Encountering the Provincials

Chris Arnade is an odd duck. Once employed on Wall Street, his life was a storybook tale about a small-town Southern boy who made good. Success and material wealth couldn’t quite satisfy him, though. He had a burning fascination with “back row America”, the slums and desiccated towns that our least-prosperous citizens call home. After putting in his 9 to 5, Arnade would find himself wandering through the slums of Hunts Point, an impoverished New York neighborhood close to his office. As his obsession with poverty grew, his connection to bourgeois life eroded, and he eventually lost his job. He took leave of his family, and traveled the country alone, wandering through litter-strewn Walmart parking lots, and chatting up locals in McDonalds booths. In earlier centuries, men like Arnade might have founded religious orders. He is a creature of the 21st century though, so he didn’t do that. Instead, he took pictures, and published a book.

Taken as a work of social criticism, Dignity is not particularly original. When Arnade steps back from his narrative to offer his own social critiques, they’re generally fairly plebeian. Happily, those reflections are rare. Most of the book is narrative-focused, and as a chronicler of life at the bottom, Arnade is very good. His accounts are honest, but compassionate. He doesn’t valorize his subjects, but neither does he savage them. He’s keenly aware that each person he interviews has his own complex story; he generally resists the urge to cast his subjects as set pieces in a pre-spun narrative. As a liminal figure himself, Arnade shows an unusual ability to function as an honest observer, reporting contradictions and complexities without judgment. The result is a book that should pose difficulties for practically every social theory currently on the market.

To complement his verbal snapshots, the book also includes sections of photographs, taken by Arnade himself along his journey. They’re mostly portraits. Through his eyes, we see a man who wheels his kids around all day in a grocery cart, because he has nowhere to hang his hat. We see a homeless, addicted women who self-describes as “mother of six”, even though she has custody of exactly none of her children. We see elderly factory workers who spend whole days in McDonalds, reminiscing about the good old days. We see prostitutes. We see drug addicts. We see posters advising us that, “America was NEVER great!”

Obviously, there are places in America that aren’t thriving. Which places? Though Arnade himself would likely object, I think there is a simple and broadly accurate way to explain the problem. Cosmopolitan America is thriving. Meanwhile, the provinces are suffering. Back-row America is provincial America, and it’s taken a beating in recent years. Both culturally and economically, the modern American ecosystem is good for free-floaters, but bad for the sorts of people who rely on deep roots to keep themselves stable. The duck weed flourishes, while redwood forests disappear.

We tend to think of “provincial” as a pejorative term, but it needn’t be. It’s not bad to be attached to a particular place. Throughout history though, province-dwellers have had characteristic features that tended to distinguish them from their more cosmopolitan counterparts. Provincial people tend to have simpler tastes, and longer-established traditions. They’re often more religious than city-dwellers, with stronger attachments to community and clan. They certainly have their own kind of strength and toughness, and an integrity that alienated urbanites find more elusive. At the same time, they aren’t as adaptable as cosmopolitans. New trends and innovations are likely to be met with suspicion by people whose deepest ambition is to raise up children who will live more or less as they and their parents and grandparents have done. Provincial people, in other words, are natural traditionalists.

Why aren’t the provinces thriving? In short, they’ve lost much of the social cohesion that was once their greatest strength. A quarter-century ago, most Americans understood that cities offered the widest range of opportunities and amusements, while less-urbanized areas fostered wholesome, grounded communities where people felt comfortable raising families. Today, crime and addiction are especially rampant in the small, desiccated communities of the Rust Belt and deep South, where manufacturing jobs have largely dried up. Educated and affluent people have mostly moved on in search of greener pastures. The people who are left are, in general, the ones who were always most attached to their homes and extended families. But they’re also the ones with the fewest resources and weakest connection to centers of influence. They consume popular media along with everyone else, but they aren’t well-equipped to pioneer new industries, or initiate a cultural renaissance. They always had a strong impulse to keep the home fire burning. Lately though, oxygen has been in short supply.

What is to be done? It’s one of the pressing questions of our day, and nearly everyone seems to have his own answer. Arnade’s narrative raises challenges for everyone, regardless of where they fall on the current spectrum.

According to our newly-energized right-wing nationalists, outsourcing and immigration destroyed the economic backbone of our company towns, leaving men without work and families without breadwinners. Meanwhile, the Sexual Revolution precipitated a long, miserable process of social decline, as fragmenting families tore apart once-functional communities. The solution is a reinvigoration of traditionalist norms, perhaps supplemented by morals legislation, along with a rejection of free-market pieties, and efforts to stimulate local jobs by any available means. We’ve got to get men back to work, and it isn’t enough to offer them a U-Haul and a job in the city. You can’t transplant a redwood forest and expect it to thrive. Provincial people need their roots.

A resurgence of small-town life would certainly be a blessing. Is capitalism really the enemy, though? Throughout his book, Arnade speaks many times about the negative impacts of lost manufacturing jobs. Critics of big business may be discomfited, though, by an unlikely hero that emerges from his story: McDonald’s. “If you want to understand the country,” he tells us, “visit McDonald’s.”

As Arnade tells it, the Golden Arches have come to function as de facto community centers in our nation’s most desiccated regions. They are an oasis of security and comfort in neighborhoods that are largely devoid of functional institutions. State institutions may be nominally available in these towns, but most people prefer Big Macs and fries to more-nutritious offerings that are invariably served with a side of judgment. McDonalds, Arnade explains, gives people a place where they can be themselves. They can enjoy a hamburger in peace without the noxious interference of self-appointed do-gooders.

It’s an interesting conundrum. It seems obvious that many of these regions need help. Even our most desperate and impoverished citizens, though, seem to prefer the dignity of a free exchange to the discomfort of being patronized by people with an agenda. Who is able and willing to provide the goods they want at a price they can afford? It’s McDonalds, a company so “global” that its presence (or absence) in a given place is sometimes used as a quick gauge of a country’s success in entering global markets. Even in our least-thriving regions, the invisible hand is still feeding people more successfully than its public-spirited competitors. Shouldn’t this give our nationalists pause, as they contemplate far more aggressive efforts to engineer a top-down revitalization of small-town American life?

Arnade’s chapter on racism is interesting and impressively nuanced. Naturally, he discusses the impact of anti-black prejudice, which drew American blacks to manufacturing towns in the mid-20th century. (Northerners were prejudiced too, but they needed capable workers.) But we also hear about more-recent African immigrants (especially Somalis), some of whom say that they find white communities more welcoming to them than longer-established black communities. He talks to Mexican Americans in Lexington, Nebraska, who came to the Cornhusker State to take the meatpacking jobs that white Americans didn’t want. Today, they are in turn suspicious of the Somalis, who are immigrating to the region to take the jobs that they no longer want.

Arnade doesn’t argue that rural America is rife with bigotry. He introduces us to a number of people who are not bigots, and also makes clear that prejudice can take more and less virulent forms. Not everyone who responds to Donald Trump’s racially-inflected rhetoric is seething with racial hatred.

At the same time, it does seem plausibly true that provincial people (given their strong attachment to community and clan) have a stronger tendency to attach real significance to race and ethnicity, as one criterion that distinguishes “my people” from “not my people”. What should we make of this? Is it a damning indictment of rural America, or just another form of in- and out-grouping, of a sort that all people exercise in some way or another? The political right needs to address these questions if they hope to generate a platform with broad-spectrum appeal.

For the progressive left, Dignity poses a different kind of challenge. To leftist eyes, it seems that provincial people are suffering from a closed-minded refusal to adapt to contemporary circumstances. Better job prospects are indeed part of the answer, but these need to be reached through better education, more comprehensive social programs, and a relinquishment of racist and xenophobic prejudices that have no place in our shrinking world.

There’s a problem, though. As Arnade’s narrative makes clear, most residents of back-row America have very little interest in joining the cosmopolitan party, or of being told how to live. They aren’t dreaming of relocating to Manhattan apartments, where they can win a place in our hyper-woke “creative class”. Instead, they want secure jobs, supportive families, and Jesus. This last is especially uncomfortable for progressives, so it’s nice that Arnade devotes a full chapter to it.

Though he isn’t personally a believer, Arnade honestly acknowledges the importance of faith to people who are poor or marginalized. Nearly everyone he meets on his journey self-identifies as “religious”. The people who suffer most in this country aren’t writing their congressmen, or signing up for therapy. They’re bringing their pain to the Lord. Meanwhile, those who do pull their lives together, nearly always have a church community to thank. Arnade doesn’t offer any grand theories to explain this observation, but the truth shines through his interviews. Churches are the only institutions that can simultaneously love people as they are, offer personal help and care with their real needs, and challenge them to be better.

At the very least, progressive readers of Dignity might reflect on the wisdom of relaxing their hostility towards organized religion. Whatever one thinks of their moral and metaphysical claims, the fact remains that churches bring hope to desperate people. Isn’t that reason enough to leave them unencumbered in their mission? This question, though, points us towards a deeper one. What does the woke left really have to offer impoverished people, who at present rely on McDonalds for their daily bread, and on churches for more transcendent forms of nourishment? For ordinary people, faith and family have long been the two richest available sources of meaning. Progressive pieties and mores tend to undermine both. Is there any replacement for these traditional staples that is accessible to non-elites? Or are we reaching a point where a meaningful, cohesive life is itself mainly an elite luxury?

Arnade doesn’t have an answer to that, and consequently, he ends his book on a despairing note. In his final paragraph he declares that modern American life has left scores of people “excluded, rejected, and, most of all, humiliated. We have denied many their dignity,” he concludes, “leaving a vacuum easily filled by drugs, anger, and resentment.”

That’s the final sentence. It’s hard to recall another book in recent memory that has reached such a depressing conclusion. After documenting scores of serious social problems, Arnade is fairly sure that elites are to blame, but he can’t see any promising solutions. Thus, his narrative ends abruptly, with no promises of redemption.

For those of us who draw more freely on supernatural sources of hope, there might be silver linings to this tale. With his camera and his pen, Arnade has shown us the deep yearning that our dispossessed compatriots feel for basic human goods: faith, family, work, home. Life is not particularly good in the provinces, but the ingredients for cultural revival are already there. Do we really need the sanction of highly-educated elites, in order to recover these fundamental attachments? Perhaps the real solutions to the problems Arnade documents are not, first and foremost, political?

Arnade is an eclectic oddity, not a visionary. Despite that, Dignity is a powerful book. It won’t supply readers with many answers, but it might help them to ask better questions.