|Southern Seen Do not pass ‘go’ |
|Much sociology, lots of fiction, most soap operas, and even a hunk of divinity school study focus on small-town communities and structures. |
Traditional ties holding Americans together are: allegiance to the same flag, administration by the same president, taxation through the same IRS, reliance upon a common language (English), and roots in small towns.
But small towns are no longer our dominant domiciles. Just as did the farms before them, small towns have disappeared, some ceasing to exist altogether and others swallowed whole by expanding urban centers.
Although people have little contact with raw nature anymore, they have not completely lost their ties to nature. The same is true with small towns. People removed for decades from small towns still identify them as “home.” Urban residents born and reared entirely in large cities share vicariously in the small?-town life of which their parents and grandparents told them. Even where there is no memory of small towns, there is often a yearning to live in them, to flee en masse to places we have never been but to which instinctively we are drawn.
Some say this instinct for the small town is biological, some sort of built-in genetic impulse left over from earlier stages of man. Others say the small-town craving is environmentally produced by our exposure to a bombardment of family history, television, magazines, advertising, and Norman Rockwell artwork. We can choose between heredity and environment, but my own explanation for our small?town fantasies is a little more far-fetched.
I believe that what has given so many of us a small?town mentality is Monopoly. Not monopoly as in business, but Monopoly the Parker Brothers game that our parents, our children, and we grew up playing.
Bear with me while I elucidate. Nothing about Monopoly has changed since it was first created. The street names and colors, the property prices, the railroads, the jail and public utilities, the dice, the Chance card rewards and penalties, the rules, the paper money??all are exactly as they were decades ago when the game was created and as they have been over the years in which virtually millions of us have played the game. It makes absolutely no difference to any of us that Ventnor Avenue, Marvin Gardens, Boardwalk, little Mediterranean Avenue, and all the other board sites were actual places in Atlantic City.
What does matter is that Monopoly is an experience most of us have in common. Long after big cities have bulged and broken through the beltways around them, some even through a second and a third beltway, urbanites still think of America as the Monopoly world they pondered long, hard, and often in the more relaxed days of youth, precisely the years of adolescence and young adulthood when real learning takes place. No matter how many detailed city maps we have to read thereafter, in our minds a real town is laid out in precise color?coded rectangles forming the border of a square board.
And to a very large but unnoted degree, most of us live according to Monopoly town rules. We start out in the dark purple of Baltic Avenue with a little grub stake??an education, some help from our parents, a first job??and work our way “up” towards Park Place royal blue. Prices go up as we move on, but with some skill and a lot of luck we stay ahead of the game. Some set?backs inevitably come our way?-?competition and hostile takeovers, IRS fines, an unlucky turn of a die??and progress is never straight or easy for any of us.
Small-town life in Monopoly-town always starts everyone out equal. We all start with the same cash assets, the same pair of dice, the same available properties, the same opportunity for good luck. But in the end, the game comes down to having a single wealthy winner.
Monopoly-board life is very vicious. If we take the Monopoly rules seriously, we cannot make loans, cannot forgive mortgage or rent payments, and cannot let a player re-throw the dice to get a second chance or pool resources and form a company with another player. There is no place for charity or softheartedness; no churches occupy any of the rectangles; no ethics of cooperation is allowed to mess up the neatness of strict observance of the written rules and the bloodiness of ruthless survival of the fittest.
For twelve years from first grade through high school graduation, I played Monopoly with pretty much the same people. After the first year or so, the game became Monotony because the rules were so rigid and because only one of us could win. So we gradually changed the game. We invented Monopoly-morality. We found ways to sneak money to players short on cash. We made rules that allowed a busted player to re-enter the game. We decided never to let a game end, and thus made it possible for everyone to win.
We don’t get a morally good community — large or small — without intentionally creating it as we go along, nor without working together for it. Somewhere between everyone getting to start out equal but only one person winning is an alternative and better game. This is the game with ethics in which, despite inequalities of luck or cunning, everyone wins — by getting to stay in the game that no one ever wins.
We are a nation of small?town mentalities —Thornton Wilder’s Our Town — sharing the memory of playing Monopoly. But beyond that, we are also held together by having invented a second, and higher, set of rules: a morality that makes us winners by keeping our playmates from being losers. We improved the game by caring and sharing.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org Published in The Messenger 10.15.07