CHURCH OF TWAIN: Exporting our casino ‘civilization’

  Most financial experts, the ones still employed and not now performing their acts in downtown lounges, agree the national economic outlook is grim for 2009. That goes double for Las Vegas, which was once believed to have a “recession-proof” economy due to the fact that gambling is both fun and addictive. Or something like that.

  Now we know that belief was founded on a sea of sand. When the sands of the world economy shifted, Las Vegas tilted on its foundation.

  It’s probably not a permanent condition. I say probably because we are standing in a supremely uncertain time, and the casino gambling community of my childhood is not the Gaming Inc. that exists today.

  As a boy, the casino operators were still grateful for the chance to ply their trade legally and spend their latter years not looking over their shoulders. They had been raised in the rackets in places like Boston and Cleveland and Detroit and New York (as well as Wheeling and Steubenville and Covington and Hot Springs). They were almost tickled to pay their taxes and buy their politicians and sheriffs and play the big tipper in the world of politics. After all, it beat being called into a grand jury every couple of years or being run out of town when the locals decided to get moralistic.

  In Las Vegas after 1931, morals were gradually less something discussed at the Sunday pulpit and more the punch line of a second-rate joke. We began to specialize in excuse-making for our behavior. First it was the loosening of the rules governing the casinos. Then it was the rules covering the sex trade and adult business racket. And on it went until we found ourselves in the middle of an FBI investigation of political corruption involving Clark County commissioners accused of using a local topless bar mope as their personal ATM. The politicians tried to justify their actions with a knowing shrug: They were only doing what everyone else was doing in one way or another.

  In our way, Las Vegas had slipped into the same corrupt, hypocritical posture that had afflicted all those communities our founding fathers fled during various gambling diasporas. What had been so refreshing about Las Vegas — at least in theory — was the fact we didn’t pretend gambling wasn’t part of human nature. We used it, taxed it, and yes celebrated it. But we didn’t try to hide it.

  Instead of respecting the special nature of the business in relationship with the community, we have seen Gaming Inc.’s biggest players push successfully to soften regulations as they have traveled to the farthest reaches of the planet to open up new resorts. In that way, they have set themselves up for an inevitable backlash. Now that the recession has hit us, I expect that one of the big stories of 2009 will be the increased scrutiny and criticism of Gaming Inc.

  In our way, we have exported our version of “civilization” to areas thought to be considered backward. Saint Mark of Missouri warned about that kind of arrogance many times.

  “Shall we? Shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest?” Twain wrote in the North American Review in 1901. “Shall we bang right ahead in our old-time, loud, pious way, and commit a new century to the game; or shall we sober up and sit down and think it over first? Would it not be prudent to get our Civilization tools together first, and see how much stock is left on hand in the way of Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim Guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion) and balance the books and arrive at profit and loss, so that we may intelligently decide whether to continue the business or sell out the property and start a new Civilization Scheme on the proceeds?”

  He was speaking internationally, of course, and his comment was popularly anthologized throughout Europe. But his comment is as applicable to the global casino industry today as it ever was to U.S. expansionism more than a century ago.

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