Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Book Review: Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade

This was a deeply affecting book. Chris Arnade had a Ph.D. in physics and a Wall Street analyst job, but he left it and went on several road trips through America. At every town, he got out with his camera, walked around and talked to people. Often he ended up at two places he previously avoided: McDonald's and church. He talks about how important these places are to back row America and why so much of the country has been left behind. There's only six chapters (going from memory): 1. McDonald's; 2. Drugs; 3. Church; 4. Place; 5. Race; 6. Respect. Each person Arnade talks to, and Arnade himself, is a broken and biased reporter, but the sheer generosity of his ear and scope of his travels makes this book worth reading. Arnade challenges the status quo from beneath, and he changed the way I see my city. Of the chapters, the one on race may be the weakest, because Arnade has the least personal connection to that. But this isn't about Arnade, it's about the people whose voices he transcribes, and that is the reason to read this book.  One thing is clear: the average academic consensus is wrong in many ways. Why was it assumed throughout my life that place doesn't matter? I was supposed to move across the country for college, then for grad school, then post-doc, then job. Because of my sense of place I resisted that somewhat, only moving across the country for grad school, and then staying in place. I therefore understand the people who stay in their hometowns to take care of family even when neoliberalism and neoconservatism both assume they should just move to where the jobs are. And a quick glance at this blog shows I have always seen the point of church, while Arnade discovered it empirically, as the faith of the poor wore away at his academic atheism. There is a sense of futility upon finishing this book, but as someone who appreciates church (and McDonald's) I also find a distinct, strange hope, even an encouragement for the light shining through the cracks.