Book Review: Chris Arnade’s “Dignity”

“When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” —Matt 9:11

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Those who have followed Chris Arnade on Twitter or Flickr will be gratified that his new book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America has arrived. I bought it and it’s excellent. It’s also very well produced on heavy, glossy stock, as befits a work that is, at least in part, a photobook. From the back flap, Arnade’s bio:

Chris Arnade is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Time, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal, among many others. He has a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University and worked for twenty years as a trader at an elite Wall Street bank before leaving in 2012 to document addiction in the Bronx.

In a word, Arnade is “smart.” I’ll let The Economist describe the background of his book. From “A Wall Street trader’s photographic journey to ‘back row’ America

Eight years ago Chris Arnade, a physicist turned Wall Street trader, ventured up to Hunts Point, a rough and isolated section of the South Bronx, armed with curiosity and a camera. A habitual walker, Mr Arnade had begun to feel a sort of moral restlessness in the wake of the financial crisis. In his view, his industry was responsible for—yet largely insulated from—the effects of the recession.

He realised that he knew far too little about the many Americans who were much poorer than his social circle. So, in the Bronx, he began talking to people and photographing them. What he encountered “wasn’t what I was told I would find—it was welcoming, warm and beautiful, not empty, dangerous and ugly.” Thus began a 150,000-mile, multi-year journey through unthriving America—urban and rural, black and white, from Lewiston, Maine, to Bakersfield, California, with many waypoints in between—that Mr Arnade has woven into “Dignity”, his deeply empathetic book….

“Dignity” is “about” inequality in much the same way that James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”—a seminal study of tenant farmers in Alabama, illustrated with stark photographs by Walker Evans—was “about” the Great Depression.

His photographs—of addicts and street scenes, invalids and sports events—are uncaptioned, which lends them an everyman air. But they are intimate and unflinching. He quotes people at length, letting them define themselves on their own terms. “Everyone wants to feel like a valued member of something larger than themselves,” he writes. In his telling, back-row Americans find this sense of belonging in places “that [do not] demand credentials”, whether it be church, family or people who share their drug habit.

Ah, credentials. This post will really not be a review of Arnade’s book. Rather, I will quote extracts from the book, and briefly comment on upon them. (The extracts were really hard to create; Arnade’s prose seems to lope along, but there’s not a lot of slack in it, save as needed to make a point; the front row/back row trope recurs throughout, for example.) Before concluding with a few remarks in lieu of a review, I’ll look at Arnade’s principles for photography, which are in my view excellent and important (although the photos themselves are alas not really reproducible here).

Front Row and Back Row

Quoting Arnade, from pages 44–46:

I spent most of my life focused on getting ahead by education [paging Thomas Frank]. Putting education first and going to college and then grad school were expected, so I applied myself. I left my rural town and got into elite schools… I was hardly alone. My office, my neighborhood, and most of my adult friends were like me and like the residences of most successful neighborhoods [paging Richard Florida] across the country, ones filled with bankers, professors, and lawyers….

In many ways, we were akin to the kids who sat in the front row, always eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew they were learning. We wanted to get ahead and we did. We were now in the front row of everything we did, not physically but hierarchically…. The shared experience and the rules necessary to succeed had left us with the same worldview…. We were mobile, having moved many times before, and we would move again. Saying put was a sign of failure…. We believed in free trade, globalization, and deregulation… If certain communities, towns, and people, suffered in this, it was all for the greater good in the name of progress.

While our front row neighborhoods filled with bespoke and artisanal stores, those left behind, literally and figuratively, were left to cope with the new landscape we had created.

If we were the front row, they were the back row. They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college. [They wanted] to graduate from high school and get a stable job allowing them to raise a family, often in the same community they were born into.

Instead the back row is now left living in a banal world of hyper efficient fast-food franchises, strip malls, discount stores, and government buildings with flicking fluorescent lights and dreary-colored walls festooned with rules. They left with a world where their sense of home and family and community won’t get them anywhere, won’t pay the bills, And with a world where their jobs are disappearing.

I don’t know if this neoliberal hellscape explains Trump, but it does contextualize him, and in a way that the cool kids who invented and promoted of the term “economic anxiety” as a derisive characterization for what could possibly motivate Trump voters besides racism are unlikely to be able to do. I also wouldn’t be surprised if McDonald’s corporate just hates all this, and thinks of robots as possible way of cleansing their stores.

I myself was a front row kid, although I literally sat in the back, so I could slouch in my desk.[1] So, as I keep saying, front row kids “are my people.” Here is a photograph — not one of Arnade’s — whose composition makes the front row/back row distinction about as literal as it can be made:

So I have to explain which row is which?


NC readers may find these political views refreshingly familiar. Sage from Bakersfield, an older black man, “starts a long speech, delivered not so much with passion but with a sense of exasperation, as if this is something he has been thinking over and over and he is sure is important but nobody else really cases about.” Pages 94-95:

White-collar crime is the biggest crime, but nobody gets thrown in jail for that. Nobody gets prosecuted. Not only don’t they get any of that, they get a big check from the president. Barack Obama tells us he is one of us, says, “Look at my skin, I am one of you,” but he doesn’t help anybody when they are down except you bankers. Nobody helps us out here. We get thrown in jail. This here is a crooked society, and they wonder why we run from police. We ain’t blind. People we have in office are criminals and protect their big friends who are also criminals. We out on the streets, voters, we suffer. Nobody has a heart in this country. Step into a homeless shelter and see how the system doesn’t care about anybody hurting. Reality hurts. Nobody likes to face reality.

All true. Though one might wonder why.


NC readers may find these religious views less congenial. Frank, Johnson County, Tennessee pages 115-116:

“When we ate it was food we got from the mess hall or hunting. One month all we ate was cake mix, because he [his father] brought a large mess of that home. He was too proud to ask for help.”

“I was always called dumb by everyone, my teachers, other students. Pretty soon I dropped out of school. I been working all my life, but not knowing your ABCs, you have to work harder, because that is all the work you can get. I was a big guy, and I made it the only way I knew how, with my body. But you know what they say: The harder you work the less you make.

I drank and smoked some weed. I did drugs to feel happiness and joy and forget all my pains and problems…. I felt so dumb; nobody wanted me. They was a lifesaver. I would have killed myself without them. I tried a few time, put gun to my head, but thought of all the people I had to raise.

I broke my neck in ’93 and they started pushing pain pills on me, and soon I was hooked. I am shamed by my dealing and buying of pills. Shamed. That isn’t who I am.

Then I got saved at fifty. It changed me I had never felt worthy of before of being saved. I was too dumb. Now I understand I am worthy of the Lord. When you are told all your life you’re dumb, unworthy, you start believing it. God changed that for me.

Marx’s quip about religion being the opium of the people seems to me (I’ve moved from agnosticism to Episcopalianism to atheism to a vague form of animism) both very right, and very wrong. It’s hard to see how DSA, for example, could appeal to back row America without an account of religion.


Arnade once more, pages 38-9:

In Hunts Point [in the Bronx], I found myself going to McDonald’s every day because everyone did. It was an essential part of my new [addict] friends’ life. Without a stable home, they needed clean water, a place to charge a phone, a place to get free WiFi. McDonald’s had all those, and it also had good cheap food. (“Coffee with fifteen packs of Sweet’N Low, pancakes covered in syrup and sugar. Extra syrup. An addict’s breakfast.”)

They started their day in the McDonald’s, often around noon, cleaning up and sometimes shooting up in the bathrooms and, since the bathrooms didn’t have mirrors, putting on makeup in the sideview mirrors of cars in the parking lot. Then they spent hours off and on hanging at a table, escaping the heat or the cold.

McDonalds’s was a space where they could be themselves on their own terms. It was a place to momentarily escape the drama and chaos of the streets, a place that allowed them to rejoin society on the same terms as everyone else. They needed and appreciated that far more than I did.

McDonalds’s wasn’t just central to my friends, it was important to everyone in the neighborhood. It was always packed with families and older couples, especially on weekend mornings. In the evenings, it was filled with teenagers or young couples going out.

There weren’t really many other options. McDonald’s was one of the few spaces open to the public that worked….. McDonald’s was Hunts Points de facto community center, and if I wanted to understand Hunts Points, I had to send time in McDonald’s.

On Arnade’s 150,000 journey, his method was to first stop at McDonald’s in every town he visited. Arnade also makes a point of saying this:

While wonderful and well-intentioned non-profits serve Hunts Point, whenever I asked anyone where they wanted to meet or grab a meal, it was almost always McDonald’s. When I asked why not the nonprofits or the public parks, the answer would be some variation of “What is that?” or “They always telling you what to do. The nonprofits came with lots of rules and lectures about behavior, with quiet or not-so-quiet judgment.

Thinking of DSA then, or any entity that wants to organize, arranging meetings in the belly of the nonprofit industrial complex might not necessarily be the go-to play.

The Photographs

Finally, the photos. The only interview I’ve been able to find that focused on them is from Tony Foto. That site reproduces the first spread in the book:

And this spread:

The Economist, above, called Arnade’s photos “intimate and unflinching.” They also, it seemed to me, could not be taken in any other place and time than America in the neoliberal era. They are also more subtly composed than they might first appear. Arnade comments on their making:

One of the most difficult things to do as a photographer is to not “artify” or add too much drama to your pictures. To take simple photos that respect, not transform, what you find.

Complexity is easy. Simplicity is hard:

For a long time I fought the realization that much of poverty takes place amidst the banal. Partly because of what I had seen before, via the more traditional and famous photos of poverty [Agee, mentioned by The Economist above], which rendered it dramatic and the subjects broken. Sharply contrasting black & white, wooden homes, weathered faces, clichéd poses, whatever, you know what I mean. I thought maybe that was how it was supposed to be photographed.

But the reality I found was more like the interior of McDonald’s, or the decidedly bland architecture of low-income housing projects. It was cheap corporate – an attempt through bright colors to hide the shoddy or uncomfortable environment, or through countless grey tones, to not offend anyone.

Cheap corporate, combined with desperate — and very often successful! — attempts by the back row kids to break through the greyness with vivid color and form (as Arnade’s photos show, over and over).


I think that Arnade’s front row/back row trope is useful — The Economist, hilariously, whinges that Arnade’s view of the front row kids is insufficiently nuanced — in that it separates, as it were, the wolves from the scapegoats. I think all of us can think of examples in our daily lives where the trope works. However, Arnade does not give an account of those who own the systems he describes. Trivially, if there is a factory owner or even a landlord in the book, I didn’t find one. Are they front row or back row? Less trivially, where is the 1%? Did they ascend to their lofty perches only by acquiring credentials? As with Sage’s rant, the drivers that make for these human conditions seem absent.


[1] Just think! If I’d been able to stay on track, I’d be an Associate Professor in some small humanities college, drinking heavily while remaining functional, and with a wife and kids who hated me, all while not knowing why. “George and Martha, sad, sad, sad.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. cripes

    Once we had a literature and theater and photography and music of, and even by, the common man. From Jack London, Sinclair Lewis in the 20’s, Reginald Marsh (if you haven’t seem him, do) Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller even cheapo 1980’s movies about Detroit auto workers.

    Then it just disappeared alongside the destruction of the commons, and jawbs, and citizens.

    Weegee The Great excelled in showing the juxtaposition of rich and poor, in close and personal proximity.

    Excuse me, I gotta go check my facebook/instagram/whattsapp to see what people just like me are doing…

    Or maybe, as Barbara would say: “why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

    1. polecat

      Now, all we have is the likes of “Hamilton” .. producued by, and for, and directed by the front-row crowd and their progeny.

      1. The Rev Kev

        You know, that is a good observation that. A play made by the elite for the enjoyment of the elite with the central idea being the glorification of an individual that exemplified the worst aspects of the new Republic.
        Come to think of it – didn’t Obama once accuse Putin of being one of those disruptive back-row kids who needed disciplining? Obama would definitely have been a front-row kid most of his life.

        1. Dan

          As the descendant of west Pennsylvania distillers around Hamilton’s time, I must agree – of all the ‘founding fathers’ to worship, Hamilton is an especially revolting specimen.

        2. J7915

          Had a long time NYC resident point out to me that Hamilton accalerated the gentrification of Washington Heights. North end of Manhattan for really out of towners.

          I visited Washington Heights at intervals from 1957 till 2016, noted the changes towards snobby. Grand father and then my mother lived there during that time. Now I could not afford to move back there, not that I can see myself affording housing where I live in Tulsa, Ok now. Thank God mortgage paid off.

          So much for low inflation.

        1. ambrit

          Gilbert and Sullivan could very well have crossed paths with Marx and Engels in Victorian London.
          Who of any intellectual weight would the ‘Projectors’ of “Hamilton” have crossed paths with?

      2. Michael Fiorillo

        “… produced by and for, and directed by the front-row crowd and their progeny”

        And with a heaping helping of IdPol added… it’s an cartoonish representation of the current era, and of which its fans are cartoonishly unaware…

  2. Rick

    I haven’t finished this yet, but it is faithful to the posts he made. The photographs are great, and for me tell a better story than the text.

    It’s a good book, but I feel he falls into a front row/scientific thought pattern even as he describes such. He wants to understand why some people are in the back and some are in the front. The trouble is, while statistically this is useful for policy it doesn’t work with individuals. I came from a distinctly back row family of origin but wound up in the front row while my sister is a homeless narcotic addict.

    The problem I see with this ‘why are people like this’ way of thinking is it yet again leads to moral judgments even if Arnade doesn’t make them himself.

    I find Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs” (poor title, wish he could have come up with a less click bait-y one) a much more satisfying deep look at some of the issues with our culture.

    1. Cripes

      Hey, Rick, curious to know how you navigate the responsibilities of being brother to a homeless addict, with the difficulty of doing something meaningful to help her.

      Not being critical here, something I have experienced in my own life, as well as the many families I served in a dozen years Social Service work.

      I suspect our society the way it’s currently constructed doesn’t make it any easier for people to help their friends and families if they need them. Bootstraps and all.

      1. Chauncey Gardiner

        Thank you for a profound comment and question in your first sentence, Cripes. Suspect few families are unscathed in one form or another. Anything constructive you can draw on from your experience in social service work?

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          I second your comment.

          But I have a problem with one individual helping another — related or not — because of the implicit obligation from the helped to the helper — of course, the opposite obligation is implicit in being human. Better our society should be the helper and our government should be agent for our society. Every one of us should be our brother’s keeper and also the keeper for the brothers and sisters of others. Otherwise … what should become of Humankind?

          1. chimerika

            something in what you said, jeremy, caused me to recoil slightly. who is this “society” you speak of if not for the individuals who comprise it?

            1. Cripes

              At 10:12 CST, I’m still delivering pizza but, generally government programs and their partners in the non-profit industrial complex treat their clients as fodder for the grant-making mill. Chasing outcomes and metrics and all that crap.

              Still a small fraction of all those resources does go to house, feed, cloth,etc. And not doing it at all would be even worse.

              But we need a new paradigm and a new system to deliver services. Much of it really is making sure people have housing, Medical Care, education in the first place before they’re destitute and sleeping on the sidewalk.

              Living wages, family stipend, Nationwide standards for medical leave family leave and vacation time are long overdue, we share the distinction with New Guinea of being only country on earth that doesn’t.

              My question came from the observation that families suffer a lot of economic pain in addition to the human aspect when they do render care to the Aging, the infirm, the mentally ill or the addict. They are counseled to abandon them, and let them hit bottom and all that other crap, but the bottom line is the society doesn’t support family members who are actually doing the work. That’s where my comment came from

              Yeah, I hardly want voluntary charities to replace a government entitlement, entitlement in the best original sense. Still, the prospect of a faceless and often soul-crushing bureaucracy armed with their miserable means testing is also grim.
              Families, neighbors and actual people must be part of the process. We can all agree tax money should go to human care instead of bombs.

              Yep, the poverty pimps, professional-class parasites, the callous bureaucrats, and the underpaid, undertrained attendants at nursing homes and childcare centers are not who you want taking care of you.

              Our society, more than any other in the industrialized world, fails to support families and communities who do this vital work. And do it better.

                1. Cripes

                  Not sure what Lambert is responding to here, but tens of millions of people are not and will not be in the workforce now and in perpetuity and will not benefit from the jobs guarantee, but my earlier point is that people perform valuable unpaid work on behalf of their children parents, spouses, grandparents that we pay other people to do poorly and is mostly done better by family members. Work which is compensated in many countries, but not in the land of family values.

                  That compensation takes many forms, home care programs, EITC, maternity and paternity leave, sick leave, paid holidays, and is miserly here

                  1. PlutoniumKun

                    I agree with you on this. In the past in the UK I’ve worked on some of the type of schemes which would operate under a Jobs Guarantee (conservation work aimed at getting people back into the workforce) and in reality only a minority of struggling people benefit. Simply offering a job to someone who has multiple issues and problems in their lives (often caused by the poverty) is not a panacea and can even make things worse (think single mothers/fathers).

                    If you look at the type of schemes that proved very successful in South America under Lula and Chavez, a key component was simply giving people money in a context where they could use it to shift themselves out of the pit they found themselves. This is particularly important for women with children.

                    The issues are complex – I can’t pretend to have an answer – but I think that fundamental supports – including some type of basic income has to be a complement to proposals like a Jobs Guarantee. Poverty is not a simple phenomenon, there are self reinforcing processes at work

            2. Jeremy Grimm

              As you say, Society is indeed composed of individuals. However, the relationship between Society and any individual is not the same as the relationship between individuals. Society should embody the obligations of all to each and tender help without the strings that so often wrap an individual’s help to another. Society should help individuals who need help as an obligation to those individuals. Individuals should help and support Society in providing help to others as an obligation to Society and to the Common Good.

  3. juliania

    Not to critique a book I haven’t read, Lambert, but as to the quotation you put below the headline, I am rather reflecting that the front row kids, as in the first photo, would be the tax collectors of that verse, and must be those to whom the book directs its message. After all, Caesar himself is distant, very distant, in Scriptural references, most likely because his power and the power of his minions caused even the family of the Christ child to withdraw to Egypt. Such was not the power even that great spiritual enterprise sought to confront and mingle with directly back in the day.

    Food for thought. I am moved by the connection the photograph presents between front and back rows, not by the separation of a pane of glass. Let it be!

    1. Aleric

      Remember, at that time most Judeans saw themselves as an occupied nation, and the tax collectors were the agents of the occupying power. Tough for Americans to analagize to, perhaps Russian agents to someone who believes Putin controls Trump. The front row kids would be the Pharasees. And perhaps Samaritans as Mexicans.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Samaritans were basically the local Judeans except they had their own Temple. The same scriptures and so forth. The priest class obviously didn’t want that kind of thing catching on. Its more like Romulans and Vulcans. The front row kids as described by Arnade would be the Sadducees as they isolate themselves in Temple worship. The Pharisees lived among and provided services to the population, the point of education, this is why the Pharisees won out. They weren’t destroyed with the Temple.

        How do we know most Judeans saw themselves as an occupied territory? They lived at the dawn of the Pax Romana.

  4. WheresOurTeddy

    Thank you for this. Arnade’s book is timely and important, and I hope it is read widely.

    3 families control more wealth than the bottom 50% of Americans.
    26 people control more wealth than the bottom 50% of all Human Beings.
    Being a billionaire is morally indefensible.

    Sanders 2020

  5. JBird4049

    A hip coffee shop next to expensive boutiques and art galleries across from a homeless encampment under the freeway #houston

    Looks like some places under Hwy 101 or interstate 280 near the Mission or is it South of Market(?) in San Francisco. How marvelous.

    1. Wukchumni

      We were in Dana Point last summer @ a nice beachside hotel, the kind that hits you up for $25 a day mandatory valet parking.

      While on the patio of the 3rd floor, we were looking down a few hundred feet away at a homeless camp. The juxtaposition was quite something.

      Leaving Los Angeles earlier in the week, we noticed homeless tents in every imaginable nook & cranny aside the freeway.

  6. dearieme

    In many ways, we were akin to the kids who sat in the front row, always eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew they were learning.

    What a lunatic custom. In my school the bright and well behaved were sat at the back. The dim and troublesome were sat under the teacher’s eye. It was the teacher’s classroom and you sat where you were told. Infinitely wiser.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      “eager to learn”

      I think Arnade is patting himself on the back a bit too much. Front row kids, in my experience, were a lot less concerned about learning than they were about getting the “A.” Going to school always came easy for me, so I could sit in the back, not take things too seriously, cause a little trouble and still attain that for which the brown-nosers were so obsessed–at least through high school.

      During my last semester in high school, I read way too much Herman Hesse and headed off to college ready for both revolution and a serious pursuit of Truth. It took me three semesters and a brutal encounter with Pat Moynihan’s slimy head section man, Iran-Contra operator Les Lenkowsky (a front row kid if there ever was one), to understand that college had little to do with the pursuit of Truth and a lot to do with submissively grooming the professor’s already oversized ego. Embarking on a quest for the truth was only going to get you into trouble. What made the difference between the “A” and the “B” was how cleverly you accomplished the required apple polishing. Since there was little of substance going on anyway, I adapted and found the remainder of college and three grad/professional schools to be pretty easy with plenty of time for partying or working or being a father along the way. But I tried and most succeeded in not making that system’s values my own. Receiving that front row grade did not move me to think “Oh, how much I have learned!” or “Oh, how smart I am!” but instead, “Managed to beat the system again!”

      So did I transform into a “front row kid?” No such luck. Giving a prof what they want in a term paper or exam for a few weeks is one thing. Giving a boss what they want five or six days a week for the rest of your life is another. No thanks. So I’ve hung out in the back row dodging the system as best I could, trying (and sometimes failing) to do as little harm as possible and maybe the occasional good.

      So, Lambert, when I read your thoughts these days, it’s hard for me to believe you were ever a real “front row kid.” The part of your mind, the part that loves to learn and think, the part that we all love to hear from on NC, that part would not have survived. I’ll look forward to reading Arnade (whose background is similar to mine) to see if he was just a poser like me all along or if he was assimilated and has now somehow reversed it, at least partially.

      Those poor front row kids. If you’ve ever known one who fell off the merry-go-round, it’s usually quite hard for that person to adapt. The very structure of their world has collapsed along with their sense of who they are. They’re lost in the dark without a flashlight or match. That’s one of the things that’s most frightening about our current complex of predicaments, because the more things unravel, the less able our 10%-ers will be able to cope.

      It will be back row kids who will have to come to the rescue because we never believed in the validity of this system.

      1. Fiery Hunt

        Such a beautiful comment…yeah, I fear that the confusion over the depth of sophistication of the back row kids vs, the successful conformity of the shallow front row kids may make the framework eventually fail. Some of us back row kids are just as edumacated, just as literate, just as keen as them A students. (Twain’s characters leapt to my mind so…) We may not be in homeless camps. We may be working at the local hardware store. Or the coffee shop. Or…

      2. NotTimothyGeithner

        Going to school always came easy for me, so I could sit in the back, not take things too seriously, cause a little trouble and still attain that for which the brown-nosers were so obsessed–at least through high school.

        Front row kids in my experience hate this. This is why Sanders doesn’t do well with the professional class. He doesn’t offer gold stars and demands critical thinking, and the truth is school isn’t particularly difficult if a person loves learning or has a good basis. I didn’t learn to read at school. I could read at age 3 because of a busy body older sister. I didn’t care about finder painting and scissors.

      3. deplorado

        Indeed, a beautiful comment, and I share the exact sentiment, especially in this paragraph:

        “So did I transform into a “front row kid?” No such luck. Giving a prof what they want in a term paper or exam for a few weeks is one thing. Giving a boss what they want five or six days a week for the rest of your life is another. No thanks. So I’ve hung out in the back row dodging the system as best I could, trying (and sometimes failing) to do as little harm as possible and maybe the occasional good.”

        I think, if you look really really closely, there is a factor in sorting people in front and back rows, and that is, I think, the willingness to serve power. My conclusion of nearly 2 decades of professional work life is that those who are more willing to bend their dignity (sell it) and able to do it without bothering them, are moved to the front row. That’s why we have such corrupt characters managing from our classrooms to boardrooms to WH warroom.
        So, being unwilling to bend a knee can land you in the back row. For sure.

      4. Aron Blue

        I suspect a fair amount of nc readers would self-identify as this type of back-row kid …

      5. lambert strether

        > The part of your mind, the part that loves to learn and think

        [lambert blushes modestly.]

        > if he was assimilated and has now somehow reversed it, at least partially.

        I think Arnade has somehow reversed it, but I bet its more in the pictures than the prose, on the principle that the art always says more than the artist thinks or intends.

    2. Shirley Ende-Saxe

      Absolutely. As a former teacher this is what I practiced. Also making sure to call on everyone during the (2) class periods (with 30 in a class it took that long). Surprising what you learn that way.

  7. Mattski

    Guess I’m getting old and jaded, but as a kid who came of age in Ann Arbor when the White Panthers held the city council and free concerts were held on Sundays, neither those people nor the coffee shop look hip or in the slightest bit interesting. Just another echelon of strivers, as even the foolish rich are today. After visits to old haunts in NYC and SF last year I see little that is of any real interest of value that is left. The world that Arnade rather smugly–and ambivalently–investigates (I have the book) is of greater interest, in the end, than the one he inhabits on the regular. As most good art reveals.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The world that Arnade rather smugly–and ambivalently–investigates (I have the book) is of greater interest, in the end, than the one he inhabits on the regular. As most good art reveals.

      I’m not sure smugness and good art are compatible. Do you think Arnade’s art is good?

  8. John Zelnicker

    Lambert – Thanks for the review. This will be the first book that I have bought in about ten years.

    I have followed the various Twitter threads of Arnade’s that you have posted in Links or Water Cooler over the past few years, and his photographs are always evocative. His work reminds me of some of the wonderful photographers of the Great Depression who were supported by one of the New Deal programs (I forget which one). They documented the despair of the people crushed by the economy and the fragility of their circumstances in black and white. In particular, there was a woman photographer, whose name I can’t recall right now, who took some of the most deeply emotive pictures of the real women and families depicted in John Steinbeck’s books and Woody Guthrie’s songs.

    Many of Arnade’s pictures are equally intense and enlightening.

    (OT, we need to bring back the many pro-union songs that Guthrie and others wrote in the ’20’s and ’30’s.)

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > In particular, there was a woman photographer, whose name

      Margaret Bourke-White?

      There is something to be said about Agee, Bourke-White, and the FSA photographers working in black and white (as they necessarily did) and Arnade working in color. But I don’t know what it is.

      1. Oregoncharles

        ;” the FSA photographers working in black and white (as they necessarily did) and Arnade working in color. But I don’t know what it is.”
        I lived and worked through that transition in “art” photography, so I’ll tell you that mainly, it’s the times. However, there is a real difference: B&W provides a layer of abstraction, hence art, right up front. Plus, it’s much easier to manipulate – I look at my old prints and think “boy, I was into contrast, wasn’t I?” If there are equivalent manipulations in color, I don’t know how to do them – though you can shift the spectrum easily.

        Color is more real and more immediate, because it’s closer to the way we actually see. More transparent. To get emotional impact, you have to either be really good or choose highly emotional subject matter.

        Arnade’s pictures, that I’ve seen, are really good – AND of emotional subject matter.

          1. The Rev Kev

            @Big Tap
            That’s a really great link that. Some of the scenes depicted in them could well have been taken in the 19th century rather than the early 20th century. Have only gone through a few score so far but I notice that when you see people, it is usually groups of people rather than one individual like you see in recent publications.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        NC readers should also check out the photojournalism of the great Danny Lyon… especially “Conversations With The Dead,” his book on the Texas prison system.

  9. chimerikan

    i’m unclear if the missing letters in the piece originated in the book or were the result of hasty transcription. i found them distracting!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Probably my keyboard. I need to figure out how to fix the battery compartment corrosion in my USB keyboard; cascading effects from a butterfly keyboard failure.

      Adding, I’ll give the piece a second read, but I would welcome corrections as well.

    1. Wukchumni

      In the best road trip tome ever written-Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon was drawn to interestingly named towns off the beaten track and his standard of how good a restaurant might be upon entering, was how many calendars were on the wall, a 5 calendar cafe usually had excellent grub, a 1 calendar, nothing special.

      Its really a last look at the country before the corp’se took over, his sojourn in the late 70’s~

      Now, that said…

      McDonalds is an interesting place in these times. They don’t discriminate against homeless from what i’ve seen, and it is ‘the’ ad hoc meeting place for seniors. Its also the one retail location I come face to face with the homeless, the rest of my sightings coming from behind the wheel largely. Many retail stores have a ‘move along’ feel when it comes to homeless, i’ve seen it often in gas station mini marts, etc.

      About 6 months ago I bought an ice cream cone @ McDonalds and was sitting at a table pecking away on a laptop, when perhaps the most filthy person i’ve ever laid eyes upon sat at the table across from me, also eating an ice cream cone.

      He was shoeless and so caked with dirt, you could have shook him out and started a garden with the proceeds.

      1. sleepy

        Re: Blue Highways

        When I lived in Houston that book prompted me to visit one of his haunts, Old Dime Box, TX, about half a mile from Dime Box, Tx.

      2. Off The Street

        Pro tip for McDonald’s visitors: Don’t use the touchpad kiosks. Some study(/ies) showed that they had all manner of bacteria. I imagine that the same holds true for other kiosky places, which could start one on some hand sanitizer cycle of creating more resistant bugs, and features.

        1. Wukchumni

          I insist upon transacting my business there with a human, who hopefully has the kind of bacteria i’m copacetic with, as they plead with me to supersize.

        2. Joe Well

          The last time I was in a McDs, first time in over a year, I had to stand at the empty counter for 5 minutes waiting for someone in the back to notice me.

          In the long run, you are helping workers by boycotting those things. In the short run, you are just annoying them.

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      same here, but a mite shorter distances.
      the locals always pick the greasy spoon with the worst food to be the “town hall”, it seems.
      but, really,on another level, the whole town is “town hall”.
      parts store, produce aisle, bank lobby, feed store…all the non-boutique, non-antique stores serve that function.
      i am not unaware of the rarity of this kind of thing.

  10. ambrit

    Around here, in the Deep South, North American Version, we have three McDonalds within three miles of each other. They are described, by the locals at that, as the ‘High Class’ Mickey D, the ‘University’ Mickey D, and the ‘Ghetto’ Mickey D. These apellations seem, from having patronized all of them at one time or another, to be essentially accurate as regards the basic class of customer preponderant at each venue. So, as to Arnade’s methodology regarding information gathering sites in each town or region, I would need to see the wider composition of the neighbourhoods. Granularity is all well and good, when combined with a more strategic organizing method. In sociology, which I view this exercise as an exemplar of, where does anecdote cross over into the realm of data?
    In both the ‘High Class’ and ‘Ghetto’ Mickey D’s, there are morning time ‘breakfast clubs’ of retired people. One was patronized by mainly White, Middle Class people who spoke about and argued about the morning paper’s contents. ‘Morning paper’ here covers a bit of ground, including newspapers, cable television, and internet news sources. The ‘Ghetto’ Mickey D hosted a Black crowd of retired Middle Class people who generally mirrored the so called ‘High Class’ outlet in their interests and sources of information. It all has been a continuing lesson to me in the complex relationships between Race and Class in the American South.

  11. witters

    The full Marx quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.It is the opium of the people.” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843) Why only half right (and half wrong), and which is which?

    1. Off The Street

      For some, religion provides insight, comfort, love, support, community and a kind of stability or continuity in a world that can be indifferent, random or hostile.

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    Here is a video taken by safe-distance bystander of a police-citizen interaction . . . with a little explanatory text.

    Were these officers going against their training? Or is this exactly what these officers were trained to do and exactly how they were trained to do it?

    ( I was looking to see if the targets of this police operation were as White as the officers, but it does not look as though they were.)

    1. JBird4049

      Dravon Ames and his fiancee, Iesha Harper

      I would guess from their names that they are black and while the police are not trained at whatever academy or school to do this:

      The cuffed man appeared to be complying as he was picked off the ground and thrown against a police vehicle.

      “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the man said.

      The officer repeated, “When I tell you to do something, you f—— do it!”

      Footage from another, ground-level angle, showed an officer with a drawn gun repeatedly yelling, “Get your f—— hands up!”

      It seems to be an entirely too common and very acceptable practice. From what I understand, when the shiny new properly train police officer starts riding with the training officer at his first job, he is told to forget all that and do it their way. Since the training officer usually determines if he keeps the job, he does.

      This does still look rather extreme. Pulling guns at a family over a doll? If they are willing to do this to an entire family over a single toy doll stolen by a four year old, I would not want to see what they would do when a actual crime is committed. (No, I do not consider a four year old capable really of being a criminal.)

  13. David

    Since nobody else seems to have done so, let me take up Lambert’s point about religion. In societies around the world where you don’t as a rule find too many people starving in the streets, one of two related conditions usually applies. Either you have very strong extended family structures or you have powerful social capital, which ensures that such people are cared for. Sometimes you have both. But in liberal societies there is no reason of principle why the hungry, the homeless, drug addicts etc should be taken care of or even acknowledged. They are just individuals who, in an individualist society, haven’t made the grade.
    All that is left therefore is charity, and in many areas all that’s left of charity is the Church. In another article about this book, several people were quoted saying that the Church was the only institution that took them in without hesitation or conditions. If you have an ethos of unconditional love, then, however imperfectly you express it, you will help people without question when they need it. This is why in parts of Europe, and in spite of growing secularism and various scandals, the Catholic Church still commands a lot if respect. It’s the last line of social defence in many communities, and in some it’s all there is. The problem is that it’s hard to see how such a function can be taken over by another organization in the kind of society we have.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Thats a very good point – in almost all societies, the dominant religion plays a very important role in helping those at the bottom of the heap (there are some interesting exceptions). Those religions – and to be fair, most do – which apply help without favour end up with a lot of respect which liberals in general find baffling, primarily of course because they rarely needed that kind of help. Of course, some religions themselves forgot this – catholicism has lost out badly to evangelism in Brasil for just this reason.

      1. David

        Yes indeed, and in parts of West Africa as well, to largely US-based evangelical churches.

  14. Henry Moon Pie

    Trivially, if there is a factory owner or even a landlord in the book, I didn’t find one. Are they front row or back row?

    The old saw commonly heard when I was in college:

    In real life, the “B” students will be supervised by the “A” students, and all will work for the “C” students, aka “legacies.” That’s a pretty accurate prediction in my experience.

  15. Svante

    I’d been wondering if the ubiquity of decent, low-light phone cameras would replace the community, “ethnic” weekly newspaper photographers with LOCAL street photography bloggers; who know who’s who & what’s what? Like candid street photography, WITH a clue?

    1. Cal2

      Absolutely they can, but what is the distribution model within “the community”?
      Facebook? Give me a break, they would censor as “hate” any real coverage of what’s what.
      Here’s an excellent use of phone cameras leading to possible social change however:

      “ACLU Mobile Justice is a video live streaming application developed for smartphones by various state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union.”

      1. Svante

        Thank you for posting. Several of us had loaded this; while driving foreign co-workers around Birminghan, during a national tsunami of hate crimes, by local law enforcement. Between Occupy and Black Lives Matter, it seemed like virtue signalling to prepare for circumstances, where age and white skin could enable uploading evidence. But, I’ve neglected to download it into my crappy replacement phone? I meant, individual people (different perspectives) exchanging candid photos on Social Networking. I’m guessing facial recognition bots scour these, anyway? I’ll just await moderation… oh, well?

        1. Cal2

          I believe in free speech for everyone, including cops, Communists, Klansmen, Antifa etc.

          However, behavior under color of law, that’s a different animal.

  16. Carolinian

    Are they front row or back row?

    Just reading that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump made $135 million last year. Perhaps one could say that Jared was front row, but with a reserved seat.

    1. griffen

      That is disgusting if true. Lucky members of a club. Maybe she is bright & capable. He is likely an entitled tool,of a person.

      1. deplorado

        For what it’s worth, I watched an interview with Jared Kushner (forgot where it was, some conference I think) from 2018, and was astounded at how well he speaks. And I mean he spoke in long polished paragraphs for 6-7 minutes at a time. So, maybe he is not dumb. Maybe he is indeed very smart. That he had low grades and SAT score and was helped to get into Harvard may not mean that he was not a talented student.
        Im not defending his politics and despite how well spoken he appeared to be, Im not interested very much in his angle on things on account of his natural class interests. But he did not appear like a tool to me, not in the slightest.

  17. Eclair

    “Unthriving” America. The places, and people, that no one sees, that no one wants to see because they refute the deliberate mendacity of the ‘lowest unemployment rate,’ the ‘rising wage level,’the ‘Keep America Great’ slogan, in upstate New York, Wisconsin, Texas, Alabama. In tent cities under freeways from Los Angeles to Seattle.

    In hollow small towns on the high Plains, where the next big wind will blow the unpainted houses out into the prairie. Places where even MacDonalds finds it unprofitable to venture, leaving the field wide open for Subway, where two pallid teens slip on latex gloves before carefully arranging the transparent slices of ‘Black Forest’ ham, honey roasted turkey and pepper jack cheese on the ‘five grain’ home-baked roll. And most of the patrons demand that they ‘hold the veggies.’

    Two hundred years ago, people in similar conditions, with no prospects, would have left these places for the New World, or headed West, or been transported to Australia. With the hopes of a new beginning. But now there are no new worlds and this Planet is all we have, in spite of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and their grand designs for life on Mars.

    We are ruled by psychopaths, who weave a fantasy of instant gratification, with any material good desired, for ten percent of the people, and a ruthless push to enslave fifty percent of the remaining population in a captive workforce that works longer for less. And, the rest? The ‘unwanted,’ the ‘deplorable,’ the ‘throwaways?’ They can extract profit by keeping them (us?) addicted … to drugs, alcohol, Reality TV, Cheetos … anything that will prove profitable. And, if they refuse to buckle under? Corral them into the concentration camps of prisons and immigrant detention centers. Or, bomb them into oblivion and take their oil and gold and diamonds.

    Chris Arnade’s photos mess with my mind.

    1. jrs

      focusing on tent cities may be extreme, yes there is a serious homeless problem, but a lot of poverty is way more invisible than that I’d think, because a lot of steps are taken before homelessness.

  18. NotTimothyGeithner

    About the nuance of “front row kids”, Arnade has a line about front row kids wanting to learn and being seen as wanting to learn. Not all smart kids are front row kids and not all front row kids are smart. I would say the front row kids are driven by a desire for gold stars but I’m not sure a desire for learning is always there. Obama during the ACA website debacle defended himself by saying they wouldn’t have been bragging about it by comparing it to kayak if they thought it wouldn’t work, but the front row kid (Obama) despite not having much in the way of domestic accomplishments never bothered to investigate how the website was progressing. Taking the time to follow up wouldn’t have produced gold stars especially if he needed to lobby for a delay of the rollout.

    One of our failures was let “front row kids” in charge without demanding to know if they were gold star seekers or interested in learning. This is a problem the “front row kids” have with Sanders. He’s not offering gold stars and asking them to think.

    1. Off The Street

      Some of us front row or back row kids just loved learning for its own sake, the thrill of the chase, the smell of a new book, the comfort of a library, interaction with like-minded kids on many topics, excitement at new syllabi, with some great input from those wonderful teachers, too. The latter was a real bonus.
      Peer tutoring reinforced humility and gratitude.

      1. Wukchumni

        I knew more answers to the teacher’s questions than the other student body, and wanted a front row seat in order to bolster my chances at being picked when I raised my arm urgently, patience could wait.


        Why is a front row seat always pretty much desirable in a play, concert or a sporting event, but to be avoided unless all other seats are taken in the movie theater?

        Closer isn’t all that, there. ha!

        1. Oregoncharles

          I always sat in the back in school.

          Movies: When I saw “Bonnie & Clyde,” I and my date wound up in the second row, well inside the curve of the oversize screen. The movie established a whole new level for vivid violence; I, at least, was shaking when we left. Not a very good date movie.

          When I saw it again, we sat in the back and the theater messed up the projection, so the impact was minimal. Oddly, I don’t remember who either date was.

      2. Svante

        Back row kids were a marvelous mixture of bored-to-distraction kids; messing with, flirting & whispering sardonic nastiness behind prop pencils in messed up nailess, hands. You could tell by fidgeting feet, what cytokines, lead or dope was behind the febrile eyes? Bet’ya, some of us are right around here?

      3. jrs

        to even assume “front row kids” (as proxy for class) and “back row kids” (as proxy for class) are necessary going to the same K-12 schools seems overdone to me. And frankly meritocratic (“we all start with the same opportunities”).

        Were there people at bad public schools (those in “poor school districts”) who got into say even fancy state schools? (you know the type the rich will bribe for) A few. Those who I have met from an expensive private school? EVERY SINGLE ONE. It’s like hmm well, well, well …

        But the metaphor only works if we even imagine them metaphorically in the same classroom.

      1. Cal2

        Not this one:
        “Nancy Pelosi hosted a dinner at the couple’s sprawling estate and vineyard about 65 miles north of Pelosi’s San Francisco district to close out a two-day conference in the wine country for political heavyweights. “Such is life for the fourth-richest Californian in Congress.

        The Democrat has a minimum net worth of $29.3 million, according to an analysis of her financial disclosure forms compiled by Roll Call.”

        “The estate is not just for show. The couple also collects between $5,001 and $15,000 in income from the sale of grapes grown at the vineyard. A spokesman for Pelosi did not say who the grapes were sold to or for what purpose.” ?

        Like avoiding taxes to pay for the social programs she wants?
        “All across the country, a huge number of America’s wealthiest are tapping into agricultural tax breaks—and none of them have to do any real farming to qualify.”

        Here’s the Elite’s version:

  19. bassmule

    I enjoyed reading the book and looking at the pictures. But I found Arnade’s conclusions unsatisfactory. “…our nation’s problems are just too big, to structural, and too deep to be solved by legislation and policy out of Washington.” This seems to me like Grover Norquist turned inside out: “Government can’t do it.” I beg to differ: Only government can do it; if we had one that was actually representative, that is.

  20. Wukchumni

    I think it depends on the location, here in the Central Valley where every job is a good one-on the basis of having work, employees @ McDonalds are a cheerful lot, but you’ll not see the same dynamic in a big city, where jobs paying more than $10 an hour actually exist.

  21. Cal2

    Short version:

    Not one mention of immigration on our
    Back Row’s job, medical and housing opportunities?

  22. kareninca

    I grew up in rural New England. My parents had escaped their economic classes of origin and became atheist professionals, but as a matter of sociopolitical principle did not leave the area they had grown up in. So my friends were rural poor and working class and middle class. Most of them were devout and humble. I didn’t notice that at the time since I was neither devout nor humble, haha. So, of course I live in the front row world. But I did find religion not too long ago. When I went back and this came up with my old friends they snickered politely. Yup, you finally learned, you idiot. Well, they didn’t literally say that.

    1. ambrit

      “Friends” gets a workout in that paragraph. You learn who your “real” friends are when you try changing. Anyone who snickers at you, friendly or unfriendly versions, is most definitely not your friend. “Acquaintances,” yes, that will work on a superficial social level. “Acquaintances” snicker. “Friends” ask about how it feels.
      Plus, er, “atheist professionals.” My Dad was a draftsman/engineer/tradesman/city inspector during his life. He socialized as a Trades Unionist Socialist, and was, like your people, a committed atheist. A particular person in the family would shut Dad up when he went off on Fourth International subjects by telling him that Communism was just an Enlightenment Religion.
      Good luck on the new Journey.

      1. kareninca

        I snicker at my friends all the time, including at big moments, and they snicker at me. We’re not self-righteous in that way. We find it hilarious. We never ask “how it feels”. I have never in my life had someone ask me how something “feels.” If they did I would run in the other direction.

        People vary. Perhaps it’s a generational thing.

        1. ambrit

          Hmmm…. Material for me to ponder. In the circle and generation I frequent, “How does it feel…” is almost a mantra. In my cohort, and I encourage others of my age group to chime in, pro and con, ‘snickering’ is a derogatory action. One snickers at one’s ‘inferiors.’ Your cohort internalizing ‘snickering’ and turning it ‘on it’s head’ is a positive development. Maybe this Geezer is being too judgmental.

  23. NotTimothyGeithner

    Buttigieg making moderate case for student debt relief. Not cancellation, but refinancing, focusing on limiting infleunce of for profit schools, doubling Pell Grants.

    “I just dont believe all of us should be paying for the children” of billionaires.

    Mayor Pete, king of the front kids, makes a complete spurious argument to avoid calling for free education. Shocking! They don’t want to share gold stars.

  24. Oregoncharles

    ““George and Martha, sad, sad, sad.””

    Unholy family blog. I’d forgotten what that one is like. Maybe that’s why I decided NOT to get an MFA, or try. Among other things.

    But I never did like sitting in the front.

  25. notabanktoadie

    White-collar crime is the biggest crime, but nobody gets thrown in jail for that. Nobody gets prosecuted.

    Government privileges for the banks allow the richer, the more so-called “credit worthy”, to legally steal from the poorer, the less so-called “credit worthy” via the use of what is then, in essence, the public’s credit but for private gain.

    But since the above has been good at wealth and job creation, few question it.

    But now that the former “job creators” are more and more, via increasingly sophisticated automation, job destroyers, the injustice of the present system is more obvious than ever.

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