, so far away.
*Alternate Definition, according to Gob Bluth: Something a whore does for money.