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At my high school, the New York Times was something of a secular religion and Nicholas Kristof was its Mother Teresa. We were the type of school that sent human-rights educators to Haiti and fundraising mountaineers to Mount Kilimanjaro. In our locker rooms, we texted earthquake aid to the Red Cross, stashed cookies for the next UNICEF bake sale and honed Britney Spears moves for charity flash mobs. And if, from our positions of privilege, we couldn’t become the next Aung San Suu Kyi or Malala Yousafzai, then at least we could dream of becoming journalists who brought their stories to the world.

Some afternoons, I would set my backpack down at the kitchen table and, sipping a bowl of soymilk, insist that my mother sign a petition on GMOs and vote in the next county election. On good days, she would let me use the oven to bake cookies for UNICEF—for a Chinese kitchen composed of hot pots and rice cookers, this was no small concession. But when I went on too long about Mexican corn farmers and Indian sweatshop workers, my mother would smile, smear a sweaty hand across her forehead and go back to her green onions.

Kristof has made it his mission to turn people like my mother into citizen activists. “It’s very hard to get people to care,” he says. “The moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page.” For a journalist who reports on the conflicts in Rakhine and the atrocities in Darfur, the act of writing is itself an uphill battle against human psychology. Faced with an endless stream of tragedies, even the most scrupulous news readers eventually tune out of Syria and into the Kardashians. Some researchers call this phenomenon “psychic numbing” or “compassion fatigue.” Kristof calls it a failure of empathy. If a single life lost is a tragedy and a million lives a statistic, then he wants to make sure that those lives are, at the very least, transmuted into stories and made to serve a greater cause.

“If I had a gun,” Ismail Hassan said venomously from his hospital bed, “I would shoot Arabs.”

“Surely not women and children?” I remonstrated.

“Every one of them,” Ismail snarled.

Ismail is a 15-year-old boy, and that conversation underscores how Chad is falling off a cliff, with escalating hatreds, violence and insecurity. […] After the janjaweed attacked his village and shot his father, Ismail raced forward to cover his father’s body with his own. That courage didn’t move the janjaweed, who simply shot Ismail as well. The genocide that started in Darfur in 2003 is now threatening to…

Like many of his columns, this piece unfolds like a well-oiled advertising campaign. It begins with a face-to-face encounter, which then telescopes into a larger social issue, which then convinces the reader to do something to help. Vignettes of eight-year-old Mustafas, fifteen-year-old Ismails, and 21-year-old Abdisamads populate Kristof’s writing. Their individual stories come to represent the plights of their people: Ismail becomes the face of the crisis in Darfur, Ali’s plight a metaphor for Saudi Arabian brutality.

In a recent study at the University of Oregon, psychologist Scott Maier retraces how Kristof honed his persuasive technique from the principles of behavioral science. “When it comes to eliciting compassion,” researchers have found, “the identified individual, with a face and a name, has no peer.” Compassionate optimism, Kristof finds, is crucial for keeping readers from tuning out. By showing how people in rural Africa have overcome great obstacles, readers might begin to feel that they, too, can make a difference. “Bridge characters” help readers identify with the problem at hand. These characters are in theory anyone with whom a reader identifies, but in practice they are often white, middle-class Americans like Kristof himself. This isn’t an implicit bias so much as it is a conscious strategy, a place where the principle of fair storytelling, Kristof argues, runs into the urgent task of getting people to care.

Most columns end with a concrete to-do list. Readers are urged to share articles on Facebook or text a donation from their cell phones. These aren’t big tasks and they often revolve around social media, but the results pay off. At the time of writing, Kristof readers have donated $11,000 for a former sex slave and $750,000 for schools in Vietnam. That’s not including the $349,638 he has raised on Crowdrise to fight the oppression of women. On the website for his book, Half the Sky, readers who want to do more can choose to donate to Edna’s maternity hospital in Somaliland, purchase jewelry handcrafted by Kenyan women, or send aspirin to Urmi’s center for former prostitutes in India.

Kristof is perhaps best known for his graphic, on-the-ground reporting on the genocide in Darfur, for which he won a Pulitzer in 2006. The killings had begun three years earlier, when the Sudanese government responded to rebels from the region with an ethnic cleansing of its people. But either in spite of his moral clarity, or because of it, he has come under fire for catering too eagerly to American armchair activists.

In Saviors and Survivors, Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan scholar at Columbia University, says writers like Kristof urge us “to rescue before it is too late, to act before seeking to understand.” When we cling to the genocide narrative, Mamdani argues, we demonize the “perpetrators” and keep them out of peace talks that could stem the violence. Whereas Kristof favors clean delineations between Arab and non-Arab, government troops and rebel forces, Mamdani shows how structural issues like land and climate change cause ongoing cycles of insurgency and counterinsurgency.

The American novelist Teju Cole has also been a prominent critic of Kristof’s “advocacy-by-journalism.” By putting human faces on abstract problems, Cole argues, Kristof succeeds not so much in personifying complex structures as he does in masking the complicity of himself and his readers in those structures. Kristof is a charter member of what Cole calls the “White-Savior Industrial Complex,” for which “the world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” Cole tweeted in the wake of the Kony 2012 media frenzy. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” The White-Savior Industrial Complex is a system that, in Cole’s eyes, not only oppresses people in the third world, but also turns them into advertisements for our own charity.

Cole’s critique of Kristof takes Mamdani’s to its logical conclusion. Where Mamdani argues that Kristof misrepresents the facts, Cole shows us how his columns belittle and hurt the people they put on display.

Kristof’s stories may not be as sophisticated, or interesting, for that matter, as Mamdani’s facts or Cole’s tweets, but it is hard to deny that they evoke human faces in a way that no analysis of desertification or white privilege ever will.[1] Are Kristof’s readers really confronted with the choice that Mamdani and Cole imagine that they are facing—between personifying complex structures and dealing with the structures themselves? Or is it, as Kristof implies, more like a choice between donating to a needy family in Darfur and watching another movie on Netflix?

For Cole and Mamdani, the injustice is that grief from genocide is being turned into a product for Western consumption. For Kristof, the injustice is the genocide itself. Perhaps the most powerful defense of Kristof comes from Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Pulitzer Prize-winning author on genocide: “He is prepared to do the thing that is the hardest for many people in writing,” Power writes. “He is prepared to be predictable; he’s prepared to be repetitive. When we look back at the Holocaust, we don’t say to ourselves, ‘Oh, gosh, can you believe so-and-so wrote twenty redundant columns on the extermination of Europe’s Jews?’ If it’s happening every day, it deserves to be written about every day.”

My mother grew up on a state farm on the Siberian border, where she was a willing and engaged citizen of Mao’s China from the peripheries of the nation. Instead of UNICEF bake sales, she got up early to thresh corn for hungry city-dwellers in the south. Instead of texting earthquake aid to the Red Cross, she set up little traps for sparrows and vermin, doing her part to prevent crop disaster. She dreamed of becoming a pilot in the air force, or becoming a martyr so that she could receive Mao’s praise. Her hero was Lei Feng, the devoted young soldier who declared he loved being a cog in the system, always ready to sacrifice himself with small acts of altruism.

In Chinese communist folklore, stories of Lei Feng abound. There is the tale of how he used his meager salary to support the aging parents of a friend, signing the payments with his friend’s name. In his diary, he records Franklin-esque habits of going to bed late and waking early, using the extra time to study the writings of Chairman Mao. Then there is the tragic story of his death, an accident with a truck that struck down a telephone pole he was trying to help fix. Lei Feng was the humble savior who made my mother believe that she too could make a difference.

My mother had also learned the story of Jampa, a poor Tibetan boy who stole offerings from a Buddhist altar and was enslaved by the temple. In one memorable account, Jampa was made into a human footstool: whenever his master mounted a horse, he would have to kneel down and serve as a step. My mother remembers balking at the injustice of it all and wanting badly to help. Whenever she saw the movie about his life, she would feel the desperation of his poverty, the terror of the beatings and the thrill of his eventual escape. Tibet was too far away, but it was still possible to be a Lei Feng and do something small for the cause. In school, she wrote an essay supporting the military intervention in Tibet, arguing that cruel Buddhists had caused a humanitarian crisis in the region.

I once asked my mother how she could stand idle when so many atrocities were going down in this world. I can’t remember if my Kristof moment amounted to anything other than an accelerated mincing of green onions. But I do remember learning, gradually, during those high school years, that my mother wasn’t indifferent to the suffering of distant others. It was just that she had grown immune to that kind of storytelling.

If Kristof wrote my mother’s story, it would read like this: Nineteen-year-old Yang Xiaoying is a shy, unassuming girl. She’s afraid to speak her accented Cantonese because, here in Hong Kong, locals look down on refugees from the mainland. Months earlier, Xiaoying was in a holding pen just across the border in Shenzhen, hoping to escape a regime that had kept her family in exile in the far north, just three hundred miles from the Siberian border, for years. During the worst years of the Cultural Revolution, Xiaoying’s mother, a Chinese literature teacher, was sentenced to jail and her father, a journalist and outspoken intellectual, was forced to do labor on the collective farm. Without the guidance of her parents, Xiaoying learned early on to be self-sufficient. When the schools shut down, she even taught herself history and math, reading old textbooks by candlelight when the day’s labor was finished. Here in Hong Kong, she cannot enroll in the public school system and instead attends night classes. “I don’t mind,” Xiaoying told me, when I asked her about the obstacles she faces as a refugee. “At least I don’t have it as bad as the people in Tibet.”

I know this because my New York Times-reading friends often get me to narrate my family history as if I were a living Kristof column. Was your grandmother persecuted by Mao? they ask, faces wrinkled in empathy. Did your mother participate in the 1989 protests? It is no secret that Kristof’s stories traffic in melodrama. In the way they are designed to elicit our empathy, there is no real difference between the true story of Ismail, the boy Kristof met in Chad, and the fictional one of Jampa, the slave in Tibet.

I am used to telling those stories about my family. I cycle through the human rights abuses, the humanitarian disaster of the Great Leap Forward, the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the tragedy of Tiananmen. In these narratives, my mother is a victim of totalitarian excess and political brainwashing. She is the advertisement, the needy African child on the poster, photographed and pinned up to elicit the empathy of others. On the inexplicable appeal of Lei Feng and the improbable tale of Jampa, I remain silent, because in those stories, my mother is not the object of empathy but the giver of it. And sometimes, it can be hard to empathize with that.

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In a 2009 interview with Guernica, Mamdani marshals an arsenal of facts—the historical allegiances of nomadic militias, the expansion of the desert and the spread of disease, UN figures on declining death rate—to undermine the genocide narrative that we now take for granted. But he is stopped short when the interviewer asks: “How many survivors of attacks did you interview for your book? How many of the refugee and IDP [internally displaced people] camps have you visited?” Mamdani says he worked for the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation of the African Union, where he met with intellectuals, political parties, and tribal leaders, and through them has learned about the complexities of the situation. The interviewer seems to sense an evasion, because he asks the same question again. This time, Mamdani admits he has never been there himself.
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