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Board game lessons


Board game lessons

Freebies versus virtue in civil society 

Last summer I praised Richard Scarry’s children’s books for showing how everyone in Busytown—Stitches the Tailor, Farmer Alfalfa, Blacksmith Fox, and others—could work and contribute. That contrasted with the chance-emphasizing Candy Land game.

This summer my entering-kindergarten granddaughter graduated to The Game of Life. Created in 1960, it has a lot going for it. Everyone gets married. Most have children, represented as blue or pink pegs. Players also learn that it’s good to buy auto and fire insurance.

Some advice seems outmoded. It’s rewarding for everyone to go to college, since graduates get $6,000-$20,000 each payday, while those without college get a maximum of $5,000. College debt goes unmentioned. Some losing tendencies, alas, gain reinforcement: Get $80,000 by winning at the races, $100,000 by winning one sweepstakes, and $150,000 by winning another. Players can spend a weekend in Las Vegas and collect $50,000. How often does that happen? 

Those life lessons contrast with the central message of Howard Husock’s Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms (Encounter, 2019). Husock shows how poverty-fighters a century ago promoted an American three-self doctrine: self-respect, self-control, self-government. He compares that emphasis on honesty, trustworthiness, and truth with a 2012 social work textbook that turns the spotlight not on what the poor can do but on how the rich “oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create or enhance privilege and power.”

Husock shows how Robert Hunter’s Poverty (1904, republished by Franklin Classics, 2018), America’s first great statistical overview of the poor, emphasized values. He praised those among the impoverished “who are up before dawn … kiss wives and children, and hurry away to work or to seek work. The world rests upon their shoulders, it moves by their muscle.” They differed from paupers “who have lost all self-respect and ambition, who rarely, if ever, work, who are aimless and drifting, who like drink, who have no thoughts for their children.”

That all changed when the emphasis of poverty-fighters became the provision of services rather than the promotion of “constructive norms for personal behavior,” which are “the ethical soil in which individuals and their communities can thrive.” But he doesn’t explain the Biblical origin of those norms.


Theodore Dalrymple’s False Positive: A Year of Error, Omission, and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine (Encounter, 2019) carefully shows what its subtitle promises, and lets us see that prestigious publications often err. 

Shelf Life (British Library Publishing, 2018), edited by Alex Johnson, includes essays about books and reading by Theodore Roosevelt, philosophers Francis Bacon and Arthur Schopenhauer, British Prime Minister William Gladstone, and others. Cultural Engagement (Zondervan, 2019), edited by Joshua Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior, includes 50 essays that can engage college students on issues of sex and gender, human life and immigration, work and politics, art and war, and more. 

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick’s A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (Basic, 2019) is a good book for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of liberalism. The ideology seems strong when we perch high on the ladder of abstraction, on rungs labeled Skepticism, Humanity, Individuality, and Tolerance. But Gopnik’s skepticism disappears when he genuflects before his first “foundational document” of modern liberalism, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Gopnik quotes from one of the signs with rainbow-hued block letters: SCIENCE IS REAL. LOVE IS LOVE. KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING. But he doesn’t deal with the leading indictment of current American liberalism: 60 million aborted babies since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. How is treating human beings as trash scientific? How is it loving? How is it kind?

Some academics will like Cecelia Watson’s Semicolon (HarperCollins, 2019), which praises “the uncertainty that a semicolon permits.” Let’s act toward this generally avoidable punctuation mark the way Lyndon Johnson spoke about economic advisers who told him on the one hand this, on the other hand that. Johnson’s plea: Get me a one-armed economist. —M.O.