Talking with Authors: Sarah Kendzior “The View from Flyover Country”

    St. Louis based journalist, Sarah Kendzior, is often credited with being the first to predict Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

    Her collection of essays written for Al Jazeera are about life in America from her perspective in the Midwest. She’s compiled them into her first book, “The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America.”

    With a PhD in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, Kendzior’s academic research on authoritarian states has led her to become a sought-after expert on television and radio news shows. Her work is widely-published and was named by “Foreign Policy” as one of the “100 people you should be following on Twitter to make sense of global events.”

    Buy The View From Flyover Country

    Transcript

    Victoria Babu:

    We are on the campus of Washington University, your Alma Mater, Sarah Kendzior. We are so glad to have you here. In fact, you were an anthropology major here at Wash U. How did your passion for global issues develop from there or did it, I guess it started at that point?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Well, that was where I got my PhD. I got my PhD in anthropology from here. Before that I had studied history, focusing on authoritarian states, especially authoritarian states in the former Soviet Union. And so when I started here in 2006 I already had that interest in mind. I planned to pursue that for my dissertation topic. I ended up writing on how dictatorships use the Internet and how those oppose them also use the internet, and the different issues of propaganda and trust and activism that come into play.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    At the time, I thought this is a topic that’s very relevant to countries like Uzbekistan, which is [inaudible 00:03:16] country that I studied. Unfortunately I’ve had to transfer those skills into studying in the United States under Donald Trump.

    Victoria Babu:

    Yeah. I do you want to talk about that. Your book, The View From Flyover Country Dispatches From the Forgotten America, it is a collection of your essays that you wrote about about the Midwest for Al Jazeera, and that was from 2012 to 2014. What did you want the world to know about our part of the world?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Some of the essays are directly about the Midwest, directly about St Louis in particular, but generally it’s about the decline of US institutions and trust throughout the country and also to some extent internationally. I think that because I live here, I live in St. Louis, which in my mind never recovered from the great recession, it’s sort of like we get all the bad stuff first. And so we tend to notice things kind of falling apart before other parts of the country do. When you’re living somewhere like New York or DC where things are very expensive, but they’re also thriving where there’s all these centers of power, versus living in a place like St. Louis, whose glory days, if you want to define them as that, are in the past, you have a different perspective. I think that the rest of the country, as time went on and as things continued to decline became more and more like St. Louis.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    And so, in that sense the essays ended up being something a little ahead of its time. They gained more popularity after Trump won the election. That’s when people on the coast seemed to be like, “Oh, okay. I get what she’s been saying for all these years.”

    Victoria Babu:

    When you talk about the coast and you talk about flyover country, explain to those who don’t maybe understand what that means.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah. That’s a term that since I moved here and before I moved here, I was in Indiana, I’ve heard a lot used in a very derogatory fashion to describe I guess I could say our part of the country. And you know what I don’t like about saying our part is that what they mean is basically everything from like New York to LA, if you’re flying over it in a plane, which is obviously a ton of different states and different cities and different people and you know, not a monolith, but it’s dismissed that way. It’s kind of overlooked that way. You see that now with the coverage of Trump, where they’ll call it Trump country, and they just assume everybody voted for him. Everybody as the same ideologies, of the same race, the same religion, all these sorts of stereotypes.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    What they don’t like, what I’ve noticed in working for the media, being part of the media, it’s type of view from this place, for people from here to speak out. I think you really saw that in Ferguson where the national media tried to portray it as this kind of riot that they didn’t understand, instead of really talking to folks who’ve lived here, who’ve been experiencing racism and brutal conditions. Or our labor strikes or the election or a variety of issues, they want to parachute in and parachute out. I try to fill in that gap and bring what I can myself and I like seeing authors and other regions that tend to be overlooked doing that as well in the south and in the Midwest.

    Victoria Babu:

    You’re an Al Jazeera columnist –

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I was.

    Victoria Babu:

    … and an anthropologist by study. Not a common job title anywhere, let alone here in the Midwest. So you said about somewhat about the perspective of living in St. Louis. Has it helped you with these essays too, in terms of talking about social media, politics, the economics, all these things that you do touch on? And then is there one thing that happens in the world that gives you the idea to write about or is it just everyday life?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Well, when I was working for Al Jazeera, I was responding to the topics at hand. And you can see that throughout the book. What kind of terrifies me is that these topics held up really well; economic decline, opportunities being hoarded by elites, a feeling of paranoia and distress leading to conspiracy theories being spread in society. Those are all the sorts of stuff that I touched on and that I still tend to do now.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Unfortunately we live in this crazy news cycle where you’re kind of forced to respond to current events. You’re kind of rolling along covering all the Nazi rallies, and then there’s a threat of nuclear war and you’re like, “Wow, yeah, the Trump era.” So yeah.

    Victoria Babu:

    You’d mentioned earlier about receiving a PhD from here at Washington University studying the authoritarian regimes, and one of them was Uzbekistan, which is a former Soviet Republic, but you’re now banned from that country. Tell us what you learned, what was going on there and how it led you to write about issues here in the United States. How did that even come to be?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I got interested in Uzbekistan, the the other former Soviet Republic, essentially Asia, at my first job, which was at the New York Daily News, because it was 9/11 and we had the war in Afghanistan we had all these bases in the surrounding countries and those countries really weren’t being covered much at all. And so I kind of wanted, as a journalist, to fill in those gaps and write about Central Asia. And I thought, “You know, if I’m going to do this, I want to do it right. I want to learn the languages.” So I went to Indiana University and got an MA and I learned how to speak Uzbek. And I was all set to go to this Uzbekistan when in May, 2005 the government fired on a protest of about 10,000 people and murdered 700 protestors, and then they blamed that protest on a group they called Achromia, which I managed to prove did not exist. It was invented by Uzbek state propagandists.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    And so I wrote a paper about that. It was published in a peer review journal. The Uzbek government was very unhappy about this, and I was not allowed to go in the country. That actually it was true for a lot of westerners who were even mildly critical of Uzbekistan. They were kicking everybody out. So I wasn’t really unique in that respect, but it did change the subject of my dissertation and of my work.

    Victoria Babu:

    And that’s it ended up being more about the-

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah, about the Internet and about … What happened with that massacre, called the Andijan Massacre, is that all of the kind of intellectuals and journalists and political opposition of Uzbekistan left. They went to all these different countries, but this was when blogs were kind of popping up and so they were finally able to communicate with each other over the Internet and kind of plan an opposition strategy.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    And so what I looked at was that process, like, could this happen? Could they actually be a threat to this dictator who’d always been their dictator online? What I found is that the internet really exacerbates distrust, anonymity, trolling. All these issues we’re dealing with right now in the US I was studying in terms of Uzbekistan back then. I think it’s true the world over. I don’t think anyone’s immune from that.

    Victoria Babu:

    You talk about Twitter in your book and the power that it has. Explain how you look at Twitter and how it can help for people who may not have a voice.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah. My perspective’s changed a bit since I originally wrote this because Twitter’s change, you know, it’s been weaponized. It’s been weaponize by foreign actors. It’s been weaponized by Neo Nazis. It’s been weaponized by bots. All these kinds of things we read about now, Cambridge Analytica, those hadn’t happened yet.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    What was interesting at the time I was writing around between 2012 and 2014 it was after the Arab Spring. It was after the Internet had proven a fairly important part of those revolutions, and everyone’s kind of looking at it that way. And when people in foreign countries criticized their government and stood up to the government online, they are often cheered on by western commoners. But, and this kind of foreshadowed the Ferguson uprising and Black Lives Matter, when black Americans, we do the same thing, we talk about systemic racism, we criticized government policies, they would be often libeled or slandered by western media outlets even though they’re just expressing their opinion. And that goes for Latino activists. It goes for anybody who’s kind of marginalized and put upon in the US. And I noticed that discrepancy, I don’t see a difference between the two groups. I think when you’re fighting for your freedom, you’re fighting for your freedom. And so I was kind of put off by the way they were portrayed.

    Victoria Babu:

    Is it a challenge to make sense of certain global issues in that medium with that medium?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    It’s in many ways a really terrible site, and they need to reform it badly because of the harassment and the trolls and all this kind of stuff. It’s also a very powerful site. I wouldn’t have a platform, I wouldn’t have a career and I wouldn’t have some friends that I have if it weren’t for Twitter. I think it’s a very good and vital resource for sharing information if you have media literacy, if you’re able to kind of discern fact from fiction, and that comes often from experience.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I do worry about the effect of Twitter and other social media networks on young people who haven’t developed those skills. And in a world where you’re getting bombarded with lies and conspiracy theories and propaganda and notably our government puts them out. Trump has tweeted things like that. And so the authority of information is really in question when people don’t seem to have a grasp on the truth, when peoples in fact propagate alternative facts, as they like to call them.

    Victoria Babu:

    We’ve mentioned Ferguson. You were actually there during the rioting and that time. You talk about living in a biracial neighborhood. Are you optimistic that America can overcome racism?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    No, I think we should all try. I think the obligation goes more on white people because we’re the people who have the privilege and the leverage in this situation. I think that Ferguson started out as a vigil. Ferguson started out as people mourning for somebody who’d been killed and his body left in the street, and from there it turned into a movement.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I think a lot of times people think there’s some sort of driving ideology and there is that, but there’s an emotional component that I wish people would consider. I wish white people would try to put themselves in the shoes of black parents trying to raise kids when police can shoot their children and just walk away and just get away with it. Even if they didn’t shoot with malicious intent, it still happens. Somebody still died.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    And so until we kind of get very honest about that and acknowledge these structural inequalities, I don’t know where we can go. I do think in some sense we’ve made some progress. I think people are more aware of systemic inequalities that you could have all the money in the world, but if you’re black you could still get profiled on the street, get profiled in the mall. I do think people understand that. I think the younger generation actually is better with that. I see more open-mindedness among kids and teenagers. So like if I have hope for the future, it’s with them.

    Victoria Babu:

    What do you say to that next generation? What can they do?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Well, the main thing is tell the truth. Be Honest, even if everyone around you is lying, even if you feel like the stakes are high. I think, think of others, be helpful, do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. I think when laws are fading, when norms have been shattered, you have to turn to your moral conscience. And that mean being good to other people, looking out for the most vulnerable people and standing up for them.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    And I do see young people doing that. I think a lot of times younger people see things more clearly these days because we older folks have grown up with a set of expectations and it’s been hard for many people to adjust to the fact that this is really happening, that there are serious violations of the constitution, that our system of checks and balances isn’t holding. Younger people see this for what it is, and so that’s good. I mean, hang onto that, hang on to that clarity of mind no matter what people throw at you.

    Victoria Babu:

    Let’s talk about our justice system. Do you believe that reform in our justice system in St. Louis City and the county is on the way to justice for all?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I’m pretty frustrated by the lack of meaningful reform since Ferguson. As we know, St. Louis has 90 municipalities, and so you can try to solve a problem in Ferguson and you’re left with the 89 versions of the same situation. I think there’s more awareness of the situation of things like shakedowns by police on traffic tickets, for example, to fund departments. You still have underfunded departments, you still have widespread poverty, you still have an unequal school system, you still have all these problems and I think they’re also local activists.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I mean that’s the good thing about St. Louis is people work very hard, often with very little resources for change and they continue to work even though the conditions are very tough. I know a lot of people have PTSD from fighting all of these battles, but they care. And so I think we actually have a lot of really good people here and we just need more money and more resources and more people to kind of wake up and realize this isn’t a zero sum situation. If some peoples lot improves, it doesn’t mean things get taken from you. I guess that’s what I wish people would understand more than anything.

    Victoria Babu:

    You are also widely credited for being really among the first journalist to predict that Donald Trump would win the presidency, get into the White House. You explained in your book, and you did this on the television programs that you were a guest on, how was this missed by the media and by political pundits. How did you reach this conclusion?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Oh, there are a few things that gave me unfortunate expertise into this. One, as I said, I used to work at the New York Daily News. I understood New York tabloid media, how they portrayed Trump. I understood that Trump worked the media. The media has been in bad financial straits for a long time. Trump was a cash cow. He gave them ratings, he gave them money. They didn’t care that he launched his campaign saying that Mexicans were murderers and rapists. They didn’t care about his bigotry and his hatred. They were going to roll with that and make money and he knew it. He worked them really well.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    The other thing, I’ve studied authoritarianism, I studied demagogues and I’ve studied white racists in the US, and with Trump you kind of get all those things colliding and it’s really up to a system of checks and balances to kind of keep him … keep a character like that at bay. We’ve had people like this in our history for a long time.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    And then the third thing, honestly, around the fall especially, I was noticing that the government was not addressing the Russian interference issue. I was really surprised by the way parts of the media were just lying about it. They were saying there’s no connection between Trump and Russia. And I’m like, “Well, what’s going on?” And, of course, now we have Mueller who is trying to figure out what exactly is going on. We still don’t know the full official story. But I became very worried that that may tip the election. I never thought he’d sweep, but I thought it would be close. And I thought he had a serious shot and that nobody should treat it like a joke.

    Victoria Babu:

    Right. And you mentioned this on the air with Al Jazeera.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Oh, I mentioned it every opportunity I got, because I was feeling really panicked.

    Host:

    What was the reaction back then during that time?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    People thought I was crazy. They thought it was crazy to even think that he had a chance of winning, and part because of the polls, and part because I think people had greater faith in American institutions and in American people.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    The other thing is I was reporting from here, so I would go to the Trump rallies and I would also go to towns that had a lot of signs for Trump, and a lot of people were going to vote for him. And so I kept meeting people who were going vote for Trump. And often they weren’t all that enthusiastic. They’re kind of like, “I hate both of them, but I always vote Republican.” Or, “I’m pro-life.” Or, “I just want the economy to get better. So I guess I’ll go for it.” I think that because the media is really conglomerated in these very liberal cities on the coast, they didn’t meet anyone just in ordinary, regular life. They only met these kind of people at the rallies who were just wild and over the top and made it almost seem like a spectacle. But this is a serious thing and a lot of people really bought into his lies.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I do feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for anybody who’s having trouble paying their bills. But I think that a lot of people felt like, “Okay, someone finally gets it. Someone’s finally saying that things are bad, that times are tough and that we need help and that he’s offering to help us, so hey,” as Trump famously said, “What do you have to lose.”

    Victoria Babu:

    Do you fear that we mid-westerners will be so discouraged that we will accept the status quo? Or have we lost our hope for the quote moral arc to lean toward justice?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I think that moral arc needs to be pushed. I think people realize that. I think that you get a variety of opinions here. You find people who do still really like Trump. You find some supporters who are disillusioned. You find bunch of people, especially in St. Louis who never liked him, we’re never for him and have been out protesting him since he got an office. So you find all that.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    One thing I find when I talk to … I [inaudible 00:20:07] Trump fans or Trump voters, people voted for him feeling a little ambivalent. They’re not happy because he didn’t fulfill any of the promises. They’re not necessarily going to go talk to the media about it because they hate the media. And I honestly can’t blame them a lot of the times because the media shows no interest in them except for on hurricane or Ferguson or an election. Otherwise, they know when they’re being condescended to. They’re not stupid. But I have seen some frustration.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I’m much more upset with our officials than I am with ordinary people. I think that Congress has really let us down, particularly the GOP. I think the judiciary, it’s under a lot of strain. I think Trump is packing the courts with conservative judges that are just going to do his bidding, and all that worries me more for the future than what citizens are doing. Because I actually think citizens are really on the ball. They’re fighting, they’re standing up for each other, they’re doing a good job.

    Victoria Babu:

    Are you optimistic that the constitution can withstand this administration? And I will quantify this with under his predecessor, there were some liberties taken. So that kind of led the way for Trump actually or whomever was going to follow. What are your thoughts on that?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah. No, I think that’s true. And I think what happened with Trump is people realized how much of our government stability rests on norms and not just laws. And Trump does abuse the law. A lot of his executive orders have been unconstitutional. But the ability to send out executive orders and the ability to have executive control was strengthened under Obama. And I think that people didn’t see that as a potential danger for a demagogue or a sort of prodo authoritarian leader because they just didn’t envision that kind of thing happening in America. We’ve always been a democracy. I don’t think that they saw somebody like him coming.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I think the constitution is only as good as the people who enforce it. And the same is true of checks and balances. Unfortunately a lot of our officials aren’t good at all. They’re either complicit or you’re seeing record numbers of people quitting. They just want out of this. They feel like it’s very corrupt and they want out. And that leaves things in a constantly chaotic state as well as a state that’s advantageous for some of Trump’s lackeys who are at heart kleptocrats. They just want to make money. They using the White House like an ATM and they don’t care about what citizens are going through.

    Victoria Babu:

    But how do you handle the opposing views? And I’m sure you’ve had many people that have that point/counterpoint.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah, I’m fine if people disagree with me. If they come into the debate with facts and with their own prerogative and their own opinion, I’m totally up for having a good faith debate. What I don’t like is just slander, lies, trying to argue about a completely different topic, like that kind of nonsense, which of course you see all over the Internet. But I’m usually happy to meet somebody who has a different opinion from me because how else do you learn about the world? How else do you learn about what other people are thinking? It would be really creepy to me if everyone agreed with me. That [crosstalk 00:22:53].

    Victoria Babu:

    Does it help you come up with another [crosstalk 00:00:22:56].

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah, sometimes it is. If the person’s an intelligent person and they’re making good argument, I take that seriously. I think that’s good. It freaks me out when everybody’s in agreement. That’s what a fascist state is like.

    Victoria Babu:

    True. Because they’re telling you how you’re going to think and …

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah, or there’s just an obligation for everybody to kind of reiterate the same views because they feel afraid to express themselves. And the best thing is for people to be able to express freely what they’re thinking.

    Victoria Babu:

    You have your PhD from here, from Washington University, yet you write very critically of the academic world. I found it very enlightening because I didn’t know enough about it to understand that you’ve written a paper, but myself and maybe others in the world may never see the words that folks do in a academia. Why is that? And then when you go out into the world, they’re not paying you.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Right. Oh yeah.

    Victoria Babu:

    You talk about that with the economy in general, but it’s certainly it’s academia.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah, it’s a borderline Ponzi scheme basically where people are working for prestige instead of money, and that prestige does not lead to a payoff and people struggle to get by. And that’s true of people who have the highest level of education possible. I have a PhD. And then you see people struggling who have GEDS as well. Like, I feel like there’s kind of a systematic exploitation problem.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    But yeah, in terms of academic papers the way it works is when you publish in an academic journal allegedly it’s supposed to count big on the job market. I haven’t really found that to be the case. But it’s then pay walled and then that journal will charge people an incredible amount of money to read it. Like something like $25 or something, which a subscription to the Washington Post is a buck. So you’re sort of like, “Yeah, what are the odds that people are going to actually pay that and download this thing?” And so why are they doing it? They do it to put up that barrier.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    It’s very elitist. It’s not about the dissemination of knowledge, it’s about the hoarding of knowledge and sort of sending out signals to different institutions. Like this person is a serious scholar and all that. I mean that to me, I had no interest in that. I really wanted to inform the general public with my work. I’m like, “What’s the point?” Like if people can read it, what’s the point of It. I found that to be really frustrating.

    Victoria Babu:

    But you had the avenue of the Internet and media?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Right, yeah. And I think that things have changed a bit since I wrote those essays. I think a lot of social scientists in particular realize how valued their expertise is now. You’re seeing a lot of bestselling books by professors and others who’ve studied things like how authoritarian states form, how democracies die, all these unfortunate topics. And I think that the public maybe has some greater appreciation for that. And I think some of it is people need to speak in like normal English without any jargon, without all this academic nonsense because nobody cares about this inter academic debates.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    And so I think people have realized that, and they realize that they’ve got something to offer, and the response has been good. So I do think there’s been positive change.

    Victoria Babu:

    Tell me about your process when you write and organizing these assays, and particularly for this book, how do you go from them standing alone to making it flow in the book? Was that a challenging process or-

    Sarah Kendzior:

    It was completely accidental because I never set out to write a book. I wrote all these essays individually in response to current events. When I was working for Al Jazeera, once I left, I had a lot of demand for my readers saying, “You know, I really like your work. Is there a place we can get it where it’s all in one place?” I didn’t think that a book publisher would want a bunch of things that are already been published online.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I self published this in 2015, and to my surprise it was a big bestseller. It was popular when it first came out, it got extremely popular after the election, and then there’s a demand for a print version with new material, which is what this is. But I arranged them. I tried to kind of make them flow. I tried to divide them by topic. I’m glad, hopefully you think it does, but there are some common themes. There are themes of corruption, injustice, hypocrisy, all kinds of fun stuff that unfortunately bind these themes together.

    Victoria Babu:

    Is running a catharsis for you. Is it cathartic at all, and I guess a form of activism?

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Yeah, it is cathartic. I like to write. I just stylistically I get some satisfaction out of it. I like sharing my work with readers. I like be able to explore topics that’s under-explored, things that aren’t necessarily getting the news. I get some satisfaction out of that. It’s really like, is it activism? That’s a debate a lot of people are having now.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    I feel like my stuff’s labeled opinion when its opinion and when I write a feature story, I leave myself out of it. I usually take a kind of ethnographic approach and remove myself from the situation entirely. But it becomes activism in this kind of political climate, even inadvertently. It’s not like I’m setting out with some activist agenda, but when you live in a state that doesn’t value the truth, that’s often trying to suppress the truth than telling the truth can be seen as a radical act. And I don’t think of myself as a radical person, but that’s how I’m characterized sometimes, and I think it’s more a reflection of the political climate we live in.

    Rod Milam:

    International journalist, anthropologist, cultural commentator and author Sarah Kendzior. Now to close out our podcast here’s Sarah reading excerpts from her book, The View From Flyover Country.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Americans will advocate for tolerance and peace. This is a noble sentiment, but what the US needs is a cold, hard look at social structure. We need to examine and eliminate barriers to opportunity. So much of which are racially biased in an overt way, but many of which are downplayed because they’re considered ambiguous social issues, such as decaying public schools, low wage labor and unemployment, which affect African Americans at disproportionate rates.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Americans should not fear riots. They should fear apathy. They should fear acquiescence. They should not fear each other. But it’s understandable now that they do.

    Sarah Kendzior:

    Freedom of speech is protected by law but guided by emotion. We should not mistake legal sanction for personal approval, but we should also not mistake personal disapproval for rejection of free speech. In free societies people have the right to say hateful things and those offended have the right to oppose and condemn them.

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