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Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America…

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (edition 2019)

by Chris Arnade (Author)

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Title:Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
Authors:Chris Arnade (Author)
Info:Sentinel (2019), 304 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

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Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade



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The results of the author's journey into many of the places you're told not to go, and his interactions with the people who live there.

The author tells of his journey as a "front row" member of America: got out of small town life, got credentialed, made money. He began interacting with people who were, as he put it, in "back row" America: no credentials, and only have one another, faith, drugs, etc. He chronicles what he saw from the Bronx to Selma, Bakersfield to Lewiston, Maine.

He finds a lot of common threads. There was work in factories, and now it's gone. People turn to drugs to cope and escape. Faith remains robust, even if it does not always produce the expected repentance. People rely on each other. McDonald's becomes the meeting house and safe haven.

It's hard to put down; the author has portrayed his subjects in a compelling and often sympathetic manner. It's an important thing for members of "front row" America to see, and a reminder of the cost of globalization and the movement of capital over the past 40 years.

The work resonated with me in many ways. The author could have just as easily visited my hometown as he did many others; I, like him, had to "get out" and now live among the credentialed class. On the other hand, I am not as successful as he, and feel more ambivalent about my departure than he does; I am undoubtedly "front row" in many respects, yet appreciate some of the community values of the "back row," and am more suspicious about the viability and health of the meritocracy and valuing people by their productivity.

The most unsatisfying part of the book is its end. After having so richly portrayed "back row" America, the author essentially shrugs and moves on. He still validated his departure and the existence of the distinctive cultures of the "front row" and "back row" Americas. Indeed, he did expect "front row" America to recognize its power and privilege and stop despising "back row" Americans and seek to understand their plight. And yet it seems the author thinks the difficulties for "back row" America are largely intractable. Those factory jobs are not coming back; he is probably accurate in thinking credentials will continue to be the required norm for the foreseeable future.

It doesn't have to be this way, but it is continuing this way since it "works" for most of "front row" America. If only we did not maintain such a failure of imagination when it comes to the rest of the country. ( )
  deusvitae | Jun 29, 2019 |
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Once or twice a generation, an author reveals what life is like for the truly needy and disenfranchised. Like Jacob Riis in the 1890s, Walker Evans in the 1930s, or Michael Harrington in the 1960s, Chris Arnade cuts through the jargon and abstractions to expose the reality of our current class divide in stark pictures and unforgettable true stories. After abandoning his Wall Street career, Arnade decided to document poverty and addiction in the Bronx, spending years interviewing, photographing, and becoming close friends with homeless addicts, hanging out in drug dens and McDonald's in the South Bronx. Then he started driving across America to see how the rest of the country compared. He found the same types of stories everywhere, across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, and geography. The people he got to know, from Alabama to California and Maine to Nevada, gave Arnade a new respect for the dignity and resilience of what he calls America's Back Row-those who lack the credentials and advantages of the Front Row. The strivers in the Front Row, with their advanced degrees and upward mobility, see the Back Row's forms of meaningas worthless, and then tell them they are wasting their time staying in dying towns or cities. Why not move for better jobs? The responses from the Back Row-about the comforts of faith, community, family, and tradition-are seen as backward. But the Back Row finds love, companionship, and dignity in surprising places-in drug dens, community colleges, churches, and even in McDonald's. In Arnade's pictures and writings, the suffering and flawed are also seen searching for dignity in the midst of loss and humiliation. As Takeesha, a woman in Hunts Point, told Arnade, she wants the secular elites to see her as she sees herself- "a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God." This book is his attempt to help the rest of us truly see, hear, and respect millions of people who've been left behind.… (more)

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