Don's diary: Prescott punch floors Las Vegas

August 2, 2002

In Newark airport, waiting for my connection to Las Vegas for a conference on "Rhetorical Democracy: Discursive Practices of Civic Engagement". The airport Tannoy carries a call for Dr Hunter S. Thompson. The author of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas might be able to make a unique contribution to our discussions, but unfortunately his flight is to Los Angeles.

The venue, just off the Las Vegas Strip, is a non-gaming resort. This may be a unique oasis in Nevada. In the room adjacent to ours the annual meeting of a Christian group is in voluble full swing. Our speaker perforce speaks with increasing projection. A resort staff member cuts the sound levels of our speaker's microphone - have the Christians complained that one lone analytical voice is interfering with their communal communication?

An audience member takes the controls and increases the volume, to applause. It may be, though, that the audience is so entranced by the contest that they are no longer hearing the content - not uncommon in rhetorical politics.

Our speaker is kind enough to mention my work. I don't know whether anyone else hears it.

September 11 echoes constantly in conference discussion. At an interesting paper on the use of religious symbols in US presidential speeches, I bring up the question of the globalisation of political rhetoric.

The conferees are almost all US-based, and a question about the differential impact overseas of speech intended to manipulate an American audience startles and stimulates the participants.

But the panel I convene centres on more comparative matters, taking the last UK election as its focus. Conferees are engaged by footage of the Prescott punch, confrontational moments of the Paxman-Blair interview, Charles Kennedy replying to the charge of being a "toadying weakling" on Election Call , and the William Hague Question Time that threatened to break loose from David Dimbleby's control.

It is interesting that a supposedly boring election produced such moments of spontaneous debate and civic engagement.

After the conference day is over the British panellists retire to the Aladdin to savour a job well done. The motion to continue on to a Britney Spears concert is voted down.

There is initial surprise on entering the New York, New York complex and finding whole street scenes indoors, but the impact of similar clever artifice in the major hotels palls. Sitting amid many visual variations, to the background tinkle of people of all kinds democratically losing money, has a limited attraction. A 550-mile round-trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a splendid reality check.

Time to visit another canyon - this one close to Las Vegas. On exiting Red Rock, a sign offers a right turn to the village of Blue Diamond. Who could resist? A few miles further on the sign proclaims:

"Elevation: High; Population: Low; Wild Burros: ?"

Four horses occupy the village green. From behind the library you can borrow a mountain bike. We drink iced tea on the stoop of the General Store, which has a couple of gas pumps, and doubles as the sheriff's office. Community notices advertise the battle to save the town from the depredations of big business, among which is a British mining outfit. The signs in the store once again call the citizenry to defend themselves against the transatlantic foe.

Starting the long journey home, the flight attendant instructs us in the safety procedures before feeling prompted to add "God bless America". This rhetorical politics gets everywhere.

Philip Davies is director, Eccles Centre for American Studies, the British Library, and professor of American studies, De Montfort University.

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