By all accounts, Chris Arnade was a member of the ruling class in good standing. After earning a PhD in theoretical physics from Johns Hopkins University, he made a successful career as a bond trader on Wall Street. He lived in the best part of Brooklyn. He sent his three kids to private school. He supported progressive policies. His bubble, by his own admission, was pretty thick.
“I had removed myself from the realities of the majority of Americans,” Arnade now reflects. “I was a member of an exclusive club, one requiring an elite education to enter. I was sitting in my expensive home, in my exclusive neighborhood, forming opinions and casting judgments about what was best for others largely just from what I read.”
Arnade started to grow disillusioned after the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing bank bailouts. At that time, he started taking long, meandering walks in the rough parts of town, “the parts people claimed were unsafe or uninteresting.” He would talk to the people he encountered and take their pictures.
In 2012, Arnade left his job in banking—“they asked me to leave and I didn’t do anything to fight it or find another role.” He spent the next three years exploring, on and off, the Godforsaken parts of America. He put 150,000 miles on his Honda Odyssey, the backseat of which he had removed to accommodate a mattress.
Today, Arnade is a traitor to his class. He has nothing but disdain for the narrow worldview of the urban elites among whom he dwelled for so long. He is unsparing in his criticism of the condescending and shallow advice they have to offer those who are being left behind. His sympathies lie with the forgotten men and women of America, whose stories he tells in Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.
The Back Row is Arnade’s name for the parts of the country that are poor and “rarely considered or talked about beyond being a place of problems.” Some are black, some are white; some rural, some urban. All are populated by those who could not or would not leave their dying neighborhoods in pursuit of the American Dream (as defined by those in the Front Row among whom Arnade used to live).
Today, they are stuck “living in a banal world of hyperefficient fast-food franchises, strip malls, discount stores, and government buildings with flickering fluorescent lights and dreary-colored walls festooned with rules. They are left with a world where their sense of home and family and community won’t get them anywhere, won’t pay the bills. And with a world where their jobs are disappearing.”
In retelling their stories, Arnade lets his subjects speak for themselves. The book is mostly composed of excerpts from the conversations he had with those stuck in the Back Row, along with numerous photographic portraits: some quite haunting, others quite touching. Dignity will make a powerful impression on all those who read it.
We meet Takeesha, a drug-addicted prostitute who lives with her husband Steve, who is sober, on the streets of Hunts Point in the South Bronx. In Bakersfield, California, we meet Jeanette, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who lives and preaches at the Full Gospel Lighthouse Church to a Hispanic congregation. In the parking lot of the Walmart in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, we meet Paul, who supplements his disability benefits by doing lawn work and proudly flies a Confederate flag on the back of his truck. We meet Henry, 84, and Winston, 79, two retired African Americans who migrated north from the Mississippi Delta as young men and today spend their days at the McDonald’s in Milwaukee’s North Side.
It is hard to see what unites such different and diverse people. In Arnade’s Back Row, one finds prostitutes, drug addicts, ghetto thugs, but also retirees, Somali immigrants, hard-working people, and churchgoers. What they all have in common, according to Arnade, is “a sense of having been left behind, of being forgotten—or, even worse, of being mocked and stigmatized by members of the world who are moving on and up with the GDP.”
Later in the book, he puts it even more poignantly: “Much of the back row of America, both white and black, is humiliated.” They either directly feel the contempt of the Front Row if they are white (the elites being too reverential vis-à-vis minorities ever to directly criticize them), or they clearly see that the things they hold dear are viewed with contempt by those running the country. As Angelo Codevilla already observed in The Ruling Class, the “dismissal of the American people’s intellectual, spiritual, and moral substance is the very heart of what our ruling class is about.”
Those in the Back Row ultimately do not share the values of those in the Front Row, namely “getting more education and owning more stuff.” They are not obsessed with economic growth, credentials, and upward mobility. The rat race doesn’t appeal to them.
Where then do they find meaning? Setting aside the drug addicts who, in spite of Arnade’s best efforts to convince the reader otherwise, cannot be said to form a community (at least if the word is to have a genuine meaning of belonging), the answer is primarily found in place and faith. Members of the Back Row are either rooted in a particular neighborhood or town that they do not want to abandon in pursuit of the American Dream. Or they are churchgoing Christians who find hope in their faith.
Neither place nor faith, of course, is part of the mental geography of the Front Row. Rootedness in a particular place limits one’s ability to pursue opportunities across the country—and the world, for that matter. And faith—especially the Christian faith, since it is the only one our elites will mock and criticize—is repressive and flies in the face of what science tells us is true.
The importance of place and faith are the two great lessons that Arnade learned from his journey across the country. He has not, as a result, returned to the Catholic faith of his youth or moved back to his hometown of San Antonio, Florida (although he did leave Brooklyn and now lives in New Paltz, New York). But he has developed an appreciation for the importance that home and God hold for many of his fellow Americans.
Although Arnade never says so, there is something conservative about the worldview he describes. Conservatism is first and foremost about belonging. It is about rootedness and embeddedness. It is about being tied to a particular place and a particular people. The places and communities profiled in Arnade’s book may not conform to the Tocquevillian or Nisbetian ideal of community (some, in fact, are quite dysfunctional), but they attest to the communitarian longings of the Back Row.
It is hard to find fault with a book that tries to avoid making an argument, eschews all statistics (how refreshing!), and proposes no grand solutions to solve all of America’s problems. And yet, even though this is a travelogue rather than a rigorous sociological analysis, Arnade’s book is informed by a set of assumptions, two of which are problematic.
First, Arnade has a tendency to make excuses for the self-destructive behavior of the Back Row. While he is right to see that drugs and alcohol “offer a numbing salve from the pain of humiliation,” is it true that “when your choices are limited, recklessness might be all you have”? One can sympathize with drug addicts and recognize that the will is both frail and, to a considerable extent, shaped by one’s environment, without going so far as to infer a compulsion to do drugs. As Arnade himself observes in passing: “Not everyone in these neighborhoods is drawn to drugs.”
The second problem is less an assumption than an important omission. In Arnade’s America there are only two rows: the front and the back. In the real America, a vast middle row separates the two. And that is where most Americans live. Like Charles Murray in Coming Apart and Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, Arnade only looks at the top and the bottom and ignores the middle. In a republic like ours, the vitality of the middle class is an important measure of civic health. I hope Arnade will hit the road again and write his next book on The Middle Row.
This piece first appeared in Public Discourse