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Book Review: Dignity by Chris Arnade

June 18th, 2019 | 16 min read

By Jake Meador

One of the most important explorations of political theology in recent years is Andrew Willard Jones’s book Before Church and State.

Jones’s argument is that our modern social norms, including our political system, are built on the idea that conflict is the natural state of man. Because of this, we see the role of social order to be essentially holding us back from our own natural impulses. (I promise that we’ll get to Arnade eventually. This is preface.)

So under modernity, the government possesses a monopoly on licit violence so that it can threaten us with force if we refuse to get on with one another. Markets, particularly when combined with the division of labor, both define property rights and structure our relationships to others such that it is in our own self-interest to get along with others, establish trade relationships, and so on. In this way naturally violent people are made to live not quite “peaceably” but at least without debilitating social conflict.

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This, according to Jones, is quite at odds with the medieval idea. The medieval idea, he argues, is that peace is the natural state of man. Social order is not something we make in order to keep us from destroying each other. Rather, it arises naturally out of the world in response to the natural sociability of humanity. The work of social order, then, is simply to protect what the medieval records repeatedly refer to as “the business of the peace and the faith.” It does not make; it recognizes and preserves.

To really understand how different this is from our approach, consider this hypothetical: Suppose we have two identical disputes—say, an argument over land that a noble claims for himself and that peasant farmers claim as being available to them for their animals to graze—might be resolved in opposite ways.

In one case, the peasant farmers recently began using the land in that way and their decision has disrupted the local life of the place. The government tells the farmers they must leave the land. In another, the farmers note that they have used the land in that fashion for decades—and the government says they must be allowed to continue doing so.

To us, this looks arbitrary. But it is not. It is, rather, governing in such a way as to respect the natural peace and order of a particular place.

The defining challenge for social life in our day is that we are now at the tail end of several centuries of thinking about politics with the assumption that violence, rather than peace, is the natural state.

Because of this, we see various official policies, rules, practices, and so on as being more real, you might say, than the natural ties that bind one person to another. We moderns love paperwork and contracts and credentials. They are “objective,” or so we think, and they provide us, or so we think, with a sound basis for securing our own existence in the world relative to our neighbors.

The problems that arise out of such an order are legion and they have been described in various ways by different writers. Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is perhaps the best distillation of the critique, but you can pick it up in George Packer’s The Unwinding, Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic just as easily.

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One of the difficulties, of course, is that none of these writers have a super clear idea of how to move forward. Deneen in particular has been criticized by many for having a startlingly under-developed set of prescriptions given his far more rigorous criticisms. The closest Deneen seems to get in his book is to a post-liberal return to de Tocqueville in which the little platoons of society are restored and we rebuild our political communities from the grassroots out of these small networks of fidelity and affection.

Many found this unsatisfying.

But those who do are badly mistaken.

Chris Arnade’s Dignity

All of that is the necessary preface for introducing Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Arnade’s book, for the few not yet aware, is the result of spending several years traversing America, spending time in forgotten towns and economically depressed areas, and simply listening to the people who call those places home.

Like Deneen, Arnade has been criticized by some for his lack of concrete proposals or ideas for helping America’s back row get back on their feet.

The furthest Arnade seems to get—and the title is perhaps reflective of this—is saying “maybe we should start talking to each other again and seeing each other in our humanity?” It perhaps says more about our nation than about Arnade that such advice is seen as insufficient.

Even though Arnade still seems to be sorting out his own religious beliefs, there is an important sense in which his book, at least, is defined by a simple insistence that human beings really are beloved of God, really are made in the divine image, and therefore really do demand a certain response from their fellow human beings.

If the book makes us uncomfortable, that is simply because it forces us to reckon with how unseen so many Americans have been for so many years. Arnade does this through the simple act of being present in forgotten neighborhoods and doing what he could to listen to the members of the place and to share what he heard and saw with the rest of the nation.

Disdain for the Stickers

This is not a radical book, but a quite ordinary one. And yet there is something jarring about it all the same, something that virtually everyone I know who has read the book has noticed.

Arnade wants to talk to people who live in depressed towns. More than that, he wants to talk to the people in those towns who, when asked why they stay there, say “because it is my home.” Why those people?

Because Arnade rightly sees in those five words a repudiation of much of what front row America thinks is so valuable and important and necessary. To front row Americans on both the right and left, such comments betray a lack of ambition, a shiftlessness, a certain backwards mentality that needs to get with the times.

Most of the time they won’t be quite that explicit about it, of course.

But then sometimes they are.

One prominent conservative writer’s “solution” to the problem of declining small towns is that people should leave. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee and current Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was, somehow, even more demeaning to these people during the 2012 campaign when he said that many in the back row “will never take responsibility” for their life.1

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Meanwhile President Obama spoke of people who bitterly clung to guns and religion. Senator Clinton ignored much of the rural upper midwest during her campaign, referred to many of President Trump’s supporters as “deplorable” and “irredeemable,” and also suggested that religious beliefs that undercut aspects of her policy agenda “would have to change.”

When it comes to despising America’s back row, neither party is innocent.

Arnade sees all this and, rather than judging those in the back row, he wants to listen to them and understand them. Part of what makes this book so successful is how the mere fact of its existence accomplishes what Arnade set out to do.

Simply taking the time to listen to people confers a certain level of recognition to them and respect. Also, the particular way that Sentinel produced the book—it’s a gorgeous volume with high-quality paper and printing that allows Arnade’s photos to really shine—does the same. In both author and publisher we have a repudiation of the disdain so often heaped on America’s back row.

But, of course, the point isn’t simply that Arnade wants to listen. It’s what he hears when he does that. America’s back row may well be trying, albeit with obvious and tragic imperfections, to embody the sort of natural politics described by Jones.

That tradition of ordering your political life toward the ordinary life of one’s home place has always been part of the American tradition. Wallace Stegner said there are two types of Americans. The first type are what Stegner called the boomers. They are the credential chasers, the ones always pursuing the next success. They dominate America’s front row.

Stegner’s second group are the stickers. They are the people who think the place they’ve been given is better than anything they can hope to find and they mean to spend their life in service of that place, seeking its betterment. They know that its health is their health and that its life will be longer than theirs.

Berry has noted that the “sticker” tradition in America predates the arrival of white people in the west and in many ways defines the way of life found with many indigenous people groups in what is now the United States. Framed this way, you could say that the Boomers have been destroying, abusing, and insulting the Stickers for as long as “America” has existed.

The Beast in Each of Us

None of this is meant to sanitize Arnade’s story. There is ugliness and terror and darkness in it. His photos are unflinching in their portrayals of sickness, addiction, and poverty. And much of what he describes and encounters is the result of choices made by his subjects.

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There is a beast in each of us and that is true of both the front and the back row. And yet the failings of individual people are not the entire story. What Arnade sees is that the way in which modern American works, the way in which success is judged by both sides of the political aisle, is disconnected from the actual conditions of communal health.

Indeed, that is a large part of what set Arnade on his path in the first place: He saw where his way of life had gotten him and where it had taken the nation and he was tired of it. The feeling he describes in the book’s opening pages is the sickness unto death that so many Christians know so well—not only the recognition of their own sin, but the recognition of how radically they must change their life in order to be free of sin.

On Credentials and Community

While it is true that Arnade saw much darkness in America’s back row, he also saw something else. He saw fidelity. He saw rootedness. He saw a deep love for local places and the people with whom once shares that place. He sums it up beautifully near the end of the book.

In this passage, he is describing what drives people to both despair and to “rebel” against the credentialing system through various means. I couldn’t figure out how best to excerpt it so please forgive the long quote:

The educational meritocracy is a well-intentioned system designed to correct massive injustices that enslaved, demeaned, constricted, and ranked people based on the color of their skin, sexuality, and gender. Yet in attempting to correct a nasty and explicit exclusion, we have replaced it with an exclusion that narrowly defines success as all about how much you can learn and then earn.

It is a system that applauds itself for being a meritocracy, allowing anyone to succeed. Implying that those who don’t choose this path, who can’t or don’t pick up and move constantly, who can’t overcome the long odds, are failures and it is their own fault. They are not smart enough. You didn’t make it out because you suck. That is humiliating.

It is all the more frustrating because the new system is still unjust and slanted against minorities, relegating them to second-class citizens, rejecting them at birth. Few minorities are born into communities or families with the right connections and enough resources to navigate the path.

For them, the rejection, frustration, and humiliation aren’t new. They have long been subjected to the cruel trope that they are lesser. Long subjected to demeaning and amoral conditions—legal and illegal, large and small—based on their race and place of birth. It has made getting an education and a decent job and building a meaningful life a long shot overcome only with immense focus or immense luck. Then, if they fail at the long odds, they are told it is their fault. Their fault for being lazy, dumb, or whatever the speaker feels they need to be. When they play the long odds because the short odds aren’t available, they are told they are morally weak, prone to illegal behavior, or just dumb.

This has made growing up in places like Selma, Milwaukee’s North Side, East New York, or the Bronx frustrating and humiliating.

People respond to humiliation in different ways, but the most common response is to find a source of pride wherever possible, even if that means in places the status quo doesn’t approve of. It means trying to find a community or activity that values them. For those in the back row, that means a place that doesn’t demand credentials.

Drugs are one of them. Bars, drug traps, and crack houses offer communities that don’t care about your past, your failures, or the color of your skin. As long as you join in, shooting up or taking a hit or swallowing the pills, it is all OK. They also offer a numbing salve from the pain of humiliation. It is a reckless choice, but when your choices are limited, recklessness might be all you have.

Many churches offer that, especially Pentecostal and evangelical faiths. They offer a community with few barriers of entry, regardless of someone’s past. The only requirement is a desire to reform, to live a different way, to accept a set of rules on how you live your life and how you expect others to live. They also provide a place in the larger world. You may not be valued here and now, but youa re valued by God, and you will be saved in the afterlife.

Living in a place you grew up doesn’t require credentials. It’s a form of meaning that cannot be measured. Family doesn’t require credentials. Having a child is an action that provides meaning, immediate pride, and a role, especially for the mother, who can find value in raising a family.

There are other non-credentialed forms of community that come with far greater stigmas but can appeal to anyone frustrated enough.

It’s not that these back row, uncredentialed communities are automatically good. Far from it! Some of them are horribly destructive. But what they have which most of America’s “successful” communities do not is acceptance, which is to say a form of community not premised in naked self interest, credentials, or earning your place.

Coming Apart

In the film Gattaca we see the story of two men living in a near-future world in which genetic modification has been, this is the wrong word but it’s fitting for the film, “perfected.”

The result of this is a two-tier society: Those with perfect genetics, meaning “those with parents able to afford the necessary modifications,” are pushed ever upward, toward greater achievements, prestige, and recognition. Those who lack the perfect genes are condemned to that world’s version of the back row.

What is perverse about all this is that neither group is actually happy. The main member of the elite that we meet, played by Jude Law, crumbles under the weight of expectation and judgment. You might say he crumbles under the fear of the very sort of humiliation Arnade describes above. Eventually this fear destroys him.

But the back row of Gattaca‘s world is no better off. They can’t get good jobs. They can’t chase any kind of dream for their life. Their life will be, as the saying goes, nasty, brutish, and short. And so they are destroyed as well, like the elites, but for different reasons.

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In a recent First Things lecture, Patrick Deneen argued for what he calls “aristopopulism.” By it he means a species of populism that seeks to draw together Arnade’s front and back rows. The front row needs to learn about the qualities that are often characteristic of the back row either due to personal virtue or necessity.

They need to repudiate the centrality of contracts and credentials to social life in America’s elite circles and rightly recognize the ways in which communal identity is best secured not via performance or the meeting of certain goals, but via the recognition of the natural ways in which our lives already interlock with one another and in which our health as individuals is woven into our health as communities and even the health of the natural world.

The back row, meanwhile, needs to have a chance not to make something of themselves in the way of the front row, but to create for themselves a stable life defined by health. This necessarily means access to shelter, adequate amounts of healthy food, good and steady work that pays a living wage, and access to healthcare. If accomplishing this requires turning our society on its head, then so be it. If justice for the back row requires throwing our bodies on the gears of the machine, then that is what must be done. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.

The back row need these things not because they too need to be given access to the front row and thereby given a chance to sell themselves to the highest bidder in pursuit of self-actualization, but because they are made in the image of God and their natural design is to live in a state of peace with one another, a state in which our communal life is symbiotic, in which we build each other up out of a sincere love and desire to serve.

If you are a reader of Scripture, that description should sound familiar. It is, after all, the calling given to every Christian. And so we end where we begin, with a vision of society premised in peace, in which the virtues of the stickers are pervasive in the community and the conditions of health readily available. It is a vision of society in which the peace of small places is seen, known, and loved. It is, ultimately, a society that sounds very like the city to come.

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