Life on Earth Deserves to be Lived in Vegas

I was sinning in the shower this morning, thinking about the six Tony
nominations this past season for Arthur Miller's revival of The Crucible
on Broadway. What is there about America that craves witch-hunts? Damned
if I know.

And I was wishing I was in Las Vegas, "the city that has re-discovered
Sin,"
according to all the Eastern prudes who so gleefully point out that Sin
City
has
stopped pandering to families and brought back the female nude under neon.

I started thinking about Stephen King, when my epiphany told me that
Stephen
King is an all-American, born-again Puritan from Maine who would probably
feel
righteously warm if he were burning witches outside the A-bombed Venetian
Hotel and Casino.

In print, anyway.

Here's a guy, the gaudiest writer of Gothic anxiety alive, whose novels
made
up
one-fourth of all the books published in the 1980s, who is the embodiment
of
all
those hatreds from those who find city life and the devil partners in
sin.

And the devil is always a merchant of Sin.

Consider Needful Things. You can get everything you want at a
store that the Devil himself owns and operates. Consider Salem's Lot,
a town taken over by vampires. Salem, of course, is a corruption of Jerusalem.
A Holy City taken over by bloodsuckers?

Consider The Stand, where the Apocalypse takes place in Las Vegas,
the Devil's henchmen get nuclear-fried at their headquarters -- in a casino
penthouse.

Now, I love Las Vegas. Vegas is noisy and brash. Over the clanging of
the
bells of the slot machines, the babble of languages in the restaurants,
the
twelve
lanes of vicious traffic outside on the Strip, now and again I can hear
the
screams of the lunatics on the rooftop roller coaster at New York New
York.

Slot machine cups are everywhere, but good luck trying to find a clock
or a
drinking fountain anywhere. Everyone in the world knows that there are
no
clocks in casinos. But nobody can find a water fountain, either. Water
is
precious in the desert. That's why, when it rains in Las Vegas, drivers
forget
how to drive and smash into each other.

Not that we should sweat rain in Vegas, either. Last week a three month
dry
spell was ended when McClaren International Airport in Las Vegas received
one-five hundredth of an inch of rain overnight.

Remember that silly ol' bumpersticker: Everybody Smokes In Hell?

If you smoke, puff away in Las Vegas. Unlike most of America, ashtrays
are everywhere in Las Vegas. You can take them with you when you go, too.
Every souvenir shop has personalized ashtrays for sale. You can buy a
silly one that says "Butch's Butts." There are the ashtrays
in stalls in public restrooms. At the Luxor Hotel, you can hunker down
in the public euphemism, smoke a ten-dollar cigar and listen to Cher reverberating
"I Believe!" on the hotel's in-house music system.

Life doesn't get any better than this.

Thirty-five million visitors agree every year.

Welcome to Sin City!

And if you remember earlier this year, the United States and the FBI
was warned by an Arab-American businessman that he overheard unknown terrorists
speaking in Arabic on his cellphone that they were going to attack and
destroy Las Vegas on the Fourth of July.

After all, Las Vegas was Sin City, USA.

Las Vegas deserved to die!

We all know the story. The city is the center of corruption, of alienation,
of sorrow and sin. City life means the loss of freedom and innocence.
The individual is corrupted. The city itself, to some "puritans,"
is the cause of human decadence.

The Puritans who came to America almost four centuries ago wanted to
Purify
the Church of England. Before they came here, they went to Holland, but
left
because the Dutch were too much tolerant of all religions.

The Puritans jumped onto the Mayflower and tried to create a Utopia in
the
New
World. They wanted "the city on the hill," a religious utopia
where "church
and
town" were one.

This theocracy (i.e., "the right and perfect way") led to the
"visible
saints," who
were those city selectmen who owned the most and the best land. City taxes
paid for the churches. The "free men" of the community were
adult males who
attended church; they choose not only the ministers and the ministers'
salaries,
but elected all the city officers. Meanwhile non-Puritans made up 80%
of
the
settlements. By the way, Puritan ministers could buy slaves; slaves were
a
sign
of the church's prosperity. All utopias are not created equal.

The bad rap about sinful cities by puritanical religious fanatics began
over
three
thousand years ago as a revolt against "urban" civilization.
Remember
Joshua
and the city of Jericho. The walls came down on that first city of 2500
people in
1200 BC. The trouble should have been seen. After a half-million years
of
hunting and gathering, the new concept of City life had to meet some kind
of
cultural resistance.

The Old Testament is rife with anti-city feelings. Look what happened
to
Sodom
and Gomorra. You have to travel up to King David's time before you see
the
city
being portrayed as royal and priestly and urban.

To the ancient Egyptians the god Osiris was the King of all Egypt and
all
the
pharaohs ruled in his name. Ancient Egypt was the first nation-state and
thus
Osiris was ruler-god of that nation-state and all its peoples. He is
generally
depicted carried a shepherd's crook and a farmer's thresher. He ruled
over
the
farmer and the shepherd.

Cain was Adam's eldest son. He was "the tiller of ground,"
while his kid
brother
Abel was "the keeper of sheep." Cain killed Abel. Think of that:
the
farmer killed
the shepherd.

The Israelites were semi-nomadic tribes. Even the capital Jerusalem was
not
founded by the Israelites. The Canaanites were the original inhabitants
of
Jerusalem. King David drove them out, and then the Hebrews took it over.

In any semi-nomadic society, the shepherd is always the underdog. After
all, the
farmer has already settled near the best watering holes, and his needs
for
irrigation are in conflict with the needs of the wandering herdsman.

Even more interesting is that after Yahweh punishes Cain by branding
him and
sending forth into the wilderness, Cain is credited with creating the
first
city
Enoch. In essence, Cain becomes the prototype of the sedentary
city-dweller,
and with that is born the Judeo-Christian-Islamic distaste for urban life
and its
materialism.

Farmers found cities; nomads just pass them by.

Cain killed Abel. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a nomad.

The city is always a threat to the nomad. The entire story of the Tower
of
Babel
is a snide Hebrew comment about the fate of those who choose to live in
a
multi-ethnic, multicultural urban center apart from God. The Babylonians
were
famous as the earliest city-builders, and their ziggurats stood out as
skyscrapers
on the flat flood plains. (Jacob's imagery of a "stairway to heaven"
in
Genesis
28 is derived from the brick stairs that lead one up a ziggurat.)

There is more here, too: The Hebrew word for "Babylon" is "Babel,"
the
native
name "Bab-ili" means "the gates of the gods" and refers
to the area as one
approaches the gates to the temple, and the Hebrew word "balil"
translates
as
"he who is confused." If you worship here (and not where I do),
then you
must
be confused.

Aristotle called the city "a unity of unlike people who come together
to
live the
good life." The Hebrews disagreed, and because of their perspective
we (as
a
culture) tend to view cities as the City of Dis, or the Waste Land, or
the
Unreal
City, or Dens of Iniquity, or whatever slur we can fashion.

As early as Genesis 10:8, the Hebrews mention the Babylonian city of
Nineveh,
and immediately tack on the epithet "Rehoboth-Ir," which translates
literally as
"the wide-streets city." Three millennium later, that description
may not
seem
like much of a derisive epithet, but coming from the semi-nomadic
perspective,
wide streets just can't compare with the desert's expanse. (On a similar
bend,
there is an old Greek fable found in Longus' Daphnis and Chloe about the
wolf
watching the household dogs running loose; for all their proclaimed freedom,
the
wolf still sees the collar around the dogs' necks.)

The Hebrew word "'ir" for "city" is also translated
as "a fortified place,"
which is
probably the first view of the city any semi-nomadic tribe would have.
But
a
fortified wall is the first form of self-defense any city thinks about.
The
locals
want to keep what they have from those wanderers who don't have it.

Those ancient cities had walls that were eight feet thick in places.

To any semi-nomadic tribe, cities are dens of iniquity. They are
materialistic,
hedonistic, pluralistic, clear and definite threats to semi-nomadic values
and
priorities. Cities (and all their earthy pleasures) are a direct threat
to
the
existence and well-being of the tribe.

Part of the Hebrew attitude toward women in general can be seen to stem
from
these earliest experiences with urban oases. The earliest brothels appear
to
have been created three thousand years before Christ in the city of Ur.

Rahab, the prostitute who aids Joshua's assault on Jericho, lived inside
the
walls of Jericho; her brothel was inside the walls of Jericho. Not only
does this
explain her marginal status in Jericho's society, but also demonstrates
how
Jericho as a mercantile community viewed the Semite rabble that came to
town.

One wonders if the earliest Semitic tribesmen whooped and hollered through
those ancient cities the way our American cowboys whooped and hollered
through cattletowns when they came to town. One wonders about the earliest
forms of police or deputy sheriffs entrusted to keep the peace.

The Hebrews never did gain a favorable perspective on city life. This
can
be
deduced by the general fate of the cities mentioned in the Jewish Bible.
Those
cities include Cain's city of Enoch, Babel, Babylon, Ninevah, and of course
Sodom and Gomorra.

Ah, Sodom! The archetypal city that all the prudes fear and loathe.

But Biblical texts, while universally condemning Sodom, do offer a variety
of
reasons for its wickedness. Sodom in Genesis 19:4 is wicked only for its
homosexuality and sodomy. In Isaiah 1: 9-16, however, we hear Sodom is
wicked because it lacks social justice: "Make justice your aim: redress
the
wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow." Ezekiel 16:45-51
said
the
city had a disregard for the poor, that "she and her daughters were
proud,
sated
with food, complacent with their prosperity, and they gave no help to
the
poor
and needy," while Jeremiah 23:14 simply blankets it with immorality:
"But
among
Jerusalem's prophets I saw deeds still more shocking; adultery, living
in
lies,
siding with the wicked, so that no one turns from evil; to me they are
all
like
Sodom, its citizens like Gomorra."

Ah, yes, the City of Dis, the classic name for Pluto and Hades. Dante
said
rust-red Dis was the home of Lucifer. Imagine that. The devil lives in
the
city.

Yet, in Sanskrit, "devanagari," or the alphabet with which
Sanskrit and most
other northern Indic languages are written, translates both as "writing"
and
"the
city of god." In short, writing itself is "the city of God."

My favorite city name is Istanbul. The name "Istanbul" is Modern
Greek
altered
from the old Greek "eis ten polin," which literally means "in
the city."
You can be
a thousand miles away from Istanbul, and it has no competition.

"Where am I going? Istanbul."

"I'm going downtown."

Istanbul is of course the modern name for ancient Constantinople, which
for
eleven centuries was the greatest city in the world. The Crusaders gawked
like
yokels when they saw it.

The English word "civilization" is derived from the Latin word
for "city,"
while
"environment" comes from the Latin "environs," which
is a description of the
twisted narrow roadways of Rome.

Early Greece seems to have coalesced about 800 BC, when various tribes
evolved into cities-states. The modern word 'political' derives from the
Greek
word "politikos," which translates as "of, or pertaining
to, the polis."
That Greek
term "polis" will be translated here as "city-state."
It is also translated
as "city "
or "polis," or simply anglicized as "polis." Greek
city-states like Athens
and
Sparta were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political,
religious, and
cultural concerns were intertwined.

Aristotle said man is a political animal, a "zoon politikan."

The Greeks had a word for those members of the "polis" who
didn't get
passionate about civic affairs. The word was "idiot." Really.

Alexander the Great established a city at the mouth of the Nile in 331
B.
C.,
primarily because two natural harbors were there. A library was established
there, in the greatest trading capital in the ancient world. It was here
three
centuries before Christ that Hellenic scholars established after long
and
careful
debate the definitive versions of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. By the time
of
Christ the library was estimated to hold perhaps three-quarters of a million
texts.

After Alexander's death, the city became known as the greatest of Greek
cities.
Egypt had become Hellenized. And there were almost as many Jews as Greeks.

Rome was a city that built an Empire. The ancient Latin word "urbs"
which
means "the City" has enriched our English language with such
words as
"urban,"
and "urbane," and even "suburban." To the Romans,
the Mediterranean Sea
itself was "Mare Nostrum," or "Our Sea."

The Romans created "res publica," that "republic thing."

The Romans came to view the entire world as a city much like Rome itself,
where every man (as they defined the term) might enjoy privileges of a
Roman
citizenship. Cities had water and sewage systems, theaters, and public
baths.
The wealthy 2% of the population had villas with central heating systems.

As many as a million people lived in Roman during the time of Christ.
The
city
had as many as 45,000 apartment buildings. But the elite were truly elite.
There
were less than 1800 private homes at that same time.

The Romans were practical people. They created truly "public"
buildings for
the
"polis," that is, specific buildings to handle the practical
aspects of
public
service. Many cities in America have civic centers. That is, special areas
within
the city where all or almost all of the governmental functions are
concentrated
for easier accessibility. The federal building, the state building, the
county
courthouse, and the municipal buildings might all be within walking distance
of
each other. This geographical sensibility was a gift from the Ancient
Romans.

In the Koran Mecca is called the Mother of Cities, and the Ka'Ba is the
highest
point of earth. That it lies in a valley, a hollow or wadi, is obvious
and
does not
diminish the power of the story. No place is nearer Heaven than Mecca,
and
it
has always been viewed as consecrated ground. Feuding and weapons both
were outlawed, and here he who accidentally kills another could find
sanctuary.
For this reason the religious authorities said Mohammed's grave is in
Mecca,
although he was buried in Medina.

Western Civilization's vector has been to follow the sun from dawn in
the
east
toward the sunset in the west. But around the 11th Century the Western
push
faltered, and there was a reversal to the east. The notion of the
pilgrimage was
born. Go to the Holy Land and walk in Jesus' footsteps. But then in 1017
Sultan
Alp Arslan and his Persian armies took over the Holy Land while creating
his
own empire.

In 1095 Pope Urban II called upon his followers in the west to free the
Holy
Land. Jerusalem was the center of the world. It needed to be saved from
infidels. In return, the papacy promised to cut the time spent in Purgatory
for
sins committed and delay any debts owed to the Church.

With that impetus, who could refuse?

Orthodox Christianity defined the issue. Since the City of Jerusalem
was
the
center of its maps, that alone justified the Crusades. The Holy Land must
be
liberated from the infidels. Killing Saracens was righteous.

The Crusades were fighting pilgrimages to take the Cross back into
Jerusalem.
Those who died on the way there or in battle received total remission
of
their
sins. If you retreated, you were excommunicated. Those who won were
allowed
to take all the infidels' possessions.

The First Crusade did conquer Jerusalem. The First Crusade entered
Jerusalem in triumph in July 1099. The Crusaders who took Jerusalem in
1099
burned Jews alive in the Great Synagogue and looted the Temple of the
Rock.
They thought to cleanse the Holy Land with human sacrifice. Any wonder
why
the Arabs called the Crusaders "the pagan race?"

The Crusaders not only took property, but also pillaged all within sword's
radius.
Naturally the Muslims struck back. The jihads, or holy wars, began. The
mujahadins are those who would die in a holy war.

The French Crusaders cried, "Deus le volt!" God wills it!

The Muslims fought back. "Allah Ackbar!" God is Great!

"Lex talionis" is Latin for the law of tit for tat.

The infidels circumcised the Christians.

The religious, being closer to God, always want to the ones who dictate
what
"proper" city life ought to be. In medieval England a city was
not
considered
truly "a city" unless it had a cathedral. In fact, most European
cities
still brag
about the cathedrals they have. These were in most cases public buildings
(i.e.,
public funds were used) constructed for religious reasons. Each also
represents
the highest technology of its day.

A cathedral was more than a church. It represented the only available
schooling. It provided the only social services. Its courts settled
disputes
between neighbors or with town officials. The bells of the church didn't
just call
people to pray; they were the way that the day itself was divvied up.

Cathedrals were town buildings. The town square was the area in front
of
the
church. Your ancestors were your legacy. Individuals' lives revolved
around it.
You were baptized here, married here, and buried here.

The economic impact of a cathedral was enormous. Chartres, for instance,
was
famous throughout Catholic Europe for its holy relics, already a famous
destination for pilgrims. Thanks to its new cathedral, the town began
hosting
four major feasts of the Virgin yearly. Concurrently, Chartres also hosted
four
trade fairs yearly at the same time.

The rise of towns and cities across Europe created a new breed of
individuals
known as "burghers." The term "burgher" is of Dutch
origin, and dates back
to
the thirteenth century, when the first great cities appeared in Europe.
Generally
it refers to free citizens who enjoyed certain civic (i.e., legal) rights
and
privileges. During the Renaissance townspeople emerged as a strong
political
force. The term gradually included mayors, aldermen and other civic
officials.

Medieval towns were devastatingly depressing places, but much of what
we
call
democracy was born during the Gothic Age. After all, cities stimulates
people
who were impatient with the old ways.

Eleventh century German serfs knew "Stadtluft makt frei", that
is, "city air
makes
one free". Once cut from the land, a serf could find a sort of freedom
in
the large
urban centers. If a serf managed to flee to a city and stay uncaught for
a
year
and a day, he was considered freed from his serfdom. (This is the reverse
of
ancient China. There, freedom was in the vast countryside, not in the
teeming
cities.) The secular authorities in cities were proud that they had won
this
right
through legal decisions. "Stadluft makt frei" marks a long series
of legal
victories.

Not that city fathers are usually viewed as defenders of individual
freedoms. In
1867 the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) created a life-size bronze
sculpture entitled "The Burghers of Calais" after he learned
how in the
Hundred
Years War between the English and the French six of Calais's elder
businessmen surrendered their city to the English, led by King Edward
III.
Rodin
does not depict these burghers as heroic warriors, trained to give their
lives on
the battlefield.

Instead, as Rodin explains it:

"I have not shown them grouped in a triumphant apotheosis, such
glorification of their heroism would not have corresponded to anything
real.
On
the contrary, I have, as it were, threaded them one behind the other,
because in
the indecision of the last inner combat which ensues between their cause
and
their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of their conscience."

Dante Alighieri was known in his lifetime as Italy's greatest poet, its
"sommo poeta." He is still one of the greatest poets 700 years
later. In
fact, he
is at times described as Shakespeare's only equal.

Dante Alighieri was a city official and a diplomatic negotiator for the
city
of
Florence, Italy. Florence at this time had a population of 80,000, which
made it
second only to Paris.

The poet was a hardheaded Florentine, what Plato called the "zoon
politikan."
His political party was ousted from office and then exiled. Dante was
sentenced
to death in exile. He never went home. In Canto XIX of Paradise, Dante
remembers that he was "driven from the place I love the most."

Dante Alighieri was an angry, bitter man. Dante was a victim of a papal
land
grab in Tuscany by Boniface, a man who even contemporary historians say
conned his way onto the Papal Throne. The poet was forced into voluntary
exile
and could never returned to his native Florence because his return would
have
meant he would be burned alive at the stake by the pope's minions.

That's why Dante wrote his Divine Comedy. He took the city-state
that he knew and more importantly the rich, famous and infamous people
of that city-state and teleported them into a narrative where he could
posit each one of those people into a framework of Divine Judgment. The
people he liked went to Heaven, while his enemies and the truly wicked
received their just rewards in the darkest, iciest bowels of Hell.

We all would want that power, right?

I want you to go to the hell I imagine in my worst nightmare.

Stephen King speaks for us all, right?

Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy is a vernacular representation
of the theology of the cathedral. It was a road map between hell and heaven
for the illiterate faithful. It is also Ptolemaic; that is, the earth
is the center of the theological universe. The universe exists for Humanity.
And Man is next to God.

The city of Florence, Italy, with a population of 400,000, is visited
by
five million
tourists each year. They come to visit the birthplace of the Renaissance.

In 1282 Florence, Italy, became the center of the world of money, a position
the
city still held through most of the Fifteenth Century. The gold Florin
minted in
Florence was the standard currency of the times. Said to contain exactly
24
carats of pure gold, it was accepted from North Africa to the North Sea,
from
Great Britain to Constantinople. The gold florin was first minted in 1252,
the
same year the Inquisition began to use instruments of torture.

Italian bankers followed the coins; they knew the trade secrets that
were
compound interest and double-entry bookkeeping. The Italian word "banco"
means "table" and most early banking took place over small tables
in urban
marketplaces. Curiously, counterfeiting was closely tied to witchcraft;
remember
the alchemists who could turn lead into gold are no different than
counterfeiters
turning lead into imitation florins. Those caught counterfeiting the florin
were
burned at the stake, like any heretic.

With money comes greed, and the Renaissance was no different that any
other
time in history. Dante, by the way, called the gold florin, "that
cursed
flower" that
changed Pope Boniface VIII "from the Shepherd to the wolf."

Florence was the most progressive city in Italy, too, primarily because
of
its
governing body. Theoretically, a representative body ran the city of
Florence. In
truth, Florence, like the other city-states of Italy, were run by ruling
families. An
oligarchy is a small group of businessmen. The most famous (perhaps
infamous) family of Florence was the Medicis, closely followed by the
Pazzis.

The history of the Corleones pales next to that of the Medicis.

These Italian city-states were secular, not religious.

Renaissance Humanism was the guiding principal. The humanists believed
that
the classical learning placed great value on the basic human dignity.
They
also
believed in the Christian notion that Mankind is God's greatest creation.
Lastly,
they believed these two dialectics could converge, be reconciled and be
synthesized. That all human learning can be synthesized. And they
repudiated
the medieval notion that the material world offered only temptations and
evil.
The world, they believed, was from God and nature was both orderly and
beautiful.

City-dwellers created "studia humanitatis," the study of humanity,
or the
study of
what makes us all human beings. It was about the dignity of man.
Renaissance
Humanism believed that Mankind itself is God's greatest miracle. It exalted
human freedom. It recognized the risks but insisted upon the opportunities
such
freedom spawned.

After Lorenzo il Magnifico's death in 1492, the sinful city of Florence
began to
fall under the sway of the firebrand Dominican preacher Fra Girolamo
Savonarola. Other Florentines called Savonarola's followers "piagnoni,"
or
snivelers, as they were given to loud and weepy repentance for their sins.
For
four years, the snivelers threw their most luxurious possessions into
bonfires of
the vanities -- that is, huge bonfires in the square in front of the great
cathedral
-- until Savonarola himself became the vanity that the Florentines chose
to
do
without, and they burned him at the stake for heresy in 1498. The great
Florentine artist Botticelli is said to have joined with the piagnoni,
tossing his
mythological paintings into Savonarola's bonfires in woeful chagrin at
their
pagan content.

In 1497 Girolamo Savonarola was excommunicated for trying to depose Pope
Alexander VI. He died at the age of forty-five on May 23, 1498, in
Florence.
Savonarola was certainly one of the most hated men of his times. When
the
Inquisition turned around and nailed him, he was simultaneously both hung
from
the gallows and burned at the stake in the square in front of the cathedral.
The
Florentines wanted him dead.

The motto of the great city of Florence is "La vita terrena merita
d'esser
vissula"
which translates from the Italian as "Life on earth deserves to be
lived."

If you can't visit Florence, visit Vegas.

Throw yourself under the (Roulette) Wheels of Life.

Why is Las Vegas needed?

It pisses off the Puritans. And the Taliban.

 

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