In the novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a future America in which a vast swath of the country has been transformed into a repository for the nation’s pollution. Giant fans are erected along the border to blow the waste away from the rest of the now-pristine nation. In this future, Americans call this place “The Concavity.” In the present, we call it Nevada.
Americans have long thought of Nevada as the place to store our filth, our refuse, our somewhat embarrassing excess. The Senate confirmed this instinct last week when it voted to ship tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, near Mercury, Nev. But the phenomenon is cultural as well as physical: Nevada has always been fenced off from the rest of the country as the landfill for our vice, our cultural pollution. It’s the place to store the things we want, even need, but must confine: prostitution, mobsters, secret government areas for military testing, and God knows what else. Things we hate to love have been stored there for easy recall: boxing, gambling, Sammy Davis Jr. “The government has always regarded Nevada as a place unlike others, fit for tests, experiments, and ventures it would sometimes rather not talk about,” David Thomson writes in In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance.
But it’s not just the government or the outsiders that think of Nevada as an experiment. Nevadans themselves think of their state that way, too. If states are the laboratories of democracy, Nevada is the one we’ve handed over to the mad scientists.
Perhaps it’s in their blood. The first Americans to settle in Nevada were themselves unwanted exports, exiles—Mormons shipped west by an uncaring public. The Utah Territory established for Mormon settlers by Congress in 1850 included nearly all of present-day Nevada. Las Vegas, before it was a glorious Technicolor play-land, was a Mormon colony (unsurprisingly, a failed one). These Mormons were Nevada’s first of many encounters with the national policy of YINBY—Yes, In Nevada’s Backyard.
This sense of Nevada as a dumping ground for the country’s castoffs continued into the 20th century. The nation nodded approvingly as organized crime flocked to Nevada during the three decades after the state legalized gambling in 1931 (or rather, re-legalized it after a two-decade prohibition). Mormons and mobsters don’t have a lot in common, but the thought process was the same: Good riddance. At least they’re not here.
And in what other state would Harry Truman have cordoned off a chunk of land the size of Connecticut for nuclear tests and top-secret government research? To this day, the federal government owns 85 percent of the land in Nevada. It’s partly because of this (because Nevada is the storehouse of our nation’s secrets) that it’s easy for some to believe that an alien spaceship landed in Roswell, N.M., and was shipped to Nevada’s mysterious Area 51. Nevada would be the obvious choice for something the government wanted to dispose of: Just stick it in the attic and hope everyone forgets about it.
The famous Nevadan distaste for government stems in part from this kind of federal meddling, real and imagined. Nevada’s state government itself arrived as an imposition from Uncle Sam. The state came into existence because Lincoln wanted an extra state, to get votes both for his re-election and for the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery. The fact that Nevada didn’t contain enough people to qualify for statehood was conveniently overlooked. That dubious admission to the Union has fostered a still-prevalent local myth in Nevada that Lincoln and the Republicans needed the state’s mineral deposits to finance the Civil War.
While Nevada disdains the outsiders who view it as a moral wasteland, it also encourages the perception. The state’s economy is fueled by Nevada’s special role—it’s the place you go to get what you can’t get at home. So, when Nevada’s vice seeps back out into the rest of the country, Nevada suffers. That’s what happened to Reno, which made its name in the 1920s as the divorce capital of the nation. Other states made divorce onerous, but Nevada made it easy. Just live there for six months and you could chuck your spouse overboard. Famous and wealthy men and women flocked to the state. “Divorce ranches” popped up to care for them during their stay. But as the moral stigma of divorce faded, other parts of the country started loosening their requirements, too. Nevada engaged in a race to the bottom, lowering its residency requirement to three months, then six weeks. By the 1960s, Americans didn’t need to go to Nevada for divorce. They could get it at home.
Now, something similar may be happening with gambling. Who needs Nevada when you can gamble in Boonville, Mo.; in Sioux City, Iowa; in Peoria, Ill.? Perhaps that fear is behind Nevada’s newest experiment, one that hasn’t yet passed: the legalization of the possession of up to 3 ounces of marijuana. Nearly 75,000 Nevadans signed a petition supporting a change in the law, which would need voter approval in November and again in November 2004 to become law. Under the proposal, Nevada would tax marijuana and sell it in state-licensed shops. The vices change, but Nevada remains the same.
If the proposal passes, many will condemn Nevada for its hedonism, for its willy-nilly disregard for the consequences of its actions. But Nevada knows exactly what it’s doing. And so do we. After all, look who’s behind the marijuana initiative: the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group based in—where else?—Washington, D.C.