A striking, joyful portrait of America's greatest divide
There was something on nearly every page of Chris Arnade's Dignity that could have made me angry. The insouciance, folly, and sheer wickedness of our leaders has never been laid before us with such clarity. On the whole, however, I would not describe it as an angry book. In fact, I have rarely read anything that left me feeling more hopeful.
In 2011, Arnade was a Wall Street bond trader who no longer felt like listening—at least not to his friends and colleagues, who told him, with the same affectless certainty that had carried them through the financial crisis with all their wealth and privileges intact, that he should not visit the South Bronx. Arnade ignored them and went anyway and began to photograph and write about poverty in Hunts Point. He later left his position at CitiBank in order to travel the United States doing the same sort of work in every community imaginable — "black, white, Hispanic, rural, urban" — from Maine to Ohio to Alabama to California.
Eight years and some 72,000 photographs later, Arnade, whose reporting during the 2016 election seemed to me practically the only journalism of any value done at the time, has written a book about his travels.
What did he take away from them? The thesis of this book — if it has one — is that the most fundamental division in American life is not partisan or geographic or, except incidentally, racial or religious. The real gap is between what Arnade calls "front-row" and "back-row" America, that is, between the sort of people who accepted the sinister logic of credentialism and took their places in our globalized meritocracy and those who, for any number of reasons, remained behind. Many members of the former group are, like Arnade himself, committed liberals and progressives, who believe that by supporting the right political candidates and donating money to the appropriate causes they will improve the lot of the former. They despair of the violence, addiction, and exploitation visited upon back-row America, assuming they are aware of them. But they do not, on the whole, question the division, which they accept as a natural consequence of their education.
If I choose not to dwell overlong on Arnade's analysis of his own reporting it is not because I think it is false but rather because it seems to me so painfully, mind-numbingly obvious. The fact that no one had quite put it this way before is an indictment of our intellectual class, not of the author.
But there is another, more important reason. No argument could possibly do justice or even add much of value to the wonderful human stories Arnade has gathered in his years of reporting. Any attempt to subsume his subjects into some kind of grand intellectual narrative would involve a kind of violence against the men and women to whom he spoke, gave coffee and food and cigarettes and occasionally small amounts of cash or money for detoxification and drug rehabilitation. The fact of their humanity, with its infinite variety and inherent fascination, is far more valuable than any conclusion their collective experience might suggest.
This is not to say that I came away from this book without any ideas. One thing that Arnade's reporting has forever altered is my attitude toward McDonald's. So far from being simply the most ubiquitous dispenser of semi-toxic cheap fast food, it is a supremely important American institution, the last bastion of democracy and community in thousands of our towns and cities. Even if the United States had a communist government it would be necessary for the golden arches to tower above the coffee and and tea and ice-cream dispensing, public bathroom and free internet-providing community center. Andy Warhol was, as usual, right.
It is a testament to the survival of integrity in American publishing that Sentinel has issued Dignity with 116 of Arnade's photographs in full color, one for every two or so pages of text. The boards and endpapers are also very fine, and the paper is thick and attractive. The cost of producing it must have been enormous.
It is impossible to imagine this book without the photographs (though I think that many of them came off just as well in the galley version, which reproduced them in black and white). It is here, I think, that we see the full realization of Dignity's ambition, which exceeds the author's literary gifts (striking as they are, especially his ear for dialogue).
Very few pictures are in fact worth a thousand words. Here are some worth many more than that: A man in a green hooded sweatshirt with a can of malt liquor in his hand is sitting on a bare mattress next to a younger-looking dark-haired woman whose face, though uncovered, seems somehow mysterious, filled with an indescribable admixture of wisdom and sorrow. There is some all-important bond, some shared suffering or task, between these two; the picture could serve as the study for a modern-dress painting of St. Joseph and Our Blessed Mother. In another, occupying two full pages in the center of the book, a woman dressed in a two-piece bathing suit struts as if bestriding a catwalk next to a running fire hydrant; she is larger than Hollywood would tell us any woman who appears publicly in such an outfit has any business being and has a small tattoo above her chest. Her face has the telling wrinkles of a lifelong smoker. It has something else as well — an ebullience and a certain self-possession, a quiet but knowing recognition of a grandeur that she probably would not admit to herself aloud. Beside her a man holds a plastic water bottle cut in half next to the hydrant, as if he believes that her vitality is something that can be bottled. These and dozens of other pictures of men and women hugging, kissing, eating, smoking, jumping, and praying will be appreciated as long as there is such a thing as American art or literature.
Dignity is a modern classic, worthy of Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, and even of Dickens. This comparison to the author of Bleak House is not facile; it speaks both to Arnade's talents and to the sort of criticism he is likely to receive. Orwell complained that it was "hopeless to try and pin [Dickens] down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine" because "he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure." Like Orwell, I suspect that many of Arnade's readers will take him to task for not offering any "solutions." He anticipates as much in his epilogue, where he says that his only real conclusion is that "we all need to listen to each other more" and calls his position "wishy-washy." It is nothing of the sort. As a middle-aged Polish philosopher wrote to a friend in 1968:
I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical significance and the mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical than of the moral order. To this disintegration … we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of "recapitulation" of the mystery of the person.
Dignity is one of the best nonfiction books published in my lifetime because it recognizes this ambition, all too rare in our literature, vaults above it, and twirls with an ineffable exuberance, carried away with the joy and wonder and mystery of being human.