IN THE DARK DAYS following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, several prominent cultural critics declared the “end of the age of irony.” Humor, as it was being practiced at the time, was dead, they concluded. After 9/11, being serious and sincere were deemed the only legitimate paths forward. Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair magazine, predicted a “seismic change,” saying that “things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear.”
Well, as you know, that didn’t happen. And now, as we prepare to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in a few months, the “fringe and frivolous” — think TikTok — often are the dominant threads in our culture.
Consider a more recent moment. After the horrific massacre of concertgoers in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017, members of the community came together in support of the victims and first responders, donating money and supplies, and rallying around a slogan, “Vegas Strong.”
It was perhaps never entirely clear to many Las Vegans what “Vegas Strong” was intended to mean. But the sentiment in those early days suggested a movement toward a more caring and compassionate Las Vegas. This was certainly true of the emergency personnel who worked tirelessly to save the victims of a maniacal gunman. But the notion that Las Vegans would collectively adopt a kinder and gentler approach to their daily interactions in the community went out the window mere days after the shooting. Soon enough, the usual subset of Las Vegans resumed their me-first, screw-you disregard for fellow motorists, customers and neighbors.
These, of course, are fairly recent examples of the phenomenon. Taking a bigger step back in time, remember that what we call World War I was known for a while as the “war to end all wars.” But then, 20 years later, we had another one.
Returning to the present day, we are dealing with a pandemic that has killed more than 3 million people worldwide and counting. Not surprisingly, predictions that the pandemic will spark dramatic cultural change are flying fast and furious. That this onslaught of wishful thinking has no historical or scientific basis appears not to matter.
The truth is, based on history and human nature, it is much more likely that most things are going to snap back to how they were before the pandemic. It’s already happening.
Let’s explore a few of the frequently mentioned predictions for cultural change:
HANDSHAKES: Some experts have predicted the end of the handshake, but what exactly is this based on? Because Dr. Fauci thinks it would be a good idea to bump elbows instead? Get real. People hate bumping elbows. It’s weird. The handshake, which dates back, at least, to the ninth century B.C., will return. It already has for many vaccinated folks. And the hug will return as well, and, in some cases, even the double cheek-kiss. Humans are social animals and creatures of habit.
MASKS: Widespread mask-wearing during the pandemic has significantly reduced our chances of catching the coronavirus but it has had a side benefit as well: It all but eliminated the traditional winter flu season, and people contracted a lot fewer colds and coughs as well. But will it be the “new normal” for people to wear masks in public spaces? Seems highly unlikely. Most of us hate wearing masks, and as soon as they are no longer required or expected, only a small percentage of us will continue to use them. Keep in mind, too, that people in wide swaths of the country never wore them much in the first place.
WORKING FROM HOME: The demise of the office has been widely forecast. This is nonsense. Sure, in some industries and in some types of jobs, people can work from home effectively. But this was already happening before the pandemic. And for many others, we want to return to the office. We want to see and interact with our co-workers, and collaborate without having to agonize over Zoom lighting or whether the dog is going to have a barking fit during a serious conversation.
Will office dynamics change? Probably, because they are always changing. As commercial real estate executive Michael Gochman noted, “Office space is always reinventing itself every half decade or so. However, what has never changed is the physical presence of workers occupying the office.” Most bosses eventually will call most everybody back to the office, and we will go on as we were before.
MOVIE THEATERS: Some have predicted the demise of the movie theater, but this is just silly. Of course movie theaters are going to survive the pandemic. One of the biggest growth periods for moviegoing was the 1920s — right after the last pandemic. People like to go to the movies, especially to see blockbuster films that explode off the big screen. We still crave the experience of witnessing something thrilling, scary, or gut-wrenching together.
A Reuters reporter quoted Chloe Zhao, Oscar-winning director of Nomadland, on this point: “For 300 people to laugh and cry at the same time, strangers, not just your family in your house, that’s a very powerful thing.”
It’s true that some movie theaters may never reopen. But whatever decrease in theater-going the industry will see was already happening before the pandemic, in part because of bigger television screens and widespread streaming, in part because the studios were on a losing streak of producing must-watch movies. But many theaters already have reopened this spring and more plan to do so soon. A backlog of blockbusters is going to draw people out of their houses. The key factor for theaters, as it has always been, is whether Hollywood is producing movies we want to see.
CONCERTS: See above.
RESTAURANTS: Many restaurants were hit hard by the pandemic, in part because they were unwilling or unsuited to pivot to takeout and delivery. Thousands of restaurants likely will not reopen as a result. This is unfortunate, but it is wrongheaded to think that others won’t step up to take their place. Even before the pandemic, the failure rate for restaurants was extremely high. There are always more entrepreneurial types eager to take a stab at running a restaurant.
People love going out to eat. It is one of the world’s most pervasive pastimes. Historians date the restaurant as we know it to 1100 A.D. in China. Perhaps the busiest restaurant-goer in Las Vegas is John Curtas, the longtime food writer. I asked him for his thoughts, and he was happy to oblige.
“Humans have been gathering to eat since before the discovery of fire,” Curtas said. “It is as primal an urge as sleeping and sex. Reports of the demise of the restaurant industry have been greatly exaggerated by a media eager to capitalize on worst-case scenarios to keep the clicks coming. The pandemic may have culled the restaurant herd a bit, but nowhere near to the extent the doomsayers were predicting a year ago. Back then, the Chicken Littles were bemoaning a loss of 50 percent of restaurants — in reality, it will be closer to 15 percent. Locally, places are packed.”
The one thing even I thought might go by the wayside after the pandemic was the casino buffet. Buffets, by their nature, are very difficult to keep clean. But alas, the buffets are reopening. Just last week, the Review-Journal posted a story breathlessly announcing the reopening of the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars.
Why is this happening? Because lots of people love buffets.
Lest there be any confusion, I’m a big believer in human progress. We are capable of improving ourselves and our culture. We can and should learn from this pandemic. But I’m thinking about important things, such as bolstering our health care system and becoming better prepared for the next pandemic. This crisis has laid bare gross inequities in our country. While the financially comfortable holed up at home, bingeing Netflix and baking bread, millions of Americans literally risked their lives to keep essential systems functioning. They worked in emergency rooms, factories and supermarkets. They collected trash, boxed packages in Amazon warehouses, and delivered everything to everybody. And too many of them earned subsistence wages, with no hint of hazard pay for their efforts. We are capable of addressing these fundamental problems — but not if we are distracted by handshakes and home offices.
Spin (After Sol LeWitt)
Through July 9
ART THAT TRAFFICS between highbrow and low may not be new, but it’s rarely done with this much fun and panache: For her exhibition at UNLV’s Barrick Museum, artist Yumi Janairo Roth imprinted aphorisms from Sentences on Conceptual Art, a famous 1968 tract by artist Sol LeWitt, onto those signs you ignore as they’re being spun by minimum-wage workers on street corners. Usually dedicated to apartment rentals, insurance deals, or minor shop openings, they’ve been appropriated by Roth to promote vastly different messages: IRRATIONAL JUDGMENTS LEAD TO NEW EXPERIENCES, for example. Or THE ARTIST MAY NOT NECESSARILY UNDERSTAND HIS OWN ART. You can drop in and see the signs at the museum. Better yet, twice a week, you can see them on the streets as actual sign-wielding pros take them out for a spin. Who could help but be struck by the confluence of high art, supposedly disposable consumerist labor, and BANAL IDEAS CANNOT BE RESCUED BY BEAUTIFUL PRESENTATION. (You listening, Vegas?) Upcoming appearances: May 13 at Russell Road and Eastern Avenue; May 19 at Tropicana Avenue and Maryland Parkway; and May 20 at Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue (11a to 2p each day). Through July 9, unlv.edu/barrickmuseum
As you cautiously emerge from the mushroom bed of quarantined home life, scooching closer to discarded Before Time styles of existence, here are some words of guidance offered by the Bleach Improv troupe: “Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta your house?” That’s right, people, comedy is back. Live comedy specifically, the kind you see in a theater the way our pre-Zoom ancestors did. Once a monthly funnybone showcase under the auspices of Vegas Theatre Company, Bleach Improv has retooled itself into a weekly comedy whatchamacallit. Its six members — who’ve been doing this together since 2013 — are vaxxed and ready, plump with a year’s worth of hoarded hilarium. “We’ve performed on Zoom, and it helped scratch the itch,” says troupe member Neil Corso, “but there’s no replacement for in-person comedy.” So make like a tree and get the hell over there. $15, 1025 S. First St., theatre.vegas (masks and social distancing will be enforced)
"Finding the Hidden Gems"
You don’t need some overly clever prompt about post-pandemic stress relief to justify spending tomorrow evening at the Winchester-Dondero Cultural Center listening to “Finding the Hidden Gems,” a classical music concert focusing on women composers. The participants — cellist Moonlight Tran (right), violinist Susan Kim, and pianist Cindy Lee — are all the rationale it should take. 6p, $10, eventbrite.com
"Why It Matters: What It Means to Build Community"
The videos are grim and scarily frequent: Asian Americans being attacked and beaten on U.S. streets — an ongoing, real-time dissertation in grainy surveillance video on the prejudices faced by the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. While that violence isn’t the nominal subject of this panel — it’s about minority communities strengthening their civic ties — it cowls the discussion in an urgent context. How do communities of color “make a home in this country”? For “Why It Matters: What It Means to Build Community,” Nevada Humanities gathers a group of AAPI historians, scholars, and advocates (including Leilani Kupo, right) to talk about civic engagement, voting, and similar fundamentals of the long-term commonality-building that might effectively counterbalance, and, perhaps, eventually banish, the ugliness we see in those videos. 4p, free, register at nevadahumanities.org
Online dance concert
It’s hard to imagine many art forms less conducive to Zoomification than contemporary dance, so it’s a good thing that ReUnited, an online concert of 13 UNLV dance department alumni, takes a different tack: short *films* of each choreographer’s work. So Ashley Vasquez, whose credits include Big Bang Theory, debuts a dance filmed in Los Angeles, while Heather Harper’s “As We Breathe" (with Terrell Spence, right), shot in New York, “addresses the spirit of endurance and perseverance during this significant moment in history.” The concert opens with a watch party and talk at 6p, followed by a talk-back session the next day, and additional online features. $10 per household, unlv.edu/news
Cracking the Rumrunner's Code
Before “crypto” became a prefix meaning “beloved by douchey tech bros,” it usually indicated something to do with codes and codebreaking — as in the case of cryptanalyst Elizebeth Friedman. Browse her Wikipedia entry for the outline of a fascinating life: After working at a think tank delving into the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, she went on to serve the U.S. government as an incredibly accomplished codebreaker during Prohibition and WWII (after which, J. Edgar Hoover hogged credit for her work). Her success during Prohibition — decoding some 12,000 encrypted messages between smugglers and helping send lots of them to jail — is the subject of this presentation by Claire White (right), the Mob Museum's educational programs manager. Smug note for word nerds: Friedman accomplished all this not with a degree in math, science, or advanced gobbledygook, but in English. 7p, free with museum entry ($29.95); themobmuseum.org
1. We’ve got some catching up to do. While on a late-April vacation — and then wrapping up the launch of a special project (see how I did that?) — I missed the opportunity to link to my favorite stories about several current events. Let’s start with Earth Day, April 22, which I loathe as much as anyone else who considers themselves an environmentalist all year. The best piece of media I’ve found for confirming this bias is the PBS-NPR collaboration “Plastic Wars,” a 54-minute documentary that debuted on PBS Frontline in March, 2020, and had an encore airing this week on Vegas PBS. You can stream the film or read the related written pieces any time, and you should. Over the year since it was released, it’s gained a reputation for being the recycling industry’s version of 60 Minutes’ 1996 interview with tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand — complete with petrochemical insiders admitting they promoted recycling as the panacea of plastic waste proliferation that they knew it wasn’t in order to keep sales strong. FOR 50 YEARS. If the film leaves you with a sick feeling about where all those yogurt tubs and salad boxes you’ve put in the recycling bin actually ended up (and, sadly, up a sea turtle’s schnoz isn’t the worst place), then good. You can make it stop by putting those items — and all the others that aren’t actually recycled, despite what the plastics industry would have you believe — in the trash instead. If that ruins your smug satisfaction at making the world a better place through responsible consumption, then, I dunno, maybe stop consuming so much crap wrapped in plastic. And if you want to know what actually is recyclable, visit the Southern Nevada FAQ on Republic Services’ website.
2. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Review-Journal was putting together its latest investigative report on police misconduct, Flawed Discipline. The 6-part series homes in on a particular aspect of misconduct: the ability of so-called “bad apples” to not only escape discipline, but also retire or transfer with clean records and pensions intact. Reporter Arthur Kane reviewed 20 years’ worth of Henderson Police Department’s internal affairs investigative files and turned up some incidents that would be hard to believe, were it not the year 2021 (and were there not video, such as the dash-cam clip of officers kicking a man having a diabetic episode). Horrifying as it is, the story the series tells is unsurprising in a post-Rodney King world. What stuck with me, though, was what’s not in the story; that is, a similar analysis of Las Vegas Metropolitan and North Las Vegas Police Departments, which refused to share detailed records with Kane. Henderson agreed to do so, Kane writes, “after nationwide protests against police killings and abuse.” The irony is, the department that allowed 90 percent of officers with 10 or more sustained allegations of misconduct to walk is also the most transparent. Kind of makes you wonder what’s going on in the other two, doesn’t it?
3. And then, there were the Oscars, an event I’m so obstinately devoted to that I streamed it on my phone while supposedly relaxing at a cabin in the mountains. Despite the consensus that this year’s version was boring and weird, I enjoyed the stripped-down, dinner theater-like show directed by Steven Soderbergh, among others. But you’ve undoubtedly read about all that. What you might have missed, however, was UNR Professor Myrton Running Wolf’s scathing indictment, for Native News Online, of four-time Oscar nominee News of the World, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass (known for Captain Phillips and the Jason Bourne trilogy). The essay’s title, “The News of the World: Abducted and Erased by Hollywood’s White Saviors,” doesn’t capture the breadth of Running Wolf’s diatribe. He uses the specific whitewashing of Native history in News of the World as a springboard into Hollywood’s longer history of erasing Indigenous Peoples from the industry and the stories it produces. As both an insider of that industry and a media professor, Running Wolf sees this erasure as old news of a world that has a long way to go before it can congratulate itself on equity and inclusion.
4. Finally, there’s “the big lie,” as the baseless allegations, debunked conspiracy theories, and failed lawsuits claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump have collectively come to be called. So much has been said about the big lie in the last six months (thanks, cable TV news!) — most recently having to do with its effect on Liz Cheney — that that you’d think there’d be no juice left to squeeze from that lemon. Not so. I found the most insightful glimpse into the soul of the big lie to have come from a completely different story altogether, one about actual election fraud a few years ago in Bladen County, North Carolina: “The Improvement Association.” Produced by the celebrated Serial team, this five-part podcast works harder than any essay or roundtable discussion ever could to understand why people continue to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that a certain type of opponent can only win by cheating. In this case, the opponent in question is anyone backed by a Black political advocacy group called the Bladen County Improvement Association. Reporter Zoe Chace followed the group and its foes for years, doggedly running down every lead from both sides. The resulting story takes the listener from anger and acceptance, through discomfort and finally hope. If what happened in Bladen County is any indication, the big lie might not end as badly as the talking heads would have us fear. Heidi Kyser