We all long – unconsciously – to know who we are, and to be seen and acknowledged by our community. And we suspect intuitively, if with trepidation, that in a Puritanical culture such as ours, the way to Spirit must pass through the realm of the sensuous, through the intense, communal experience that Dionysus offers. But America offers us very few ways to go there in a healthy manner. Most of them skirt the edge of addiction.
This longing for intensity drives gambling fever, which is also an alternative expression of our peculiarly American drive to achieve a kind of salvation by attaining wealth. In this case, our opportunistic greed overcomes our Puritan virtues of thrift, hard work and deferred gratification. The anxiety associated with the risk yields to the greater American fantasy of winning. The Puritan heritage remains most robust among Trumpus’s reliable supporters, those who insist on a strictly literal interpretation of a two-thousand-year old myth from the Middle East. But so does its shadow. How else can we explain how rates of gay porn viewing are highest in Bible Belt states?
I have to imagine that many of these people are quite desperate for an escape, if only brief, from their constricted lifestyles and from the furious judgment of their internalized moralities. Perhaps this (along with their open racism) helps explain why their support for Trumpus remains so resistant to reasonable argument. Perhaps the long litany of his crimes, his obvious mendacity, his infantile bragging, his absurd facial makeup, his cruel treatment of minorities and his shameless, misogynistic behavior – speech and behavior that they would rarely admit being capable of themselves – is precisely why they claim to love him. Perhaps having such a venal clown as symbolic head of the national psyche is precisely the vacation in chaos, vicarious as it is, that they can allow themselves.
In any event, the need for a cultural safety valve is stronger than ever, and if America is about anything, it is about identifying markets (legal or otherwise) and providing products to satisfy them.
In the last seventy years, consumer culture has responded by providing an entire city way out in the desert where “anything goes,” and people can briefly drop their corporate or small-town lifestyles and moralities to safely enact the shadow of Puritanism.
So a week in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing city, has taken on the characteristics of a pilgrimage to a protected environment – a sacred space – where one can engage in activity that approximates the conditions of liminality, where “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” – overeating, drinking, sleeping till noon, watching soft-porn stage shows, whoring and, especially, throwing money away. In other words, getting shamelessly, proudly, defiantly out of control.
How often do we hear a recent returnee bragging not about how much he won at the tables, but how much he lost? What talk or behavior could be a better example of (briefly) turning the Protestant Ethic on its side? A real gambler, of course, would never say something like this. Indeed, bragging about how much one has lost is really an indication of how much “disposable” income he had in the first place.
Think of the entire city as a shrine to the goddess of luck, Fortuna, and the god of intensity, Dionysus. Gambling corporations know this very well, designing their casinos to enhance the effects (total environments, constant sounds and flashing lights, no clocks, etc) of what are, in actuality, large public rituals, or more accurately, spectacles that blur the distinction between Heaven and Hell. Perhaps the well-worn association of Vegas with organized crime – the Underworld – in our minds adds to the thrill. But not to worry: the police are always nearby.
America is also supposed to be about the freedom to choose. In the 21st century we have, in a superficial sense, more choices. We can have our safe vacation in chaos (knowing we can return to our normal lives whenever we want) for a week at Mardi Gras, or Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale or Mazatlan, or a weekend at the Superbowl, or a memorable but confidential hookup during convention week in a distant city or a staff Christmas party. Or we can go any time of the year to Vegas.
And, in a most delicious irony, many Native American tribes have got into the act, building casinos and getting rich off our need to vacation in chaos. Now we can get a cultural-appropriation selfie with a Native Princess. And the selfie is proof to our coworkers that we really did spend time, out of time, in some version of liminality.
And of course, we are also talking about addiction. From the indigenous, pagan or archetypal perspective, we are seeking out something so old that it is, in a sense, our birthright. We have been conditioned by thousands of years of communal and initiatory ritual to expect the real thing. We come into the world with these expectations, and something deeply traumatic happens to us when we don’t receive it. Worse, our Puritan legacy conditions us to believe that this wounding is our own fault, not that of capitalist and radically individualistic conditions. So we try, again and again, to achieve some version of it, either in substances, in ideologies (religious or political) or in extreme experiences. And when the high wears off, we try again.
We are talking about the Indigenous Soul and its longing to immerse itself in genuine, communal, transformative ritual, under the guidance of authentic elders, the actual “masters of ceremonies”. And when we are deprived of the real thing, our hunger for authenticity drives us toward alternatives, unsatisfactory as they always prove to be. But they really are, it seems, better than nothing. Our cliché – “What happens in ___ stays in ___” is an unconscious acknowledgement of the value and the potential of ritual space. As such, it is surprisingly and ironically close to the traditional Wiccan invocation: And now the circle is cast. We are between the worlds. And what happens between the worlds changes all the worlds.
As countless ancient peoples understood, the annual (usually around New Year’s) descent into chaos was necessary for the reviving of culture. The Pagan world and the Indigenous Soul knew that any truth was defined by its opposite, that everyone at some time needed to walk the fine line between two irreconcilable opposites, that chaos was the crucible in which a new, creative order was forged.
Another reason why Americans long for our vacations in chaos is because our legacy of radical individualism in a capitalist economy has made us the loneliest people who have ever existed. Some argue that negative experiences on social media are tied to even higher odds of feeling lonely. My blog series, “Why are Americans So Freaking Crazy?” investigates this theme further.
Another reason for our fascination with vacations in chaos is that we spend so little time taking conventional vacations. As I write in Chapter Nine,
We are the only industrialized country without a national health care system and the only one that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. America is not among the sixty-five countries that offer paid paternity leave, the 145 countries that mandate paid sick leave, the 134 countries that limit the length of the workweek, or the 137 countries that have paid vacation laws. Half of working Americans receive less than a week of paid vacation, a quarter have no paid vacation or holidays, and nearly half of all private sector workers have no paid sick days…
“What do you mean there are no jobs? I have four of them!” The joke ironically describes conditions in a world where capitalism has clearly failed to provide a decent life for a very large percentage of the population. But it’s an old joke, and it pre-dates the financial crises of the past twelve years. Whether by choice or by necessity, Americans have always labored unceasingly, because our mythology and our theology teach us that we, men especially, have no value outside of our productive capacity. If we cannot be winners (or heroes) then we see ourselves as losers (or victims). Furthermore, we are taught, consistently, from early childhood, that just as we succeed only as individuals, we fail because of personal flaws, not flaws in the system.
This was true even when, in the 1950s, both liberals and conservatives shared the New Deal values of limiting the worst excesses of capitalism and taxing the wealthy. That period lasted roughly forty years, from 1935 to 1975, or until the rage of privileged white males boiled over into a reaction against the Civil Rights movement. In simple terms, the idea of sharing the wealth was deeply popular – until black, brown and red people claimed their share of it. A reactionary period (much of its legislation passed, by the way, under Bill Clinton) set in that has lasted another forty years, and it has swept away most of the gains of the New Deal. Now, it seems clear that Europeans work to live while Americans live to work.
On average, Americans work nine weeks longer per year than Europeans. Our vacations, if we get them at all, average two weeks, compared to 5-6 weeks in Europe. Forty-three percent of us did not take a single week off in 2007, and only 14% will take a vacation of two weeks or more this year. In 2010 we spent 40% less time with our children than we did in 1965. The American Dream emphasizes independence; yet only one working American in thirteen is self-employed, compared to one in eight in Western Europe. We relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.
Is it any wonder that as a nation we continue to perceive immigrants and the poor (and people of color, who in our mythology, are the same thing) as being lazy, that we hold them in such contempt and are willing to allow our government to treat them with such callous brutality?
Or that we feel so attracted to their seemingly carefree lifestyles? The old word, popular in the 1920s, was “slumming.” For more, please see my blog series The Myth of Immigration, especially Part Six.
Such cultural projections accuse the poor of inability or disinterest in delaying gratification. To the Puritan consciousness, this is the greatest of sins, and it surfaces in odd circumstances, such as in accusations of “permissiveness.” The moral censors are particularly horrified when their own children threaten to pollute their “family values” by bringing bad habits back from Spring Break. In the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives blamed Dr. Benjamin Spock for the perceived disorderliness of young people, many of whose parents had been devotees of his book Baby and Child Care. They referred to the rebellious youth of that era as “the Spock generation,” and made sure that future educational standards would reverse that trend.
Continue to Part Three of this essay here.