The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

One cannot solve a problem until one acknowledges a problem exists.

People hate complaining because they do not like to list. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category. You are forced to witness how social systems are borne out in personal experience, to recognize that hardship hurts, that solutions are not as simple as they seem.

Sarah Kendzior an expert on totalitarian regimes, particularly in central Asia, and a journalist based in St. Louis who I’ve followed on Twitter for some time. The View from Flyover Country is a collection of essays penned between 2012 and 2014 on issues that range from media to race to higher education. I read the entire collection in about three sittings last weekend, only setting it down when some of the essays hit a little too close to home.

The fact that The View From Flyover Country is a collection of essays published for Al Jazeera leads to a certain amount of repetition one would expect to find in a series of articles published on their own, but also offers scathing critiques of the present economic and social order in easily approachable chunks that cause her call to action to swell like a flood. Kendzior laces her criticism of the status quo with a deep humanism, making the case that the economic systems that have already shattered at least one generation and are hard at work on a second one deprive many Americans of not just economic opportunity, but basic dignity.

In the post-employment economy, is self-respect something we can afford? Or is another devalued commodity we are expected to give away?

The foundations of the system as Kendzior identifies it are rising inequality paired with increasingly expensive barriers to entry into lucrative careers that create pay-to-play environment. Simultaneously, she articulates that we are living in a post-employment economy in many sectors, where corporations aim to stay profitable by reducing wages and offloading costs onto the workers. These conditions, combined with the toxic potential of the new media landscape create totalitarian echoes.

Kendzior penned these essays well before the 2016 presidential election, but that campaign season and the events that have unfolded since have done nothing invalidate her words. If anything, the curtain was stripped back to reveal systemic and ideological weaknesses in the American system. Where people had previously brushed these off with wave toward a black president, long strides that have been made by women, or a general sense of American achievement—some of which is warranted—has been shown to also be gilding atop gross and growing inequality.

There are no easy solutions and Kendzior doesn’t pretend that there are. But to the extent that the first step to making things better is to acknowledge that a problem exists, The View From Flyover Country should be mandatory reading for everyone in the United States.

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I was under the weather this week, which managed to consume most of my energy left for reading, but I did start The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a fablistic novel by the Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk. It is too soon to judge the book, but I enjoyed the first few pages.

Assorted Links

  1. The Land of Big Groceries, Big God, and Smooth Traffic-a note in The Atlantic about a number of misconceptions and American idiosyncrasies that people visiting for the first time experience. Some speak highly of the United States, some are funny, some are depressing.
  2. Gore Vidal obituary – From the Guardian. Vidal is one of my favorite authors, from his essays to his novels (of which I have only read five or six). My favorite is Creation, in which Vidal discusses politics and religion, but mostly tries to break free from the conception that the Greeks were the spark that lit civilization. Since I am working on my doctorate in Greek history, this is a particularly pertinent reminder and something I subscribe to. A final project for a course I took at graduate school we had to write a world history syllabus, and Creation was an assigned reading on mine.
  3. Syria: Lamp in the Storm– An article about Syria (originally posted by Will), non-violence and what the UN can do to stop combat. He is critical of the limited numbers and limited mandate of the UN contingent preparing for Syria, and argues that what is happening in Syria is not merely a limited conflict that only matters to Syria, but is something that does concern the world at large. If only Syria had nuclear weapons.
  4. Siri, Take This Down – An article in the Atlantic about the next possible evolution in writing, namely the widespread use of voice to text. Right now it is not that widely used, and the use of dictation has fallen by the wayside, too. I personally prefer writing by hand, as I have written here and here. This article cites Heidegger’s lectures on Parmenides where he touches on some of the same issues, and so I may revisit the topic.
  5. How to save an independent bookstore-An article in the Washington Post about some innovative and ambitious plan to save an independent bookstore in San Fransisco.
  6. Faces of Hope– Some pictures on The Atlantic from Afghanistan.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Right Energized

On August 3rd, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke before a number of conservative students at John Hopkins University. The overarching intent was to foster grass-roots campaigns in order to win the midterm elections for the Republican Party, building momentum for the 2012 election. It was clear that Gingrich fervently believed what he was saying and it was refreshing to see so many 18-25 year olds dedicated to a political cause. The problem is in what was being said.

I will not take the time to counter every point that was made, or every question raised, but I am worried about this. I am worried that it is the right that is most energized this year and worried about the misleading and blind rhetoric used to arouse this support.

The Gingrich speech comes on the heels of the Texas textbook law and the spreading popularity of the Tea Party and groups that support the defense of “Western Civilization” (also a statement that came up during the speech). Closest to my heart is that one of the common denominators here is that they are all based on a limited, twisted or mistaken perception of history. Of course there is the movement to recast Thomas Jefferson as of limited importance to the creation of the United States, as well as the declaration that Western Civilization is a unique corpus challenged and destroyed by multiculturalism and integration. As an aside, at least one of the groups claims that a classical education is also a threat to Western Civilization, despite it being one of the foundations of that civilization, both temporally and in that it has for centuries formed the the core of education in Europe and America.

Universally among my colleagues at the University of Missouri, the Texas textbook reform was met with resignation as much as with outrage. It is a rather basic, if sometimes overlooked fact that all history taught in schools is constructed to portray a message, whether that is what is about the unity of the country, states rights or the value of democracy. This construction doesn’t mean that it is untrue, merely that there is an inherent bias in what is useful and what is appropriate for young people. Then, at the college level, half of what happens is that educators have to first correct mistaken impressions from high school, as well as actually educating students. The Texas reform marks just the latest high school folly to correct, hence the resignation.

Getting back to Gingrich, my first reaction is the complete mangling of ideas and labels. His basic point is that America leans to the Right, but that the Left fights from the high ground, embedded as the Left is in tenured professor positions, media, presidency, House and Senate leadership, and so on (his opinion, not mine). As such, he claims that the mass of regular Americans need to start a revolution to overthrow the elite. This should sound familiar given the history of the last 150 years and the successes and failures of socialist and communist revolutions. And then Gingrich (among others) march on to call Obama a socialist. To call liberals elitist and socialist. In this particular instance, Gingrich called Obama a secular socialist.

This is my second concern, on which the latest incident is the debate raging over the mosque alongside ground zero. I understand that a majority of Americans are Christian, and I strongly support the right of all Americans to worship freely as they see fit. My issue is the suggestion that the United States was founded as a Christian country and it is this Christian foundation that guarantees civil liberties, including freedom of religion.

Christianity ensures freedom of religion.

Leaving alone that Christianity is a religious umbrella that comprises hundreds of different, sometimes mutually unrecognizable groups, the idea that it is a religious tenet to encourage other religions to worship as they see fit is unfathomable to me. This is not to say that individual Christians or Christian groups do not now recognize this right in other groups and other religions. The issue is twofold: 1) Their religion is right (as many claim) and therefore other religions should not be recognized; 2) If their religion is not the only one that is right or doesn’t have the whole Truth or the sole right to exist, how is it that their religion is the one that is so graciously granting the right to existence to those others?

Then there is the argument that one of the problems with Obama is that he is secular. Gingrich bluntly declared that secularism–rejection of Christian belief–is one of the underlying causes of dictatorships. Because no Christian nation has every oppressed its citizens or started wars, and there has never been a Christian dictatorship. As far as I am concerned God-given rights may as well be the same as natural rights. In either circumstance the rights are granted by the creator, in whatsoever guise that Creator is viewed. The rights are not ensured because we are a nation composed mostly of Christians founded on Christian ideals, but we are a nation of religious freedom because we are a nation that came together from multiple denominations.

This brings me back to the proposed mosque in Manhattan. I understand the argument Gingrich raised about Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia) not permitting synagogues and churches, but that is not a valid reason to limit religious freedoms here. This is exactly the argument Tom Friedman makes in his August 3 column. His argument is the same as mine: this is a display of openness and inclusion that is all but unprecedented. It is also a symbol of recognition that it was not “Muslims” who attacked the United States, but particular extremists. Yet people come out and basically claim that a mosque is sacrilege because Muslims or Arabs attacked the United States and while we support religious freedom, we do so everywhere except that piece of real estate. On top of it all there is increasing rhetoric about Sharia Law being instituted, supposedly as an insidious scheme to supplant the Constitution.

I have no issue with what people do. I have no problem with what people believe. So long as those two do not infringe on my person. I also find a lot to be admired in the conservative platform–small government, safety, lower taxes (although if there will be lower taxes, the savings should be equitably balanced), states rights and individual freedoms. I just cannot stand hypocrisy, including, but not limited to the dual standard between Bush and Obama, and individual freedoms everywhere except Patriot Act, marriage law, and abortions. I admire people who stand by their convictions, except where those convictions made without enough information. My greatest fear and what I find most depressing in America today is the thorough, unapologetic ignorance that exists. In a sense I believe in some sort of American exceptionalism, but in our constitution and because, historically, American creativity, ingenuity and ambition has achieved great things, not because being American is inherently exceptional.

Education and information are the keys to all of this. The problem is that if people are unreceptive or uninterested, education and information are limited.

The Costs of War

This week ran an interesting article on the cost of the Iraq and Afghan Wars. To my mind, the most important observation made in the article is that the wars have been notable removed from the American population, with a small percentage of the population actually involved and a small part of the American GDP spent. Unlike World War 2, where over a third of the GDP went to the war and far more soldiers were committed. Vietnam had a comparable financial cost, but a draft brought the war home to a far greater degree.

It is an interesting note, especially in regard to how often America is at war and the danger that ‘limited’ wars could become more common as the costs are not directly related to the American people. As one historian cited in the article noted: “the army is at war, but the country is not.”