Bookshot #148: Dignity
A lot of very rich, allegedly smart people entrenched in our elite classes like to make grand
pronouncements about how they "understand" the country. Too many of them treat anything outside of Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles as some kind of exotic, dystopian, a foreign country. A lot of them churn out the typical pieces about "working-class voters in the Rust Belt" every four years and leave it at that. The number of writers or journalists that actually attempt to understand what's going on in those parts of the country is vanishingly small. Salena Zito is one. Chris Arnade and his book Dignity: Seeking Respect In Back Row America is another.
Arnade left his Wall Street job and ventured into the neighborhood of Hunt's Point in the Bronx and began documenting what he saw there and learning about the lives of the people who lived there. He then headed out across the country- to places like Selma, Alabama, and Cairo, Illinois, Portsmouth, Ohio- all over the place, to see how the people who lived in these "forgotten towns"- the places he calls "Back Row" America compared to his experiences in New York.
What he found is sobering. Too many people have been left behind by both the factors you'd expect (racism, white flight, globalization) and some you don't (sometimes people can't just *move*, despite what people say- sometimes, people just don't want to.) But either way, things aren't getting better in too many places and the current cultural divide between the haves and the have nots makes acknowledging the depths of the crisis next to impossible. But Arnade deserves a lot of credit for writing a book that could very easily get lost in the weeds of the culture war but somehow doesn't- even when discussing racism, which is a rare feat these days I think.
There's real power in just telling a story that I think gets lost in the age of social media. Everyone needs to offer their opinions, everyone needs to push their chosen narrative, everyone needs to offer their own takes- and because of the blizzard of bullshit that comes with any given topic, actual stories get lost in all the noise. Dignity is, to my mind, an increasingly rare phenomenon: it can't be pigeonholed by either side of the culture war and it sheds light on a problem that is vital and necessary to understand if we're going to ever get to the other side of our current political moment. Too many people are struggling in too many places in America. They're overlooked, they're forgotten, their values are ignored at best, demonized at worst and there's no sign that's going to change anytime soon.
There are points of commonality across all the places that Arnade visits: food deserts are common. A lot of these places used to be prosperous- but with the rise of globalization, the factories left and the jobs went with them. With the rise of big corporations like Wal-Mart, a lot of main streets were devastated. Also, McDonald's seems to be a common social center for a lot of these places- people meet there to pray, meet with their drug counselor, do homework- everything. While everyone knows McDonald's is pretty ever-present across America, you don't really think of it as a sort of social gathering spot for a community- but for many of these communities, it's the only game in town.
Arnade doesn't quite get into the 2016 election, but he pays a visit to Cleveland toward the end of the book just in time for the Republican Convention and he finds what you'd expect to find: a lot of support for Donald Trump-- but it's also... uneasy support in some quarters. Some people saw Trump for what he actually was: just another rich person and hardly the savior that many people expected him to be. But it's also not the caricature of voters in these "places" that the national media crafted in the wake of Trump's electoral victory either.
Overall: This is an incredible book and everyone should read it- but especially policy-makers, politicians, and anyone interested in actually understanding the reality of America today. My Grade: **** out of ****