Everybody Is Seeking "a Life that Provides Them with Dignity"
(p. A11) I want to end this dramatic year writing of a man whose great and constructive work I discovered in 2016. He is the photojournalist Chris Arnade.
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In his work you see an America that is battered but standing, a society that is atomized--there are lonely people in his pictures--but holding on.
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Mr. Arnade didn't intend to discover virtue in a mighty corporation, but McDonald's "has great value to community." He sees an ethos of patience and respect. "McDonald's is nonjudgmental." If you have nowhere to go all day they'll let you stay, nurse your coffee, read your paper. "The bulk of the franchises leave people alone. There's a friendship that develops between the people who work there and the people who go." "In Natchitoches, La., there's a twice-weekly Bible study group," that meets at McDonald's. "They also have bingo games." There's the Old Man table, or the Romeo Club, for Retired Old Men Eating Out.
I've written of the great divide in America as between the protected and the unprotected--those who more or less govern versus the governed, the facts of whose lives the protected are almost wholly unaware. Mr. Arnade sees the divide as between the front-row kids at school waving their hands to be called on, and the back-row kids, quiet and less advantaged. The front row, he says, needs to learn two things. "One is how much the rest of the country is hurting. It's not just economic pain, it's a deep feeling of meaninglessness, of humiliation, of not being wanted." Their fears and anxieties are justified. "They have been excluded from participating in the great wealth of this country economically, socially and culturally." Second, "The front-row kids need humility. They need to look in the mirror, 'We messed this up, we've been in charge 30 years and haven't delivered much.' " "They need to take stock of what has happened."
Of those falling behind: "They're not lazy and weak, they're dealing with bad stuff. Both conservative and progressive intellectuals say Trump voters are racist, dumb. When a conservative looks at a minority community and says, 'They're lazy,' the left answers, 'Wait a minute, let's look at the larger context, the availability of jobs, structural injustice.' But the left looks at white working-class poverty and feels free to judge and dismiss."
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I asked how he describes his work. I see it as an effort to help America better understand itself. He said he was trying to show that "Everybody is kind of working in the same direction, trying to get by, get a life that provides them with dignity." In this, he suggests, we are more united than we know.
For the full commentary, see:
PEGGY NOONAN. "Shining a Light on 'Back Row' America; Chris Arnade's photos reveal an America that is battered but standing, atomized but holding on." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 31, 2016): A11.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 29, 2016.)