To misquote Jesus: books about the poor will always be with us. But once in a while someone writes something that does more than drone on about inequality or consumerism. It takes us there, to where the poor live and love and occasionally laugh. It lets them look us in the eye.
Dignity: seeking respect in back row America is one of those books. It helps that it’s written by a photographer, Chris Arnade, so the people he talks to actually do stare out from the pages. It helps as well that its subject is small-town America, so every post-industrial vista is haunting but somehow – to most British eyes – intensely glamorous.
The backdrop for Dignity is a kind of film-set noir. Rotting buildings hide under huge skies. Everywhere there are empty roads, petrol stations and McDonald’s restaurants and sinister looking clapboard churches, and in amongst all this rotting infrastructure: broken people. Often sad, spaced out on cheap drugs, but afflicted too by fits of the giggles, by shyness, by coyness, by the ability to jump in the air to bring life to some desiccated corrugated-iron strewn yard; even sometimes a haughty hauteur that says, “fuck you, I’m gonna be ok.”
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But they are not going to be ok. This is not a sentimental journey. It’s a deeply unsettling examination of the pathology of what Donald Trump referred to in his inauguration speech as ‘American carnage’.
At the time, that phrase seemed so coarse, so jarring. Didn’t even George W. Bush turn to Hillary Clinton and say, “that was some weird shit”? Didn’t everyone who smelled nice from sea to shining sea raise his or her eyes to the skies and wonder what The Donald was smoking?
Well: hello polite America. This is what he meant.
Not all of the poor in this book are his people – indeed, most of them have probably never voted – but plenty of them, particularly the white people, understand very clearly that Trump was talking to them. On the day of that speech, Chris Arnade is in a strip club in Ohio. There are no customers.
“The dancers are playing Pokémon Go on their phones while the owner listens to Trump’s acceptance speech on hers.”
He asks the owner (he describes her as “in her sixties, blunt and bitter”) whether she likes Trump’s speech. “Hell yes I do,” she replies. “Something has to change. This country is broken. No decent jobs….. the world is just going to the shitter.”
In nearby Cleveland, in a bar: a similar conversation. Jo-Jo has been dismantling cars in a nearby junkyard.
“That dude is crazy,” he says of Trump. “He talks shit .. Shit that if I said I would get into trouble. But the man is rich so he can say what he wants.”
Arnade asks, “you like him?”
“I guess you can call me a Trump man. I like him because he’s going to make America great again, like he says. Right now guys like me who work for the minimum wage are getting screwed.”
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Arnade writes, “as the bar fills up others are unabashed in their views, celebratory, giddy to have Trump addressing their concerns and talking their language. That everyone hates Trump makes them more confident, further cementing the feeling that they are members of an exclusive club …. A man yells ‘You get them Donald. They been getting us forever!’”
And so they have. Although, actually, not quite forever. The great calamity of poverty in modern America is not the material distance between the comfortable and the struggling. It is the social, the spiritual distance – and the fact that the upper middle classes (to use the British terminology) have stolen everything – all the stuff that’s nice and all the ladders to get to it.
Dignity serves as an excellent practical primer before, for academic sustenance, you might turn to the work of Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, whose book Dream Hoarders has outlined in painful detail how the top 20% in America lives insulated from, well, everything that’s in Dignity.
They never meet these people. They never see the places they live. And – this is the kicker, and the reason why the poor warm to Trump – they abhor them. Hillary Clinton was only able to say “we came out of the White House dead broke” because she literally doesn’t see the people in Dignity, who are actually dead broke. They are dead to her. They are un-people. Sexists. Racists. Folks to be stuffed in the dustbin named “deplorables”.
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And now the party is doing it all again. Dear old Joe Biden was taken to task in recent days for boasting about how well he got on with racist segregationist Senators when he first got to Capitol Hill in the 1970s. And yes, racism is awful and does matter. But in the same speech to Wall St backers he said something I found much more shocking: he also talked about how much the lives of the rich would have to change in a fairer America. To summarise: not one jot.
“The truth of the matter is, you all, you all know, you all know in your gut what has to be done,” said Biden. “We can disagree in the margins but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished.”
“No one’s standard of living will change,” said Biden. “Nothing would fundamentally change.”
The genius of the folks in Dignity is that, although they don’t grasp the nuances of politics, they already knew that before Joe said it. They know that modern America wants to motor on and leave them ever further behind. When Trump is gone, they’ll not even have the illusion left that anyone cares.
Worse: as well as being blamed for their own uselessness by the Clinton mob and the whole of polite society, they are tricked by modern life into a wretched sense of self-loathing. America, even as it becomes an aristocracy quite similar to Edwardian Britain – with all the upper class people marrying each other, taking the majority of places at decent universities, and ensuring no real social progress for those underneath – still uses the lexicon of meritocracy, suggesting to the poor that all of this is their fault.
Arnade nails it with almost the last words of the book: “We have said that education is the way out of pain and the way to success, implying that those who don’t make it are dumb, or lazy, or stupid. This has ensured that all those at the bottom, black, white, gay, straight, men and women, are guaranteed to feel excluded, rejected, and most of all, humiliated.”
Will anyone take any notice? Probably not. But for a brief moment, in these pages, an awful wrong is righted. Respect is restored to those from whom it should never have been robbed.