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Rights + Justice

Fear and Pre-Occupied in Las Vegas

As protesters massed we condo shopped, took in Cirque du Soleil, placed odds on an empire's future.

By Kai Nagata 4 Nov 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Former CTV News Québec City bureau chief Kai Nagata is The Tyee's Writer in Residence. A version of this piece translated into French is available on Kai Nagata's blog Freedom 24, here.

You climb out of the Mojave past dry lakes and the ruins of a water slide park, passing present and future ghost towns. Driving past turnoffs for military bases and prisons, you crest the pass that divides some of the nation's most restrictive gun laws from some of the most permissive. Then you plunge into Atlantis.

Hunter Thompson called this place "atavistic" in 1971 -- a cultural throwback. That was a decade before Reagan was elected, then Bush senior, the oil wars, and the ever-mounting tower of debt now threatening to throw civilization itself into confusion and ruin. Talk about fear and loathing.

Civil blood

We arrived as the eighth Republican presidential debate was wrapping up in Las Vegas. With the sun setting, black helicopters sliced across the sky from the Strip to the airport. Satellite trucks stayed humming away for hours, tucked next to replica Venetian canals, replica pirate ships, opulent fountains. I turned on Fox News in the hotel room and we sipped tequila as Michele Bachmann stared straight into our eyes and told us to buy real estate. "That kind of makes sense, with the dollar at parity," I caught myself thinking. A little pied-à-terre in Vegas. A fine idea.

After another drink, I decided to "fully embrace the grotesque," or something. I headed into the bathroom with hair clippers to sculpt a look for the evening. When I emerged, the pundits had switched to the Occupy Movement.

I'm not going to pay for the transcripts, so I have to summarize from memory. To occupy, said the commentator, is to seize by force. To invade, to steal, to break the rules. This is what Fox News apparently finds reprehensible about the Occupy movement -- people defiling the temple of private property. In America, the pundit continued, we pay the ticket price. We buckle down, we save up, and we pay for the things we want. We don't steal. Occupying is stealing, and if these protesters keep at it, ordinary Americans are going to get fed up and then there's going to be violence.

Amid these prophesies of Horatio Alger-inspired vigilantism, we headed out on the Strip. I watched my friend bet a hundred dollars on a hand of blackjack, and lose. I watched a mentally ill street contortionist beg for alms, cup in hand. I watched tiny Mexican men and women, draped in huge T-shirts advertising an escort service, handing out pornographic cards to passerby. I watched people throw money into fountains and slot machines. I gambled at a casino, won five dollars, and cashed out. I turned down coke dealers and panhandlers alike. I've never been to a place where money feels at the same time so abstract and so real. For a guy who claims not to care about money, I suddenly didn't like the idea of people taking it from me.

The next day, we wanted to see a show. The Tournament of Kings at our medieval-themed hotel was sold out. Much as we like Cornish game hen, swordplay and mead, we decided to see something more reflective of our Canadian heritage. Celine Dion was out of the question. Cirque du Soleil tickets are more than $100 apiece, but there is a way to get them very, very cheap.

Manny

I looked at my fork in agony. It was our second buffet in the space of 90 minutes. But it was free, so I kept eating. Across the booth, Manny was talking about his years in the Air Force. "You guys seen Top Gun? You know the cable that catches the fighter jets when they come in too hot? I was in charge of that cable. I was the guy." Manny grew up in New York, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. He served in the Air Force for 22 years, all over the world. "We went to help out the people of Nicaragua. You know, the communists were oppressing people down there. So we helped them out." Manny retired at the ripe old age of 39. With a full pension and medical benefits, he has been free for the past two decades to pursue a lucrative second career, selling timeshare condos.

Manny showed us a picture of his beautiful Bentley, and a picture of his beautiful daughter. He showed us the bracelet he bought on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, where he stayed in a 5-star resort for pennies on the dollar, thanks to his ownership in the scheme he was trying to sign us up for. He told us about the velvet movie theatre curtains in his million-dollar home, although he admitted the value has dropped to more like $600,000. He told us the crisis hit Vegas hard, but now the Strip is back in a big way and moving south. He said he wasn't supposed to disclose this, but Donald Trump is putting in a new tower. Someone is going to build an indoor ski hill, the second-biggest after Dubai. That's why we were a shuttle ride down the I-15, surrounded by vacant desert lots, looking at the condo unit that would be our passport into a wonderful new world.

I was, of course, pretending to be in a common-law relationship with my friend Candice. This led to some awkward moments when we signed up for the sales tour ("Baby, tell the man your birthday. You say it so nice.") We were also pretending we had a combined income of oh, say $140,000 and that three hours of buffets and luxury talk might convince us to spend 40 grand, plus annual maintenance fees, so we could spend two or three weeks a year in the company's partner resorts.

I don't know if that's what Michele Bachmann had in mind, but we were trying our best. What made it difficult to concentrate was that I was still in costume from the night before. I kept waiting for the heavy hand on my shoulder that would tell me the joke was over. Manny was trying to sell a condo to a hungover biker gang reject, with a fake wife who kept asking irksome questions about water. By this time Manny had been joined by his "property manager," who rode to the rescue with cheaper units once I started to lean back in my chair and cross my arms. Rob reminded me of a gayer, more reptilian Al Gore. At least he knew how to tie a necktie -- there's something about enlisted men and business attire that money, apparently, can't fix.

It was painful trying to articulate my reasons for not buying a timeshare. Not just because I had a crushing headache. It hurt because I could see I was hurting Manny and Rob. I liked Manny and Rob. They laid out a very convincing case for saving thousands of dollars over the next six decades of vacation. But how do you explain, in a fundamental sense, that you don't actually believe in the future? It's a strange idea to thrust on someone who played by the rules and now attends boxing matches in a Bentley. I grasped around in my cloudy brain, trying to find a comparison they would understand. Pyramid schemes. Of course. Pyramid scheme designers -- of all stripes -- have just as tenuous a belief in the yet-to-come.

Mercifully, Candice interrupted with a question about the reservoirs drying up. Rob laughed a silky laugh. Glancing at Manny, he smiled and said the water was dropping for 15 years, but this year it was up, a bit. "Believe me, every time we put up a tower we have building inspectors crawling all over the place, checking the silliest things! You think the U.S. government would let us put in new real estate if there was no water? You think Donald Trump would be building a tower if all this was going to collapse?"

Bread and circuses

We collected our Cirque tickets and climbed onto the freezing-cold shuttle. After scalping the fourth ticket, we paid a total of $13.33 each to see . Plus nine person-hours resisting Manny's sales techniques. (The heavily made-up woman who gave us our tickets at the end told us the timeshare tour has a 50 per cent sales rate. I suppose this is less staggering when you consider they're recruiting vacationers off of casino floors.)

I'm not sure it was worth it. In some measure, I suppose that's also a theatre review. Certainly it's a bad sign when audience members at a Cirque show start checking their phones for the time. I admit I've been sceptical ever since covering Cirque CEO Guy Laliberté's poetic journey into the outer stratosphere of intergalactic brand marketing. I remember standing by at the Canadian Space Centre, trying to muster the enthusiasm for another live hit about the Québécois clown in space, and realizing that the genius had pasted a Cirque du Soleil backdrop inside the International Space Station. To quote a former colleague, "how many Super Bowl halftime ads is that worth?"

After seeing , hailed by the L.A. Times as possibly "the most lavish production in the history of Western theater," I still don't know what Guy Laliberté is trying to say. Betrayal sucks? Explosives are dangerous? Saying your art addresses universal human themes is becoming more and more of a cop-out. I think the one thing that now unites the largest number of people on earth is the sense that the system is rigged against them -- that they are somehow being screwed from afar, and that if things keep going the way they are, everything's only going to get worse.

Maybe I'm making that up. Either way, the planet's most influential theatre troupe is parked in Sin City, rehashing uncontroversial spectacle for the timeshare crowd. And they're raking in the cash, so long as the aquifer holds out. (Guy Laliberté also runs an access-to-water NGO. Insert your own punch line.)

On the way out of town we stopped at a wonderfully crummy bar and played breakfast billiards and ate steak 'n eggs for $4.95. The windows were blacked out, but from the parking lot you could see the pyramid of the Luxor, the faint outlines of the Statue of Liberty replica, and the whole Strip shimmering in the distant desert haze. It already looks like an ancient ruin.

Occupy arrived in Las Vegas the day after we left. Sporadic demonstrations had been held throughout the month of October -- the blog page shows a photo of several dozen demonstrators marching past the Glitter Gulch Gentlemen's Club. Now there are tents on pallets. Despite a tongue-in-cheek tagline ("99 to 1 is pretty good odds") there is no mention of local issues in the chapter's mission statement. There is, however, an undercurrent of Nevadan pragmatism to the occupation. A callout to obstruct the famous Las Vegas sign itself was dropped. Instead, the camp is set up in a vacant lot a mile east of the Strip. Occupiers have reportedly taken out general liability insurance and submitted a traffic control and parking plan to Clark County officials, in return for a permit valid until Nov. 21.

It's not clear what will happen when the agreement expires, but that city needs a protest against nihilistic greed more than most. I wish the Occupiers the very best.  [Tyee]

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