One Day I’ll Be Thankful for a Welfare State

In a recent column about empathy, Nick Kristof responded to terrible critics of his call for people to take care of one another:

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”


After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?

This isn’t new. People who don’t want to help each other and don’t feel like they have to really like to blame others for their circumstances. But then Kristof kind of allows it, in defense of the children:

Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.

Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?

He takes it as a given that some adults are to blame for their bad decisions, and chooses to guilt-trip the assholes by pointing to the children that are the innocent victims of their parents’ choices. Nevermind that A. poor adults make the same kinds of bad decisions as middle class and rich adults, they just don’t have a personal safety net, and B. adults who need help deserve it – no matter what the reason, just like children.

When rich and even middle-class, especially white, people enjoy privileges that are invisible to them but incredibly apparent to everyone else, it demands that everyone else receive the help that they deserve. In my city, if you’re caught doing drugs in one part of town you’ll probably get a reprimand, maybe get sent to rehab, if you get caught on the other side of town you’ll probably meet the carceral state up close. Being injured or sick when you’re rich is still a terrible thing to be, but at least you can get treatment while the uninsured are merely kept alive. Missing in all of this is that the middle-class and rich get government help all of the time: income tax credits, quality education for their children, well-maintained highways – things that are meant for everybody but really don’t benefit those who don’t have much of an income, who send their children to under-funded schools due to property tax inequity, who take the bus for an hour to work. A proper safety net is the only way to help these people, and that’s what we should be doing.

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 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.

On Being Backwards

I don’t follow too many opinion editorial writers, but I’ve been a fan of Nick Kristof for quite some time.  However, this post by Kristof has got me a little irked.  The article itself brings up the stagnation of the Middle East’s progress after the twelfth century.  Citing a new book that attempts to address the reasons for this, Kristof asks what caused the “backwardness” of the Middle East.  While the article touched on Islamic law (i.e. business agreements, inheritance law, et cetera), it was Kristof’s word choice that got me.

When asked about it, Kristof tweeted his reasoning for saying the Middle East was backwards, citing “literacy rates, female labor force participation, political systems.”  But there seems to be a disconnect.  While I agree that many governments in the Middle East have some fundamental problems, I would think long and hard before calling a whole section of the world “backwards.”  Individual people are to some extent products of their societies, but societies are not a monolithic whole – they’re made up of those individual people.

To treat a whole group of people – a group spanning from Morocco to Bahrain, Egypt to Syria – as if they were all the same is already a misstep.  To take society’s problems and extrapolate a “backwardness” of people is an even bigger one.  It seems that Kristof is ignoring that the (not backwards) people are oppressed by these oppressive governments.  Many of these governments are governed by people who are far from backwards – Western-educated, wealthy, elite – but who exploit their societies to oppress their citizens.  Often, this oppression takes the form of limiting education, targeting women, curbing political dissent.  Being oppressed is different than being backwards. I hope Kristof knows this.

This ignores the fact that backwardness is misguided to begin with.  The idea that there is a forwards and backwards, and Kristof is implying that the Middle East is one (and therefore the West is the other) is far too conceited.  He’s hearkening back to Orientalism, practically, trying to use the institutions of America to judge the lack of institutions in a whole collection of countries.  A lot of stuff happened in the Middle Ages that put the societies of the Middle East on one track and the societies in Europe on another.  Stuff like the latter invading the former, among other things.  The thriving world of Damascus and Baghdad didn’t ebb because religious law halted progress. It happened for the same reason that America made gains after WWI while Europe did not, and that Europe made gains in the 18th Century while Africa did not.  Not one particular reason, but innumerable reasons.  That’s kind of how history works.  To say a change in a whole civilization was caused by one thing, or even one type of thing, is reckless.  It’s even more reckless to argue that members of a society, because they are oppressed, are also backwards.