Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Vegas, being visibly human in public may be radical enough.

Been reading this remarkable feature about the orderly, constructive, courteous style that has kept Occupy Las Vegas functioning in relative harmony with local police and neighbors.

Of course this news is mainly a tribute to the effectiveness of the community itself and its leading figures, however self-effacing such leaders may be.

I wonder, though, if it also says something about the distance Las Vegas has left to travel productively toward even an ordinary level of public civil society. Maybe in Las Vegas, it's radical enough to be a full-sized fully human self-directed person in a public space, who is neither wearing a uniform nor providing a service? Maybe that by itself is deliciously radical enough? Maybe that's why the Las Vegas campers feel less tempted than others elsewhere by the cheaper, nastier kinds of defiance?

So, OK, I only have a visitor's point of view on Las Vegas, but I do have one. Feel free to explain why it's wrong:

I worked a week in 2008 canvassing and poll-watching for the Obama campaign. (Why I won't be doing that again is a different story.) The canvassing was out of a satellite office in a mini-mall in a dumpy suburban western part of the city. Our volunteer group was a mix of coastal do-gooders like me and local Democrats. All the locals claimed to be really from somewhere else. Phrases like, "I've lived here for twelve years but I'm from Oregon." Some had been here longer than that, and still they came from someplace else. As if, after so much time, they weren't fully planted in this desert.

Canvassing in suburban Las Vegas means a lot of being the only person on foot in desolate housing tracts and in even more desolate gated apartment complexes. The trailer parks, full of retirees, were the friendliest. Next friendliest were the apartment blocks that were lucky enough to be haunted by gangs of little kids. At least the kids had found each other and connected their mothers in some kind of human reciprocity and kept some doors open during the daytime.

Otherwise basically you met a nice person at a door or you didn't, but you wondered if even the nice people you met ever talked to their neighbors.

A local Democrat, on the drive out to one of those places, said how she'd enjoyed the dramatic Nevada caucuses in January '08 because she'd met so many neighbors for the first time. I could see that.

It began to seem, especially in the poorer apartment complexes, that these spaces were just boxes to store the workers in, maintaining them in stasis with air conditioning, television, beer and pizza, until it was time to take them out again and put them to work. I felt a little that way myself during that week, having rented an efficiency apartment in an extended-stay hotel with uncommunicative neighbors, on a commercial strip where there was no point in stepping out for a walk. I got the idea that "at work" in Las Vegas is where a person becomes engaged with people -- under, of course, the restricted conditions imposed by work -- and everything else is just stasis, backstage, the life of a doll in a box, waiting to be taken out of the box again.

The friendliest household I visited was a home workshop where several women were working on dancers' costumes, the classic kind with ostrich plumes on the hats. The owner there wanted advice on voting rights for a friend with a disability who might have trouble signing her name. Tough, serious, kind, energetic, take-charge kind of person. An artisan, maybe that matters: someone who had the power to turn down business if she chose to. In Las Vegas, that might be more power than most people have. And there she was making costumes, making uniforms...

The notion of a right to be a three-dimensional, un-costumed, un-uniformed person without an imposed facade, whose actions are not explained by a recognized assigned function -- the notion of a right to live life for its own sake -- that's a little bit radical anywhere. But in Las Vegas, it's mindblowing.

So, yeah, I'm not in Las Vegas, I'm not a current witness to what I'm talking about. I'm typing in an apartment in San Francisco. Maybe I'm reading far too much into a few signals. But maybe there's some truth in what I'm saying, one way or another?

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