Skip to main content

Culture Q&A

Chris Arnade

A back-row seat

An atheist says class divisions have contributed to despair—and he sees secular solutions have not worked


Back in the 1990s, photographer Chris Arnade worked as an analyst on Wall Street, and he would go on long walks to relieve his stress. The walks got longer and longer, to the point that he quit work and began documenting the stories of the people he met on his walks in New York’s downtrodden neighborhoods.

He spent several years photographing and interviewing residents of the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point and then traveled elsewhere around the country, turning his findings into a book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. His Jacob Riis–style exposure of what he calls the “back row” of America gives a record of those left out of the American dream: the drug addicted, the homeless, the discouraged.

Arnade and I spoke at his home in upstate New York, where he tends a menagerie of animal outcasts: a dog named Zumi, a cat from a crack house, snapping turtles in the pond who love chicken nuggets, and about 30 groundhogs who were attempting a takeover of the area under his porch.

What’s your quick definition for “front row” and “back row”? It’s, “Did you go to an elite college or not?” I used to do the McDonald’s test: Is it an icky place with unhealthy food? Or is it a place where it’s wonderful and you like to hang out?

You’ve spent a lot of time at McDonald’s interviewing the “back row.” What’s your favorite item on the menu? I always go for the dollar menus because I’m cheap. I get my latte every morning. Usually I go for the two-for-$5 special if they have it, and I’ll get two Big Macs. The key to McDonald’s is to get rid of the cheese. There’s something about fast-food cheese.

How did your experience as a Wall Street trader lead to this attention to the back row? I was shocked how provincial New York City is. I worked at Salomon Brothers, a high-end firm. There were people in my office who were worth X-million, who had spent all their life in New York City and never been to Brooklyn. Even though my office was still dominated by lacrosse players from Harvard, there was a former elevator repair guy who was really good with numbers. The dad of one of my bosses was a firefighter. By the end of my time in Wall Street, people had the same resumé—a kid who was the valedictorian, went to Harvard or Princeton, and then did nonprofit work for the summers. They’re good employees, but it felt like paint-by-numbers.

‘On Wall Street, nobody was ever happy with their pay because they always knew that someone made a little bit more. And the people on the bottom, it’s implied that they lost.’

Did that change in what jobs were available to those in the back row lead to some of the societal despair you documented? It’s a system that makes nobody feel valued, because the system says, We’re ranking people based on how intelligent you are, which we translate into how much money you have. On Wall Street, nobody was ever happy with their pay because they always knew that someone made a little bit more, and they had gotten into this rat race of three homes. You can say, That’s your own fault. But it’s what society expects of people. And the people on the bottom, it’s implied that they lost. We pretend that it’s a meritocracy, so it’s your fault if you don’t succeed. So it makes the people at the bottom not only frustrated but humiliated. I don’t want to be on record for saying I understand why people would kill themselves. But I understand why people would kill themselves in that system.

So you think the growing divide between front row and back row has something to do with the growing number of “deaths of despair” from suicide and overdose? It’s clear that something is very, very wrong. Life spans are going down. Suicide is a stunning act. Animals don’t commit suicide. Addiction, to me, is a form of suicide. It’s not about lacking iPhones or lacking cars. There’s a spiritual lacking there. And I say this as someone who is a self-described atheist.

How do we change? I don’t think it’s fixable by any policy, because we overvalue rationality and material things. We’ve made meaning all about how much you have. I feel like one of the solutions is faith. One of the wonderful things about faith is you don’t have to have much to have it. It’s free.

Share this article with friends.

Stephanos Bibas

Rethinking the system

Inside the machinery of criminal justice

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Stephanos Bibas is a U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the 3rd Circuit, which has jurisdiction over cases in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Born in New York City, he graduated from high school at 15 and from Columbia University at 19 with a Bachelor of Arts in political theory, summa cum laude.

Bibas then studied at Oxford, won a first-place award in the world debate championships, and graduated from Yale Law School in 1994. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and became an assistant U.S. attorney, then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 2006 to 2017.

Which is harder—being a judge on the 3rd Circuit, or arbitrating arguments among your four children? Definitely being a dad of multiple kids: The appearance of the slightest bit of unfairness about bedtimes or dividing Tater Tots can backfire. Once I can satisfy all of them, dealing with lawyers is a piece of cake.

You’re a brown belt in taekwondo. How does that help you now as a judge? Discipline. Much of martial arts is mental. It’s about learning from people who know more than you do, and disciplining your body, mind, breathing, attention, and focus. Those traits stand you in good stead whatever professional road you take.

In the first 11 pages of your recent book, The Machinery of Criminal Justice, you use the words moral or morality or amorality 28 times. Those words are rare in discussions of criminal justice these days where it’s much more “put people in the slammer” or “reduce the number of years.” Why do you emphasize questions of morality? How you think about the point of criminal justice is important. For centuries, ordinary people have understood that criminal justice is figuring out who did it, blaming people appropriately, punishing them with appropriate consequences, then healing the wrong or the wound. People have a misunderstanding about the past. Only a small sliver of people wound up getting executed or exiled or branded. Most people had a short-term punishment, and often they would admit or confess what the crime was. “I stole the pig,” or sometimes they say, “No, that was my pig, I just lent it to you.” Nowadays we talk about controlling crime, public safety, processing cases.

What’s the problem with that? It misses the way nonlawyers understand the point, and the way we talk about justice with our own kids when we discipline them. Are we doing it merely to stop the naughty behavior? No, we’re doing it to teach lessons. We’re doing it to vindicate the injured sibling. We’re doing it to restore order in the family. I don’t mean to say we can just reduce the polity to a family model, but there is something deeply intuitive about justice dealing with right and wrong.

Judges are supposed to be teachers. Sometimes the judge, pronouncing a sentence, talks about what the victim endured. The defendant may sob, or apologize. The defendant’s family may be there. Sometimes that’s done in a way that is cathartic and vindicating.  Sometimes it’s done in a very mathematical, bureaucratic way that gets the case off the table without any moral judgment.

TV dramas or movies have dramatic moments of revelation. That’s not the way it is in 90-plus percent of cases, right? Right. If you just watch crime dramas, you might think the name of the game is about the victim and the defendant, or in a civil case, the plaintiff and the defendant, coming into court, telling their stories, pointing the finger. My students came into law school thinking that. Then they start thinking it’s really about the prosecutor and the defense lawyer standing up, showing off their rhetoric, making their legal points, dueling. Then, if they become a prosecutor or public defender, they discover it’s not dueling at trial: The reality is 95 percent of criminal defendants plead guilty. 

Too much plea bargaining? The plea bargains are hurried conversations in a hallway or a conference call. The judge is absent, the victim is absent, the defendant is usually absent. It’s horse-trading then presented to the judge as a fait accompli. That bypasses the central morality play understanding of the trial as vindicating, as catharsis, as healing. 

Let’s go back a couple of centuries. How did the morality play typically work in courtrooms? In a routine criminal case, victims would prosecute their own cases, with no lawyer on the defense side. Defendants would stand up and argue their cases. Almost no rules of evidence or procedure. The parties would shout it out, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. Jury members would huddle in the jury box. They wouldn’t have fancy legal instructions. They would decide who was right, who was wrong. Most punishments were temporary affairs: Pay back the money, fix up the bar you vandalized, or be shamed in the public square.

As in The Scarlet Letter? Readers focus on how judgmental and humiliating it is—but Hester Prynne goes back to living in her community. A whole genre of sermons at public events emphasized “but for the grace of God you could do the same thing as this person did by getting drunk.” There wasn’t this us-versus-them mentality. Onlookers were to think, “I do things like this too. I may not have cheated on my wife, but I’ve lusted in my heart.” It was an occasion for all of us to examine our consciences.

Our tendency now is to look back at those old times and say we are much more sophisticated and thorough. You have a different vantage point. Public prosecutors and defense lawyers increasingly look over a large share of the cases, with rules of evidence and procedure. They slowed things down. Jury trials started taking longer. That may have increased the fairness of some proceedings, but there’s a cost. The jury trial takes longer, so the judge and the prosecutor want to get the case over with. They short-circuit the jury trials and they plea-bargain, which from the point of view of lawyers makes sense: Defendant gets a lower punishment, prosecutor gets to prosecute more cases.

But the downside is … You don’t get your day in court. You don’t see justice done. So, you get a series of victims saying, “Hey, what happened to my case?” You get defendants who say, “But I wanted to explain.” Usually the case just goes away. The public doesn’t see justice done and wonders what these lawyers are doing: Bargaining? Sweetheart deals? Whether the system is fair or unfair as it operates, it certainly isn’t seen as fair and accountable, the way it should be in a democracy.

Share this article with friends.

John West

Dangerous descent

How Darwinian thought seeped into every cultural crevice, and what we can do to counter it today

Discovery Institute

John West is vice president of Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank best known for its research and advocacy for intelligent design. West is also the author of several books, including Darwin Day in America, which examines how Charles Darwin’s idea influences culture today. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation in Seattle.

Where has Darwinian thought had the most influence on society today? The area of faith. Darwin’s theory wasn’t just about change over time—it was that we’re part of an accidental process. So Darwin has been the greatest gift to people who would like to deny that God exists. But it’s gone way beyond that: We’ve seen Darwinism used to devalue human life, because Darwin thought humans are basically animals. At the end of On the Origin of Species he says it’s through death, disease, and starvation that the best things have come about in nature.

It seems like some of these ideas are not always connected to Darwin because people read On the Origin of Species without reading his later book, The Descent of Man. Exactly. I have met scholars who say Darwin has nothing to do with religion or morality—it’s just about science. I ask: “Have you read The Descent of Man?” No. That is where Darwin talks about religion, morality, mind, and social policy, about how he thinks we’re destroying the human race by inoculating people against smallpox and helping the poor.

Let the weak die on their own. Correct. Darwin was a kind and compassionate man, so he worried about the implications, but that’s what he thought the theory meant. He thought that if we follow reason, we probably shouldn’t be doing things to help the people he thought were defective.

‘Darwin was not the world’s first racist, but you’re avoiding history if you don’t understand the role Darwin played in virulent scientific racism.’

How has Darwinian thought influenced the sexual revolution? In The Descent of Man Darwin argues the original form of human mating was not monogamy, but community marriage—lots of different sexual partners. Darwin himself favored monogamy as in 19th-century Victorian England, but his overall claim was that appropriate mating practice was determined by whatever survival needs you had. So it would radically change over time. Darwin influenced many of the people who made these arguments more widely in what became known as the sexual revolution. No. 1 is Alfred Kinsey. Most people don’t know he was trained as an evolutionary biologist. Only later did he look at animal and human sexuality and become the father of the sexual revolution. 

What about crime and punishment? Like much of 19th-century scientific thought, Darwinian thought was reductionist: It tried to reduce everything about us—our moral beliefs, our actions—to the product of blind matter in motion. It’s not something we can be held accountable for, because our environment dictates it. Today we say our genes made me do it. There was a whole school of criminal anthropology that followed Darwin and went in two directions. One, the liberal form of criminal justice, says we’re not responsible for our actions, so you have a “Get out of jail free” card. The other, on the law-and-order side, says if this behavior is bred into criminals, then you have to either get rid of them—execute them—or cure them through things ranging from lobotomies to indefinite detention. 

What about ideas of racial superiority? Darwin was not the world’s first racist, but you’re avoiding history if you don’t understand the role Darwin played in virulent scientific racism. He believed everything about humans ultimately could be explained by natural selection, or survival of the fittest. And since it acts differently in populations according to different environments, Darwin said we shouldn’t expect natural selection to produce races of equivalent capabilities. He provided a scientific agenda, a research agenda, for several decades of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists who looked for how the races were inherently unequal. Mercifully, that is not the mainstream scientific view today.

How did that change? Not because of the scientists. It was the civil rights movement and many religious leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and others who, based on Christian convictions, pushed back and made that view unfashionable.

You mentioned reductionism—the idea that we’re all a product of our genes and environment. How has that contributed to the tendency to over-medicate? Psychoactive drugs are a great benefit to society—I’ve had family members who have benefited from them. But I think it should concern people that in some schools in America, 40 percent or more of the young boys are put on Ritalin for ADHD. Ritalin is pharmacologically related to cocaine, so it is going to affect your concentration whether you have ADHD or not. This idea that we’re just these material creatures leads to a psychoactive-drug-first mentality. You don’t look at people as body, mind, soul; they’re just bodies. If you think we’re hybrids, both material and spiritual, then you’ll want to explore a wider range of potential treatments. 

As scientific research continues to undermine Darwin and strengthen the case for intelligent design, are we seeing a reevaluation of some of these associated ideas? A growing number of voices in and out of the scientific community are raising questions about Darwin’s theory and pointing to the evidence of design, but the cultural cachet of Darwinian reductionism is still powerful, particularly in the social and in the nonscientific realm. Fields like political science, sociology, and psychology all took their underlying assumptions from 19th-century natural science, including Darwin. 

Some pushback in science? We are seeing more pushback to the garden variety science claims you still get from people like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye—that Darwinian science shows we’re the product of this unguided process. That sort of village atheism is getting harder to sustain. In physics and cosmology, lots more people are talking about the exquisite fine-tuning that leads to life. And in biology, they’re talking about the exquisite molecular machines. 

How can the average Christian affect the cultural conversation surrounding Darwinism? The No. 1 thing Christians can do: Be responsible for those in their own circles of influence. Don’t fret if you don’t have 100,000 people listening to you on YouTube or Facebook. Pay attention to your own kids. Pay attention to the kids of your friends. Even in evangelical churches, parents often farm out the raising of their kids. You can’t cede your parenting to schools—public or Christian. And you certainly can’t cede it to the internet, social media, or video games. If you feel ill-equipped, there’s good news: Various groups have produced lots of great resources to help you talk about these things with your kids. You don’t need to be an expert. Just watch a video with your kids each week and engage them in discussion around the dinner table.

Here’s what we published in WORLD on June 28, 2014:

For the social effects of Darwinism, read John West’s Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. Bradley Watson’s Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence describes the impact of evolutionary theory on political and social thought. Jerry Bergman’s Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview proves how German anti-Semitism plus Darwinism equaled mass murder. —Marvin Olasky

Share this article with friends.