The professional is political: on having WPSA in Las Vegas

by Julia Azari We’ve just had the WPSA annual meeting in Las Vegas, which means that for three days, in between panels we’ve seen stuff like the fake Eiffel tower, stores selling luxury goods most academics can’t afford, and numerous bachelor (and a few bachelorette) parties. And lots of gambling. Las Vegas is an unusual city in many, many ways – what does it mean for the Western Political Science Association to hold its annual meeting there? I’ve been proud of my involvement with the WPSA because of the organization’s values and because of the kinds of political science presented at its meetings. One of the WPSA’s strong guiding values is inclusion, and the organization boasts strong sections in environmental politics, gender and sexuality politics, and political theory. Vegas provides, to say the least, a strange backdrop for all of this. With a drought raging in Nevada and neighboring California, hotels on the “Strip” feature fountains and flower gardens. In that sense, it’s an outright questionable choice for an organization that has a strong environmental politics presence. Panels like “Reading Women of Color in Political Life: Lawmaking and Public Office” and “Intersecting Identities: Hierarchies, Claims, and Productive Possibility” make an interesting juxtaposition with the highly sexualized environment of Las Vegas. The town has become more family-friendly in recent years, but evidence of sex work and sexualized entertainment is omnipresent – perhaps most crudely in the cards with pictures of naked women that litter the ground. (I wonder if they discussed this at the panel called “Vaginas, Breasts, and Buttocks: The Politics of Unruly Body”) Vegas is one of the few conference venues I’ve been to – maybe the only one – where the experience of women is actually distinct from that of men. Despite the city’s efforts to provide other forms of entertainment like shopping, and shows where everyone is fully clothed, the Strip is full of images of women as sexual objects. This leaves women – and men who don’t wish to see women this way – in an unclear relationship with our surroundings. At least as importantly, what does it mean for us to support this kind of venue? The third question on my mind in Vegas was inequality. The presence of high stakes games and high-end shopping while people sit outside with cardboard signs was jarring – though perhaps no more than what we see in most big cities. The Vegas strip also provides some positive news on this front. Nevada’s minimum wage is above the federal standard, and I was informed that the tipped minimum wage in Vegas is not common “unlike East Coast states” and that servers on the strip are unionized and make about $13/hour. This does shed a different light on the meal prices in Vegas, which were the subject of many complaints while the poli sci crowd was in town. I complained too, but it might be worth stopping to think about how our affordable meals out are the result of incredibly low wages for servers. Practicing one’s values as an individual is difficult. For an organization, it’s even more complicated. As a discipline, political science has been grappling with this, balancing its commitment to holding the conference in places that treat LGBT citizens fairly with its desire to support the post-Katrina New Orleans (which of course ended tragicomically with a hurricane and a canceled conference). Over the past week, we’ve seen a number of public and private organizations threaten to boycott travel to Indiana because of the religious freedom laws recently passed there. But academic disciplines – particularly ones like political science that study power and society – have other ways to express their values, and to ask questions about problematic choices in social life. Put simply, this is what we do. We don’t have to avoid – we can engage. This is perhaps the most striking aspect of holding the WPSA conference on the Las Vegas strip – the conference center in Caesar’s Palace, perhaps even more than other venues, is designed to remove participants from any sense of the larger context. We spent most of our conference time tucked away in a very nice conference center, in rooms without windows or any other clue about the surroundings that might betray a sense of place. This isolation is always a bit disorienting, but especially so in Las Vegas. The strip might not exactly embody values like environmentalism and feminism, but it certainly highlights the need to study these topics.

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One thought on “The professional is political: on having WPSA in Las Vegas

  1. This was my 13th WPSA and 2nd in Vegas. Undoubtedly it was my last in Vegas; I will never attend another WPSA in Vegas. Whether it was waiting in line at hotel check-in for an hour, being kicked out of a poolside chair for not paying $450 to sit in the “cabana area” (no signs or other warnings), paying too much for mediocre food, being forced to walk through maze-like, cigarette smoke-choked casino floors to access my room and conference rooms, or just feeling sick that EVERYTHING has a price in this city, it’s all just too much. And I’d never bring my family here. I’ve spoken to many other attendees and am not alone in feeling this way. Save Vegas for the NASCAR and porn conventions. WPSA should be above and beyond this.

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