"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.