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|The true nature of national identity|
Ushio - April 2005
Where does the essence of a country´s identity lie? Recently, I came to ask myself that question because I paid a visit to Las Vegas, for the very first time.
I have visited many American cities on many occasions, but have never had the luck to visit Las Vegas before. And yet for some people it is the first place they visit in America, thanks to the lure of tourist offers. Moreover it also represents in some ways a caricatured essence of the United States: a place where everything is bigger and brasher than elsewhere, a place where an individual can reinvent himself, being whatever he wants to be, a place where greed and the capitalist motive reach their ultimate expression.
In some ways, I was given the perfect essence of Las Vegas as soon as I arrived at the airport. I was collected by a driver who was a perfectly groomed man in his 50s, the epitome of self-reinvention, having probably arrived in the middle of his life from any number of other places in America. We talked a little about Las Vegas and the fact that it was my first visit. So he chose to tell me where he thought I should go while I was there.
His answer was even a caricature of Las Vegas, itself a caricature of America. Las Vegas is a sort of adult theme park, an artificial creation. And my driver was convinced that the place I really needed to see was a hotel called The Venetian. It is amazing, he said; "it is an exact replica of Venice," he claimed. How could a hotel actually be an exact replica of a whole, messy if beautiful, city, I asked myself? He went on to show what he meant. "When you go into the lobby," he said, "look up at the ceiling. You´ll be in the Sistine Chapel itself."
Well, we snooty, know-it-all Europeans can´t help but laugh when we hear something like that. After all, the real Sistine Chapel, as painted by Michelangelo, is in fact in the Vatican City in Rome, not in Venice at all. But what my driver meant was arguably something less literal but rather bigger than that. He meant that the feeling you get when you enter the Venetian is, in emotional terms, something like the feeling you might get when you enter the real Venice. It doesn´t matter that it is fake and not an exact replica. The emotions, the awe and sense of beauty, are the same.
I´m not entirely sure that I accept that notion. To me, the thrill of arriving in a boat, crossing the lagoon of Venice and approaching that amazingly beautiful city, is not something that can be reproduced by a few scenes in a hotel in the Nevada desert. And yet there is something to what he says. Theme parks do seek to distill the essence of an experience. They don´t reproduce it exactly, but by exaggerating it and accentuating it they nevertheless seek to reproduce a faithful impression of it.
I am no fan of theme parks. But as a magazine editor I do a similar thing whenever I publish a cartoon, a caricature by The Economist´s brilliant cartoonist, Kevin Kallaugher. What cartoonists do is to distort the truth about a politician or other public figure, accentuating some of their features in order to create a sort of new reality, a new truth, about them. By emphasising Bill Clinton´s lips and chin, or George Bush´s rather monkey-like face, our cartoonist tries to show the reality of the man even as he distorts the truth.
This is pretty much the same thing as the so-called "gonzo" journalism pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson during the 1960s and 1970s. Thompson, who shot himself at his Colorado ranch last month, practised a journalism which was invented yet intended to convey an accurate picture. His writing, whether in his famous book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" or his magazine articles, was a species of fiction: it derived from his imagination, not from factual research or reporting. But it was intended to convey an accurate picture of his subject-matter, just as an Impressionist painting seeks to bring out the truth through dots and brush-strokes.
That too is what Las Vegas does, just as in other theme parks for adults, whether in Japan or in Europe. It is wholly artificial, a place of the imagination, whether the imagining is about Venice, ancient Egypt (a hotel called Luxor) or about gambling itself, in the extraordinarily large casinos of Vegas hotels. That artificiality is today accentuated by the advertisements used to promote the city: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas", they say, meaning that you can enjoy yourself, be whoever you want to be, without consequences in your real life.
So is Las Vegas an accentuated, caricatured version of America, or is it an escape from America? Certainly, it is not typical of the United States. The highly religious, puritanical character of early America in the 18th century still exists strongly, a fact shown by the drift of American politics towards conservatism during the past two or even three decades.
The America of George Bush and his supporters is not that of Las Vegas. George Bush is a new puritan, a redeemed individual who used to drink heavily, take drugs and generally raise hell as a young man but who then got a grip of himself at a later age and turned himself into the quite puritanical, family man that he is today. Las Vegas is not what you find as you drive across the heartland of America, be it Wyoming, Iowa, Nevada or Mississippi. What you find is more like George Bush.
Yet the truth is that the spirit of redemption, of being born again, is not all that different from the spirit of Las Vegas. Anything can happen in Vegas, as the adverts indicate, just as the spirit of America is that anything can happen in America: you can be who you want to be, achieve what you want to achieve. The reality of Vegas, with its gambling, its sex industry and its theatrical shows, is not in any way an exact replica of America. Yet it does, as if in a caricature, bring out an essential feature of the national identity, the national idea of reinvention, that is America.
To grasp it, it is best if Las Vegas is not the first you see of the USA. But if you see it having already seen something of the country that it caricatures, then I think you will see something of the essence of the country´s national identity. Many Americans will probably hate me for saying so. But it is true.