Answering Front-Row Questions from the Back Row


Through a conversation with photographer Chris Arnade, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan introduces an excellent metaphor for our cultural dynamic of the moment:

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.”

Myself, I grew up a front-row kid who preferred to hang out in the back.  Consequently, I spent a lot of time being called on from the back of the room and often offering insulting comments that went over the teacher’s head for a brief time, because unexpected.  In youth, it was an awkward place to be, because neither the front-row nor the back-row kids really knew how to interact with me.

The position gives me perspective to correct Noonan and Arnade in one way, though.  The back-row kids aren’t without blame, here, mostly because they’ve been happy to let the front-row kids occupy that spot.  They feel they get to dismiss the whole sordid affair by sitting in the back and to snicker at those who are trying to make the system work, but they don’t.

I’ve picked up a very strong feeling of this sentiment among some blue collar Trump supporters — as if to say, “Now watch how he gets everything right.”  Maybe he will, and maybe he won’t, but it’s dangerous to need it to be one way or the other because one is socially invested in that outcome.

That is to say that the back-row kids also need to take some stock, understanding that they were too inclined to let somebody else be in charge for 30 years and shouldn’t just pick somebody else take the reins for another four, eight, or 30.