Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Check out this new podcast, Gaslit Nation, with with Andrea Chalupa and Sarah Kendzior, author of The View from Flyover Country.
In this week’s Gaslit Nation, Sarah and Andrea express their ongoing frustration about last week’s deja news avalanche of stories about corruption that remains unpunished. As America, the land of collective amnesia, realizes yet again that Trump is a Russian asset following the confessions of Michael Cohen, Sarah and Andrea discuss what it means for brazen, blatant criminals to go caught but unpunished.
Their podcast website is Gaslit Nation
The Audacity of Despair
This is a collection of essays I wrote between 2012 and 2014. It covers topics such as the collapse of the U.S. economy, the abandonment of the American heartland, the loss of opportunities for youth, the rise of paranoia and the erosion of social trust, the soaring cost of living, and the transformation of industries like media and higher education into exploitation schemes for elites. An old adage says to write what you know. As a journalist living in a decayed Midwestern city waiting—and waiting and waiting—for the Great Recession to end, that was what I knew.
Now, almost five years after I originally wrote these essays, it is still, unfortunately, what I know.
I did not set out to write a book, and I certainly did not expect this book to become a guide for those struggling to understand what happened to the United States in 2016 and the mass frustration and rifts the election of Donald Trump exposed. I simply wanted to cover what were, at the time, topics very few of my colleagues wanted to discuss: systemic corruption, the breakdown of institutions, and a post-employment economy where you pay to play or you fall through the cracks.
As the industries I worked in kept collapsing, I fell through the cracks myself a few times, and the only consolation from that experience is that the view from the cracks is a lot clearer than the view from above. I was not alone in my frustration, as I watched friends from all walks of life—people with education levels ranging from a GED to a PhD, people from all sorts of professions and backgrounds—face that same feeling of futurelessness and receive the same empty assurances. “The economy is cyclical,” experts assured us, in a line that reeked of spin.
At a time when Americans were being continually informed that our crises were over—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were ending, we lived in a post-racial society, the good jobs would be back any day now—I saw no improvements on the ground. America had returned to “normal,” politicians and pundits proclaimed, but “normal” felt like a crisis. And when you live in a crisis, you write with urgency, because you need problems to be solved.
So in the era of the audacity of hope, I made a case for the audacity of despair.
This is where you may be thinking to yourself, “Wow, this is going to be a really depressing book!” And it might be, but that never was and is not my intent. One cannot solve a problem until one acknowledges a problem exists. That is the lesson that Americans learned the hard way during the 2016 election and its aftermath.
It is easy, when people feel frightened and abandoned, for a demagogue to exploit those feelings of despair for political gain. It is easy for that demagogue to translate fear into fanaticism, to shift extremism into the mainstream and market it under the guise of populism. By the time buyer’s remorse hits, a new and more brutal political culture has arisen. A gaslit nation becomes engulfed in flames.
The United States’ current contentious climate is the flip side of the false promise of hope we saw half a decade ago. In the aftermath of the recession, hope was wielded like a weapon by corporations that lured in desperate Americans with exploitative assurances: work for low wages now and you will be rewarded with a raise later; rack up college debt because a steady job is guaranteed. Hope was flaunted by pundits and politicians safely ensconced in elite coastal enclaves, who implied—with their endless proclamations that prosperity awaited if you worked for it—that the lack of prospects for the rest of us must be our own fault.
Above all, we were told not to complain. Don’t complain about exploitation. Don’t complain about discrimination. Don’t complain that you feel trapped. Don’t complain, because the problem is not real—don’t complain, because then people will think the problem is you.
Before I began writing about the problems of the United States, I spent my career studying authoritarian states: countries where citizens cannot complain in public because officials will punish them for doing so. Friends of mine living in countries like Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan had been sent to prison for talking about the same issues I wrote about in the United States. They were criminalized for exposing institutional corruption, systemic discrimination, and opportunity-hoarding by elites. Complaining, to me, always seemed like a gift and an obligation, a path to prospective change that one should never take for granted. So in the course of the two years I spent writing these essays, I used the platform I had at Al Jazeera to complain.
My essays went viral, often attracting millions of views despite (or perhaps because of) their bleak subject matter. I heard from readers living in places like St. Louis—postindustrial regions where the economy had long bottomed out. I heard from debt-ridden young people struggling to survive in expensive cities where the cost of living had tripled within a decade. I heard from people from all sides of the political spectrum, who disagreed with each other on many issues but shared a common sense of marginalization and betrayal. I also heard from readers who were doing well, but who felt concerned by what I reported. I tended to get two kinds of reactions from my readers: “I’m so glad someone is finally talking about this,” and “I had no idea.”
In the fall of 2014, I quit Al Jazeera English following Al Jazeera’s decision to rebrand itself for an American audience, a decision which, ironically, curtailed my own ability to talk bluntly about problems in America. (The rebranded Al Jazeera America went out of business in early 2016.) I moved on to covering other topics for other outlets. By that time, my own city of St. Louis had become an international symbol of dysfunction following protests against police brutality in Ferguson—but my old essays remained popular. My work served as a disturbing reminder that the political and economic crises I had documented not only remained, but had gotten worse. In 2015 I decided to collect the essays I had written for Al Jazeera, to call the collection The View from Flyover Country, and to sell it on the Internet.
After the 2016 election, The View from Flyover Country became an online bestseller. This was partially due to the fact that I had predicted nearly all developments of the 2016 election and Trump’s win—my foresight was an unfortunate by-product of a lifetime spent studying foreign demagogues, along with an intimate understanding of deteriorating conditions in the United States. But my book also became popular because the issues I had started writing about way back in 2012 never lost relevance. They had simmered and then exploded, startling elites who still thought of our country as one of prosperity and possibility. Because I had tracked the death of the American dream in real time, and because I focused on those who suffered, many people turned to my book for an explanation.
Today, the problems I exposed in The View from Flyover Country, which were controversial five years ago, are now a part of mainstream political discourse. This would be a matter of profound relief if I believed the result was that they would be remedied instead of exploited.
As the book gained popularity, I stayed where I am: in an impoverished blue city in a bright-red state, squarely in the center of the country. In the publishing world, this makes me an anomaly. In the 2015 introduction to this book, I wrote, “This is the view from the other America, from flyover country, the places and people often ignored.” Two years later, we are still ignored. The Midwest, in decline for decades, still suffers disproportionately. We get attention when there’s a murder, a protest, an election. Otherwise, we are treated as pawns in a media-staged hunger games, as parachute journalists swoop in for riots and rallies, as people who would never deign to live in a place like my city tell the world what it truly represents, who we truly are.
As a result, the complexity of our plight—and of America’s in general—has often been misconstrued. Since the 2000 elections, pundits have been proclaiming there are “two Americas,” red and blue. This has never truly been the case. There are dozens of red Americas, with extreme variations in demographics and values, and dozens of blue Americas as well. There are endless variations of “America” in St. Louis alone. There is no America that is “real” or “fake.” This insistence that we have an inherent divide has in some respects become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At this contentious point in our history, these divergent Americas are unified most, unfortunately, by a collective sense of pain. America is purple—purple like a bruise.
I live in the middle, and when you live in the middle, you see things from all sides.
This edition of The View from Flyover Country contains the original essays in their original form because my goal has not changed. I am motivated today by the same thing that motivated me when I first wrote these pieces: I believe that problems, if exposed and documented, can be solved, and that suffering can be abated. It’s never clear what the result of discussing problems will be, but ignoring them is a clear road to destruction.
Blind hope, in the end, is only blindness. If we want to figure out a way out of this situation, we need to reexamine how we got into it.
Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Kendzior