Imagine All the People, Living For Today
It doesn’t take any great insight to know that gambling is mostly vice. Even from my casual participation with it, I know nothing good can result from wasting precious time and money on a guaranteed losing proposition. You can be momentarily distracted from your problems, periodically jazzed by the thrill of the chase, and fleetingly happy over a preliminary profit. And that’s all fine as far as it goes. But over time, the terrible arithmetic of the house advantage begins to add up and it will grind you down. If you’re addicted to the experience of gambling, ultimately you end up poor and tired and sinking deeper into whatever morass led you to the gambling table in the first place.
However, saying that, there is also one undeniable virtue in gambling. One that I’ve not seen present to the same degree in any other setting. That virtue is the destruction of the societal barriers that separate us.
When you’re thrown together with a group of people, huddled around a small table, facing a common enemy (the house), with the common goal of pursuing happiness, the differences that separate people in every day life disappear. All the biggies - wealth, class, race, age, gender, language - they melt away to insignificance.
Before anyone is tempted to nominate me for Humanitarian Idealist of the Year or thinks about getting me a subscription to Mother Jones Magazine, understand I’m not stating this as my utopian dream of what a gambling table should look like. Hell, I’m not even necessarily saying that it’s how I want things to be. I’m just saying that’s how it is.
No matter who else is at your blackjack table (and more often than not, a diverse group is present), you tend to cheer their victories, mourn their losses, and generally wish them well. Whites, blacks, Hmong, Hispanics, the dirt poor, the filthy rich, geriatrics, teenagers, I’ve sat by them all and the experience is usually the same, mutual good feelings and unified revelry.
This doesn’t happen anywhere else in society. At least it doesn’t happen this casually. I suppose if I joined certain social service groups or based the choices of where I live and work with the principle of diversity in mind, I’d have plenty of experiences like this. But since I have more traditional Minnesota values (like not going out of my way to meet anyone I don’t work with or that I haven’t known since high school), it doesn’t happen.
I don’t lead a sheltered life, at least by Minnesota standards. I’ve lived in the dense urban environs of both Twin Cities, where ethnic diversity is a fact and not merely the beautiful dream of Lake Calhoun dwelling Star Tribune editorial writers. In my younger days I lived in some of the worst neighborhoods this area has to offer. Or should I say they were neighborhoods “in transition” (and next time you see that term in the newspaper, understand, that doesn’t mean they’re getting better). And of course, for whatever reason, these are the most diverse neighborhoods in town.
But I’ve never had the easy opportunity, or the compelling reason, to sit for significant time and casually socialize with geriatric Hmong men, middle-aged black women, or teen-aged Indian kids in any other setting. It doesn’t happen in bars, restaurants, grocery stores, shopping malls, or anywhere else. For these undeniably positive experiences, I have nothing to thank but the much maligned institution of gambling.
I’m not entirely sure why gambling results in these interactions. It has something to do with bringing together people who share a niche, non-culturally specific interest. It’s also an interest that has the element of risk and danger to it, thus increasing the bond between participants. The nature of gambling also helps. The games I play (primarily blackjack) aren’t zero sum. That is, someone else’s winning doesn’t hinder your personal chances for success. So, there’s no reason for jealousy toward other players and there’s no imperative for them to lose in order for you to win.
Throw in free drinks, cocktail waitresses in short skirts and fishnet stockings, the promise of a midnight Wayne Newton show, then more booze and gambling, followed by a $2.99 all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and I guess I’m not surprised that everyone is happy and grooving on the brotherhood man.
Which brings us to William Bennett and the real reason his behavior is abhorrent. It’s not the fact he gambles, it’s the way he gambles. As Ken Layne deftly explains :
What sort of lame-ass, anti-social creep would spend millions pushing buttons in the Lonely Department? I enjoy gambling, and I can even tolerate a few minutes of slots if my friends are playing, but real casino gaming is a social event, involving strangers gathered 'round a green-felt-covered table. As a gambler, you meet the people next to you, make dumb jokes about the evil dealer, toast your new comrades' victories, discuss the news and sports of the day, etc.
[Bennett spent] millions of dollars on machines, with no human company beyond the wandering cocktail waitress and the oxygen-tank guy honking quietly a few seats down? That ain't gambling. That's masturbation.