Missouri author Sarah Kendzior seeks to salvage conspiracy theories
An almost countless amount of traits separate Sarah Kendzior from “InfoWars” creator Alex Jones.
Journalist and scholar based in St. Louis, Kendzior studies authoritarian behaviors of governments – abroad and at home – and covers both the brazen and invigorating elements of institutional decline.
His work finds a wide audience; Kendzior has over 600,000 Twitter followers (where she calls herself a “non-fiction horror writer”) and reaches listeners weekly via the Gaslit Nation podcast which she co-hosts with Andrea Chalupa.
Kendzior is genuinely interested in conspiracy theories, but is quick to differentiate between bona fide seekers and the likes of Jones. A class of conspiracy theorists built on evidence, trying to truly understand America and its history, she said. Those of Jones’s ilk make propaganda, calling their neighbors “political weapons.”
“It gives conspiracy theorists a bad name – and I think it’s time to take the name back,” Kendzior said.
She begins to recover the title in her new book “They knew”. The book convenes a crucial conversation about the distinction between conspiracies and conspiracy theories — and how each term plays out in our shared lives.
Kendzior will visit Columbia next week, discussing “They Knew” during a stop at Skylark Bookshop.
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Politics is personal
If “They Knew” was a concept album, it would bring together several musical genres. Some passages sound like Woody Guthrie songs, folk backpackers traveling through a country that is yours and mine, emphasizing how personal politics is to Kendzior and his children’s generation.
Other pages have the loudness and sneer of punk rock, calling out the wrong actors and panting three chords to find the version closest to the truth. Others still sound deep blues, lamenting who America is and what it has become.
Kendzior uses some expected suspects as object lessons: Pizzagate, QAnon, Jeffrey Epstein, the January 6 insurrection. She makes the connection between how we spoke or did not speak about these issues and the impact on our communities. And it exposes similar conspiracies existing more or less in plain sight.
Kendzior also weaves refreshing personal observations of life inside 21st-century America, each moment lending color and establishing credibility. She wants readers to know she has an agenda — a “pro-democracy” bias, she said — but not a hidden one.
“I think it’s really important to be as honest as possible about who you are,” Kendzior said. “…Where do I come from? Where do my beliefs come from? What’s the whole story?”
Kendzior’s interests date back to when she was “the annoying kid who ruined sleepovers talking” about the Iran-Contra scandal, she joked.
After studying conspiracies staged by governments like that of Uzbekistan in his Ph.D. program, Kendzior gradually saw her own country look alike, she says. Writing about the slow rise of authoritarianism led her to be branded with labels like “alarmist” and “conspiracy theorist”.
“I thought, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ What’s wrong with being a ‘conspiracy theorist’ if you take it out of that negative context?” she says. “I am someone who is full of civic inquiry into the most nefarious elements of our government. Doesn’t that make me a model citizen?”
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In “They Knew”, Kendzior defines both, then establishes the differences between conspiracies and conspiracy theories. She also posits how Americans might harness similar energy for the purpose of rebuilding, not undermining civic life.
“Conspiracy” and “conspiracy theory” are “two terms that those in power want us to believe are inseparable so that we remain ignorant of the past and passive about the future,” she wrote in the author’s note. .
Conspiracies are agreements between “powerful actors to covertly carry out a plan that protects their own interests, often at the expense of the public good,” Kendzior writes.
Conspiracy theories are “morally neutral and easily accessible” and can tend towards clarity or propaganda.
The plots are “portrayed as elaborate and rare, but they are common and often simple in their basic aims, if not execution”, she adds. They represent “a form of betrayal” in which information is withheld from the public.
“A conspiracy theory, when rooted in a sincere desire to uncover and expose the truth, is a refusal to renounce treachery,” Kendzior writes. “Conspiracy theories are expressions of grief and memory.”
Every book is a Missouri book
Transplanted to Missouri 17 years ago, Kendzior founded much of “They Knew” on his own turf. She lovingly and lyrically describes the natural features of her adopted country and quotes its poets, such as TS Eliot.
As in previous books, Kendzior also traces the cultural changes of Missouri. Advancing from a state that must be considered in presidential elections — and reflecting the complicated nature of America as a whole — Missouri now reflects American decline, she said.
“I think every book I write, if it’s about America, it’s always a Missouri book because we’re always that reflection, we’re that microcosm of the larger crisis,” he said. she declared.
Kendzior lays local blame on the doorstep of the state legislature, making it clear that while she doesn’t believe in Missouri leadership, she does believe in Missourians.
“What I think is there’s just a deep disillusionment and a deep sense of betrayal,” she said. “And it breaks my heart, because I love this state and live here by choice.”
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“They Knew” eschews mere pontificate, explicitly condemning the “two Americas” language recited by politicians and talking heads.
“There are dozens of Americas within a five-mile radius of my home,” Kendzior writes, “a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs that defies the cheap categorizations of experts and polls — but ignores what unites Americans, which rages against the criminal impunity of the elites.”
In a moving passage, housed in the chapter “America is purple, like a bruise,” Kendzior follows the Mississippi River as a symbol of both division and resolve. And, in its powerful currents, it finds sufficient reason to remain in this state.
“In Missouri, everything is compromised except this river and you,” she wrote.
What the average citizen can do
The scope and sinfulness of American conspiracies, as exposed in the pages of “They Knew,” are sure to overwhelm you. And “the system is stacked against us,” admits Kendzior, with algorithms and social media elevating inflammatory propaganda and discouraging good faith investigations.
There is no return from where we are, she said, but there is a passage.
Sincerely commit to pursuing the truth without fear of judgment, Kendzior implores readers. Too many thoughtful citizens succumb to conformity or submit to pressure and intimidation, she said.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to challenge authority,” she added. “Don’t be afraid to be lumped in with a group of people who you think don’t represent you. Because these things are going to happen anyway.”
Ask better questions of media institutions, she said. Prioritize the consistency and integrity of a medium over the prestige attached to its name.
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“I encourage people to be careful who they follow for news and their backgrounds over time,” Kendzior said. “Are the journalists you follow accurate? Are their predictions confirmed? Have they been caught in the act of lying?
And supplement your news consumption by listening to historians, social scientists and other scholars who didn’t discover a topic after the news broke, she added.
In the book’s closing, and perhaps finest, paragraphs, Kendzior grapples with a topic that she feels is close to home as a journalist, citizen, and parent: America’s dual nature.
“The victim of this story is America, which rings false, because the villain of this story is America,” she wrote. “America is the murderer and America is the dying, America is the traitor and America is the redeemer. America is all of these things, and always has been.”
Echoing James Baldwin, Kendzior attempts to answer the question she posed. Can America save itself?
“Only we can save ourselves – I think that’s true for any country,” she said, before adding a key caveat. “…We have to be honest, we have to face the problem.”
The chance to come together to see through the conspiracy energizes Kendzior; the feeling it produces is not hope as we often know it, but might come close to fulfilling the meaning of the word.
“I don’t really believe in hope, but I don’t believe in despair either,” she said. “It’s just about resilience and courage and imagination and all those other qualities that you have more control over.
“I think everyone defines hope differently – I just see it being used a lot more like a wish, more like a fantasy than something you actually engage in with deliberate action. And it’s the latter that, I think, has more value now.”
Kendzior visits the Skylark Bookstore at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Find more details at https://www.skylarkbookshop.com/new-events.
Aarik Danielsen is the Features and Culture Editor for Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.