Rethinking “Sin City”

What’s in a name?

Sometimes, not much. Members of the band Mustard Plug likely didn’t put more than 20 minutes and six beers into the naming of their horn-heavy coterie. Sometimes, though, the names we assign things are extremely indicative of our cultural leanings and moral alignment. Consider the “War of Northern Aggression”, the south’s moniker for a war that, some 100+ years later, still incenses many below the Mason-Dixon line.

Similarly, Americans routinely refer to Las Vegas, Nevada, by its common nickname: Sin City. The reasons are stunningly obvious as to why. Las Vegas is the nation’s gambling hub. It features a plethora of strip clubs and night clubs. Drugs are easy to come by, even serving as a currency at seedier establishments. And it is the largest city in the only state that has legalized prostitution.

Hollywood has produced many entertaining films detailing the lurid activities that occur in Las Vegas, either in fictional (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Hangover) or factual (Vegas, Casino) forms. Vegas, we acknowledge, is where grown adults satisfy our more craven and unscrupulous desires. It is where we go for bachelor parties and to form the basis of stories that will, hopefully, never be told again. Perhaps the most transparent indicators of our society’s leanings, television advertisements, convey this sentiment and shame best: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”.

As cultures evolve, however, prominent nomenclature must evolve with them. “Sin City” is no exception. For while there by definition must be a city with less moral credibility (however society defines it) than any other, it is not Las Vegas. It is Washington DC.

Let us acknowledge two facts pertaining specifically to Las Vegas. First, that its alleged moral shortcomings aren’t really such outside of a religious context. In an America first settled by Puritans in the seventeenth century, and a culture that held forth various Christian-infused, socially conservative mores, “Sin City” made sense. In the year 2012, it does not. Second, that the very words we use to define the “sins” of Las Vegas have taken on such a negative connotation that we rarely actually think about what they entail. Consider these alternate definitions:

Gambling: The free exchange of the fruits of one’s labor for a chance, albeit low, of earning disproportionately high returns on investment in a short time.

Prostitution: The act of engaging, willingly, in activities with another consenting adult under terms of an explicit arrangement that is mutually beneficial to both parties, at least as they view it.

Drug use: An adult freely consuming a substance that sacrifices their short and/or long term health for an immediate, short term boost in happiness.

That is not to say that any of the above behaviors are admirable, or even desirable. But they are certainly not, by the basis of their content, repugnant. Many adults openly gamble (own stock portfolios, play the lottery) or use drugs (alcoholic beverages).

Meanwhile, consider our nation’s capital. Washington DC certainly does some very good and necessary things. It is inhabited by some extremely selfless civil servants who have dedicated their lives to serving their country. But it is also home to more activities that more Americans would likely consider sinful than any other place in the country.

Lying: Candidates for public office lie to voters to gain power. Once in office, they lie to constituents, to the media, and to themselves. George W. Bush campaigned on a platform of a subdued American role in foreign affairs years before going to war with multiple countries and creating an “Axis of Evil”. His father promised to slash tax rates before increasing them across the board. Candidate Obama promised to never raise the debt ceiling.

Violence: Our government carries out executions of individual enemies without trial. It conducts kinetic military operations against forces that pose no immediate threat to the nation, and does not bother to ask for the people’s authorization to do so. Furthermore, the threat of violence underpins all government actions. Buy health insurance, or the government will forcefully compel you to do so. If you smoke marijuana, the government will violently prosecute you for doing so.

Theft: All taxation is not, as some libertarians would argue, theft. But a lot of it is. Consider the hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on initiatives and programs that only benefit a very small subset or interest group. Are agricultural subsidies and auto bailouts theft? Unless you are one of the few farmers or automakers that benefited from them, yes.

The sins of Washington are more in-line with what modern Americans consider to be immoral. When committed, they directly harm other individuals, and often do so at a massive, irreversible scale. Worse yet, unlike a gambler who feels shame for blowing some money, politicians take pride in their wrongdoings.

Sin City, meet Capitol Hill. I believe the two of you will get along swimmingly.

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