Chris Arnade and Dignity

Chris Arnade’s Dignity. Image credit Penguin Random House.

I swear I’m not trying to make a habit of posting about books I haven’t read yet. But I feel compelled to post about Chris Arnade and his searching.

Some of this may be apocryphal but I find that telling stories in your own words (as opposed to citing and footnoting the daylights out of a document) can add flavor.

Chris Arnade is a former Wall Street trader who reached his limit and decided to walk away from it all. Like Forrest Gump, he decided to just start walking. But he chose to walk in the places that people had advised him not to go to. Neighborhoods where “people like him” shouldn’t walk around. He sought out those places. He walked them, and then he started to talk to the people there.

What developed was a sort of photographic essay-style of journalism (that journalists continue to debate if it’s even journalism). He started sharing his posts online and through some publications like The Guardian.

Chris Arnade, Image credit: Bryan Jones

I first heard of Chris Arnade through a podcast call Strong Towns which explores how to create robust, vibrant towns through the most budget-conscious means possible. For example, don’t have your town spend a lot of money on statue, instead plant a row of healthy street trees in the areas of town that are in bad shape. The town will raise property values dramatically for a small investment. That’s the idea, anyway.

Arnade was a guest on the podcast, which is titled Approaching Divided America with Open Eyes (which can be found here) in 2017. Even though it’s only 2 years ago on paper, this was when the 2016 election was very recent.

Chris doesn’t take an out-right political stance. He talks to people and repeats back what they tell him. Sometimes he pushes back a little, just to advance the conversation, but he is never a lecturer.

Arnade’s model is that America is divided into “front row” and “back row” America. He considers himself raised as “front row,” which affords him all of the opportunities to engage in knowledge work that can be clever, increase productivity, and generate a lot of money. But there is also “back row” America which never had the opportunities he did. What the “front row” sees as clever and opportune ways to generate funds, the “back row” sees as manipulative, tricky, and an elaborate con. The “back row” values the “decency of hard work.” An example is the financial crisis / great recession of 2008. A some point a lot of “front row” people thought that collateralized debt obligations were a really good idea, and very smart way to make a lot of money.

Chris Arnade when back on the Strong Towns podcast (found here) to talk about his newly released book, Dignity. He’s traveled the country talking to the “back row” and engaging in his photographic essays.

McDonald’s franchises have become ad hoc community centers (depending on the local owners/management) for the “back row.”

On one his posts on Medium, D in the McDonald’s, Arnade recounts talking to a former math professor who is down on his luck after moving to take care of his father. In their conversation, D and Arnade talk about various deep, complex mathematical theories that they both know very well. Arnade is surprised to come across someone that can fluidly discuss such complex theory. It’s a bit of a heartbreaking post because there is no explanation for D’s current situation. He’s “down on his luck”, and drinking coffee in a McDonald’s where he has a sort of arrangement with management. It’s not that D isn’t intelligent. He clearly is. But sometimes bad things just happen.

I’ve thought a lot about this and wanted to go on my own walks. My friends have been quick to advise, “Maybe take some smaller steps first, John.” But I do think about lasting spiritual figures through history, and they all went on walks and talked to people (and it sounds like mostly “back row” people). I’m not saying I’m trying to become a lasting spiritual figure, just that walking and talking to people as human beings has some sort of value that connects you, maybe brings you closer to oneness or unitive consciousness.

I think that connection to others is unrated. We would rather give money to charity than walk down the road and talk, really talk, to someone.

3 thoughts on “Chris Arnade and Dignity”

  1. I’m starting a new notes section in my phone just for your book recommendations. It’s funny you should mention that McDonald’s have become ad hoc community centers. When I used to do guardian ad litem work for kids stuck in the middle of high-conflict divorces, we would always pick a halfway point McDonald’s as the custody exchange spot. I’ll be interested to hear how your walks go and who you meet.

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