Then there are those more aptly described as “working” the Strip. The ubiquitous costumed characters: Darth Vader, Megatron, a horde of minions from Despicable Me. For a few bucks, they’ll take a picture with the kids; for the adults, sham showgirls will gamely do the same. Then there are the street performers—living statues, sleight-of-hand artists, amateur acrobats stripped to the waist—and the vendors hawking trinkets, temporary tattoos, and (bless them) bottled water. And of course there are the panhandlers whose signs waver between the miserable and the mordant (Help! I need money for pot, beer, and hookers!).
But for the uninitiated, the most striking may be the card clickers, wordless agents of the world’s oldest profession. Prostitution is technically illegal in Las Vegas, but not the meretricious comfort of an “escort,” a service abetted by a legion of Latin Americans, men and women alike, wearing oversized t-shirts that make them walking billboards for GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS, HOT SEXY GIRLS, or, for the impatient, GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU 10 MINUTES. They are not allowed to solicit you, not verbally at least, so instead they snap against their palms the flipbooks of filthy pictures they extend to passers-by. There is an important lesson about Las Vegas in the “services” they insinuate: Even in the 111-degree heat, there are always worse fates indoors.
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A city that works by extremes is an appropriate place to celebrate Ayn Rand—or, more specifically, Objectivism, the philosophy she conceived and the occasion for the conference I was in Las Vegas to attend. Rand made a name for herself writing novels in the 40s and 50s before trying to articulate the worldview they implied. The Romantic Manifesto, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal have never enjoyed the popular appeal of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, but then again, they weren’t meant to. If art, for Rand, was “the integrator of metaphysics,” the precepts themselves warranted description.
Ayn Rand’s intellectual legacy is mixed at best. Anecdotal evidence suggests that elements of her philosophy have made their way into “lit crit” seminars and (a supreme irony) gender studies, and for many years I have assigned her essay “What Is Capitalism?” to my business-ethics classes. Yet, when it comes to “real” philosophers—a designation that, for better or worse, indicates a perch in a Philosophy Department—Objectivism mostly goes unmentioned.
In this respect, Rand’s academic reputation resembles Karl Marx’s. The unfinished saga that is Das Kapital is now essentially ignored by its intended adversaries, the superintendents of an “economic science,” whereas faculties across the humanities still plumb works like On the Jewish Question, The Holy Family, or Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, an effort Marx thought so highly of he abandoned it in a desk.