“You smell that?” Johnny Depp asks towards the end of The Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson’s 2011 adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name. Playing Paul Kemp, Thompson’s thinly veiled self-portrait and protagonist, Depp stands in the middle of a Puerto Rican newspaper office, which has been gutted by the American businessman whose shady dealings Kemp was about to expose. “It smells like bastards,” he says.
Al Jazeera English’s Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) has a very similar sense of smell. Since the op-ed columnist and self-described “recovering academic” began publishing opinion pieces on the news channel’s English-language website nearly two years ago, she has demonstrated a remarkable knack for sniffing out bastardry wherever it may fester. And I do mean wherever: rather than merely focusing her ire on Wall Street, the rotten wellspring of American wealth inequality, Kendzior has boldly resolved to call bullshi-t on the less obvious but no less deserving bastards of what she calls the country’s “prestige economy” as well.
“The questions that are important to me are: who is suffering? What causes their suffering? Who benefits from their suffering? Who enables it, who accepts it? Then I go from there. Even if our current political and economic situation improved dramatically, I would ask the same questions,” she told Crikey.
As a result she often takes on both the world she has come from and the world she has entered: academia and the media have both been subjected to the writer’s scathing critiques. Kendzior has also made powerful enemies. An expert in Central Asian affairs, she recently upset the daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who openly threatened to have her killed. “[Gulnara] thought I lacked sympathy for the loss of her Swiss villa, which she was whining about on Twitter,” Kendzior said. “This is true. I totally lack sympathy for the loss of her Swiss villa.”
Her approach has proved wildly popular. In 2013, Kendzior wrote seven of AJ English’s 30 most-read op-ed pieces, including the top story, “The wrong kind of Caucasian“, about the media’s coverage of the Boston bombers’ ethnic background, which remains the site’s most popular op-ed of all time. Being retweeted with regularity by fans like John Cusack, Martha Plimpton and Ally Sheedy hasn’t hurt, perhaps. (” I will not rest until I [am followed by] every 1980s teen star,” she recently joked.) But there can be no denying that the appearance on that list of such seemingly niche titles as “Academia’s indentured servants” (#9), “Surviving the post-employment economy“(#12) and “The closing of American academia” (#27) speaks to an ongoing and indeed increasing concern with inequality in the culture.
“From the beginning, I connected inequality in academia to a broader problem of eroded opportunity and labour exploitation,” Kendzior said. “Many outside academia responded, because they are frustrated by the same problems: short-term contracts, useless credentials, expensive barriers to entry, opportunity-hoarding by elites. Academia differs from other industries only in its flagrant hypocrisy. Only in academia do job candidates pay thousands to attend talks about structural inequality in a five-star hotel.”
The popularity of such arguments puts paid to the insidious idea, peddled with adamant regularity by those with a vested interest in convincing us that it is true, that the Occupy movement was a failure and that its claims ceased to be of relevance once the tent cities and their soup kitchens were (often forcibly) removed.
“Occupy brought a lot of problems into mainstream public discussion, and the mainstream media responded by relegating them to the fringe,” Kendzior said. “I don’t think the people who showed up at Occupy rallies are representative of all who shared the movement’s concerns. I was part of a broader audience who watched what Occupy was doing with interest but never got involved. It is facetious to claim Occupy never accomplished anything. They made a lot of people feel less alone. “
For all the success of her AJ English pieces, it is arguably on Twitter that Kendzior has made her greatest mark. Not for nothing did Foreign Policy‘s Daniel W. Drezner, announcing the winners of his 2013 Albie Awards for “the best writing in global political economy,” award second place to Kendzior, not for her op-ed work, but for her tweets. “I think it’s really on her Twitter feed that the ‘full Kendzior’ is on display,” he wrote.
“[The ‘full Kendzior’] sounds ominous, and possibly is,” she said. “But I am grateful people respond to my ideas and writing, even in 140-character increments. People who use Twitter to ‘build a personal brand’ are missing the point. On Twitter you can belong without having to fit in.”
Known for fastidiously drafting and redrafting each tweet to perfection before publishing it, Kendzior also says that Twitter has helped her to become a better writer. “The character count forces you to be creative,” she said. “My six-year-old is starting to write and gets frustrated that she doesn’t know big words. I told her it is less important to know big words than how to put little words together.”
Asked if she’s ever concerned about preaching to the choir, Kendzior is adamant: “I write about a wide array of topics and have a very broad audience. I don’t even know who the choir is.”
The reason I’m associated with this topic is because my articles go viral and have a much wider audience than the typical higher education piece. Many writers tackled inequality in academia long before I did, most notably William Pannapacker, who has been writing about it for over a decade. But they tended to publish in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which was mainly read, especially in the pre-social media age, by other academics.
Higher education touches a nerve because it was long seen as a path out of poverty, not a way into it. People who cannot find gainful employment are blamed for their lack of education and ordered to spend money obtaining skills and credentials that make them “competitive”. What they usually end up with is debt without opportunity, since the recession eliminated jobs from multiple sectors. There are no sure bets and there is no safety net. People want to feel like they are doing everything they can to avoid unemployment. But this is a structural problem, it is pervasive, and it is not being solved.
On living and working in the American mid-west …
Last month I published a very popular article called “Expensive Cities Are Killing Creativity“. Most people liked it, but those who did not accused me of never having set foot in New York. I lived in New York for three years and left in 2003 for the reasons I laid out in the article. And that was 2003 New York, which is infinitely less expensive than the gated citadel of Bloomberg’s creation. My old apartment in Queens now costs three times what I paid. Since I left, media salaries mostly remained stagnant or even dropped. I’m pretty sure my entry-level job at the New York Daily News, which paid me $40,000 as a 21-year-old college grad, is now an internship.
I’m not from the mid-west. I grew up in Meriden, Connecticut, which Connecticut Magazine once (unfairly) called the worst city in Connecticut. Urban Dictionary gives you an exaggerated view of its reputation, but it does have problems, and it especially did when I was a child in the 1980s and 1990s, by which time the downtown was obliterated. (Things have improved in recent years.) But I like Meriden. I have good memories. I spent my childhood walking past the gun shop and the porn store to every fast food place imaginable, including a Burger King Palace, which had animatronic monkeys who serenaded you on a throne, and walls decorated with pictures of fictional royalty eating Whoppers. It should have been a UNICEF landmark. I wept when they tore it down. I was 26.
What can I say? I grew up in a struggling city and saw beauty in ordinary things. People only corrected me later in life. And by then they were too late.
The perceived division between the coasts and the Midwest is based on stereotypes. Urban/rural, rich/poor are more useful ways to compare places than “red/blue” or “coast/heartland”, although no binaries ever tell the whole story. As fallen industrial cities, St Louis and Meriden have more in common with each other than Meriden does with the rich parts of Connecticut, or St Louis does with the boot heel of Missouri.
St Louis is distinct because it has an incredible history and culture, by which I mean not only the culture of the past, which left its legacy in institutions all over the city, but the dynamism of the present. I like living in former imperial capitals. I also lived in Vienna and Istanbul, and St Louis reminds me of that. When you see history all around you it makes you appreciate how cities rise and fall, how people rebuild.
The main difference between living in a Midwest city versus an east coast city is the low cost of living. In expensive cities, a small wrong move can upend everything, so people conform — intellectually and in terms of behaviour. Where it’s cheap, you have more flexibility. Young people email me and say, “I want to be a writer, but I can’t afford to move to Brooklyn.” I tell them to stay where they are and open their eyes. There are always interesting stories around you. You have been trained not to notice them.
On Central Asian studies and Gulnara Karimova …
Central Asia is a good example of how funding impacts knowledge. Central Asian studies is a dying field, and many of the experts of the region are now unemployed or doing work that has nothing to do with Central Asia. Without money and jobs, the research stops. One of the best-known analysts of Central Asia is training to become a dentist. The world’s foremost scholar of Tajikistan is unemployed.
The reason is that the money is gone. [US government] funding supporting scholars of Russia and Eurasia was cut. The [2013 budget sequestration] resulted in lay-offs for Central Asia analysts working for the government. Because of the drawdown in Afghanistan, think tank positions dedicated to Central Asia were eliminated. News outlets that covered the region lost funding. There is nowhere for the younger generation of Central Asia scholars to go.
The implications of this are greater than the effect on the scholars in question. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, Central Asia was rarely studied (other than by Soviet researchers forced to censor and manipulate their own findings). Westerners who studied Central Asia tended to do so through a Soviet lens that privileged Russian language and Russian speakers. This changed in the 1990s and 2000s, when scholars traveled to the region, learned local languages, collaborated with local scholars and produced ethnographically rich work that valued Central Asia in its own right. Historians translated forgotten texts that changed not only perceptions of Central Asia, but how Central Asia relates to the world. (Adeeb Khalid’s work on Islamic intellectual history is a great example.)
And now it is ending. It is a loss for knowledge and also a deeply stupid move on the part of the US government, who will inevitably be looking for analysts if and when the region experiences turmoil, and may not be able to find people with up-to-date language skills and regional knowledge.
I’m happy to say there are a few exceptions to this trend. One is George Washington University, with whom I’m working on an initiative to translate Uzbek online works and publish them, with annotated commentary, on the internet. My favourite commentators on Central Asia are Uzbek poets. If you want to learn about Central Asia, read a report; if you want to understand Central Asia, read a poem.
When Gulnara Karimova threatened to have me killed by the SNB (Uzbek security services), it got a lot of attention. I wish that attention would go to the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan who have to live with SNB surveillance and violence every day. In the middle of my Twitter fight with Gulnara, one of my friends called to let me know his father, imprisoned in Uzbekistan, had been moved to the “good jail”, where he might come out alive. You want a story about Uzbeks? Go write about that instead of Kim Kardashi-stan. Reporters focus on Gulnara because they have little access to Uzbekistan and little interest in the quiet horrors of everyday life under her father.
On gender, race and positions of power …
The way I would like [America’s race] debate to change is through more intellectuals of colour holding positions of power in media and policy. Many already have influence through their massive online followings. But their influence is often not respected, or financially compensated, by institutions. Instead, their intellectual work tends to be co-opted or stolen.
This is particularly true for black female intellectuals on Twitter. These women are transforming debates on gender, race, the economy and public policy, only to then hear their ideas coming out of a white person’s mouth, often in a diluted form. You see this dynamic most in debates about gender. Black women often have to go through the ordeal of demanding inclusion in national conversations they started. Their exclusion is systematic and shameless.
I would like to see intellectuals from under-represented groups given the platform and respect awarded to the white male journalists who write 80% of our op-eds. It is criminal that someone like Richard Cohen has a platform to publish racist diatribes while minority intellectuals get almost nothing. This nation does not lack in talent. It lacks a system which allows talent to be fairly recognised and rewarded. I have pushed for media diversity before, and someone accused me of wanting to fill a quota.
This has nothing to do with a quota. This is about giving some of our most innovative thinkers the professional opportunities they have already earned—and furthering thoughtful, honest discussions from which everyone would benefit.
You cannot solve America’s problems — be they economic, social, or political — without understanding the role racial discrimination and violence played in creating them. James Baldwin once wrote: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.” This is how I feel too. I love this country very much. That is why I want its past and present problems discussed in a meaningful way.