In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part Three)

Death row and a brothel in Las Vegas; a pilot's lecture on creationism; genealogy and the Mormons; higher learning in Austin; a gun show in Fort Worth; and the rain-struck opening of the Clinton Library

Between the plague and cholera it's never easy to choose. And it's clear that when we contemplate the horror of Priscilla Ford's case, when we're faced with this hopeless scandal—the fact that thirty-eight states, including Nevada, maintain the death penalty—all other debates over the American prison system seem almost frivolous. Still, there are, at times, degrees of evil. And I fear that with this debate about privatization, with the very existence of prisons subject only to the logic of money, we have taken one more decisive step on the path to civilized barbarism.

The Law of the Brothels
From the archives:

"The Biggest Pimp of All" (January 1977)
The oldest profession predates history, and laws designed to subdue it have rarely proved effective. By Elizabeth and James Vorenberg

For brothels you have to leave Las Vegas and Clark County. You have to head west, toward Death Valley. Leave Blue Diamond and its mines on your right. Go to Pahrump. Pass Pahrump's castle-shaped Kingdom Gentlemen's Club and Madam Butterfly's Bath and Massage Parlor. Leave the town. Get lost. Come back. Ask your way from a bunch of kids playing in front of a billboard that in the middle of the desert is advertising an edition of the Bible. Ask your way again farther on, opposite the Green Valley Grocery, from a group of mothers stocking up on Coca-Cola and not the least bit surprised at having to provide a stranger with directions to the nearest brothel. Take a left. Pass a bar that seems to cater to war veterans, a motel, an antique shop, all perched on loose gravel. Look for the "guns and supplies" store the moms happened to mention. Then the South Valley Baptist Church, near a horse pen. Emerging from a steep slope, a rocky moonscape bleached by the sun, arrive at a crossroads where I'd swear no one ever passes but where a man is standing, holding a sign he has scribbled: Vietnam vet, no work, no food, God bless! With his long gray hair, his emaciated face, his dusty T-shirt, he has the eerie, almost alien look of a survivor from another world that poor and homeless people in these youth-elixir-drugged lands of California and Nevada end up acquiring. And finally, about 500 feet farther on, in the middle of nowhere but firmly within Nye County (which of all the counties in Nevada that tolerate prostitution is the closest to Las Vegas), you come upon a pink-and-blue kiosk marked Tourist Information, Shirts, Hats, Souvenirs; a billboard boasting the inevitable World Famous Historic Brothel; and then—as incongruous as the Eiffel Tower in the middle of a savannah—a house like Snow White's divided into a saloon on the right, with the sign Longhorn Bar, and a bizarre façade on the left, decorated above with windows in pastel colors and at ground level with three garishly painted murals. The murals reproduce lifelike scenes supposedly taking place on this very site: a John Wayne double pushing open in a manly way the door that I myself am about to push; another man leaning imposingly on the counter of the bar I'm about to enter; and a cowgirl, daydreaming, very much an icon of the Eternal Great West, posing on a fence identical to the one I'm passing through.

Walk through the Longhorn Bar, where a sign informs you that Ladies are always welcome.

Pause in front of a TV that's showcasing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, whose message is that whores are good little girls too.

Express surprise to the manager that no one's here, and get told that the bar, like the brothel, has its peak hours later on, when customers arrive from Las Vegas.

Finally, step into the brothel itself, the Chicken Ranch—thus named because during the nineteenth century, at its original location in Texas, the neighboring ranchers paid with chickens. It has a concealed door, falsely mysterious, imitation of a hotel hallway, phantom of the "lush" Duk Duk Ranch where Quilty takes Lolita and has her perform "filthy, fancy" deeds; through the door is a seedy lounge, upholstered in burgundy velvet, where a wheezing electric system is triggered whenever a client enters, and a theater curtain is raised, revealing a mirrored wall.

There are four of them—not as young as the lap dancers I saw in Vegas, not as sexy. A touch of the country girl, with permed hair, rosy rustic features, flesh squeezed into corsets you can make out beneath the flounced dresses. One after another they curtsy, pull in their stomachs, wriggle, and smile.

Of the four I choose the least pathetic one. Follow her to the end of another hallway to a bedroom hung with makeshift drapes, which she proudly tells me is decorated "like a harem."

Notice surprise in her eyes, a glint of fleeting fear, and then indifference when she understands that I have come not for that but for a magazine, Tocqueville, sex in America, and so forth.

And still, in the meantime, store up impressions and information.

Next to the bed is a message board like the temperature charts in hospital rooms, where every other week the results of venereal-disease and AIDS tests are written. The brothel is a sanitary place.

On the bedside table, conspicuously displayed, a choice of condoms, the use of which is required at all levels of service, down to and including, she gravely explains, a mere striptease. The brothel is a place of safe sex.

Presented by

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a writer and philosopher who lives in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Barbarism With a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and War, Evil, and the End of History. This is the third of several articles.

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