“Who is suffering?”

Chicago-area readers might be familiar with “Someone You Should Know,” a regular local news feature hosted by CBS 2′s Harry Porterfield. It is as it says. Porterfield profiles someone in the local community who is not on your radar yet, but should be.

I have followed the work of Sarah Kendzior for a while. She is “Someone You Should Know.” (Readers with long memories will know I’ve referred to her work before.)

Kendzior is an anthropologist, writer, and consultant. She is a Central Asia scholar, with particular expertise in how the internet is used in authoritarian states. Since fleeing the abysmal academic job market, she has become a prominent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

Kendzior has written about the ways in which the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects was racist (“The wrong kind of Caucasian”). She has written about the extent to which universities rely on part-time, no-benefits, contingent faculty (“Academia’s indentured servants”). She has written about our descent into economic hyperdecay (“Surviving the post-employment economy”). She has written about how young people, in particular, are stuck (“The immorality of college admissions”). She has written about how we are urged to never criticize the status quo, lest we be damned for that worst of offenses, being negative (“In defence of complaining”).

Kendzior works from anger at the way things are. This anger emerges in polished arguments, her prose terse and immaculate. From “Surviving the post-employment economy,” linked above: “We live in the tunnel at the end of the light.” And from “In defence of complaining,” also above: “Complaining is beautiful. Complaining should be encouraged. Complaining means you have a chance.”

Her formula is compelling. It is making her famous.

In a January interview with the Australian outlet Crikey, Kendzior explained what guides her writing:

The questions that are important to me are: who is suffering? What causes their suffering? Who benefits from their suffering? Who enables it, who accepts it? Then I go from there. Even if our current political and economic situation improved dramatically, I would ask the same questions.

*****

The intended audience of this blog is Roman Catholic. It is familiar with Scripture. One of the underlying motifs of Scripture is how it organizes itself around questions.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Who am I, slow of speech, to be leading people? Whom shall I send? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Who do you say I am? Why do you persecute me? What must I do? Who is my neighbor?

These questions changed those who asked them. They changed those who were asked. They changed those who came after. Gordon Gekko, the archetypal wheeler-dealer from the movie Wall Street, was wrong: it is really not greed that clarifies, or that cuts through, or that captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Questions do it first and best.

Much of this blog’s audience also consists of a particular type of Catholic: progressives of the activist stripe. We are committed to change in both church and society. We understand that injustices in one correlate with injustices in the other, because oppressive structures are mutually reinforcing.

Finally, we are coming up on Lent. It is the season to consider who we really are and how the world really works. We ponder our personal and collective responsibility. What we dredge up will be dark. We must respond.

Given all the foregoing, I think now is the time–and we are the people–to put questions like Kendzior’s dead front and center, where they have power to change everything: Who is suffering? Why? Who benefits? Who enables? Who accepts?

And which “who” are we in that list? For each of us is at least one.

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