I’m Wary of Kristof

When I first got into this whole caring-about-human-rights thing, I was directed to the writings of Nick Kristof. He’s the ubiquitous columnist for the Times that is always writing about the tragedy of violence in the under-developed world. You know, subjects like genocide and mass rape and child slavery. He’s been lauded by many as a reporter with a drive to raise awareness about injustice in the world. I used to read some of his work to learn more about the world’s tragedies, but now I peruse it occasionally out of anger.

Over time I’ve gradually distanced myself from Kristof and his writing as it has become more and more clear that his work doesn’t really achieve all that much. Recently, I read two particularly good pieces that explain how this is so (thanks to Aaron Bady and Tom Murphy for the links). Exhibit A is a lengthy but very well-written piece at The New Inquiry, “Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics” – the whole thing is well worth a read. In it, the author analyses the living shit out of Kristof’s writing style, his subjects, and his imagery. What is revealed is a startling formula:

Kristof fabricates legible narratives out of snapshots of distant worlds. He then crafts stunningly simplistic solutions to the seemingly irrevocable problems that plague those backwards places. Kristof accomplishes this by using a standard and replicated formula: some mixture of (1) a construction of a bestial and demonic Other creating a spectacle of violence; (2) a rendering of the object of that horror—a depoliticized, abject victim, usually no more than a body; (3) a presentation of a (potential) salvific savior figure(typically the West writ large or a Western agent—some teleological process immanent in capitalism or development, the reader himself (who can act by donating money), and almost always Kristof himself as well); and (4) an introduction of potential linkages with larger systems and structures … only to immediately reterritorialize around the non-political solutions and the savior implementing them.

It’s a formula that attracts attention and a following, but doesn’t do enough to actually make a difference – at least not the type of difference it should make. Educating people about conflict is usually seen as the first step to galvanizing action, encouraging them to write a letter to their Senator or maybe inspire a business student to go into development. But for Kristof raising awareness isn’t the first step to anything – it’s the only step. He makes you aware and simultaneously makes that all that is needed. Now you know about the tragedy, but it’s been taken care of by other brave, ambitious souls and there are no more problems. Since the orphan now has a roof over his head in the refugee camp, he ostensibly will not be worried about deplorable living conditions or  the resumption of conflict or being marginalized in society. He’s safe now. But knowing about injustices only solves everything for the reader.

Merely knowing about (parts of) it rather than doing something about it signifies the critical orientation toward the phenomenon. And as a result, Kristof’s attempts to shock the conscience serve, perversely, to push out the frontier of what no longer offends or alarms.

Kristof educates you enough to say that you are aware, but stops short of you wanting to do anything. In a different way, taking a line from this Esquire piece on Jon Stewart – he “shows you how to give a shit without having to do anything about it.” But that’s just part of it. In addition to this type of writing, Kristof also engages in all some shady behavior. He includes the names and photos of rape victims, a general journalism (and humanity) no-no, citing that it’s acceptable because they probably aren’t affected by his reporting. Even if that were true it is still a shame that he doesn’t think that these people’s privacy is worth protecting. He is also proud of the fact that he has bought slaves in order to free them, which is controversial because he has effectively funded the slavery system. And on top of all that, we have this take-down at whydev.org which critiques these two Kristof excerpts:

“This new research addresses an uncomfortable truth: Poverty is difficult to overcome partly because of self-destructive behaviors. Children from poor homes often shine, but others may skip school, abuse narcotics, break the law, and have trouble settling down in a marriage and a job. Then their children may replicate this pattern”.

Besides questions around the differences between correlation and causation, a theme and assertion emerging from Kristof’s writing seems to be this: that ‘poor families’ simply do not love each other as much as non-poor. Whether this is a conscious assertion or not, I do not know. But, it seems to be quite visible. In a 2010 New York Times Op-ed on global poverty, he states

“that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households”.

Besides being an extremely broad and patronising generalisation, it is dismissive and unaware of the structural, geographical and local factors that can affect a family’s income, its allocation and access to education.

Again, this writing seems to come from the same perspective as the first articles. He makes an “other” out of the impoverished by showing how they do not value their children or education as they should. It’s a terrible message to spread, and it points to how this other group of people needs our assistance instead of pointing to why things are the way they are. It encourages donating to a charity or sponsoring a child in school rather than asking the big questions like how trade policies affect global poverty.

I guess I’m realizing more and more that, when people set out to raise awareness about tragedies happening in our world today, they need to think of how they are telling that story. Telling someone about a grave injustice does not require that you can mistreat the oppressed on paper. They are still people deserving of being more than a prop in your awareness campaign. Kristof is a prime example of a platform misused – but maybe that’s our own fault since so many choose to read his work. His writing on the horrors of the world inform us that something is wrong and allow us to go back to eating dinner, when it should show us what is wrong and allow us to go help address it.

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3 thoughts on “I’m Wary of Kristof

  1. Interesting post, Scott… I’m glad you brought it up. I guess my perspective is a bit different, since I’ve grown up with Indian parents and spent virtually every summer of my life in India (minus last summer of course). I find that most of what Kristof says about lower-income people in developing countries is very accurate. Most of the heads of households (the men) are alcoholics who abuse their wives, couldn’t care less about the education of their children, and refuse to wear contraception because of deeply-engrained cultural prejudices. This isn’t just a reflection of some small pockets of people — it is literally an epidemic. Because of these really long-standing notions of patriarchy, the proper role of women, etc, it is ABSOLUTELY true that most of the Indian men in the slums spend all their money on alcohol and prostitution. Their value system has been defined in this really screwed up way. It’s much the same in other parts of the world as well. In our attempt to avoid projecting so-called “Western” values on other societies, we have to make sure that we don’t categorize everything as patronizing or overly-simplistic. The fact is that, in many developing nations, poor families absolutely have a different value system (in fact, I’d say they live with a serious lack of values). This is, of course, the product of their circumstances and their surroundings. But simply bringing people out of poverty won’t address these deeper issues, because so much of it is cultural as well. I think Kristof has done a pretty good job of pointing this out (especially when it comes to not educating women… he has noted that circumstances greatly improve when people educate women, and I think the state of Kerala in India demonstrates this).
    Either way, I notice that a lot of this criticism comes from people who live in America and haven’t really lived abroad for a long amount of time. Kristof’s work comes from years of experience in these countries, and it definitely corresponds with what I have noticed and what my parents have noticed from years of living/growing up abroad. Maybe that’s why I give him so much credit.

    • Thanks for the comments Malvika. My main problem is the way he talks about these issues. He treats the people as objects in his writing, objects that have bad things happen to them and then need to be saved. Raising awareness of a problem should mention the roots of the problem, that would lead people to take action that could actually help. and I would challenge that his critics aren’t well traveled – there’s an intelligent group of academics and development workers that challenge him much more eloquently than myself.

      As for the priorities: Yes, the poor often are not able to provide for their children as much, and some priorities may be mixed up – but is this really a symptom of being poor, or is it that poverty makes it all the more obvious? There are plenty of parents in developed countries – and not just in the lower socioeconomic levels – that don’t prioritize their children’s education, but they aren’t constantly under the watchful eye of reporters and social scientists and they don’t have to worry about school fees because the state provides education so it’s not as noticeable. I can relate with some of the feelings he has – I don’t think all of the negative things I see are done consciously by him, but that doesn’t make it okay.

  2. Woops, I pressed ‘enter’ too soon. I also think it’s acceptable for Kristof to illuminate what is wrong without presenting a solution. Often, the situations he explores are ones in which there ARE no obvious solutions/ways to address the problem. The benefit of an approach like his is that his readers — many of whom are young, ambitious, and creative — will read something that catches their interest and think of a creative way to address it, even if he can’t.

    That being said… I definitely agree with you about him buying slaves to free them. That’s ridiculous and is absolutely buying into the system. That being said, I’m sure that it was hard for him to go there and see these people treated this way… I suspect his attitude may have been, “at least I can give them a better life.” It wasn’t the right thing to do, maybe, but it was understandable.

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