Chris Arnade's 'Dignity' is a Modern Classic

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.

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