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Candid Camera.

A Fortnightly Review.

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America

by Chris Arnade

Sentinel | 304 pages (hardcover) £20.00 $21.49


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CHRIS ARNADE WAS a successful Wall Street guy, family man, and atheist. But around 2016 he became disenchanted with his success and began to document addiction, through writing and photography, in some of the lowest-income neighborhoods of New York. Over the course of the next several years his investigations expanded. Eventually he began to explore lower-income areas throughout the United States. He also moved beyond addiction to focus on other social patterns such as prostitution, homelessness, unemployment, and church attendance. The results comprise his book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.

Dignity is the collection of memories from a road trip into the West, written by a man in a European language. It therefore falls into the genre of sociology-as-travel-writing, a genre with books ranging from Cabeza de Vaca’s La relación (1542), the travel reports of Lewis and Clark (1805), and de Tocqueville’s De La Démocratie en Amérique (1835–40) to Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and his essay “Walking” (1862). This genre also includes lesser-read, but nonetheless valuable, works such as Frederick Olmsted’s A Journey Through Texas (1857); James Agee’s Cotton Tenants (1936) (with photographs by Walker Evans); Dorothea Lange’s photographs, including her famous Migrant Mother; and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: a Journey into America (1982).

Much of Arnade’s book, like the works of Agee-Evans and Least Heat-Moon, are of Arnade’s photographs of people he met along the way, depicting the dignity he found on one side of the duality of contemporary life in the United States. It is the dignity of the have-nots, the “tired, poor, huddled masses,” the so-called “left behind,” or, as Arnade calls them, those who live on the back row. Dignity therefore tells the old story of the lords against the commons; the overseers opposed to the ne’er-do-wells; the affluent, agile finger-waggers confronting those with underprivileged but defiant arms akimbo.

Arnade, however, lives on the other side of that duality. He is a member of the front-row, one of the Houyhnhnms who sat in the front of the classroom in their early years, got good grades there, then earned (or perhaps bought) their degrees. It is the front-rowers who govern the employments, finances, economies, educations, media, healthcare provisions, and vice procurement over both themselves and the Yahoos at the back. (After all, Gullivers Travels (1726), originally titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, remains the great satire of this genre.)

BUT WHERE SHALL the back row be found? It turns out there is nowhere the back row is not. It spans the “Badlands” of Springsteen, runs along the “Desolation Row” of Dylan, and is there “by the river in a little tent” sung by Sam Cooke. During the first Great Depression it was found in Hoovervilles and Hobohemias scattered across the United States. But today’s back row lives along the blue highways William Least Heat-Moon traversed forty years ago and in many of the places Arnade was recently advised not to visit.

In the essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau confessed that “when I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable, and to the citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place—a sanctum sanctorum.” If one follows his counsel that “to read well” is to read “true books with a true spirit,” then Thoreau, as an American male who practiced sociology through travel writing, can be considered a strong precursor to Arnade. The back row world Arnade investigated in his journeys can be read as the reality behind Thoreau’s metaphor of the sacred swamp.

For Arnade found the current back row not in literal swamps, but on street corners, under bridges and overpasses, and sometimes in motel rooms that rent by the hour. He found it in small towns and big cities as well as big towns and small cities. But mostly he encountered it in independent (“low church”) sanctuaries (sometimes mosques), camping grounds in Walmart parking lots, and in the warm glow of McDonald’s restaurants. Arnade writes:

I kept finding myself in churches, as I kept finding myself in McDonald’s, going there for one reason, because the people I wanted to learn from spent their time there… Often, the only places open, welcoming, and busy in back row neighborhoods were churches or McDonald’s.”

And Thoreau is not Arnade’s only significant precursor. Eighty years before Arnade, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans were assigned to document the phenomena of tenant farming during the Depression. They were, in other words, men from the south who found their employment in the north but were then tasked by their northern employer, in this case Forbes Magazine, to report on conditions in the south. They chose to report on three white back row families in Alabama, and their findings eventually produced the bulky polemic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). However, the original, brief report Agee drafted in 1936 was only published in 2013 under the pithy title Cotton Tenants: Three Families.

Like Arnade, Cotton Tenants documents, in Agee’s words, “what happens to human life, and of what human life can in no essential way escape, under certain unfavorable circumstances” amid “the huge and the ancient, all but racial circumstance of poverty.” They tried to capture what a character refers to in the opening chapter of Brave New World (1932) as “everyone’s inescapable social destiny.” But unlike Agee and Evans and Huxley’s white subjects, Arnade’s pen and camera depict the desperate but dignified plight of various ethnicities.

Eighty years before Agee, Evans and Huxley—and before becoming the great landscape architect who designed, among other things, Central Park—Frederick Law Olmsted made his living as a travel writer. When he and his brother John Hull Olmsted traveled from New York to Texas in 1854 to report on the social and economic development of the Lone Star State, they found places—particularly around the settlements of Milam and San Augustine—they could only describe as undergoing “the progress of dilapidation.” The Olmsteds encountered panoramas of desperation detailing this progress:

The masters are plainly dressed, often in home-spun, keeping their eyes about them, noticing the soil, sometimes making a remark on the crops by the roadside; but, generally, dogged, surly, and silent. The women are silent, too, frequently walking, to relieve the teams, and weary, haggard, mud be-draggled, forlorn, and disconsolate, yet hopeful and careful. The negroes, mud-incrusted, wrapped in old blankets or gunny-bags, suffering from cold, plod on.”

Note that the Olmsteds use the word “silent” twice in this brief portrait of desperation. It is the same “quiet desperation” their contemporary Thoreau mentioned in Walden, a book published the same year the Olmsteds went down to Texas. It is the same desperation Arnade encountered in parts of modern-day Selma—where nearly the only legal employment available to non-skilled, uncredentialed back-rowers is to gather old, slave-made bricks from crumbling buildings and scrape off, often by using only one’s fingernails, the remaining mortar. This is all so the bricks can be resold to front-row people wishing to build second houses, sex grottos, and wine caves. According to Arnade, a hundred bricks might fetch twenty bucks, so one wonders if these workers are in a better or worse financial situation than the Alabama tenant farmers interviewed by Agee and Evans eighty years earlier.

Nearly eighty years before the Olmsteds and Thoreau, a seventy-three-year-old Samuel Johnson cautioned his thirty-eight-year-old protégé James Boswell to, if at all possible, evade such desperation. Throughout the year 1782, Johnson repeatedly warned Boswell how “poverty, my dear friend, is so great an evil, and pregnant with so much temptation, and so much misery, that I cannot but earnestly enjoin you to avoid it,” for it “takes away so many means of doing good, and produces so much inability to resist evil, both natural and moral, that it is by all virtuous means to be avoided.” It is “a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.”

Agee, Evans, and the Olmsteds, like Arnade, are chroniclers of desperation rather than prophets of its minimization like Thoreau, Johnson, and Huxley. In particular Thoreau—the narrator but perhaps not the man—seems a bit like John the Baptist: someone who went off into the wilderness to find the right words he then must use to call upon people to repent of old habits and turn toward a new and better path. Arnade among the brick pickers, however, slightly resembles a young Moses: a man who ventured outside the comforts of the palace grounds to witness the workaday world, then, became appalled (and somewhat involved) in the treatment and behavior of his fellow countrymen and women.

IN WALDEN, THOREAU writes, “wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.” While I applaud this attitude, one cannot deny there has never been a society free of institutions.

Societies tend to have social institutions (marriage, family, religion, community rites and activities, Gemeinschaft) as well as civil ones (law, government, bureaucratic agencies and services, Gesellschaft). Granted, not all institutions are equal in either their effectiveness or their influence, and none has ever functioned perfectly.

Civic institutions in the United States, however, at least from the point of view of many encountered by Arnade, tend not take an active interest in those on the back row. To them, these institutions act merely to minimize the appearance of poverty, not pull people out of it. On the other hand, much of Dignity documents how McDonald’s restaurants and humble (as in homegrown, not financially well-endowed) religious organizations are more effective at reaching those in need than the responses of our civic institutions.

Some social theorists like Yuval Levin are searching for ways to bring about a great restoration of functionality to contemporary institutions. Part of Levin’s project, particularly in The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (2016), is to figure out ways that institutions can better serve the back row. Levin seeks a “constructive tension” between civic (group-based) institutions and social (individual-based) ones instead of the current recurring cycle where:

As the national government grows more centralized, and takes over the work otherwise performed by mediating institutions—from families and communities to local governments and charities—individuals become increasingly atomized; and as individuals grow apart from one another, the need for centralized government provision seems to grow.

But, though many nonprofit services are run by religious organizations, their rules and regulations can make them appear just as disinviting as government services are to some of those most in need of an invitation to their services. Arnade’s fundamental observation throughout Dignity is that, in modern America, the back row often finds hope in McDonald’s dining rooms and church sanctuaries, and not from government services, private union halls, or places of recreation. Arnade is careful to explain how, for many back rowers, McDonald’s functions in our dark age as both abbey and inn:

Whenever I asked anyone where they wanted to meet or grab a meal [in Hunts Point, New York], it was almost always McDonald’s. When I asked why not the nonprofits or the public parks, the answer would be some variation of ‘What is that?’ or ‘They always telling you what to do.’ The nonprofits came with lots of rules and lectures about behavior, with a quiet or not-so-quiet judgment.

This hesitant attitude toward even well-meaning social and civic institutions is multigenerational. William Least Heat-Moon, another of Arnade’s strong precursors, recorded in his own book of travels across America, Blue Highways (1982), an example of the over-institutionalization of religious nonprofit organizations. At one point during a conversation with itinerate preacher Arthur Olaf Bakke, Least Heat-Moon asks the preacher:

And you keep moving all the time?”

“Sometimes I stop in a place awhile. In Virginia, outside Bowling Green, I built a tree temple on I-ninety-five. Stayed there about six months.”

“What’s a tree temple?”

“Like a tree house in a pine grove. I built it out of scrap lumber to about the size of your van. It was for hitchhikers––to give them shelter and the love of Jesus. This country’s tough on hitchers, not like Canada. I wanted to open tree temples all over the country, but the Baptists got sore because I was teaching a different doctrine. They said the temple would attract tramps, and they got the state to come out and run me off and tear it down. That’s another instance in American history of showing spite for the underdog.”

For Arnade, it doesn’t much matter whether one abides by or breaks the rules of the game; when it comes to contemporary institutions the rules are the game.

More recently, in The Souls of Yellow Folk (2018), writer Wesley Yang has also recognized the same spite for the underdog Bakke spoke of in 1978. For Yang, this spite is the result of the fact that “our culture feeds off the plight of the poor in spirit in order to create new dependencies.” Bakke might add to Yang: “yes, but blessed are the poor in spirit….” But to this should then be added Levin’s warning how “we must be alert to the dark side of our mediating institutions,” such as the resistance Bakke met and the filth Thoreau despised, though “we must also,” counsels Levin, “understand that their vitality is essential to our health as a nation.” But it seems that for Bakke, as well as many on the back row met by Arnade, it doesn’t much matter whether one abides by or breaks the rules of the game; when it comes to contemporary institutions the rules are the game.

For Levin, the best way to achieve a constructive tension between individuality and institutionalization is through what he calls subsidiarity, which he defines as “the entrusting of power and authority to the lowest and least centralized institutions capable of using them well.” The nondenominational, non-mega-churches that Arnade tended to visit, and which seemed most effective at supporting members of the back row, appear to easily fall under this definition. And yes, via its dining rooms McDonald’s is able to serve as caretaker of the primary public square used by the back row. But is its fast food franchise structure an apt example of Levin’s subsidiarity when both the corporation’s governance and its supply chains are quite centralized?

ARNADE WRITES HOW, inside these McDonald’s restaurants and church sanctuaries, “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.” This is because

Much of the back row of America, both white and black, is humiliated. The good jobs they could get straight out of high school and gave the stability of a lifelong career have left. The churches providing them a place in the world have been cast as irrational, backward, and lacking. The communities that provided pride are dying, and into this vacuum have come drugs…. It is a wholesale rejection that cuts to the core.”

All humans hunger for relations, not just those presently on the back row. As the self-described philosophical anthropologist Martin Buber once explained, “man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity.” He believed that “the improvement of the ability to experience and use” other individuals “generally involves a decrease in man’s power to relate” to them. In other words, the more we relate to others—by addressing and listening to each of them as a “you” and appreciating their presence in the present moment of exchange––the less we use others merely for various, selfish experiences.

The back row possesses a strong desire to relate to other humans through what Buber called the I-You mode of discourse. They are tired of enduring experiences in the I–It mode—the mode where an outsider’s only interest in talking to a back rower is to measure the utility of the latter’s social status. Too often the absence of any “vital reciprocity” that occurs in the I-You mode provides an invitation to the widespread social humiliation of the back row encountered by Arnade.

As Arnade points out, “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.”

Experiences (even humiliating ones) are an inadequate substitute for genuine relations, yet they remain the substitute most readily available. While drugs may provide substitutions via feelings and experiences, religion is what emerges for Arnade as the institution most ready to offer genuine relations to those currently on the back row. As Arnade points out, “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.”

And the substitutes for genuine relations aren’t limited only to the experiences that come via drugs. They also include those induced by mere emotion. For example, at one point Arnade observes in a working-class bar in the Cleveland neighborhood of Parma how hatred, though induced by alcohol, can itself become a drug:

As the bar fills up, others are unabashed in their views, celebratory, giddy to have Trump addressing their concerns and talking their language. That everyone else hates Trump makes them more confident, further cementing the feeling they are members of an exclusive club.

But the hatred is nothing new. Forty years earlier, writer William Least Heat-Moon conversed at a working-class bar with a resident of Selma who blamed outside “photographers and reporters” for Dr. King’s march on the city. This resident then ranted how “the whole march was a TV stunt…. That’s why they came…. That’s what ruined us.” Later Heat-Moon noticed, “as we talked … he held more sorrow and regret than hatred. He was more empty than malicious,” and the same might be said for the patrons of the bar in Parma.

While some in the front-row may be tempted to scoff at this hatred, those in the front would do well to remember what martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought prudent to ask of anyone on either row: what do they suffer? For “we often expect from others more than we are willing to do ourselves,” says Bonhoeffer, and “we must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” By writing Dignity, Arnade has, in part, asked and attempted to answer Bonhoeffer’s question.

“GREATER LOVE,” SAYS the Gospel of John, “hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” I don’t know if Chris Arnade crossed the threshold into feeling love for his subjects (though he did rescue the body of a dead back row acquaintance from the anonymity of a pauper’s grave). But no reader of Dignity can deny that its author did lay down his career and dared to listen to back row individuals and let them speak for themselves.

Yes, other writers like Wesley Yang have aptly reminded readers of the inconvenient reality that “while you can prohibit the use of racial slurs,” and other forms of discrimination, “no administration or law can force someone to befriend you, or to love you, or to see you as a person who matters, or to notice you at all.” But to this inconvenience one can answer with words from Thoreau: “it is never too late to give up our prejudices,” for “one generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.” (Just ask the Boomers.)

Later in his essay “Walking” Thoreau holds that, after having given up our former prejudices, “the highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence.” To have sympathy for the intelligence of a back row individual marks a first step toward recognizing their dignity––and dignity is the one thing, according to Arnade, “often overlooked in stigmatized neighborhoods.”

Even after Dignity has been published, Arnade continues to attend churches and visit McDonald’s restaurants. In this he continues to follow Thoreau, someone who spiritually “retained the landscape” of the swamps near Walden pond, though he “left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.” For Arnade:

Even after I had come to see how useful religion was, I still attended services as an outsider trying to understand why faith drew so many people to it…. I still saw it as a utility—akin to a McDonald’s or even drugs…. Yet after attending hundreds of different services I was beginning to realize there was more to it than that…. That perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be. Getting there requires a level of intellectual humility that I am not sure I have.

With this confession, Arnade seems not so much like Moses but someone more akin to Augustine, as when, in his own Confessions (6.1.1), the bishop realized: “I had not yet attained the truth, but I was rescued from falsehood.” Pray we may all be so rescued.

Christopher Landrum lives in Austin, Texas. His work has previously appeared in The Berlin Review of Books, and Real Clear News of Chicago. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly Review is here. He writes about what he reads at

Note: A Flickr photostream of Chris Arnade’s images is here.

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