Sarah Kendzior’s 'They Knew' warns against blind faith in institutions and ‘saviors’
Sarah Kendzior became a prominent voice in American political discourse, largely because of her biting and often prescient writing about former President Donald Trump.
The St. Louis-based author, who received a doctorate in anthropology from Washington University and is an expert on authoritarianism in former Soviet Union states, excoriated Trump and his allies in 2020’s"Hiding in Plain Sight." But during a wide-ranging conversation at the Ethical Society organized by Left Bank Books this week, Kendzior said her newest book pushes beyond the former GOP chief executive.
“I was sick of one thing, obviously, which was COVID,” Kendzior said. “I was also very sick of writing about Donald Trump after Hiding in Plain Sight. So basically I thought I would write about him without writing about him — and try to encapsulate these broader things. Because he’s not new. As I’ve said many times, he’s not new. And he was a culmination, not an aberration. And he’s going to have successors, and he’ll have predecessors as well.”
The result is "They Knew: How A Culture of Conspiracy Kept America Complacent." It’s a wide-ranging look at America’s relationship with conspiracies. Kendzior explores why people become attached to seemingly outlandish groups like QANON: because people in positions of power often conceal the truth from the public.
She provided the example of how widespread distrust of the medical community prompted scores of people to be hesitant about taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
“You need to be completely transparent about the crimes that are committed by powerful actors,” Kendzior said. “The opioid epidemic, for example, where people were told ‘this is safe and it’s not addictive,’ that was a lie. We’ve had many lies like that in the medical system. And very little humility. Very little apology. And I think if people approach it in that way, other people who are skeptical might be inclined to trust them.”
While Trump does factor into "They Knew," the book dives into how conspiracies have often become embedded in American governance and popular culture. One of the broader themes of the book is that people should be skeptical of authority figures — and should avoid building cults of personalities around governmental officials or politicians.
That includes people like Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who led a probe about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Anthony Fauci, who’s been a major figure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think there are people who are dedicated public servants who are doing a good job. We often don’t know their names. We obviously saw so many people rising to the occasion during the pandemic putting their lives on the line,” Kendzior said. “We often don’t know their names either. These sort of personality cults that have risen around political officials and FBI directors and medical officials, I think they’re dangerous.”
A Missouri voice
In addition to exploring topics like the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and climate change denialism, "They Knew" often touches on Kendzior’s life and experiences living in Missouri.
That’s not a new literary technique for Kendzior. She’s often used her experiences living in St. Louis and traveling around Missouri as a way to showcase broader problems about racism, economic decline and political instability.
“A lot of folks are surprised that I live here and that I live here voluntarily — because I write about politics on a national level,” she said. “And there’s this pressure on writers to move to New York or D.C. or L.A. or some big city on the coast. Because then you’ve made it. You matter.”
But Kendzior believes it’s important for her to be a writer living in Missouri.
“And this has been historically the place where the national character is born. Not just in politics by being the bellwether state. But look at our great pop culture influences,” Kendzior said. “Look at Mark Twain or Walt Disney or Chuck Berry. These incredibly seminal figures who invent whole genres. They came out of Missouri. This is where the idea of America was born.”
Kendzior strongly pushes back against the notion that Missouri is a deep red state that deserves the policies that come out of state government.
She said that’s a simplistic way to examine a large group of people who often have complex and conflicting views. Specifically, Kendzior noted how Missouri voters backed referendums raising the minimum wage and repealing "right to work" in 2018.
“I think our state is hard to define politically. I think it encompasses the entire political spectrum. And if it’s held together by anything, it’s with profound disillusionment and frustration with our elected officials,” Kendzior said.
Kendzior said she does believe that Missouri has become more “right wing” in the past 15 years, pointing to things like influence of Fox News, the demise of local media, widespread distrust “and just the downward trajectory of the country as a whole.”
“Which we are, once again, the bellwether state,” she said. “We’re the originators of these dark trends, they hit here first.”
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