Broken Windows And Gutter Masks

As we inch closer to reopening America and trying to get back to the way things were before the Great Shutdown, here’s a thought for hopeful business owners, bar proprietors, and restauranteurs: remember the “broken windows” theory.

As long-time readers of this blog know, “broken windows” theory holds that the physical surroundings communicate important messages to people about social order. If you see a broken window in your neighborhood, and after a few weeks it becomes apparent that no one is going to fix that window, you get the message that your neighborhood isn’t as orderly as it once was, and it causes concern about personal safety and appropriate behavior. The same message is conveyed by the appearance of graffiti on buildings, and increased litter on the streets. All suggest a breakdown in the established social compact that will make people jittery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented broken windows theory on a national scale. Everything changed abruptly about a year ago. Many businesses closed during the initial shutdown, and some of them never reopened. There were fewer people on the streets, and many of those who were out were obviously fearful. Neighborhoods started to look more trashy because people who might otherwise pick things up and throw them away were afraid that loose trash and debris might be vectors for transmission of the disease. And all of those bleak visual cues have a compounding, reinforcing effect.

I was in downtown Columbus yesterday, and I thought about “broken windows” theory as I passed yet another gross, discarded facial mask in a gutter in front of a business. I think those gutter masks send a pretty unmistakable message that things still aren’t back to normal or even close to normal — because if they were, the business owner or a cleaning crew obviously would pick up that mask, and any other litter on the sidewalk. If I were a business owner trying to get the wheels of commerce to really turn again, I would go on mask patrol and make sure that the area around my establishment was free of dirty masks and other negative visual cues that might cause people to refrain from entering.

There are still a lot of nervous people out there. Many of them want the world to get back to normal, but they’ve been cautioned and conditioned to avoid risk. Filthy facemasks in the gutter subconsciously communicate that the risk is still out there.

Board Game Indoctrination

Of course, I played Monopoly as a kid.  What American kid didn’t?  And Life, and Chutes and Ladders, and Risk.  They were fun games that everybody had, and a great way to pass the time on a cold and rainy weekend afternoon.  And, as I was moving my little tin race car or cannon around the board, trying to purchase selected properties, work out trades to establish my monopolies, build hotels before everyone else did, and then hope that other players would land on my properties and pay me lots of that colorful Monopoly money — especially those rich gold $500 bills — I wasn’t thinking that basic cultural and social training was being drilled into me with every move.

img_5823But, of course, it was.  Part of the training was just the idea of a game that had rules that you and every other player had to follow, or else the game wouldn’t work.  Monopoly players, for example, couldn’t just move their pieces to whichever spot they chose or freely take money from the bank; they had to roll the dice and count out the spaces and pay for houses and hotels to make their properties more valuable and take their medicine if they landed on Boardwalk and accept getting knocked out of the game if their money was gone.

But while kids moving their pieces around the board might not realize it, there was deeper social and cultural training, too, in the sense of what you needed to do to win the game.  If you played Monopoly, you wanted to buy property, make the most advantageous trades imaginable even if it meant ruthlessly taking advantage of your kid sister while doing so, accumulate every monopoly, drive other people out of business and into bankruptcy, and have the biggest bank account ever.  What better introduction to the American capitalist model of the world than Monopoly?  And you learned about the desired behavioral norms in other games, too.  In Life, you wanted to get that college degree and land on those pay days.  In Chutes and Ladders, you saw that if you landed on a space that showed good behavior, you could climb up the ladder to the top, but if you landed on a space where the kid had broken a window with a baseball, it was down the chute to the bottom.  And in Risk, you wanted to build armies in your corner of the world and then have them sweep across other territories until you conquered and dominated the entire globe.

I thought about the social and cultural aspects of board games when I saw this article about board games sold during the Nazi era in Germany.  When you think about it, it’s no surprise that some Nazi board games would reflect core concepts of the Nazi system.  The games feature swastikas, goose-stepping and Seig Heiling soldiers, and heroic defense of the Fatherland, and encouraged players to plot attacks on the English coast, shoot down Allied planes, or defeat troublesome Jews.  What kid growing up in Germany playing these games wouldn’t be subconsciously channeled into specific, officially sanctioned ways of looking at the world?  And the same is true of the early Soviet Union, which featured games like Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Maneuvers:  A Game for Young Pioneers, all of which tackled pressing issues that the country was confronting in the ’20s and ’30s and indoctrinated the players in the accepted, official view of those issues along the way.  (Presumably people didn’t have to pay for the communist games.)

It makes you wonder what the board games in North Korea, Iran, or ISIS-controlled territories look like.  I’m guessing that, in North Korea these days, they play a lot of their version of Risk.

Air Out Of The Balloon

The story about the crash of a hot air balloon near Luxor, Egypt — an incident that killed 19 people and seriously injured several others — is one of those odd, faraway stories that nevertheless hits home for me.

I’ve never been in a hot air balloon, nor have I ever been to Luxor, where the fabulous Valley of the Kings is located.  But, I could very easily see myself visiting Egyptian antiquities and being tempted to take a balloon ride that would allow me to get a bird’s-eye view of all of the sites.  Such tourist options — like the opportunity to go parasailing in the Caribbean, or go skydiving, or engage in similar kinds of novel vacation activities — are so commonplace that we tend to assume that they are extraordinarily safe.  But, of course, things can go wrong, and if they go wrong when you are in an unsupported balloon a hundred yards in the air the consequences are more likely to be devastating than if they go wrong when your feet are on the ground.

The Luxor balloon was close to landing when a rope got wrapped around a fuel tube and severed it, causing a fire.  The fire produced heat that rose into the balloon, causing it to shoot up into the air.  Some passengers jumped out; others remained helplessly on board as the balloon rocketed skyward, the gas canister exploded, and the balloon then plummeted to the ground.

Ever since I went snowmobiling without knowing what I was doing, and realized that I could easily kill or seriously hurt myself as a result, I’ve been very stodgy and boring about such activities.  There is risk in everything we do, of course, but some risks have to be assumed, whereas others are only optional.    I’m sure that, if I were one of the unlucky tourists on that ill-fated Luxor ride, as the doomed balloon was falling downward I would be thinking:  “Why in the hell did I ever decide to do this?”