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Chris Arnade’s America

Down and out with back row America -- and finding dignity
arnade headshot_photo courtesy of the author (1)

Longtime readers might recall my postings from three years ago, in which I linked to Guardian dispatches — read all his Guardian stories here — and tweets from Chris Arnade. Chris — I can call him that, because he’s become a friend — is a PhD scientist and former Wall Street bond trader who became disillusioned with that life as it all crashed in 2008, and decided to start spending time among the very poor in the Bronx, to see how they lived, and document it in words and photographs. This eventually became an American pilgrimage for him. He began driving all around the US, visiting the poor — drug addicts, retirees, working people trying to hold it together, all kinds of folks — and asking them about their lives.

Chris has now published a book, titled Dignity: Seeking Respect In Back Row America.  You can read a long passage from it here, in The Guardian. Excerpt from that passage:

Three years after I left Hunts Point, after driving 150,000 miles back and forth across the country, I pulled into Portsmouth, Ohio, looking for another McDonald’s. There wasn’t one in the historic downtown, where a series of 20ft high murals on the floodwall against the Ohio River depict past scenes of Portsmouth.

Portsmouth has suffered dramatically since its peak in the 1940s, when it was home to 40,000 people who manufactured steel, shoes, and bricks. Now the factories are mostly gone, and with them the jobs, and it is a town half the size, filling with drugs.

As the factories, jobs, and many of the people left, those remaining in Portsmouth have done their best to keep the city together, hold tightly to the past, and stay proud. That pride is reflected in the murals, a well- intentioned attempt to sell Portsmouth as a quaint place to visit, but they are also a distraction masking a larger decline. The bulk of the downtown area is mostly empty, beyond county and city services, and a few local businesses holding on.

Portsmouth is part of the other world – the world of Hunts Point, where the stories told are about wrongs endured, frustrations that seem truly insurmountable, and a longing for what once was. The anxieties here come from having limited options: My company changed ownership, and there are rumors it will move to another state. With my sisters gone, there will be nobody to take care of my parents if I move. I’ve got symptoms that scare me, but I don’t have the money for the doctor. I can’t apply for school because I’ve got an outstanding charge and don’t want to be found.

In this world the energy is found outside of downtown, and in Portsmouth that is where I find the McDonald’s. It is on a busy road heading out of town, one lined with fast-food franchises, shopping malls, vape stores, check-cashing stores, and auto shops. Anchoring the area is a massive Walmart, surrounded by acres of parking and next to a railway filled with cars of coal. This is where the steel mill once was. Now only a tall, slender smokestack at the edge of the parking lot remains.

The whole book is like this, though Chris goes to very different parts of America — the inner cities, Rust Belt town, the Deep South. It is like a long dispatch from another world. I mean that: it’s another world. A firefighter I know who works in the most poverty-stricken part of his city told me once that the world he sees every night when they go out on calls is so alien that he can hardly believe its America. Little kids in diapers, carrying bottles, wandering the sidewalks at 2 a.m., because their mothers are drunk or high with their boyfriends inside. Things like that. Chances are this world exists where you live too, same as me — but we don’t see it.

Chris calls the people who live in this world the “back row people.” He uses the classroom metaphor to delineate those who are on the fast-track to success in America (the front row people, like himself) from those who were left behind. Chris talks in the book about his own struggle with addiction, which he defeated, and how this gave him a soft heart for those still in the fight. That’s the most stunning thing about this book: the quiet, sympathetic, humane voice of its author, and his fearlessness in the face of radical human brokenness. Many of us — I very much include myself in this — would have seen these drug addicts, these homeless folks, these people who are hot messes in a hundred ways — as people to avoid, because they’re trouble. Chris Arnade walked toward them, asked them without judgment about their lives, and wrote down what he heard.

The title of the book he wrote is Dignity for a reason: because he found that that’s what all these people were struggling for, and to hold on to. Among the most interesting parts of the book are the passages in which the people Chris meets talk about the role of church in helping them to find dignity, and to hold it together. Chris is up front about his own atheism, though he says his experiences worshipping with the poor moved him into the agnostic category. He writes:

The churches are also the way out of addiction, a way to end the cycle. The few success stories told on the streets are of relatives, friends, or spouses who found God, got with the discipline and order of a church, and moved away: “Princess met a decent man who was dedicated to the Scripture. She got straight, got God, and last we heard was on a farm upstate.” “Necee went to her grandmother’s and found God, and she now has her one-year chip.”

This is how it is on the streets. Faith is the reality and a source of hope. Science is the distant thing that doesn’t necessarily do much for you.

Keep in mind that Chris earned a PhD in particle physics. This man is a scientist. But on the streets, he came hard up against the limits of that kind of knowledge.

Reading the chapter about church and the poor also put me hard up against my own theological beliefs, categories, and tendencies. Put bluntly, there is no way I would ever go to one of these Pentecostalist storefront churches. It’s not the storefront quality — until very recently, the Orthodox church I attend met in a strip mall storefront — but rather the ragged, messy emotionalism of the religion, and its lack of theological depth. It would be as opaque and as unreachable to me as a solemn pontifical high mass would be to a crackhead living under I-10 in New Orleans. But reading Arnade, I realized that the kind of religion that my friends and I immerse ourselves in is irrelevant to the people he meets on the street. I can’t remember where in the book he says so, but he talks about how the price of entry into these poor congregations is very low. You don’t have to understand anything: just show up and be with Jesus.

We have to tread carefully here. The experience of recovering drug addicts going to a storefront freelance Pentecostal church in the Rust Belt does not obviate John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, the Chartres Cathedral, Bach’s B-minor mass, or any of the other stellar achievements of Christianity and Christian culture, any more than the irrelevance of particle physics to those people renders particle physics irrelevant objectively. The point is simply that the kinds of things that matter to front row people do not to many back row people who are not living in a state where they can receive the sophisticated articulation of these truths.

The interesting point, though, is to consider how front row people (like Arnade and me) may be so sophisticated that we can’t see deeper, more fundamental truths that are obvious to poor people living in a more primitive set of circumstances. Arnade is completely up front about this regarding his atheism and love of science. His valorization of them did not survive spending time with the poor, especially in church with the poor. I’ve talked about how my own Catholic intellectualism did not withstand having my nose rubbed repeatedly in stories of the abuse scandal. Reading Arnade made me wonder how my own ideas about Christianity would survive spending as much time on the road as he did among the poor and broken, and worshiping with them. It’s no doubt the case that many of us faithful middle-class Christians, of whatever confession, have arranged our lives in ways that keep that chaos far from us.

What if clearing out the messiness in life blinds us? Here’s a passage from Dignity:

The tragedy of the streets means few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that “we don’t and never will have this under control.” It is far easier to see religious not just as useful but true.

This isn’t confined to those in poverty or on the streets; it is true for almost everyone growing up in the back row. Their communities have been shattered, their sense of place and purpose ruptured, leaving them with no confidence in “worldly” institutions and with a clearer sense of the importance, value, and necessity of faith in something beyond the material.

Dignity is not only about the broken poor, but also about back row people left behind in small towns. Arnade talks a lot about the difference between his highly mobile orientation toward life, versus the worldview of people who stay where they were born. Wendell Berry calls this phenomenon Boomers vs. Stickers. My book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming was to a great degree about this, minus the poverty. Here’s Arnade:

Had I asked those in my hometown when I visited why they stayed, why they were still there, I would have gotten the answer I heard from Cairo, to Amarillo, to rural Ohio. They would have looked at me like I was crazy, then said, “Because it is my home.”

It is an answer that is obvious, because there is value in home, but it isn’t just the value of the house or the yard. it is the connections, networks, friends, family, congregation, the Little League team, the usuals at the hairdresser, regulars at the bar, the union hall, the crew at the vape store, the regulars at the half-price movie night, the guys for Tuesday night basketball.

The front row doesn’t fully get that because they don’t see that value, and like me, they moved before and they will probably move again. We have broken our connections and built new ones. If we can do it, so can anyone else, we think.

When communities and towns are destroyed, partly because of the front row’s policies of globalization, the front-row solution is, “Well, just move.” Buffalo is dying, so just leave Buffalo. Or Appalachia or the Rust Belt or Texas or Ohio or wherever they see suffering. It doesn’t matter where people work, where they live, or where they raise a family. If a factory moves and a town dies, then workers can just move.

Never mind that place, family, and friends are often the only network many people have, the only community that provides them a vital role, because what matters is growth at all cost — even if it is brutal — and that requires everyone to always be economic migrants.

The front row likes to say that the US is a country of migrants, where people have long moved for jobs. This has been done before — dust bowl, the northern migration of African Americans. Yet those were a reaction to failure, not a sign of success.

Here’s a comment a reader of this blog left on a thread yesterday. I’m reading it with Arnade’s book in mind, thinking about how thin the line is between this man and the people in Arnade’s book who have fallen through the safety net:

I am a millenial. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Here are my top concerns in my day-to-day life:

1) The endless spiraling costs of healthcare. This is CRITICAL to young families, and something the SoCons seem constitutionally incapable of even talking about honestly.

2) Student loans. I spend as much on student loans as I do for food for a family of four. This expense cripples my family.

3) Housing costs. For those of us not in flyover country this has hit a critical point.

4) Childcare / education. As a family, this actually *exceeds* my housing costs.

5) Wages. Wages in my industry have been flat for 20 years, and I work in a “good” job!

Republicans have nothing – in fact, less than nothing, to offer me. All the SoCons seem constitutionally capable of doing is screaming about a flag somewhere. I cannot express how little that matters to me.

In my bones, I’m not really in line with the current Democrat party. I’m fiscally to the *right* of the Republican party (talk about irresponsible, modern Republicans never met a budget they couldn’t blow out). I’m socially close to Dreher.

And every year, the Republicans push me further and further into the Democrat coalition. The utter corruption of the Republican Party is breathtaking in its thoroughness. That corruption makes it utterly unable to respond to the concerns of anyone who isn’t a billionaire or a farmer in a narrow swing district.

The fact of the matter is, Republicans have made it clear: they have no interest in me, and they are not getting my vote.

Some of the people in Chris Arnade’s book sound like they were once where this man is, just when the plants started to close. The future of the Republican Party belongs to its leaders who can speak truthfully and meaningfully to him, not to Wall Street donors.

You might think that Chris Arnade finishes Dignity with a rousing call for this or that political solution. He doesn’t. In fact, though I haven’t read any reviews of the book yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s faulted for not offering a “solution.” Believe me, after what you will have read in this book, any “solution” would sound completely phony and tacked-on. Though Chris is on the political left — he has said recently that he favors Elizabeth Warren for president in 2020 — what he has written about is far, far beyond an economic crisis. It is as much about a moral crisis and a spiritual crisis, and a collapse in solidarity. Political and economic reforms are necessary to address the crisis, but not remotely sufficient. In fact, Chris says at the end that one reason we are in this mess is that we live by a system that only values the material — that is, what can be measured and manipulated,

leaving behind the value of those that are harder to quantify — like community, happiness, friendships, pride, and integration.

We have created a system with economics as the central form of meaning and material goods as the primary form of valuation. In this system, education and credentials are central to economic success.

Take away people’s dignity, and they’ll find destructive ways to assuage the pain. One of the most startling passages in the book is when Chris visits a white working class bar near Cleveland during the Republican convention, as Donald Trump is accepting the party’s nomination for president. Everybody in the bar is giddy with excitement. Chris writes:

When the TV shows a controversy over something Trump said,  a man yells, “You get them, Donald! They been getting us forever.”

Hate on Trump all you want, but that man’s statement, that’s about dignity. And let me say this: Chris Arnade is a writer who feels passionately about his subject, but he does not hector or browbeat or embellish his prose with high emotion. He writes simply, and allows the people he talks to, and the details he captures, to carry the weight of the message. When you’re dealing with material as heavy as this, the ability to tell the story with such restraint is a kind of grace.

As I was working on this piece, Rusty Reno at First Things posted a short column on the Ahmari-French divide, and about, well, politics and dignity. He writes:

I’m fed up with shotgun blasts of “fascism,” “theocracy,” and “illiberalism.” These ritual evocations of past demons create the false impression that liberalism is the only decent, humane, and just position. But that’s not true, not even close. Classical liberalism detached from the warm bonds of solidarity is cruel. Liberalism operating without a biblical horizon is soulless. Liberalism detached from a substantive vision of the common good lacks civic nobility.

Many of my friends find Donald Trump intolerable. I tell them, “He is a symptom, not a cause, of what you dislike and fear.” It’s past time for leaders of the conservative movement to acknowledge that they’re part of the problem, promoting a right-leaning liberalism that is cruel, soulless, and lacking in civic nobility. It is time for religious and social conservatives to speak up and take the lead.

Whether you are on the left, the right, or somewhere in between, any political vision that fails to see America in part through the eyes of Chris Arnade is insufficient to the depth and breadth of the crisis shaking our nation to its core. Dignity is not overtly political, but it’s almost certainly going to be the most important political book of the year.

(Excerpted from Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright Chris Arnade, 2019.)

UPDATE: Lee Podles comments:

I am a member of an Anglo-Catholic church, Mount Calvary, that for over a century and a half has ministered to the poor in Baltimore, as well as celebrating a fully Catholic liturgy. In this path it follows the Ritualist slum churches in England. Today we have joined the Roman Catholic Ordinariate and celebrate a sung High Mass very Sunday; on Saturday we offer breakfast to the clients of the methadone clinic across the street and on Wednesday have a prayer meeting for them.

The clients have come to mass; we have been welcoming, but it seems beyond them. We have a prayer meeting for them on Wednesday, a meeting that is more Pentecostal than Anglican. On Saturday during the breakfast we were also open for an architectural tour. Middle-class people wandered in, and as a docent I told them the history of the art and the church. Some of the clients also asked if they could come in. I said of course; all were welcome. They were not interested in the architecture; they came to pray. One prostrated herself before the altar and prayed. Another said how sad she was about her dead mother; we told her we believed that the dead and living were still united, and why didn’t she just sit and talk to her mother and to God. I noticed one couple had given up the altar and were sitting and leaning on it. I went up to make sure all was OK; they said they just felt so peaceful there, so close to Jesus.

The slum dwellers who attended the Ritualist parishes in London were not especially attracted by the liturgy, but by the Christian love that the liturgy nourished. And I have felt stung by Chrysostom’s warning: If you don’t find Christ in the beggar at the door, you will never find Him in the chalice. And the beggars at the door know that the only hope they have is Jesus, something the stable and prosperous and healthy among us forget.

UPDATE.2: Reader Jonah R.:

I grew up perilously close to the back row, I’ve moved to the front row, and I now have a job in which I help people in the back row. (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific than that.) For that reason, I’m not sure the multi-point comment from the millennial is in the same universe as the back-row population’s concern. I’m not denying the problems the millennial commenter faces, but those student loans mean he got into college and presumably got a degree; he can clearly write cogently, and he has time to debate and discuss economics on the Internet.

People stuck in the true back row would kill for the social capital this commenter has. Again, I’m not mocking the educated, under-employed millennial who’s dealing with huge financial hardships, but that dude is the Prince of Persia compared to the back row, which is full of addicts, the homeless, the undiagnosed mentally ill, and broken people who’ve been knocked permanently into dead-end manual labor, if they’re working. Hell, if you have reliable Internet access and/or know how to navigate online to apply for jobs or do basic banking, you’re light years ahead of the back row. (When I hear people in my community, conservative and liberal alike, proclaim that “everyone” is online, I can safely conclude they know nothing about poverty in the corners of our region they have the luxury of being ignorant about.)

It’s true that the Republicans currently offer utterly nothing to help these people, but neither do Democrats. In my community, where Democrats have a political monopoly, they’re throwing all the money at schools that are overflowing with kids due to immigration, to programs involving gang interdiction and legal assistance for immigrants, and so forth. Multigenerational black and white redneck poverty? Not even up for discussion. These people are invisible. Republicans sneer at them for not being sufficiently resourceful; Democrats use hypothetical versions of them as political pawns; neither side sees them.

Thanks for this. I brought up that commenter not to say he’s back row — he’s clearly not — but as an example of someone who is closer to back row than he might think. Like many of us.

UPDATE.3: Erin Manning:

This may seem like a strange way to begin this comment, but I know some people who like Hallmark Channel movies. These movies aren’t to my taste, but I don’t bash people who like them; it’s pretty harmless as a form of mild entertainment. But I’m pretty sure the fans of these movies like, among other things, the sense of nostalgia for a “land where…” framework. You know, like in fairy tales: “Once upon a time, in a land where…” etc.

The heroine of these movies, or at least of the handful I’ve seen some parts of, seems often to be moving back to a small town near extended family after some kind of big-city heartbreak. The towns are unreal, but charmingly so: everyone has time for coffee and gossip before heading to a picturesque job in a pleasant small business, and there’s enough time on your lunch break to chat with friends at the new cafe that the daughter of the owner of the Italian restaurant just opened (so independent!), and everybody knows everybody’s name (well, except for the Handsome Male Love Interest who just arrived for reasons that have yet to be explained).

What on earth does any of this have to do with the back row? Just this: when we destroyed a sense of place among the middle class, we didn’t envision the ripple effects this would have on the poor. When we made middle-class people mobile, global, and wired, we left behind a lot of people who were fixed, local, and technologically behind.

Those fake Hallmark towns are middle class towns. You can see them in old movies, too. George Bailey lived in a town like that, and George Bailey was, as we all know, necessary to keep Bedford Falls from turning into Pottersville. (Interestingly, reviewers from the various big cities at the time of the movie’s release complained that Bedford Falls was always an illusion, and that the whole of America was already Pottersville except for their enlightened elite enclaves. I wonder how they’d explain things today.)

So when the back row explains they can’t move, and the middle class takes that as a sign they aren’t willing to do what is necessary to lift themselves up by their imaginary bootstraps, what the middle class is missing is that this precious sense of home and family is something that was our birthright, too. Some of us had the decision to give it away made by our parents (I was thinking the other day that I don’t even know the exact number of first cousins I have, let alone where most of them are today, because in my parents’ generation everybody scattered to the four winds, so to speak.) Some of us made it ourselves, for just and serious reasons. But once that connection to home is gone, it’s almost impossible to get back; even if you return, you return as a stranger.

It was always the rich who had the freedom to be mobile, because “home” was wherever their peers were, and their peers spent winters in one place and springs in another and summer in yet another before returning each fall like migrating birds to their places of origin. A whole lot of the non-rich, even if they traveled or were adventurous in early life, settled down to a home and a family in a town where people who shared their blood had lived for generations, and where the old familiar landmarks were not eyesores to be torn down but cherished signposts of their own lives, landmarks of the spirit as well as of mere locality. The person, though, who made his home elsewhere would soon lose touch: festivals and parades would go on without him, civic projects would be planned in his absence, so that when he came back it was to something new and different, not old and familiar.

When a lot of people leave, and a majority of them never come back, then home changes too, and not for the better. The people who left did so because the jobs disappeared. The festival is canceled for lack of funds, and the parade for lack of interest. There isn’t enough money in the city budget for new projects, and there aren’t enough volunteers to make sure the old ones happen. The paint peels and the sidewalks crack, and nobody who is still eking out an existence in an increasingly economically hostile shadow-town has the time or the money to spare to make a difference. And though plenty of middle-class people, chafing under the 24-7 demands of the global corporate overlords, tired of moving every few years to a new city, drowning in student loan debt, worried about their children, in need of cheap housing, would love for that old town to be an option, you can’t earn a living on nostalgia anywhere outside of a Hallmark movie.

So the poor stay, the middle-class sigh and stay away, and the rich frown and ask, “But why don’t the poor just get tech degrees and move to Seattle?” in a way that makes the poor even more determined to vote for Trump.