Respecting the Dignity of Back Row America

Celebrant         Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

People             I will, with God’s help.

By Chris Arnade
Sentinel, pp. 302, $17.99

Review by Daniel Martins

While the author of Dignity is not a professing Christian, what he has written is arguably a handbook for anyone who sets out to fulfill precisely this vow from the baptismal liturgy of the (1979) Book of Common Prayer.

In lucidly accessible prose, Chris Arnade lays out a taxonomy of American society consisting of a privileged, educated, and affluent “front row” and a systemically oppressed, uneducated, and economically challenged “back row.” Economic dislocation is a perennial theme in the experience of the back row. From the great northern migration of African Americans after World War II to the collapse of the steel industry in Gary, Indiana, to plant closings all across the Rust Belt and in the rural south, the front row’s collective commitment to free markets and the quest for ever cheaper labor has consigned people to the back row and kept them there.

The author writes as the “woke” child of “woke” parents (by the lights of their place and time) who raised him in rural Alabama. Yet, he is devastatingly critical of the knee-jerk progressivism of which he is a prime exemplar. Despite protestations of regard for equality, he contends that the front row pretty much holds the back row to front row metrics for success — in terms of education, socialization, and economic achievement—naively assuming that everybody must want to be like them. In fact, people in the back row most want the freedom to simply be who they are — in their cultural expression, in the way the speak, in the way they relate to one another, and in their religious practice.

Arnade earned a doctorate in theoretical physics before leaving academia to pursue a successful and lucrative career as a Wall Street trader. He earned lots of money, and was able to raise a family in a comfortable home in an exclusive section of Brooklyn. But, since childhood, he always had a streak of slightly rebellious non-conformity. When a colleague warned him never to go to a Bronx neighborhood called Hunts Point, he took it as a dare. He simply “hung out” there — specifically at McDonald’s, just meeting people. (The ubiquitous fast food chain figures prominently throughout the book; Arnade contends that it is invariably an accurate microcosm of the larger surrounding society.) He makes friends, asks questions, and gets involved in people’s lives, right up to the line of “going native” (he always returns to his Brooklyn home at night, but does develop an alcohol habit that required some intentional effort on his part to rein in).

This experience in Hunts Point leads to an epic solo road trip, covering places as diverse as Gary, Fresno, Milwaukee, rural eastern Ohio, Selma, and, to my particular fascination, Cairo, Illinois. (Cairo is a thrown-under-the-bus community within the bounds of the diocese that I serve, with a continuous Episcopal presence since the 19th century.) Never failing to check in at the local McDonald’s, Arnade replicates the pattern that evolved in Hunts Point as he gathers information (I hesitate to say “data,” because that makes it sound like a more scientific endeavor than it is).

The author pays particular expression to religious practice, visiting services in churches (and at least one mosque) wherever he goes — invariably evangelical and Pentecostal of the “storefront” variety, because, he would probably say, that’s where the back row is likely to be found. As a nonbeliever himself, he takes seriously the fact that people in back row culture are serious about their faith. He is sharply critical of his “woke” front row confreres (while looking at himself in a mirror) who all too easily dismiss religious faith and practice as risibly irrational. He is able to develop sympathy for believers, but he doesn’t quite make it to empathy. He remains unable to understand faith from the perspective of an insider, as a member of a faith community rather than as a benign guest. Arnade was raised a practicing Roman Catholic, and I found myself wishing he might bring some of that experience to bear in his treatment of back row religious faith, but he never does.

This is a work of an author who is academically trained and quite capable of writing in the “register” of the front row. Yet, he makes no pretense of scholarly detachment or academic objectivity. He doesn’t affect the “voice” of his subjects, though he is clearly influenced by his interaction with them. His prose is straightforward and authentic, never particularly artful but often, somehow, nonetheless powerfully affecting. He’s not shy about four-letter expletives, not only when quoting his subjects, but also in his own narrative.

Where Arnade is most successful is in empathetically describing the lives of those in the back row of society without even a whiff of judgmentalism. In other words, he respects (indeed, defends) the dignity of his subjects. He doesn’t endorse certain behaviors that the front row (including the law!) finds objectionable (drugs, prostitution), but neither does he condemn them, and still less those who engage in them. He offers a sympathetic account of the forces that create and foster such behaviors.

This is a heartbreaking book. It broke my heart. It does not evoke pity; it’s not intended to evoke pity. It undermines the very foundation of the category “less fortunate” by deconstructing the front row conceit that everyone in the back row wants to be in the front row. Nor does it scold or shame people in the front row, even as it calls into question certain of their (shall I say “our” in a publication such as this?) unconsidered assumptions. Rather, it invites and evokes respect for wide swaths of our society who crave nothing else quite as much as this.

Dignity is copiously documented with photographs, both color and black and white, that range in quality from “moving” to “stunning.” The pictures complement the text in an integrated way, but they could quite nearly stand on their own as a photographic essay.

Daniel Martins is the Bishop of Springfield.


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