The age in which we live is, apparently, one of seismic political shifts. For some, a dangerous popularism is resurgent around the world. Others optimistically spy the end of neoliberal hegemony and the beginning of a new left renaissance. Regardless of where one falls on these questions, two recent books – Chris Arnade’s Dignity and Peter McVerry’s A Dose of Reality – offer insight into the inescapable divides in western society.
Chris Arnade grew up in western Florida, got a PhD in Physics from Johns Hopkins, and spent almost twenty years working as a quantitative analyst on Wall Street. In 2011, troubled by his industry, he began taking long walks around the city of New York, seeking out the places it was understood were not safe to visit. He began to bring his camera to document what he saw and when he struck up conversation with people, he would take their photo. What he found, in neighbourhoods like Hunts Point in the south Bronx, prompted a transformation in his life. In 2012 he left his job with Citigroup. In 2014 he began driving across the USA in search of the same sorts of neighbourhoods in very different cities. Dignity is the culmination of this nearly decade-long odyssey into overlooked America.
Arnade’s essays are interspersed with his photography, which expound the book’s title in full-colour. The guiding metaphor that ties the six essays together is a classroom. America, Arnade insists, is now split between the “front-row kids” who have followed the rules, completed their assignments, secured the credentials, and thus have access to all the developments of our society, and the more commonly passed-over “back-row kids”, who are the focus of his book. He visits cities in Alabama, California, Kentucky, Nevada, New York, Maine, Ohio, and finds the people for whom the admissions standards were always out of reach, those who were never offered an opportunity, communities who have developed a strong sense of attachment to race or place or faith, because everything else they thought was secure has slipped away. He describes how:
“Much of the back row of America, both white and black, is humiliated. The good jobs they could get straight out of high school and gave the stability of a lifelong career have left. The churches providing them a place in the world have been cast as irrational, backward, and lacking. The communities that provided pride are dying, and into this vacuum have come drugs. Their entire worldview is collapsing, and then they are told this is their own fault: they suck at school and are dumb, not focused enough, not disciplined enough.” (232-233)
This metaphor allows Arnade to expose the deficiencies of meritocracy as a political philosophy. The promise of meritocracy is implicit in the word – those that deserve success receive it. This idea has a natural liberal momentum, in distinction from stagnant aristocracies. Through the lens of Arnade’s camera, however, we begin to see that aristocracy can function even within democracy. Those who are in the front row have often inherited their positions. Those left behind were not left behind because they failed to take the chances on offer. No chances were offered. The underside of meritocracy is inescapable – those that do not receive success must also deserve that.
This is an important insight and one that Arnade frames tightly by extolling ideas that are unfashionable among the front-row kids, including the attractions of staying in the same place all your life and the value of religious communities. He self-consciously reflects on how the front-row encourages a sort of agnostic cosmopolitanism that disdains the kind of people who hang out in McDonalds. Hanging out in McDonalds, Arnade suggests, is an essential pre-requisite to understand contemporary American society because the communities to be found there are richer than the front-row kids could imagine.
Through Arnade’s empathic conversations, one can better understand the popularity of Trump and politicians of his ilk, one can see how the moderate politicians preferred by the “front row kids” fail to connect with America’s poorer people, even though they present themselves as supportive of those who are marginalised, and one can even spy how the scuppered campaign of Bernie Sanders would have offered transformational change. His policies and approach resonated profoundly with the dignity of those who are rarely listened to.
In his most recent essay collection, A Dose of Reality, Peter McVerry compiles a series of essays he has published in his monthly column in Reality magazine over the past two decades. It is striking to read McVerry’s essays alongside Arnade. There is overlap in terms of unlikely biography; both are members of the front-row who have identified with the back-row, although McVerry’s commitment in this regard is considerably more holistic and radical. He shares a version of the front-row/back-row perspective, arguing that Irish society consists of “two worlds, side by side, sometimes less than a mile apart” (49).
But what most resonates between the two works is the importance of actually knowing people. When pressed, Arnade’s political manifesto reduces to “We all need to listen to each other more” (282). McVerry’s approach to ministry is rooted in the idea that the people he engages have intrinsic value that warrants – even demands – his attention. He is set firmly against the technocratic impulse which allows experts free rein to develop policies without direct regard to those who will be affected, indeed often with “a thinly disguised contempt for their opinions” (37).
Those familiar with Peter McVerry’s written work will not be surprised by the tone or genre of these essays. They have a searing relevance for contemporary Ireland. McVerry himself may feel his continued relevance is depressing, since the growth in Ireland’s economic prospects over the forty years of his work ought to have made him redundant. Instead, these essays show how rare a figure he is. While there is no shortage of people who position themselves in Irish society as spokespeople for justice, it is a much smaller group who listen, taking the time to hear the words and understand the experiences of those in the back row.
There are also fundamental differences between McVerry and Arnade’s approaches. Without illumination through photography, the argument that McVerry makes against Irish society is relatively less reliant on personal narrative. While the reader is left in no doubt that he knows the names and stories of the people who stand behind headline statistics, McVerry has a political perspective that Arnade lacks. His life is more committed to being-with than Arnade, but this means his written work can take a more measured distance. McVerry is not observing individual stories in quite the same way and so always has hope that, instead of having able spokespeople to articulate the experiences of the marginalised, the marginalised themselves should speak. He has a policy perspective and a political position which is built from his lifetime spent among those most marginalised by Irish society, but this platform is intended to do more than just give voice to the voiceless.
McVerry and Arnade’s refusal to buttress their arguments by extensive engagement with data is striking. A lasting insight from both works is how the technocratic approach to policy formation is fundamentally impoverished when it is not informed by real-world relationships – what these authors might call friendship – with those who are meant to be helped.
But it would be a mistake to interpret this commitment to relationship as a disguised call to replace state action and systemic change with charitable or philanthropic initiative. McVerry is rightly famous for his charitable work, but were his arguments taken up, Ireland’s homelessness charities would have drastically reduced remits. His final essay states explicitly what the rest of the book argues compellingly: that the present arrangements serve a privileged status-quo and that without systemic political change Ireland will “never have” comprehensive integrated housing, single-tier healthcare, or an educational system offering opportunity for all (94).
Arnade claims those featured in his book are “seeking respect” but he asserts they already have dignity. McVerry similarly insists on the dignity of those who are often disregarded by wider Irish society, but calls out the unreal myths held by the comfortable class. Both authors, from different contexts and in different ways, powerfully critique political visions that settle for meritocracy or technocracy, efficiency in lieu of equity. Our shared dignity demands we aim for more.