Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. As part of our Points Bookshelf series, he reviews Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (Sentinel, 2019).
Chris Arnade was an unlikely candidate to write Dignity, an intimate portrait of the ignored communities dotting America’s landscape. His professional adulthood has leapfrogged from elite institution to elite institution: first, getting a Ph.D. in physics from John Hopkins University, then planting himself in Wall Street, at the nexus of wealth and power, working as an early “quant” (a trader)—popularized on-screen in films like The Big Short—for the next several decades.
Tired of staring at screens, reducing complexity down to data points, he expanded his routine walks around safe New York neighborhoods into those considered dangerous, beginning with Hunts Point in the Bronx. Arnade assumed he would find, as numerous colleagues suggested, violence, crime, and prostitution. What he did not expect was to be welcomed. A curiosity at first, Arnade, a white guy carrying a camera, lessened concerns when asked what he was doing there by saying that he was hanging out and taking photos. People wanted him to snap their picture, while others wanted a chance to tell their life stories. Surprised, he discovered self-sustaining tight-knit communities which produced vibrant street art, as well as places filled with fascinating people, like the man he met who worked with pigeons.
The introduction gives the reader a sense of Arnade’s feelings as his certainty about a quantitative view gave way to a qualitative lease on life: “It was three years of seeing just how messy life really is. How filled with pain, injustice, ambiguity, and problems too big for any one policy to address. It was also three years of seeing how resilient people can be, how community can thrive anywhere, even amid pain and poverty. Most of all I ended up finding what is often overlooked in stigmatized neighborhoods: dignity.”
This isn’t another tacky Trump-country book report or poverty porn tugging at liberal heartstrings. It’s more Studs Terkel than J. D. Vance. Its poignancy and clarity originate out of Arnade’s genuine curiosity and concern, his manifest empathy and interest in listening without judgment or ulterior motive. Unlike Hillbilly Elegy, which treats poverty as a cultural contagion, a view even the Business Round Table or Paul Ryan could endorse, Dignity is something else, something different. To begin with, Arnade is a double agent, quick to indict his own class, yet permitting the reader to fill in policy prescriptions.
Arnade divides the world into “front row” and “back row.” The front row, his own class, is steeped in neoliberal ideology, apostles for unfettered economic growth, globalization, deregulation, and free trade. From their perspective, every problem can be viewed and subsequently solved through quantitative analysis. People are mere data points. In their minds, the front row deciding for everyone else was natural, never second-guessed. After all, they were the ones who were educated and credentialed, sophisticated enough to know what’s in the best interest of everyone. In a PBS interview, Arnade relayed how this is worldview is myopic, cold, quantitative, and soulless.
“Front row” America has a deep disgust for the “back row.” He writes, “My circles, the bankers, businesspeople, and the politicians they supported had created a world where McDonald’s was often one of the only restaurant options—and we make fun of them for going there. We pretend that the addicted take drugs because of bad character, not because it’s one of the few ways they have to dull the pain of not being able to live good lives in the economy we’ve created for them. We tell them that their religion is foolish and that they shouldn’t expect to be able to earn a living unless they leave their hometowns. We say the white working class is racist while the policies we endorse hurt the bulk of minorities. It is not surprising some have responded with cynicism or apathy, or rebel in anger.”
The book isn’t about drugs per se, but he dedicates the second chapter to the topic. In it, there is more wisdom and insight than most academic studies published in well-regarded journals or white papers churned out by Washington think-tanks. In the PBS interview, asked about the availability of drugs in the places he visited, he said, “Drug use isn’t a matter of supply but demand.” Demand, as Dignity captures, results from unease, a deep pain festering inside those rejected and stigmatized by our political and economic system. Drugs provided community and comfort to those that “fled abuse, dysfunction, or stigma” in the past. “Many of the hard-core drug users I met,” Arnade adds, “had been beaten, or yelled at, or ignored, or passed from relative to relative or to whoever had their house in order or had a house at all.” Most people didn’t use drugs, but those that did found themselves in a “self-perpetuating cycle of rejection and isolation.” One man, photographed outside a McDonald’s, homeless, taking care of two kids, pushing them around in a shopping cart, revealed he was crashing in an outhouse, the heat powered by an extension cord. The man had stopped using heroin and now took Suboxone, the gold-standard for treatment. Except he bought it off the street from a drug dealer. It was cheaper than seeing a doctor once a month, facing judgment from the medical community, or being monitoring by government agencies once dispensed.
“If you want to understand the country,” Arnade writes, “visit a McDonald’s.” It’s open 24-hours; the homeless can recuperate for a bit, momentarily avoiding extreme heat or extreme cold, to which they inevitably returned. It is a place to use a bathroom, and a place to use drugs without getting arrested. It is a meeting place, a civic center, to talk, find help, or pass the time. McDonald’s provides clean drinking water and Wi-Fi. If you can rustle up some loose change or a dollar, you can buy a meal and not be hungry. Initially Arnade was perplexed to find himself sitting at McDonald’s. He asked why people had not tried nonprofits or public parks. He got two responses: “What is that?” or “They always telling you what to do.” Nonprofits and government agencies came with rules, lectures, and judgment. McDonald’s and places of worship didn’t judge; all customers, like all sinners, were welcome. Faith, like the fast-food franchise, didn’t judge or condemn their life choices.
They were places to find connection, and as Arnade discovered, people were desperate for a connection of any kind: “Most people didn’t ask for money, even the most desperate. Most just wanted to sit and talk with someone who wasn’t trying to save them, didn’t scold them, and didn’t judge them. I tried to do that, often for hours, listening to long stories of wrongs, mistakes, and injustices.”
After finishing the book, now the most highlighted eBook in my Kindle collection, I agree with Matthew Walther who wrote, “Dignity is one of the best nonfiction books published in my lifetime.” It exposes despite gains made over the last few decades, ones that have forced us into the trap of seeing drug use or problems of poverty as quantitative data points that ignore the voices of real people.
Most of all, it exposes how our responses to these problems are inadequate to address the systemic issues we want to solve. Hopefully, books and ideas do make a difference, and a work like “Dignity” can shift the conversation into a bigger, much bolder direction than our imaginations allow today.