Transcribed from This is Hell! Radio’s 12 April 2014 episode and printed with permission. Listen to the full interview here:
“The mistake people make is to say that there’s violence in Chechnya because Chechens are violent. Politics is what motivates ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflicts don’t happen because a particular ethnicity is inclined to violence.”
Chuck Mertz: On the line with us right now is Sarah Kendzior. Good morning, Sarah.
Sarah Kendzior: Hi, how are you?
CM: It’s great to have you back on the show, now as an irregular correspondent. Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based columnist for Al Jazeera and The Chronicle of Higher Education; her April 2013 article The Wrong Kind of Caucasian is the most popular Al Jazeera English op-ed of all time. That story explains how, despite the Boston bombers having little to do with Chechnya, the media were quick to demonize an entire ethnicity. Her most recent writing at Al Jazeera is U.S. Foreign Policy’s Gender Gap: U.S. foreign policy needs greater diversity of skills and ideas, more women and a breakdown of economic barriers.
Being that we are coming up on the one year anniversary of the Boston bombing on Tuesday, and you have the most popular Al Jazeera English article of all time on this very topic—I know this isn’t what you’re writing about currently, but what do you remember about the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, especially the way the media reacted?
SK: What I remember about the media reaction is inept racial profiling. At first, Reddit identified a suspect—and the media was quick to jump on this—a Moroccan who was attending the event. It was because he was a person of Arab extraction that they immediately jumped on it. Then, when the Tsarnaevs were initially identified, people were skeptical that they could have been the people who did it, because they looked like frat guys, they looked like dude-bros, and that’s not the prototypical subject.
But immediately upon finding out that they were Muslim and that they were Chechen, suddenly the caricature the media was painting changed, and became this story of centuries of anger and violence from Chechnya unfolding in America. And that’s not really true. They were a product of American culture, and of their own personal struggles, more than of anything specifically to do with the former Soviet Union.
Their uncle Ruslan Tsarnaev at one point said something like, “they’re just assholes.” Instead of pursuing experts on the former Soviet Union—who were citing Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as sources on an event taking place in the 21st century—the media would have been better off with experts specializing in homicidal assholes, because when it comes down to it that’s really what they were. This ethnic framework revealed more about media biases than it did about the Tsarnaevs themselves.
CM: Let’s get to media biases, too, because I think this is a really important point. It doesn’t seem like the media is learning. I think it was Peter Jennings who said in one of the earliest reports after the Oklahoma City Murrah building attack, for example, that a man was seen fleeing the scene who was wearing a turban.
And then on 9/11, Dan Rather goes on TV and says: “all we know right now is there could be up to 30,000 people dead inside” and “the organization that was behind the attack has ‘Palestinian’ in the title.”
How long do you think it’s going to take the media to realize that we shouldn’t be making these kinds of claims at the very beginning, and what does it reveal about the media when they seem to try to fit all these stories into an earlier narrative of some evildoer that they’ve been profiling for years?
SK: I think you’re right: they have a narrative template, and then they try to fill it with actual people. My friends who are Muslims always dread these sorts of events; they’re constantly saying, ‘please don’t let this person be Muslim,’ because they know that whatever violent criminal this is will stand in for an entire religion, for an entire community, for billions of people.
Which is never the case if it’s a white protagonist. In that case, you start to look inward; you look at his personal life, his troubles, like anti-government grudges, things like that.
So the problem is just the prevalence of stereotypes, but some of that is rooted in the lack of diversity within the media itself, the fact that the media does not have a lot of people from diverse backgrounds to call their colleagues into question when they’re making these large suppositions about entire populations.
CM: That’s a really good point, and it leads me into what your writing was about this week, but I’ve got one more question about something you mentioned about Chechnya: how shortly after it was realized that the Tsarnaev brothers were Chechen and they were the ones behind the attacks, suddenly the conversation changed to centuries of violence coming out of Chechnya.
In the lead up to the Iraq war and then after the invasion and occupation, we heard all these stories about how the Sunni and Shi’a had been “at each other’s throats for thousands of years,” when neither sect had even been around for a thousand years. And I talked to many people who had spent time in Iraq during the sanctions, for example—breaking the sanctions by bringing in medical aid, bringing in toys—and they said that they never saw any type of Sunni-Shi’a divide. A lot of Iraq analysts said that there was no Sunni-Shi’a divide until the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Do you think that the same kind of thing is happening here? That, again, they’re trying to create a narrative so the United States isn’t responsible for what has taken place, that these are things that are just historic and unsolvable?
SK: In the case of Chechnya, I don’t think the United States is necessarily the party at play. Our involvement there has been relatively minimal. And there is strife there; there is violence there. The mistake people make is to say that there’s violence in Chechnya because Chechens are violent. Whereas there is violence in Chechnya because of the political situation of Chechens, which has much more to do with centuries of Russian repression and violent reactions to that oppression than any particular inherent trait.
And that was the problem with the Tsarnaev story: they acted as if the Tsarnaevs had imported some kind of genetic condition that predisposed them to violence, which is an absolutely ridiculous thing to say about anyone from any country. Politics is what motivates ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflicts don’t happen because a particular ethnicity is inclined to violence.
CM: That’s a really great point.
So let’s get to your article about the foreign policy gender gap. You make this really great point: how it isn’t necessarily about sexism as much as it is due to the economic barriers you have to cross in order to be a U.S. foreign policy maker. You have to go to the best schools; you have to get tons of credentials that cost lots of money; and then you have to get an internship—or numerous internships—where you don’t make any money. So if you’re living on the economic margins, you cannot get into the field of foreign policy. How do you think that affects U.S. foreign policy overseas when you can only get people who have enough wealth and connections to get into the best schools and who can afford not to be paid during internships?
SK: I think you end up with a very narrow talent pool. There are very few people who fit all those criteria. The article I wrote was two-fold. One part was about gender and women and the problems of perception; even if you have achieved these things you’re still seen as lesser.
But I think the biggest problem is what you just brought up: this economic barrier which affects men and women equally, and especially affects young people trying to break into this field. You end up with a group of people who are removed from an empathetic understanding of the life of ordinary people, whether in America or abroad. I don’t think that the people who get these jobs because of their ability to work for free or their ability to pay for incredibly expensive degrees are necessarily bad people, or bad scholars, or inept. But it is a very narrow pool and it draws from a very narrow range of life experiences.
And it’s hard to say how this affects foreign policy, because the key issue is Who are we leaving out? Who is not able to participate? What ideas are not being heard? What contributions are not being made? We don’t know what they are. All we know is that there are a lot of them.
“Any time diversity of ideas and experiences is eliminated from a group of people that are informing policy, you’re not going to have the best consequences.”
CM: We had Michael J. Glennon on the show a few weeks ago; he was talking about national security policy and why it seems like U.S. foreign policy is consistent from administration to administration, why it seems like things just won’t change.
When we think about what’s happening with U.S. foreign policy and the fact that you have to come from these certain backgrounds, how much does that feed into this stability, and the inability to change or reform foreign policy?
SK: I think it plays in. I think that’s part of a broader issue, not just in foreign policy but in all government fields that also draw from this extremely narrow pool—and you also have an enormous influence of corporate actors in U.S. politics. That plays out in terms of who our elected officials are, who those elected officials appoint, and so on.
In terms of foreign policy, I do know people who work in the policy community who initially went for those jobs because they did come from poorer backgrounds; these were seen as secure professions, professions that paid well, professions that were easy to make a living doing. I think it initially appealed to that kind of group. But more and more, as the requirements changed, as the demand for expensive master’s degrees and internships increased, those people have been eliminated.
The foreign policy community has changed, especially since the recession. Because the recession is being used as a way to justify eliminating people from the talent pool. The government’s been cutting down. They claim that because of the sequester, they can’t hire, they can’t pay you, they can’t cover your internship, they can’t cover your expenses. So we’re getting a wealthier and more narrow elite just within the last six years.
How that will play out, I’m not completely sure. But any time diversity of ideas and experiences is eliminated from a group of people that are informing policy, you’re not going to have the best consequences.
CM: You were also pointing out a lack of diversity in the media. The late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko, towards the end of his career, got asked a lot about how journalism had changed over his career. And he talked about the lack of diversity in the newsroom; that there used to be a lot of people working in journalism in the ‘40s and ‘50s who were from a working-class background. He complained about the professionalization of journalism and how you no longer saw people who were unaccredited becoming journalists, becoming writers; they had to go to the academy, and then all of a sudden everyone comes from a similar background there’s no longer that wealth of diversity you would want in a newsroom.
However, that changed because of the ‘professionalization’ of journalism. What happened, then, within foreign policy? Hasn’t it always been this way? It wasn’t that foreign policy was suddenly professionalized. Hasn’t there always been a lack of diversity within foreign policy making?
SK: Foreign policy is notorious for being an old boys’ club, a white old boys’ club. That’s particularly true within intelligence services. What’s happened with journalism is—as you said—because of credentialism and careerism, the number of people from diverse or lower-class backgrounds has radically diminished over the last fifteen years.
Whereas in foreign policy this was never really the case. I think for a time, like I was saying, they were trying to broaden the scope; they were trying to bring in people from different backgrounds. But now because of these economic barriers that have become much stronger over recent years, it’s going backwards. So foreign policy has had a kind of a swing; there was a period when it was more expansive in who it was hiring and including—now it’s going in the opposite direction.
When I talk about this issue with people twenty or thirty years older than me, they don’t completely understand. They remember a time when there were almost no women, or almost no minorities, or almost no one from a poorer background, and they think that there have been improvements. What they don’t understand is that those improvements are now going away because of things like master’s degrees that cost $60,000, or years of unpaid work in some of the most expensive cities in the world.
CM: People say, look, racism ended because Barack Obama is now President of the United States. And we both know that’s the case, Sarah. We also both know, then, that we shouldn’t be discussing a problem of a gender bias within foreign policy, because Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright were Secretaries of State.
SK: People do sometimes make that excuse; sometimes regarding women in foreign policy, they also try to say that a good reason for having more women is that women are so kind and gentle and diplomatic and if more women were there, the world would be a better place. It’s impossible for them to just make a basic labor argument; if 75% of positions are being filled by men, that can’t possibly be a sign of discrimination! We have to patch this up by extolling the innate feminine virtues of womankind—which I think Margaret Thatcher disproves in just one person.
So that’s a problem: people don’t talk about this honestly. And there’s also the issue that if you are a woman and you talk about it, you sound like you’re complaining; you sound like you’re making a plea for tokenism instead of discussing a structural problem, and so I think there’s a reluctance to speak out on the issue in general.
CM: Do you think that this leads to more conservative women being the only women who are accepted within the realms of foreign policy? You pointed out Margaret Thatcher, but Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, I mean, even Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy was incredibly conservative.
SK: It’s hard to say, because in general foreign policy has taken a turn towards conservatism whether it’s men or women. And the other thing is that there are a lot of women who are foreign policy experts; there are a lot of women who are on-the-ground reporters in other countries; they just don’t get the pay or the prestige or the promotions that men get. So they are there, they’re just not able to rise through the ranks or be taken as seriously.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the future, because I think that the numbers tend to go younger. There are more young women in the field. We’ll see whether they are able to make it to a place where they can move policy.
CM: Sarah, again, this is fantastic writing. I really love having you as a correspondent on our show now.
SK: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me on.