Full disclosure: when reading Kathryn Mathers’ scathing critique of Mr. Kristof, I Presume” (pdf), it was only natural that I’d be a little resistant to it. I am one of the dread New York Times’ readers who began with Kristof’s columns, then picked up his book, Half the Sky, and continue to follow his Facebook and Twitter pages. It was in his book, co-authored with his wife, Sheryl Wu Dunn, that I first read about and her organization, Women for Women International, to which I’ve been contributing ever since. It was likely the seed that led to a trip volunteering in the Dominican Republic with an organization with which I am still involved. I am precisely the well-intentioned but misguided westerner targeted by Kristof and lamented by Mathers, a visiting professor at who teaches courses on global development.columnist , “
Mathers takes Kristof to task for work that reduces the ostensible beneficiaries of aid work to caricatures, the noble but wretched of the earth passively waiting to be rescued. Kristof, Mathers complains, encourages young idealists to view humanitarian work as a sort of self-improvement project, with too little regard for the root causes of the problem or the preferences of affected communities. Mathers writes:
Despite these critiques, Kristof’s writing about Africa (and he is not alone) is attractive and compelling to many Americans. Students and other fans come to listen to him talk about the ways that impoverished women around the world are being helped by people just like them. These are the same students that attend my classes on Africa or global development, who just want to know how they can ‘do development better.’ My courses ask them to take a critical look at the structural, political, and economic causes of poverty and the ways that development and humanitarian interventions often contribute to these causes. But Kristof offers a much simpler and ultimately compelling answer to their question.
I think Mathers’ comparison between her presentation and that of Kristof misses the point. His stated goal is to draw people into a world they would otherwise ignore. By the time her students come to her, they are people who, by definition, are dedicated to developing a better understanding of the developing world. Kristof is writing for the average New York Times reader, someone he hopes will be motivated to act on what she’s read. The best case scenario is one in which young people go from following Kristof to learning from Mathers. For the middle aged accountant and mother of 3 skimming Kristof’s column after reading the odd trend piece, the hope is that she will donate something of her time or money because of what she’s read.
For his part, Kristof acknowledges the shortcomings of his representations and offers this defense:
But I do take your point. That very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some, who’s doing something there. And let me tell you why I do that. The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo is that frankly, 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. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that. One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character.
Rather than countering this defense, Mathers very nearly ignores it, dismissing it as an “astonishing dismissal of his audiences’ power to think” before moving on. I don’t think it is particularly earth shattering or controversial to say that most people do not and will not spend Sunday afternoons reading long nuanced pieces about global poverty or economic development. Of those who will, not many will do much about it, beyond shaking their heads at the shame of it all.
I certainly would not want to put myself in the position of defending everything Kristof writes. This column, for example, seems pretty indefensible. My issue with this critique is that it not only ignores practical realities, but that it is itself an oversimplification. The implication of Mathers’ critique is that it’s possible for Kristoff to write a series of columns that would present an unvarnished truth of the story of or elsewhere, and an obvious proscription for the structural changes necessary to eradicate poverty. A nuanced understanding of the historical, cultural and economic basis for the current state of affairs in any part of the world requires more than reading a few newspaper columns or a few books or even a semester with Professor Mathers. It requires more than a visit of a few weeks, or even a few years. Scholars who have studied these issues for decades reach different conclusions both about the most important causes and the most promising solutions. The New York Times could devote entire issues to that topic for the next several years and the most diligent readers would not necessarily walk away with a course of action to take.
I also think it’s a bit lazy to dismiss out of hand travelers who return from a short trip abroad believing they have developed new insight into the struggles of people in other parts of the world while learning something more about themselves. To be sure, there is a danger for westerners of falling into imbecilic narratives about noble savages and Gardens of Eden and it is tempting to believe that a small insight into a facet of a problem in a corner of the world makes you an expert on that issue for all time. But there is also a world of difference between reading aboutand interacting with it up close. There are daily details of living without that cannot be understood unless they are experienced. A traveler who works to reign in the usual pitfalls of the clichés of the developing world shouldn’t be ashamed to say that she learned something, and was changed by the experience.
And that change can be the beginning of a commitment to do more. It would be nice to live in a world where people sought to prevent the suffering of others without requiring any personal connection or reward, but there are few if any of us who operate that way.
I would contrast this critique with the outcry that followed the infamous 1,000,000 T shirts campaign. Many people who were familiar with humanitarian aid work reached out to founder, Jason Sadler, not simply to ridicule his lazy and self-interested foray into the field, but to offer ideas about how he might tweak his idea to turn it into something useful.
This is what’s missing from Mathers’ essay and many similar critiques. She doesn’t argue that Kristof encourages readers to support organizations that are useless or counterproductive, nor does she offer us a list of organizations we might support or actions we might take instead.
Ironically, given the amount of snark devoted to Kristof’s whiteness by many critics, what seems to be elevated here is the importance of upper middle class white people developing a truer understanding of the pain of black and brown people around the world. (I’ll take this moment to note that, while I am one of the dread followers of Kristof as described above, I am also a black woman raised in a middle class home by a struggling single mother. That so many of Kristof’s critics use “westerner” or “American” as synonymous with “upper middle class white” is a topic for a post of its own).
Perhaps the most important takeaway from Mathers’ piece is this: “It is not that Kristof’s story is always wrong, but that it is the only one he tells.”
Kristof is one man—one man with a hell of a platform, it’s true, but still just one man with a stated goal: to create a narrative that will motivate people to act. It is unrealistic to expect him to tell every story that needs to be told. The effort being expended drafting self-righteous screeds calling out Kristof and his ilk would be better used to push alternatives.