Marking the higher standard to which we now hold ourselves

Discussion about Sarah Kendzior's The View From Flyover started on a positive note. I said I enjoyed the book, but thought the collection of essays — originally posts on Al Jazeera, mostly from 2013 and 2014 — had a bit too much crossover with each other, some points being made three or four times across as many essays.

Kendzior raises a number of important issues around poverty, lowering of wages, and full-time workers who are underpaid and living below the poverty line while doing the same work that others get much higher salaries for.

Others in the club agreed with me, one member feeling that this was the best written book we've read in the book club.

But one member raised concerns in a thoughtful way. She pointed out, for example, that Kendzior often failed to contextualize the history around her arguments, and at times, just made audacious claims.

In the essay "Academia's Indentured Servants", Kendzior pointed to a 2013 New York Times article, which she said reported that "76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors — an all time high."

That's a flip of what the article actually says, and leaves a gap where she draws flawed assumptions. The Times reported that 24 percent are tenure track positions, but the remaining 76 percent does not necessarily equate adjunct status, especially not the kind Kendzior highlights, living with outrageously low wages — that number also includes non-tenure lecturers who may have good pay and strong contracts at large universities.

As we talked through this member's concerns, some of the shine came off the book. We agreed that Kendzior tackled serious, important issues lyrically and with great verve and passion, but if she had offered greater historical context around some of her topics, or perhaps had framed this collection more as essays than journalism, it could have preempted some of the holes in her arguments.

Compared to other books we've read that decidedly brought receipts — Carol Anderson's White Rage, and Amy Goldstein's Janesville were both name-checked on this point — The View From Flyover Country is less authoritative when you start poking at its arguments, and that undermined our ability to trust it.

It seems that in this age of outright bold lies, we need to hold essayists and journalists arguing for positions we believe in to a very high standard. An epilogue from September of 2017 does talk about how bad things are after the 2016 election, but it doesn't look back and give any context to the essays preceding it, and some of us were curious how the Kendzior of today reads her own work, five years past.

One moment in the book proved not only prescient, but reading it in retrospect flips the meaning of the words in that most deliciously tragic way. It's where Kendzior quotes Turkish PM Erdogan from June of 2013, talking about Turkish protestors:

"There is a problem called Twitter right now and you can find every kind of lie there," he told reporters following days of mass protest in Istanbul. "The thing that is called social media is the biggest trouble for society right now."

Join us on Wednesday, September 5th, at Third Place Books Seward Park for the next Reading Through It Book Club. We’ll be discussing Kurt Andersen's Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. You can buy the book for twenty percent off right now at Third Place Books in Seward Park.