Book Review: Dignity, Chris Arnade

Book Review: Dignity, Chris Arnade July 29, 2019
Photo by Chris Arnade

When I bought and read Chris Arnade’s book Dignity, I was determined to be one of the first in line to say all the good things about it that could be said. But life had other plans, and other people said them first. So I now find myself sheepishly shuffling in late to add my own too-lengthy thoughts. They haven’t been easy to pull together. But then, Dignity is not an easy book to review.

My first taste of Arnade’s work was this First Things article, a partial excerpt from the book that explains the project and tells his story. As of eight years ago, he had hit all the life goals that a man of his age and class could hope to hit: husband and father, successful Wall Street bond trader, physics Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. Moreover, he had achieved all these goals while believing the “right” things. He reliably voted Democrat, he had racially diverse friends, he donated to charity and felt compassionate feelings about the poor. He was a man of science who understood religion’s place in the world: as a meaningless placebo at best and a toxic scourge at worst.

And yet, something felt amiss. It felt amiss that all of his friends and colleagues walked and talked and voted exactly like he did. It felt amiss that they all shared exactly the same value hierarchy. It felt amiss that whatever happened on Wall Street, an invisible someone else always took the blame, and the punishment.

Wherever the answers to his uncomfortable questions lay, they weren’t going to be found in his neighborhood. So one day, he picked up his camera and went for a walk in the Bronx. A little later, he got into his car and started driving. Eight years later, he has come back to tell his neighbors—and the rest of us—what he found.

What he found were stories. Stories by turns tragic and humorous, beautiful and ugly, but always arresting and affecting. The players are black, white, native, immigrant. They’re Trump supporters. They’re Trump haters. They’re junkies, whores, and single moms. They’re poor preachers in poor churches. Some of them are crippled. Some of them are insane. Some of them are saner than most. All of them have a story. All of them refuse to stay in the neatly labeled boxes that Arnade and his progressive upper-class friends had made for them.

Arnade strives as much as possible to be a neutral photographic lens for these vignettes. For him there is only the documenting, and the rest is not his business. Yet it could be argued he is non-judgmental to a fault. He dares us to judge the junkies, some of whom have children. He dares us to judge the “working women,” like the woman who asks him to write her as “who she is”: a “prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.” In one particularly edgy passage, for which he’s proudly said he had to fight his editor, Arnade suggests that these people don’t need someone to “fix” them. They just need someone to listen to them. They need someone to understand why they do the things they do.

This is classic leftist rhetoric, and Arnade still explicitly describes himself as such. His analysis of individual choices instinctively pivots to the circumstances and structural framework around them, circumstances for which he blames red and blue elites alike. In the process, he says some things I agree with and some things I disagree with. This review won’t be focusing so much on the fiscal politics behind those things. For that purpose, I urge listeners to check out this impressively thoughtful give-and-take between Arnade and Russ Roberts of EconTalk. I will simply say that more conservative readers should grant Arnade this much: He has the integrity of consistency. For him, to listen to the back row means to listen to the whole row, including the Trump-voting section thereof. “Don’t judge” isn’t code for “Don’t judge, except for the guy flying a Confederate flag on his truck.”

Arnade doesn’t leave Confederate flag guy to our imagination. He is one of the 150 or so subjects immortalized in both word and image, out of the countless thousands of photographs Arnade collected in his travels. In a digital age where we have forgotten the tangible joy of physical books, the stunning full-page presentation of this work makes Dignity a classy and worthy print buy. The images are presented without caption, though they can often be matched with their written descriptions in jigsaw-puzzle fashion. Many linger in the mind long past a first look: a boy doing a backflip in a fire hydrant deluge; a girl with glazed addict’s eyes lighting up, throwing her own shadow behind her; a young man with arms and knuckles covered in gang tattoos carrying a baby; a group of four older white men and one younger black man praying together in a McDonald’s.

Much of this book is set in McDonald’s. McDonald’s is a soft target for coastal elitist scorn, but Arnade quickly found that if he wanted to meet the back row where they actually are, this was the place. Multiple mini-dramas play themselves out under the golden arches. A guy calling himself “Black Jesus” lingers in a booth, raising his fist at random intervals. A junkie hooker tearfully shows Arnade pictures of the kids she can’t stop having on her cracked iPhone. A couple nuzzle each other over burgers and fries.

In a Plough interview, Arnade invites each of his readers to take the “McDonald’s test,” checking their own gut reactions to the franchise. By their reaction, he guesses he’ll be able to place them in the front row or the back row. But I don’t think my answer would help him much. I always liked McDonald’s.

My own little town could fairly be said to be a mix of front and back row. Deep pockets of affluence co-exist with pockets of poverty and disrepair. Growing up somewhere in the middle, I was always able to say my neighborhood wasn’t like that neighborhood, but it wasn’t like that neighborhood either. Yet by other measures, I would fit into Arnade’s front row too well. I’m typing this review on one of several devices I own. I use Twitter. I know what Twitter is. Like Arnade himself, I’m a second-generation attendee of grad school. My tuition has been covered at every stage. I’m getting paid to work on a dissertation in pure math that will be of no practical use whatsoever.

Still, I’ve had glimpses. I think of “A,” our department’s permanent fixture. “A” drifts in and out of our classrooms year after year like the wandering Jew, face completely obscured by white beard, carpet bag always packed. He liked to sit in on 5000-level classes next to me in undergrad, the better to ply me with paperback sci-fis and spiral-bound books of his own poetry. Sometimes we miss him for a few months while he goes hitch-hiking. The occasional postcard will show up in the department mailbox, letting us know he got jailed for trespassing in Vermont but otherwise things are great. He self-identifies as a different Old Testament prophet depending on the year.

I’ve caught other kinds of glimpses in the math tutor lab. Like the black girl who was new and hadn’t yet picked up that she just needed to raise her hand and one of us would come help her with her algebra. Instead she came to us. When I got up to walk back with her, she cheerfully stuck out her hand and said “Hi, I’m J, it’s nice to meet you!” I shook it, feeling a bit self-conscious. Students in the lab simply didn’t greet us tutors that way. But someone had clearly instructed her that this is how you present yourself. This is how you put your best foot forward. I still remember her small, dingy collection of wooden pencils. The ones that weren’t broken were barely usable. I gave her a lead pencil to keep, wincing a bit as I surveyed the bundle of virgin new ones still in my backpack pocket.

On a different day, an older black woman needed help with an exercise from her math ed class. She was going back to school to try for a teaching degree. When I came over she also offered her hand: “Hi, I’m ____. Nice to meet you.” I shook, and I remembered.

I think of these women when I read Arnade’s analysis of the difficulties facing a person trying to leap the gulf between rows, particularly a minority person. Where the front row sees measures like affirmative action as a magic wand, Arnade is not convinced. Because it’s not just about being teleported into a university. It’s about knowing how to talk, how to walk, how to navigate the space. It’s about meeting a specific set of goals, to earn a specific kind of a ticket to the play of life. If Arnade has a thesis on which all could agree, it would be this: A society that makes a bachelor’s degree the price of a meaningful existence is a broken society.

Not that he claims to know how to fix it, any more than he can fix the streets stripped of factories, the ghost towns stripped of life, the children stripped of innocence. He holds forth eloquently about the value of community loyalty and the affront to the back row of suggesting they “just leave.” And indeed, we read with admiration about those young people who have deliberately sacrificed their futures to be with vulnerable, dependent family members.

Yet back row voices themselves can complicate things. Listen again to Takeesha, the aforementioned “prostitute, mother of six and child of God,” as she looks out the car window at Hunts Point: “This place is so bad and evil. It’s, like, so simple to walk across the bridge, but it’s like you can’t go across, you understand? This place is evil. It’s possessed. It’s evil. I been here a long time. There are bad spirits here. I have seen good people, I have seen people that have family, jobs, and they come here and they get dug in, and two weeks later they living in a cardboard box.”
Listen to Takeesha’s friend Steve as he also chimes in: “This place is haunted. It pulls you in and chews you up. I was, like, five years in jail, and when I was released, I came back here, and the first day I was doing crack. One day back. Crack. It’s a f*cked-up place. Keep coming back to it. Hunts Point is for devils.”

For all these voices will say in one moment that they need nobody to save them, in the next moment they cannot help articulating what they need—what we all need.

In the back row, Arnade writes that time and again there is only one place where deliverance can be found: in the churches. Not large “smell and bells” churches or evangelical mega-churches, but small, poor churches. Eccentric and quirky churches. Back row churches. Writes Arnade, “In [the back row’s] mind the only places on the streets that regularly treat them like humans, that offer them a seat to sit in, an ear to listen, and really understand their past are churches. They are everywhere.”

But these churches offer more than a sympathetic ear. They offer transformation. Addicts are given rules to abide by, a path to follow. And for many of them, it’s the only path that works. Of the former addicts Arnade met, he cannot recall a single one who got clean without faith—or people of faith.

Churches also provide dignity to people at a severe disadvantage in the intellectual hierarchy. One story in particular sticks in my memory, about a big, gentle man named Jerry who had only ever been able to work with his hands and fought chronic pain and addiction. Jerry invited Arnade into his home, where he was spending much of his time caring for his sick wife. A bumper sticker on his van says “Got Christ? It’s Hell without him.” He tells Arnade that he “got saved at fifty,” but before that he “had never felt worthy.” “When you are told all your life you’re dumb, unworthy, you start believing it. God changed that for me.”

One church has no minister. Instead, the people in the tight-knit community take turns standing up and testifying, reading Scripture, singing or praying aloud. Arnade’s photo captures a young girl swaying in time to a gospel song, her arms raised high and open. The reader guesses that she’s one of two daughters belonging to Josh and Jenny, a couple who tells Arnade they have nothing but their children and their faith. At school, their daughters are mocked for being poor. One of them asks Arnade to tell her about singing schools in New York. She wants to attend one some day. “Honey, you know we don’t got money for that.”

Not all stories end happily. Says one pastor, “I have to bury too many congregants, many who kill themselves. One woman I knew since she was a baby shot herself in the stomach with a .38. The world is too material, and people don’t think they need the community. Brother. Do they ever need it.”

Arnade watches and faithfully records all of this as a man on the outside looking in. When people ask him if he himself is religious, each time he answers truthfully, “Not really.” For him, religion was always that thing you grew out of once you became a scientific man and put away childish things. For a while, you believed. Then, as went Santa Claus, so went God.

Arnade recalls his own awakening as a bookish college kid. One particular memory stands out from the summers in between semesters, when he swallowed his pride and joined a custodial crew at a local Catholic school. A minister on the crew known as “Preacher Man” poked and pressed him until one day he erupted, “I am an atheist. I don’t believe in a God. I don’t think the world is only five thousand years old. I don’t think Cain and Abel married their sisters!”

Of course, some people might need Santa Claus, really need him badly. Some people might never grow up. And maybe for those people, it’s best that they don’t. Maybe Santa Claus works—for them.

But this, too, is no longer satisfying for Arnade. Something won’t allow him to categorize what he has seen that tidily. Something gives him pause before saying so confidently that what these people need is a thing he doesn’t need, has never needed, never will need. Is it “true for them but not for him?” Or is it just true, in some sense that passes all understanding?

I’ve joked that every post I write now must have an obligatory Jordan Peterson reference, since certain corners of the web have crowned me their Peterson expert. But here I must protest that it truly is apt, because Arnade’s journey collides directly with Peterson’s journey. The questions they ask are the same: Is religion useful or true? Is religion true if it’s useful? What is truth? Can people live without religion? Can I live without religion? Both Arnade and Peterson are men of science long estranged from the church. Yet both are discovering that religion, in some deep sense, won’t leave them alone. Perhaps it won’t leave any of us alone.

But here is where the elite coastal atheist makes his move, in the form of Sam Harris relentlessly pushing Peterson in live conversation to explain what exactly he is talking about. What does a religious framework offer that the proper balance of secular replacement heuristics couldn’t? Who needs this crude fantasy as a crutch through life? “Well, what if you’re not very smart?” Peterson suggests. Harris pounces: “So what you’re saying is that stupid people need their myths.” The point stings, but Peterson tries to hit back: “We’re all stupid, Sam.”

And here is where Arnade hangs between: There’s the part of himself that says “Well, stupid people need their myths.” Then there’s the part that catches himself, saying, “No, that’s not quite what I mean. Maybe I don’t know quite what I mean. Maybe we’re all stupid.” He might have a Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins, but what does that do for him out here on the streets? What does the front row offer you “when you’re up against evil,” or when you need “a source of hope?” An education? A smart argument? In the back row, to Arnade these things feel as inept as they are distant. His colleagues no longer look so wise, and Preacher Man no longer looks so foolish.

But here is where I also feel compelled to point out the sad string of false equivalencies in the young Arnade’s frustrated reply to the preacher. I feel bound to inform him that Christianity does not entail just one highly specific interpretive package deal on Scripture. I feel like saying I’m sorry he was led to think that it did.

And yet, I wince when I hear the hypothetical chorus of voices behind me: “Yeah, we don’t think the world is only five thousand years old either! We’re sophisticated Christians! We don’t have goofy hangups about evolution! Come read our favorite sophisticated theologians instead!”

Something tells me Arnade wouldn’t buy that pitch. Dare I say, it’s a very front-row pitch. And the way it’s usually packaged, I wouldn’t buy it either.

Still, I hope. I hope Chris can see Christianity as the religion of not only Josh and Jenny and Jerry, but Aquinas, Kepler, Descartes, Paley, Mendel, Lemaitre, Lewis and Tolkien and Eliot. I hope he will encounter the One who compelled the working man and the thinking man alike to follow him, and compels them still.

For now, I leave Arnade standing where, perhaps, Jordan Peterson also now stands: still just on the pragmatist’s side of Lessing’s ditch, still unable to make the leap. But this much, at least, he knows: The people standing up to testify at the front of the back row church will continue to testify long after he is gone. They once were lost, and now they’re found. They once were blind, and now they see.

This book does not build to an exciting conclusion. It does not finish with a bold stroke or end on a high note of proposed policy solutions. Arnade says some things he wants to say, goes on until he gets to the end, and then, a bit awkwardly, stops. Relentlessly self-aware, he describes his own conclusion that “maybe we just need to listen to each other more” as “wishy-washy.” But it’s the best he can come up with. For this reader, it’s enough.

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