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

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.

A bit lower down, just at the head of the bed and of the client, a statuette of the Statue of Liberty, in homage to the dear, suffering America honored here by screwing, as it is honored elsewhere by intelligence, business, arts, weapons. Whores are first and foremost American patriots.

And then, finally, her catalogue of services and prices, which she announces to me with the same pride showed by the matchmaker in the Mall of America when she displayed her menu of weddings. I suddenly remember that in the lounge there is an ATM, along with brochures certifying that credit-card payments are accepted. I think of the business cards with mail and Internet addresses, the maps, the cards for twenty-four-hour-a-day limousine service next to a box of mints. I remember, to the left of the entrance gate and its few steps, the ramp designed for handicapped access. Brothel or no brothel, business is business.

Protestant ethic and price list for love.

New sexual order, tests, performances.

Another face of the same puritanism and its obscene nether side.

Creationism, They Say …
From the archives:

"Genesis vs. Geology" (September 1982)
The claim that creationism is a science rests above all on the plausibility of the biblical flood. By Stephen Jay Gould

"There are two theories," the helicopter pilot shouts when I ask him about the geological formation of the formidable Grand Canyon, which we're beginning to glimpse after an hour of flight over a landscape of deserts and dormant volcanoes, dried-up lakes and the Hoover Dam, on Lake Mead.

"There are two theories," he repeats, louder, to overcome the noise of the helicopter's rotors and engine. One claims it emerged little by little, during millions or even billions of years, as it became eroded. And the other claims that all this, all these wonders, these monuments as magnificent as the temples of Angkor Wat, these red and pink rocks you see below you, that formation, on your left, that looks like a Roman temple, this other one, here, look, right here, that looks like a ruined fortress—that all this can't be the result of chance, that it needed an artist, and that this artist is God.

And then, a few minutes later, when we're a little higher than the rim itself, and above the dizzying chasm: "And there are two theories here, too." One says it's the Colorado River that carved the rift over the course of millennia. The other says no, that's impossible: such a ravine, such a colossal gorge, such a clear-cut, perfect canyon, where geologists have found so many amazingly preserved fossils, this scar that runs in one stroke without deviating for 300 miles—all this could only have been produced all at once. Maybe not in one day, but in a year, maybe two, after a cataclysm like the flood in the Bible.

The pilot isn't yet thirty. He is modern. Thin and bright. With his Ray-Bans, his longish hair, his handsome young face and ruddy complexion, he doesn't bear much resemblance to the people I saw at Willow Creek. And soon, when we return to Vegas, he'll confess that he's a Democrat, that he's getting ready to vote for John Kerry, and that he's a fan of "R&B" and "dance-floor techno-pop." But he has just drawn an exact sketch of this phenomenon called creationism, whose importance to the new American conservative thought, regardless of political party, is one of the strangest, most extravagant things ever offered for a foreign traveler to observe.

There was a time when creationists were pure ideologues, content to take up the old arguments of Darwin's contemporaries: How, if man is descended from an animal, is it possible to endow him with a soul and to bestow upon that soul the immortality postulated by different religions? This was the time, 1925, of the famous "monkey trial," when a court in Tennessee found a high school teacher guilty of daring to teach that man and monkey were genetic cousins. It was the era, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, when a number of American states instituted amendments forbidding the teaching of Darwinism in the schools. It was the time, in short, of the battle between faith and science—and the latter was often ordered to give in to the former.

Today the strategy has been refined. It has even, upon close inspection, been reversed. For instead of opposing science; instead of making a stand against the scientific spirit and its methods; instead, in short, of contrasting a soulless science with the eternal human soul and natural theology, the creationist camp has had the clever idea of fitting itself into the adversary's mold, borrowing science's procedures and effects, and also starting to speak in the name of science. That's the story of the scholar Jonathan Wells, recipient of a Ph.D. from Yale and then from Berkeley, who under the influence of the Moonies developed a teleology of the history of species demonstrating that their succession corresponds to an "intelligent design." That's the story of the Moonies in general, who thirty years ago, with the support of the Nobel Prize winner and spiritualist John Eccles, established a series of International Conferences for the Unity of the Sciences, one object of which was to undermine the theoretical foundations of Darwinism. Today an array of organizations use a vast arsenal of diplomas, validations, scholarly communications, and scientific commissions for the purpose of their crusade, worthy of a great modern scientific institution. In seemingly scholarly journals a plethora of paleontologists and geologists—or people who claim to be such—are turning out articles aiming to call into question the theory of the primeval soup, to recalculate the age of Earth and the solar system, to discover the remains of Noah's ark, to date with carbon-14 the fossil-bearing layers, or to discover the "actual date" of the Flood. In the end it's none other than our young pilot who, having returned to the Vegas heliport, explains, with the same self-assurance, that there are two theories, too, about the origin of Earth …

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