Mr. Kristof and His Hugs

Still image from Adam Curtis' 'Learning to Hug,' BBC Blogs.

Pontificating on solutions to poverty (best read in all-caps: SOLUTIONS TO POVERTY) is a familiar topic of the New York Times mélange of millionaire columnists. Perhaps none are as keen on seeing it alleviated through rigorous familial oversight than Nicholas Kristof. Kristof’s ideal unit is the nuclear, middle-to-upper class, two active-duty parental household. It is indirectly projected as a panacea, and families (specifically, poor mothers) that fall short of this utopian arrangement have to answer for it.

If the Fed is endowed with the ambiguous power of enacting national monetary policy, the low-income, low-resources family is tasked with issuing hugs. Lots of them, and over many years of effusive columns. For all his prescriptions downplaying, or more accurately, ignoring the structural and historic legacy of American poverty, the blithe repetition of those prescriptions can still surprise.

'For Obama's New Term, Start Here' - January 2013

Maybe that’s why some of the most cost-effective antipoverty programs are aimed at the earliest years. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership has a home-visitation program that encourages new parents of at-risk children to amp up the hugging, talking and reading. It ends at age 2, yet randomized trials show that those children are less likely to be arrested as teenagers and the families require much less government assistance. [emphasis not in original]

If that reference seemed uncannily familiar it’s because it was employed exactly a year earlier.

'A Poverty Solution That Starts With A Hug' - January 2012

One successful example of early intervention is home visitation by childcare experts, like those from the Nurse-Family Partnership. This organization sends nurses to visit poor, vulnerable women who are pregnant for the first time. The nurse warns against smoking and alcohol and drug abuse, and later encourages breast-feeding and good nutrition, while coaxing mothers to cuddle their children and read to them. This program continues until the child is 2. [emphasis not in original]

I don’t know much about that particular organization, though I know nurses and they rival saints in sainthood. What is at stake is where the mishap of poverty is affixed, over and over. The argument is not the efficacy of an organization—this particular one serves a constituency of reportedly 85 percent single mothers—in alleviating suffering: committed, skilled people (typically women) do under-recognized, grueling care work daily. As Elliott Prasse-Freeman has written, the issue is that the ‘political context into which this solution is placed actually—as with all Kristof “solutions”—militates against fixing the structural problems.’ Capitalism can piss off. I like the turn of phrase about a robust ‘anti-politics.’ In the case of the lives of the underclass, this is an anti-politics with hidden teeth, mixing the sentimental cue of feminine/maternal labor with a steely managerial approach to cost-cutting measures.

For more on Kristof's 'dubious schemes for advancing women's rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south' see Anne Elizabeth Moore and Melissa Gira Grant's 'Nick Kristof: Half the Sky, All the Credit.'

Prasse-Freeman has noted Kristof’s explicit interventionism in this excerpt, and here I gloss its barely hidden gendered dimension:  ‘Yet the cycle can be broken, and the implication is that the most cost-effective way to address poverty isn’t necessarily housing vouchers or welfare initiatives or prison-building. Rather, it may be early childhood education and parenting programs’ (emphasis not in original). His anti-politics is informed by a dismissal of pervasive structural obstacles, but the valence of the solutions he proposes are never neutral. The disciplinary wasteland of prison is a hardened, masculine world that may or may not reform the grown-up impoverished child caught up in a ‘cycle’ while the healing heart of childhood programs may move children ‘up the escalator of life’ (see the last line in 'Chipping Away at Poverty—An Exchange').

If there is one motif of the ‘big heart/cost-effective solutions’ that has become the Kristof signature it is the hug. Aside from the instances referenced earlier here is a short catalog of hugging as political or economic intervention.

'Profiting From A Child's Illiteracy' - December 2012

I followed Courtney Trent, 22, one of these early childhood coordinators, as she visited a series of houses. She encourages the mothers (and the fathers, if they’re around) to read to the children, tell stories, talk to them, hug them. If the parents can’t read, then Ms. Trent encourages them to flip the pages on picture books and talk about what they see. [emphasis not in original]

'Cuddle Your Kid!' - October 2012

So, could the human version of licking and grooming — hugging and kissing babies, and reading to them — fortify our offspring and even our society as well? [emphasis not in original]

'The New Haven Experiment' - February 2012

The New Haven model still doesn’t go as far as I would like, but it does represent enormous progress. And it’s a glimpse of a world in which 'school reform' is an agenda and not just a term that sets off a brawl.

If the American Federation of Teachers continues down this path, I’ll revisit my criticisms of teachers’ unions. Maybe even give them a hug for daring to become part of the solution. [emphasis not in original]

Hugging framed at least two stories about foreign attitudes toward the United States. The tender feelings of unnamed non-Americans in each case are directed to an imagined America or American, nearly always figurable as Kristof himself.

In the case of Iran, the unnamed former military operator doesn’t blame the U.S. for U.S. sanctions, and may even intend to hug the author in a demonstrative appreciation for his Americanness.

'Hugs From Iran' - June 2012

‘We love America!’ gushed a former military commando, now a clothing seller, my first evening in the spiritual center of Mashhad. He was so carried away that I thought he might hug me, and although he acknowledged that his business was suffering greatly from Western sanctions, he said he blamed his own leaders. [emphasis not in original]

In Libya villagers show their profuse admiration for American bombing by embracing a fallen American airman.

'Hugs From Libyans' - March 2011

This may be a first for the Arab world: An American airman who bailed out over Libya was rescued from his hiding place in a sheep pen by villagers who hugged him, served him juice and thanked him effusively for bombing their country. [emphasis not in original]

There is no word-specific cuddling in this column’s content, but it deserves a mention for the call to settle deep ideological differences with hugs.

'Hug An Evangelical' - April 2004

I've argued often that gay marriage should be legal and that conservative Christians should show a tad more divine love for homosexuals.

But there's a corollary. If liberals demand that the Christian right show more tolerance for gays and lesbians, then liberals need to be more respectful of conservative Christians.

While Kristof’s affective procedure seems unique it is part of a wider tradition of American sentiment that reaches at least as far back as Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, an influential evangelical minister, and attributed her novel to the power of godly visions. Louis Masur writes, ‘Rich with sentimentality and emotion, as well as with romantic ideals about racial harmony, Uncle Tom’s Cabin reached out to Northern, middle-class, evangelical, female readers. It called for the immediate renunciation of sin, made salvation a reality, the Bible a guide, and spoke to mothers by making home and the unbreakable love of child the benchmark of a Christian life’ (emphasis not in original). Later, Masur appreciatively divulges that Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were awarded the first Harriet Beecher Stowe Prize for Excellence in Writing to Advance Social Justice for their book Half the Sky.

Divergent from the representational, TV hug dissected by Adam Curtis in 'Learning to Hug' Kristof’s hugs are affective substitutes for Stowe’s prayers. In the concluding remarks to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe addresses the reader directly on the question of ending slavery:

But what can an individual do? There is one thing that every individual can do – they can see to it that they feel right. Christian men and women of the North! still further, you have another power; you can pray! Do you believe in prayer? or has it become an indistinct apostolic tradition? You pray for the heathen abroad; pray also for the heathen at home. [emphasis not in original]

Glenn Hendler writes of these lines in his introduction to Public Sentiments: Structures of Feeling in Nineteenth-Century American Literature,

To 'feel right' here is to have proper sentiments, an appropriate response to the scenes of suffering and redemption that the reader has witnessed in the course of the novel. Stowe thus tries, as she has throughout the book, to shape the reader's affective response, to structure the forms of identification that the novel evokes.'

Nick Kristof, too, structures the forms of identification that his work evokes. And the figure with whom the reader is called to identify is Nick Kristof himself. His progress narrative, and one glimpsed in the New York Times widely, is to assume that capitalism either needs improving or does not exist, and to attribute economic inequity to sullied or off-course parenting.

Prayer now passé, Kristof wants you to hug the pain away. His hugging corpus considered together gives the farcical impression that he would administer them as psychotropic drugs if he could do so, but only on persons of a certain class or national origin, remembering Stowe's call to extend sympathy to the heathen abroad and the heathen at home. (Alternatively he would open the Nicholas D. Kristof Center For Kids Who Can't Hug Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.) What is most in need of parsing is his promotion of physical hugs on the one hand (the power of elevated oxytocin!) and the figural hug that cushions the technocratic, ultra-condescending domestic/foreign policy adages he recycles. That aspiration is comically muddled yet still chugging along.