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Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics

“How can you watch people die in the streets?”
“You don’t look, you close your eyes.”

Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times journalist, is often hailed as a defender of the downtrodden, courageously reporting those man-made events that “shock the conscience.” As he traipses the globe to report on its most grisly moments, Kristof is followed, physically and digitally, by a significant swathe of educated, upper-middle-class America: 200,000 people like his Facebook page, a million track him on Twitter, and that’s not to mention his column in the Times. He even periodically holds a contest to allow young journalists to follow him in the field. Hence, whether decrying sex work in Cambodia (Kristof once bought a young girl out of sexual slavery) or relaying images of hacked-apart bodies in Congo, Kristof’s witnessing reaches a significant number of people. His words diffuse through book clubs, church groups, and even think tanks and governments to shape grassroots activism and policy alike. On the issue of civilian deaths in Darfur, for which he won his second Pulitzer, both critics and supporters cite Kristof’s importance in shaping both the Save Darfur movement and the U.S. President’s opinion.

Kristof’s ability to frame and deliver the world’s horrors to millions—in a way that keeps those millions coming back for more—seemingly should make him worthy of the hero worship that has attended his rise. Indeed, what is worse than a privileged bourgeois population that knows nothing of the way the other half (or rather the other 99 percent) lives? And yet the devil as always remains in the details—or in Kristof’s case, the lack of details. For, when exploring why Kristof has become a high priest of liberal opinion in America (arrogating the right to speak on almost any sociopolitical phenomenon, provided it involves an easily identifiable victim), we crash into what can be called Kristof’s anti-politics: the way his method and style directly dehumanize his subjects, expelling them from the realm of the analytical by refusing to connect them to systems and structures that animate their challenges. Kristof’s distancing double move provides us with precisely what is worse than a bourgeois not knowing about the world’s horrors: knowing about them only enough to simultaneously acknowledge and dismiss them, to denude them of political and moral demand, to turn them into consumable and easily digestible spectacles. We are encouraged to look only so we can then close our eyes.

To address this apparent paradox—and to explore what social values, imaginaries, and desires Kristof embodies—I will introduce the concept of the open secret, arguing that elite American discourse is increasingly defined not by ideological obfuscation (where there are secrets that we just do not know), but by an insidious mélange where secrets still exist but also often seem somewhat open, recognized through the side of the eye, becoming things we must know but cannot acknowledge. Kristof is a virtuoso at introducing vexing questions about how various violences might have structural determinants … only to immediately silence those questions. As a result, his reporting allows us to process the trauma of a world of contradictions and incoherencies while concurrently collectively agreeing on an official and comforting narrative: that of progress through the diligent application of universal liberal values. Against Kristof’s double move—opening up the caesura, allowing the pressure to escape, closing it again—the project must become to begin thinking through ways of speaking our open secrets, of holding that caesura open and doing politics in the gap.

Close Reading

In order to grasp Kristof’s success, it is important to deconstruct his style and method. He is remarkably efficient with words, evocative through stories, and convincing in tone. After reading perhaps hundreds of his columns on the underdeveloped world, certain patterns emerge: Broadly speaking, Kristof often employs clever journalistic and prose devices to weave personalized traumas into bite-sized morsels of digestible horror. By playing on his audience’s Orientalist, classist, and racist fantasies, 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.

We can illustrate Kristof’s rhetoric by reading him closely. “From ‘Oprah’ to Building a Sisterhood in Congo” exemplifies his oeuvre. As the title indicates, Kristof begins by grounding the story (he describes himself in a “shack” in a DRC village) through the mediation of Lisa Shannon, an American who has found herself a long way from home. Why is she here? The answer comes in a tableau of horror: Militiamen (the bestial Others) inexplicably invade the home of a Congolese named Generose (the abject victim) and proceed to do terrible things to her. Instead of glossing these details to get to the story’s point, Kristof encourages the reader to connect viscerally and voyeuristically with a victim who is not only stripped of politics and identity, but also of clothes, becoming simply and only a body and a name:

As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldierscut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”
So they shot him dead.

(emphasis added)

The imagery here is staggering: Generose is rendered, with leg hacked off, lessthan her body. In the inexorable arms race of reducing people to bodies, rape—the violation of the body—is supplemented and then superseded by maiming and cannibalism, where the destruction and consumption of the body lead to its partial elimination. But this serves Kristof’s objectives well: Here the body creates more symbolic capital by virtue of becoming less than itself. Because somehow this is not enough, the young boy stands up in the face of evil to be shot down, made the sacrificial lamb who will need to be resurrected and redeemed.

Besides introducing the Other and the victim, this section has an important additional effect: It serves as a way of silencing. Against the suggestion that Kristof should gloss the details of the horror to get to the point of the story, it becomes clear that those details are the point. As a result, the horror is too great to be responded to politically; politics is callous, insensitive, inadequate, somehow just not enough against this evil. The effect of this technique is to leave the reader stunned, numbed, and disarmed, waiting for something to make this horror go away.

Enter the third part of the triptych: the witness who plays the messianic role, both for Generose and the reader. Shannon, leading a normal life in the U.S., heard about Generose’s story in a normal way (by watching Oprah), yet she makes the extraordinary and laudable decision to go live in the DRC. Consequently she becomes the true subject of the rest of Kristof’s column, not only the redeemer for the boy and the body left behind as residual but a surrogate for the reader as well. She goes so we don’t have to. As a way of highlighting Shannon’s sacrifice, Kristof further infantilizes Generose:

“God sent me Lisa to release me,” Generose told me fervently, as the rain pounded the roof, and she then compared Lisa to an angel and to Jesus Christ.

Scrunching up in embarrassment in the darkened room, Lisa fended off deification.

To be clear, believing in Jesus does not make one an infant. But the way Generose is portrayed—saying outlandish things while our heroine squirms awkwardly—presents Generose as not being sophisticated enough to grasp the awkwardness that her statement would induce. Generose is too simple or too irreconcilably traumatized.

Consequently, the reader connects even more intensely with the savior, empathizing not just with her sacrifice but with sacrifice in the face of such savages who cannot understand the way one should communicate. Hence, even as Kristof insists that these women share a kinship connection (the title of Shannon’s book is 1000 Sisters), the reader is encouraged not to see them as part of the same humanity.

It’s worth noting here that Kristof publishes photos and names of his victims, indicating that he does not see them as part of the same discourse and hence is free to treat them as objects. This is consistent with a larger point: In Kristof, the victim is wholly constructed and constituted by violence, or more specifically, violence that can be turned into narrative. She (and it’s usually a she) literally doesn’t exist until violence is done to her body and Kristof reports on it; she ceases to exist when violence is cleansed away through the savior’s ritual act. The victim does not continue on and face ordinary problems such as impoverishment or limited access to health care. She has served her purpose, and Kristof is off to report on the next mass rape. So he can use her name and photograph—she doesn’t exist afterward anyway.

This narrative, however, constitutes only the easily assailable part of a Kristof column. In many ways the most important part typically occurs next and is gone so fast that the reader almost misses it:

While for years world leaders have mostly looked the other way, while our friend Rwanda has helped perpetuate this war, while Congo’s president has refused to arrest a general wanted by the International Criminal Court, while global companies have accepted tin, coltan and other minerals produced by warlords—amid all this irresponsibility, many ordinary Congolese have stepped forward to share the nothing they have with their neighbors.

Here, ever momentarily, there is a mention of broader linkages—but only so they can be dismissed. We hear vaguely about the “irresponsible” international community, another state (Rwanda), big business, a global institution (the ICC), but what are the connections between these actors? How do they lead to the violence done to Generose? We don’t know, and Kristof does not encourage us to ask. Indeed, if Kristof believed that the challenges of the postcolonial state—the patterns of extraction that preempt industrialization and economic structural transformation, the destructive geopolitical machinations by states ostensibly defending human rights—were really problems, wouldn’t he spend more time on them?

Moreover, what are we supposed to do about this? Hold our government to account? Question the consumption patterns of our society and ourselves? No, we are supposed to give money and celebrate Congolese resilience, and be aware. Hence, despite appearing critical, Kristof’s model column is actually pacifying, paralyzing, mystifying, and in these senses is profoundly conservative. I compare this moment to the introduction of a vaccine, where a bit of the virus (politics) is allowed into the bloodstream (the field of vision of the American bourgeois) so that it can immediately be eradicated by the immune system (the reterritorializing power of the comforting American progress-through-charity ideology). Hence, this potential hinge point where the piece could be made meaningful is instead taken the opposite direction, toward the ordinary-people-helping-themselves-with-a-little-help-from-their-friends trope. Kristof concludes by emphasizing the easy charity solution, returning to the horror at the beginning but recodifying it, infusing it with hope:

Lisa is organizing a Run for Congo Women…with Congolese rape survivors participating. You can sponsor them And one of those participating in the run, hobbling along on crutches and her one leg, will be Generose.

The reader smiles at the power of the (sub)human spirit: “hobbling along on one leg,” like an animal. And scene.

Short-Circuited Awareness

What are the social and political ramifications of this kind of document? People may defend the story because it is somehow true, because Kristof saw it, and therefore he is “raising awareness.” But what is to be done with this knowledge? What kind of awareness has he really raised?

Notice how in Kristof’s writing (and in Western advocacy campaigns writ large) “raising awareness” involves shaming citizens around knowledge rather thanaction: “Did you know this is going on?” one exclaims, while clutching her pearls. “Oh yes, I did read about that. Just terrible, isn’t it?” goes the appropriate response.

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. As his tales of horror are continually processed into the new normal of horror (rape of five-year-olds? That’s old hat. Only rape of four-year-olds shocks anymore), readers not only expect always greater horror but come to demand it weekly. Note also that one of the main actions one can take is to simply write on Kristof’s blog in support of, well, awareness.

Keeping readers in a constant state of becoming aware creates an indefinite loop that would be laughable if it were not so productive. And while it produces awareness of abused bodies over there, it resolutely refuses to make readers aware of their complicity in those abuses. The material conditions that reinforce the world’s structural violences apparently do not qualify as awareness-worthy.

As a result, awareness makes the reader less educated about what animates a horrible situation and less equipped to respond to it conceptually or politically.

Kristof’s kind of awareness-raising is a vacuous (and vapid) tautology that motivates no social change but rather exists to serve itself, an endlessly churning machine to project the ultimate liberal humanitarian fantasy: a clean, orderly, decent world without having to change anything. His glosses become social facts that are difficult to displace.

Rebuttal: Writing Differently

If the typical Kristof piece on the underdeveloped world actually does harm, the task becomes to ask, “What would it look like to not write like this?” It can be done, but even though critique itself is productive, providing a material alternative can sometimes be more politically useful.

Rewriting Kristof involves two objectives, the first flowing into the second. First, we’d invert the way Kristof thinks of his story’s main characters, discarding the typical necessity of mediating the object-body’s story through the gaze of the Western avatar. In discarding the surrogate, we gain 200 words to better tell Generose’s story, and in telling it, we would start with a simple thought exercise: How would we write about Generose if she were the audience of her own story? That is, if she and her family would read it, rather than it being read only by thousands of people thousands of miles away? Would we present her as an animal? Or would we try to tell her story in a sensitive way? Would we allow her to remain an object of violence? Or would we allow her to become a subject—not an empowered subject (because it is clear that she has endured horrible things that are not of her choosing) but a political subject, a human subject with a variety of concerns that go beyond her being hacked to bits?

That story might explore the daily challenges of village life, only then moving on to explain why she was attacked. On this, we would propose questions or theories with the help of local academics, NGO members, Generose herself. Was her village seen as a source of resources for the local militia? Was violence deployed to pacify the population for the purpose of political control? Did these militiamen have grievances that motivated their actions? These questions would not excuse the violence but rather make it explicable. If it was simply deranged, senseless brutality, these questions would put that in context.

That paragraph would contextualize Generose, making her a political actor part of a larger political economy. But what is that larger political economy? This is where the first part of our story dovetails with the second: examining broader linkages that produce the conditions that allow Generose to be subjected to these abuses. Filling in the abyss that Kristof creates between those bodies over there and the readers here would involve looking at Congo’s history. Not mentioning U.S. support for the Mobutu regime that began this cycle of violence is noteworthy. For the purely venal objective of selling papers, wouldn’t that bring Kristof’s readers further into the story? Whether this is an intentional obviation by Kristof’s editors, sloppiness on Kristof’s part, or simply his unwillingness or inability to think politically is an open question. We would then contextualize DRC against other African economies, outlining how DRC stands as a particularly egregious case of the general pattern of exclusion through incorporation that attends natural-resource exporters.

This alternative article would not require vast amounts of research. Kristof uses academic literature fairly often, the critical difference is that he focuses on thestatistics of suffering rather than the structures of violence.

Instead, a story must simply provide analysis that interrogates those structures and hence the reader as well: Is the ICC really a legitimate tool, given that its foundation prevents it from policing the great powers? Does that illegitimacy create blowback that could lead to more violence and suffering (as with al-Bashir expelling humanitarian workers from Darfur)? How do we constrain the global profit motive when we as consumers require cheap and available goods? Going beyond awareness, our article would make connections between the rapacious extraction of wealth committed by Wall Street and the violence experienced by those, like Generose, at the end of the line.

Channeling the Needs of the Symbolic

Against this critique, a common defense of Kristof is that by putting us in the scene so viscerally he gives heretofore invisible subjects a human face, thereby allowing the reader to enter into the scene and then act. The close reading above shows that Kristof resolutely does not give his victims any humanity. It also shows that any action that he recommends would likely do little sustainable good. But does he succeed at least in opening up new opportunities? Will his readers learn, become more involved, go beyond his impoverished glosses? Put differently, would anyone read the alternative version above? This is a more vexing question, and it returns us to the deepest power of the Kristof column: the vaccine.

In an article entitled “Sewing Her Way Out of Poverty,” Kristof again deploys his standard four-part formula. Here the Other is poverty, the object is Jane the former “prostitute,” and the saintly Westerner is a woman named Ingrid Munro who changes Jane’s backward ways: “Jane was pushed to save for the future, to lean forward.” The narrative continues as expected: From squalor and a life squandered, Jane carves her perilous path out of poverty, helping her children get to school. But then:

catastrophe struck. Cynthia’s big toe was mangled in a traffic accident, and ultimately it was amputated … Jane devoted every scrap of savings to medical costs—leaving Anthony unable to return to school. Our documentary team took up a collection, and Anthony is now back in class.

But the crisis was a reminder of how fragile the family’s gains are. Jane’s life reflects the lesson of mountains of data: Overcoming poverty is a tumultuous and uncertain task, but it can be done.

Here Kristof puts his argument’s self-contradiction directly in the reader’s face and dismisses that contradiction with an ingenious device: not by refuting the contradictory element with reasoned argument, but by blithely ignoring it. To wit: For Jane to stand as a success story (using NGO intervention to “overcome poverty”), the reader must understand her to have achieved enough income or assets to, for instance, prevent a random accident from making her incapable of covering basic needs (such as school fees). Yet this is precisely what happened to Jane, who was only saved (again) by the largesse of Westerners who just happened to be there at that time (and charitable—or duped—enough to give). Thus, the success story that Kristof showcases would have been a failed case if not for his own intervention! That this plays to Kristof’s adoring fans is beside the point—it effectively operates as a way of recodifying the meaning of “overcoming poverty.”

We are left realizing that such an overcoming does not signify structural transformation of a society and political economy such that a health shock would not leave one again in destitution. Nor does it suggest that poverty alleviation involves a political project whereby the damned of the earth can demand and then achieve better conditions. Instead, Kristof himself bestows the passage from poverty as a gift.

Kristof then couples this with another substitution: Jane’s passage out of destitution (tenuousness as it is) becomes a synecdoche of the “mountains of data” that show that “anti-poverty programs work.” He symbolically projects Jane as representing all those struggling in miserable material conditions. And yet, against the suspicion that poverty is too complex to be “sewed out of,” Kristof closes this gap by asserting that (1) what we are doing is just fine (simply give money) and (2) no political changes on our part are necessary (no restructuring the global economic architecture through different trade policies, taxation regimes, different aid platforms, etc.).

This returns us to this essay’s opening epigraph. In the 2011 film In Time, the underclass hero asks the privileged heroine how she can stand to observe inequality that results in people dying before her. She responds, “You don’t look, you close your eyes.” Read metaphorically, this means the stratified society builds devices that allow one to remain effectively blind to its divisions, eyes closed. But perhaps we should read the exchange superficially: Stripping away any Hollywood artifice, we are left with a person who sees the horror before her and then choosesto close her eyes. Because how could she know to close her eyes if she didn’t look in the first place?

This is the quintessential distillation of the parallax: looking without looking, knowing what not to know. And because we cannot figure this out on our own, we learn when and why to close our eyes from those who are experts at opening and closing them.

Kristof’s sad gift is to act as a perfect exponent of the symbolic order. He is one of those rare few who have totally mastered the symbols and affects of society, who by being completely captured by them is able to be one with that order and hence capable of reflecting and magnifying social desires back to society, guiding us through collective decisions about normative goals and goods.

Looked at this way, focusing our ire on Kristof appears mostly misplaced. Slavoj Žižek writes that institutional desires are somewhat autonomous of their members, rather acting to produce their constituents. We can think of the New York Times and its readers as a site operating analogously: Both directly (through the editing process) and indirectly (through book deals, blog posts, and numbers of Facebook likes for particular articles), Kristof receives feedback on the desire he helps create. The Times animates him, rewards him, slightly corrects him when/if he ever goes off script, etc. The Times in turn is responsive to and hence animated by our symbolic order itself. It becomes clear that if there were no Kristof, we would create another one.

Where does this leave us? We should not despair at Kristof’s rise to prominence. The circuit constructed between liberal subjects on one hand and political-economic and symbolic power structures on the other—which Kristof stories flow through and help reinforce—is hardly impregnable. This has much to do with the era of the open secret.

While the residue or gap that constitutes the open secret can assist in sublimating potential pressures, allowing people to become cynical and enervated (“What can we do, we all know the system is set up against us … yet no one will admit it!”), it can also liberate us from constantly uncovering secrets, expecting that information will itself change people’s minds. The era of the open secret lets us see the obscene underbelly and the official, insisted-upon truth in one field of vision. Given this, the task is not to try to find and broadcast some Truth but rather to make interventions on social desire itself.

This might be better illustrated with an anecdote. Psychoanalyst Felix Guatarri once relayed a story about an octopus swimming around polluted Marseille harbor, happy as an octopus could be, despite (or actually because of) the muck. An artist took him out, put him in clean water, and the octopus promptly died. The points here are (at least) three. First, this may serve as a metaphor of life under postindustrial capitalism: We are these octopuses, and the things we value and seek out have been so fashioned by our massive political-economic and symbolic machine that if we were to be presented with something that might appear objectively good (clean water), we might reject it and die. Second, there are no objective interests: The octopus demonstrates that once desire becomes refashioned, there’s no going back. The Kristofs of the world are able to adapt, and then tap into this social desire; the left often cannot. Hence projects should not hysterically project beliefs or practices based on deduced rationality; the cleanliness of the water is radically subject to the perspective of the octopus in question.

Finally, there is opportunity for improvisation: Desire has changed, and it can change again. This will likely occur by mining the gap between the official discourse and its underbelly, and using that contradiction—and the trauma that speaking it causes—to shatter the agreed-upon common sense. This would entail not simply screaming the truth from the rafters—and as a result perhaps creating reactionary rejection (a more aggressive and obdurate shutting of the eyes)—but rather using that act of speech to rejigger values and ways of seeing, such that closing one’s eyes is still possible but no longer desired. This article is hence not meant as an exposé of some Truth about Kristof, but rather an attempt to make it slightly neat or even cool to no longer objectify the poor or ignore our arbitrarily privileged position within a brutal global political economy.

Occupy Wall Street may (perhaps inadvertently) provide us with a particularly sophisticated example of how to “speak” the open secret: By not speaking—by resisting attempts that would coerce it into making legible claims—OWS performs demands on others to think and act politically. To wit, when mainstream Kristof-types attempt to capture OWS by reducing it to a set of policy prescriptions, OWS remains silent. When cynics insist that “we don’t know what you want,” OWS, as Doug Rushkoff suggests, says, “I don’t believe you.” In refusing to provide a solution that nests comfortably inside the existing system of power relations, OWS both effectively denies the cynic’s acceptance of the open secret (where we must pretend that the system is containable through regulation; that it won’t produce as a matter of course stratification, exploitation, and crisis; that capitalism can be made to work for the middle class), as it also makes a fairly radical demand on everyone to begin thinking what the system might look like instead.

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