This was meant to be a book review. Instead, it’s an essay about the power—and importance—of complaining.
The book under consideration here is Sarah Kendzior’s The View from Flyover Country, which was published in 2015. In case you don’t know, Kendzior is an anthropologist-turned-journalist whose academic work on authoritarianism turned out to be just slightly relevant to the recent turn of events here in the US (and elsewhere).
People ask me all the time what you can do with a degree in anthropology. Now, thanks to Kendzior, I can suggest that students study the intricacies of autocracies and use their analytical skills to warn fellow citizens of the impending erosion of constitutional democracies. Just for starters.
If you follow Kendzior’s work, you know she is willing to speak out. She is not shy. She doesn’t waver. She was willing to talk about issues that many academics—including myself—are hesitant to address. Ever since I first heard of her work, I respected her willingness to take on the kinds of issues that many academics often save for our closed conferences and pay-walled journals (or, perhaps, our Twitter accounts). I’m not sure if she identifies primarily as an anthropologist these days, but in my view she’s one of the few who is doing the kind of “public anthropology” that many of us talk so much about. This is what happens when the analytical perspective of anthropology is unleashed.
The View from Flyover Country is a collection of essays Kendzior wrote for Al Jazeera English between 2012 and 2014. I read most of these essays when they first came out. But readings through them again was a powerful reminder of issues, and voice, that Kendzior brings to the table. The book is arranged in 5 parts: 1) Flyover Country; 2) The Post-Employment Economy; 3) Race and Religion; 4) Higher Ed; and 5) Beyond Flyover Country. There’s also a Coda titled “In Defense of Complaining” that is so poignant to the present moment I’m going to start—and end—there.
Kendzior opens her Coda with a short rumination on a movement called “A complaint Free World,” headed up by the Reverend Will Bowen in 2006. The goal of the moment, as the name suggests, was to push people to stop complaining and attain true happiness. How were they to attain this lofty goal? By purchasing special purple bracelets. Every time a person complained, they had to switch the bracelet to the opposite wrist—but if they are able to go 21 days without complaining, they were “rewarded with a Certificate of Happiness.”
So it goes with our attempts to claim that all is well in the 21st century. We seek easy, commodified, pre-programmed escape hatches from the ugliness of the world around us. And we’re not supposed to talk about any of it, lest we seem “too political.” We’re supposed to sit back and watch the fire burn, complacently. As Kendzior points out, “In an America built on the reinvention of reality, critical words make people uneasy—and so do those who speak them.” Americans, it seems, don’t want to be brought down by bad news.
Kendzior brings on the bad news, and she brings it relentlessly. If you followed her coverage of the 2016 election cycle in the US, it was not easy reading. But she was one of the few who was on the mark, even if many didn’t want to hear it. In this essay, she reminds us of Alan Greenspan’s warnings about “irrational exuberance”, and how so many Americans ignored all of that uneasy talk about bubble economies (in housing, credit, and higher ed, for example). Americans were told to keep buying those five bedroom houses. Keep signing on the dotted line, despite the $750,000 mortgage. Don’t worry about the “balloon payment” in five years. Then the bubble exploded, the economy crashed, and, as Kendzior tells us, Americans were all told to keep our collective chins up:
Stop complaining—this will not be like this forever. Stop complaining—this is the way things have always been. Complainers suffer the cruel imperatives of optimism: lighten up, suck it up, chin up, buck up. In other words: shut up.
Sound familiar? It should.
“The surest way to keep a problem from being solved,” Kendzior writes, “is to deny that problem exists.” Such words seem pretty prophetic these days. Ironically, Donald Trump’s entire campaign was founded in the loud, visceral complaints of some segments of the American electorate. But now that Trump has won, the media and anyone else is supposed to keep their mouths shut. This is power:
“Telling people not to complain in an act of power, a way of asserting that one’s position is more important than another one’s pain,” Kendzior writes. Such acts of dismissal and erasure are hardly unique to the USA, she argues: “Dictatorships around the world are famous for self-reported statistics of sky-high happiness.”
Don’t worry, and don’t complain. Everything is wonderful. There’s nothing to see here. This was the biggest crowd ever. We’re going to win so much you’re going to be tired of winning. Trust me, I have the best ideas, and I alone will fix everything. Such hubris is not unique in history. And, Kendzior warns, we should be wary of regimes that try to dispel complaint and make blanket pronouncements about national success, infallibility, happiness. She writes:
The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society. Complaining is beautiful. Complaining should be encouraged. Complaining means you have a chance.
Often, those in power don’t want these kinds of alerts to be heard, for obvious reasons. Kendzior explains: “Complaining creates common ground. In complaints, people find that their problems are not so far apart.” The silencing of complaint and dissent dismantles that common ground.
Complaints erode the edges of power, and that’s why so many regimes seek to quash or dispel dissent. This can take many forms, as Kendzior explains. Of course there are overt forms of state repression that include intimidation, harassment, and violence. But there are other, more subtle forms as well. One common tactic is to say that people who complain are all talk and are avoiding actually doing anything productive. This is the kind of critique that’s often levied at protesters who march in the streets. “Get a job!” critics charge, implicitly questioning the value of any efforts that don’t explicitly feed into the national GDP. Another form of dismissal is the “well, it could be worse” line that completely “delegitimizes misery by portraying it as a competition,” Kendzior writes. Educated, unemployed white-collar workers are told to stop complaining because they are privileged and have an education. The poor need to shut it because they are lucky to live in the USA. Exiles should keep a lid on it because, hey, at least they escaped. People who live under dictatorships can’t speak either, because they have food and shelter. Nobody has cause to complain, the powerful say to the powerless. Always look on the bright side of life. You know the drill.
Yet, despite everything, people resist. They refuse to stay silent. They speak out, and they refused to be shamed or intimidated into silence. As Kendzior points out, for marginalized groups, “complaining is the first step in removing the shame from a lifetime of being told one’s problems are unimportant, non-existent, or even a cause for gratitude.” Complaining, she tells us, “alerts the world that the problem is a problem.”
In this book, Sarah Kendzior pushes back against those who seek to stifle dissent. She’s been pushing back, hard, for quite a while now. If you read her work, you’ll see this is a common theme. She is not afraid to call it how it is, even if many Americans don’t want to hear it. Yet, if you come away thinking that it’s always raining in Kendzior-land, and her work is just another “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” you’ve missed the point. Her work is critical, and it is ruthless. Yes. But it also has a message, and it’s certainly not about sitting back and accepting the status quo. Much of her work uses critical analysis as a tool to fight back, and to remind people of the very things they stand to lose. This is why her essay about complaint is so poignant, so powerful. Kendzior writes,
People hate complaining because they do not like to listen. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category … You are forced to trust, and you are forced to care. In complaint lies a path to compassion.
The arc of Kendzior’s argument reveals her anthropological roots, which are steeped in critique and ultimately grounded in an advocacy of common humanity and compassion. She provides no easy answers. What Kendzior gives us is one roadmap that helps us understand how we got here, what we have lost, and may yet lose if we remain silent.