The age of the apocalypsticle

My first article for Politico is on “disaster porn”, with Ukraine coverage as a key example:

The Kyiv protests were also starting to look like clickbait. By the end of the day on Wednesday, Business InsiderTalking Points MemoBuzzfeed and Mashable had all published their own listicle versions of what Huffington Post called “Ukraine Crisis: 12 Apocalyptic Pictures After Nation’s Deadliest Day.” High in resolution, low on explanation, the articles painted Ukraine’s carnage by numbers.

A new genre had been born: the apocalypsticle.

Ukraine has never been a country that attracted mainstream media interest. The tens of thousands of people viewing, sharing and posting photos of the Eastern European state likely had little knowledge of what Ukraine looked like before the violence—protesters are now claiming at least 100 people have died in the latest clashes—took place. The fascination of the photos is not that Ukraine no longer look familiar, but that it finally does. Ukraine looks like a movie set, like World War II, like the apocalypse. It spurs the imagination because it is real.

Ukraine looks like nothing is really supposed to look, and so no one can stop looking.

Read the whole thing: The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine: What does our addiction to disaster porn say about us?

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The disappearing middle-class college student

From my latest for Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae:

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama announced his intent to make college affordable. “We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education,” he proclaimed.

The day before his speech, the Pew Research Center released the results of a new survey on inequality that revealed a change in how Americans define their class identification. In 2008, 25 percent of Americans self-identified as “lower-class.” By 2014, that number had risen to 40 percent, while the number of self-identified “middle-class” Americans fell from 53 to 44 percent…

The newfound willingness of Americans to identify as lower-class speaks to the desperation of the post-recession jobless recovery. The rhetoric of “waiting out tough times” has been replaced with acknowledgement of a structural shift. For many, the American Dream is not deferred. It is over.

Putting aside the facile nature of Obama’s promise—which he has made every year he has been in office, as tuition costs soared and the standard of living plunged—what does it mean to promise a “middle-class kid” an affordable education in an era of downward mobility?

And what does it mean when higher education, often portrayed as a ticket into the middle class, is now a way out of it, saddling students with insurmountable debt in a time of diminished opportunity?

Read the whole thing: Who is Obama’s ‘Middle-Class College Student’?

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Hashtag activism and Twitter feminism

Why does the US media portray foreign Twitter activism as empowering but black Twitter activism as “toxic”? My latest for Al Jazeera English takes on — among other things — the Nation article on the alleged hazards of Twitter:

Social media is viewed by gatekeepers as simultaneously worthless and a serious threat. Balancing these opposing views requires a hypocrisy that can be facilitated only by the assurance of power.

Gatekeepers to mainstream feminist venues, like Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, proclaim that tweeting is not really activism. In contrast, the women behind hashtag activism argue that Twitter is one of the few outlets they have in a world that denies them opportunities.

“Twitter hashtags happen because the chances of getting real contact and effective representation from our ‘leaders’ is non-existent,” notes writer and activist Sydette, who tweets as “Black Amazon”. Her statement mirrors those of activists around the world who use Twitter to oppose repressive governments.

Twitter activism among black Americans causes discomfort because it highlights the structural nature of racist oppression in the US as well as the complicity of those who uphold and benefit from it. When US journalists cover Twitter activism in other countries, they portray it as empowering. When marginalised people of colour – people whose own history of oppression in the US is systematically played down – share their plight online, it is recast as aggression, exaggeration and lies. This, too, mirrors the rhetoric used by dictators around the world.

Rhetoric is not the same as action. But it is the disparate nature of repressive foreign dictatorships and the comparatively open media environment of the US that make the similarity in rhetoric so striking.

Read Blame it on the internet at Al Jazeera English.

Shortly after the article was published, I did an interview with the great Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein of Citizen Radio, which you can listen to here.

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In the news

My thanks to Matthew Clayfield for this profile of me and my work in the Australian news website Crikey. An excerpt:

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 toldCrikey.

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…

Read the full interview: Follow Friday: @sarahkendzior, commentator, and the ‘full Kendzior’

I also did a few radio interviews recently, including one on expensive cities and creativity with Chuck Mertz, and on the prestige economy and debt crisis with Vanessa D. Fisher.

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What ‘counts’ in academia?

For the Chronicle of Higher Education, I debunked the myth that publishing in academic journals will get you a job, and encouraged scholars to take a broader perspective to research and writing:

Most scholars hesitate to take this approach even when their writing has had proven appeal, for it appeals to those who do not “count”. But what “counts” should be producing work of lasting intellectual value instead of market ephemerality. What “counts” should be the quality of the research and writing, not the professional advantages you gain from producing it. This is particularly true for new Ph.D.’s, because in all likelihood, those advantages may not exist—at least not within academia.

Making your work “count” on its own intellectual merit helps rescue you from the sense of personal failure that accompanies loss on the job market. When you orient your scholarship toward a future that never comes, it can start to feel like you have no future. When you orient your scholarship toward its obvious yet overlooked purpose—furthering human knowledge—its value does not need to be determined by others, because the value lies in the work itself. This is what counts.

Read What’s the Point of Academic Publishing? at CHE’s Vitae.

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When the mainstream media attacks

I took a couple of weeks off to recover from surgery, but I’m back with a new article at Al Jazeera English on how the mainstream media is really the fringe:

The terms of public debate are rarely set by the public. “Inequality” has risen to the fore in pundit discourse, but mostly in terms of whether it deserves to be debated at all, as recent columns by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and the New York Times’ David Brooks demonstrate. For a public well aware of income inequality – since they have to live with its consequences every day – such debates reflect an inequality of their own: A paucity of understanding among our most prominent voices.

In the American media, white people debate whether race matters, rich people debate whether poverty matters, and men debate whether gender matters. People for whom these problems have no alternative but to matter – for they structure the limitations of their lives – are locked out of the discussion.

Read the full article here.

Other updates:

Foreign Policy named my Twitter feed among “the best writing in global political economy for the past calendar year.” Political scientist Daniel Drezner writes: “Kendzior writes about the role that fear and contingency play in the global workplace. I don’t agree with many of her points — in fact, there are times where I find her intellectually infuriating — but she’s never boring nor bombastic, and she’s caused me to contemplate what it means to be privileged in the current economy. She’s a scholar, a blogger, and an Al Jazeera columnist, but I think it’s really on her Twitter feed that the “full Kendzior” is on display. I’m glad to see her acknowledge in this interview the care she devotes to crafting her tweets — because very few others do it as well as her.”

* Chuck Mertz interviewed me about my  AJE article Expensive Cities Are Killing Creativity on his radio show “This is Hell”. Listen to it here.

* I’ll be speaking at George Washington University February 28 and will also be giving talks in Pittsburgh, Boston, and St. Louis over the next few months. Details to come!

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The price of creativity

From my latest, Expensive cities are killing creativity:

New York – and San Francisco, London, Paris and other cities where cost of living has skyrocketed – are no longer places where you go to be someone. They are places you live when you are born having arrived. They are, as journalist Simon Kuper puts it, “the vast gated communities where the one percent reproduces itself”.

There are exceptions in these cities, but they tend to survive by serving the rule. The New York Times recently profiled Sitters Studio, a company that sends artists and musicians into the homes of New York’s wealthiest families to babysit their children. “The artist-as-babysitter can be seen as a form of patronage,” suggests the Times, “in which lawyers, doctors and financiers become latter-day Medicis.”

This is the New York artist today: A literal servant to corporate elites, hired to impart “creativity” to children whose bank accounts outstrip their own.

The Times explains the need for the company as follows: “Parents keep hearing that, in the cutthroat future, only the creative will survive.” The “creative” will survive – but what of creativity? Enterprises like Sitters Studio posit creativity as commodification: A taught skill that bolsters business prowess for tiny corporate heirs.

Creativity – as an expression of originality, experimentation, innovation – is not a viable product. It has been priced out into irrelevance – both by the professionalisation of the industries that claim it, and the soaring cost of entry to those professions.

The “creative class” is a frozen archetype – one that does not boost the economy of global cities, as urban studies theorist Richard Florida argues, but is a product of their takeover by elites. The creative class plays by the rules of the rich, because those are the only rules left. Adaptation is a form of survival. But adaptation is a form of abandonment as well.

Read the whole thing at Al Jazeera English.

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Best of 2013

I want to thank the hundreds of thousands of people who read and shared my work this year. I never expected that so many long-form op-eds on corruption, repression and inequality would go viral. I was startled to learn that most mainstream news articles are shared less than 5,000 times on Facebook. My articles often surpass that, even on subjects once considered too dark or esoteric to be of mass interest.

Writing on these topics carries risks of its own for the author. But their popularity shows how urgently they need to be addressed. Keep reading, keep thinking, keep talking. I’ll be back. And again, thank you.

In case you missed it, some of the highlights:

Most shared on Facebook

The wrong kind of Caucasian (57K)

Mothers are not opting out – they are out of options (40K)

Academia’s indentured servants (24K)

Expensive cities are killing creativity (24K)

Surviving the post-employment economy (16K)

Charity is not a substitute for justice (13K)

And my favorites:

The men who set themselves on fire

The view from flyover country

In defence of complaining

Managed expectations in the post-employment economy

A government shutdown, a social breakdown

Iraq and the reinvention of reality

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On charity and justice

An excerpt from my latest, Charity is not a substitute for justice:

Charity, as a supplement to justice, should be applauded. But charity as a substitute for justice is neither charity nor justice. It is cruelty.

The same week that the nation cheered a charitable effort to make one child’s wish come true, the largest employer in the US held a charity drive for some of its own workers. Wal-Mart, whose six heirs to the company fortune have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans, pays its workers salaries so low that many qualify for food stamps.

The costs are then transferred to taxpayers. A report by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated that one Wal-Mart Supercenter employing 300 workers could cost taxpayers at least $904,000 annually.

Yet instead of raising salaries to allow employees to live above the dole, Wal-Mart encourages charity – a common panacea to social plight. Universities employing adjunct professors, who are also paid below poverty wages, have held similar food drives for their employees.

In September, Margaret Mary Vojtko, a Duquesne University professor, who had worked at the school for 25 years, died in abject poverty with an annual salary of less than $10,000. Responding to accusations of callousness, Duquesne noted that they had offered Vojtko charity, such as an offer to fix her furnace. A Slate article promising the “real story” of Vojtko argued that she brought her troubles upon herself by refusing Duquesne’s gifts while working with a growing movement of adjuncts attempting to unionise.

In other words, Vojtko refused charity while pursuing justice. This is not a position to condemn.

Fiscal stability that relies on gifts is not stability. It is a guarantee of insecurity: income based not on work but on whim. Capricious generosity is not a replacement for a living wage, nor is it a basis for a functioning society. Charity is no substitute for justice.

Read the whole thing at Al Jazeera English.

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On professional identity and lost opportunity

My new article for the Chronicle of Higher Education is called Professional Identity: A Luxury Few Can Afford. An excerpt:

In a post-employment economy ridden with arbitrary credentialism, a résumé is often not a reflection of achievement but a document sanctioning its erasure. One is not judged on what one has accomplished, but on one’s ability to walk a path untouched by the incongruities of market forces. The service job you worked to feed your family? Embarrassing. The months you struggled to find any work at all? Laziness. The degree you began a decade ago for a field that has since lost half its positions? Failure of clairvoyance. Which is to say: failure.

Read the whole thing here.

In other news, my thanks to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing for his article reflecting on a PolicyMic interview I did in June:

Here’s a fabulous interview with activist Sarah Kendzior, a journalist and researcher who made a great, concise argument against unpaid internship as a series of four tweets last June. Policymic talks with Kendzior about her work on the “prestige economy” and the widening wealth-gap, and also talks about the theory of presenting arguments over Twitter, a subject on which Kendzior is every bit as smart as she is on matters economic and political.

As a result of the renewed interest, the interview has gone viral again. Thanks to everyone who shared it!

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