In the first sentence of my essay in Harvard’s “Transition” magazine, I declared that I did not want to write about New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, because his writing was boringly predictable. But I also did not want to write about him because the fundamental problem my essay tries to explore is not really about him. It remains intriguing to me how he became the spokesperson and even poster boy for a certain kind of development and humanitarian intervention. Perhaps it’s even more interesting to ask why he is so resistant to changing the parameters of his thinking in the face of increasing criticisms.
Just in the last few months Elliott Prasse-Freeman published a pointed critique in The New Inquiry, pointing out how Kristof’s advocacy is neo-colonial. Anthropologist Laura Agustín, in her blog The Naked Anthropologist and Counter Punch, used her own scholarship on prostitution to show clearly why the specifics and the particular histories and circumstances of the women Kristof claims to be rescuing actually do matter. But his writing certainly did not create the relationship between Americans and Africans that I find so disturbing.
My book, Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa, which came out in 2010, concludes with the same argument that I make in my essay on Kristof, about the costs of humanitarian and development programs that erase particular histories and places in the interest of a single grand narrative. In the book, I take on the Oprah Show’s representations of Africa and Africans and Ms. Winfrey’s own intervention in South Africa, especially her Leadership Academy for girls in Henley on Klip. Like Kristof, she builds a way for her audience to learn to empathize with a generic group of African girls whose suffering is brought home by their kinship with Oprah herself. In this way Oprah extends her relentless domestication of structural problems in America, turning a personal desire to help sufferers of abuse into a more than acceptable (to her viewers and fans) African development program. Both Oprah and Kristof simultaneously generalize while individualizing political and social challenges, making them very effective storytellers for the neoliberal governance of good citizens; citizens who take their individual responsibility very seriously and believe that others should, too. For years Oprah offered comfort food to Americans who truly believed that their time would come, that Oprah’s story was not unique or a freak of nature; that they too could generate true success if only they believed enough, worked hard enough. In both America and Africa this story, like Kristof’s, helps to reduce complex structural and political problems to individual choices. I, therefore, couldn’t help chuckling at the possibility that historians might, in the future, see a direct connection between two events: 1) Occupy Wall Street’s recognition that American poverty is structural, not the result of people not working hard enough; and 2) the end of the Oprah Winfrey Show’s television run.
While I can understand the importance of these stories to Oprah, given her background, it is less clear why a journalist like Nicolas Kristof should be so besotted with stories of individual helplessness, generally in the global south, relieved by individual actions by good people, generally in the global north. Has he become seduced by his own fame? Here is the other side of the Kristof narrative that makes him more than just a representative of the generic relationship between those with privilege and those without. While he has occasionally bemoaned the New York Times readers’ obsession with celebrity, he has also used celebrities as central figures in his “journalism,” all in the interest of getting readers to care about so-called unknown/unknowable places in Africa. He has his own story of how to become the thing you admire; he is his own best narrative hook. So even if Kristof is simply mirroring a broader trend, I feel we are forced to care about why and how he himself got to be famous. His caring about the suffering of women around the world has made him a celebrity in his own right. It has enabled him to dramatize his narrative, and this is why so many well-intentioned people want to hear his stories about Africans and other supposedly helpless/voiceless people. His story makes it hard for people doing the work that needs to be done both in the US and Africa because in the end, it makes it so easy to think that all you have to do is care about the figures seen through his eyes, rather than understanding people and their contexts on their own terms.
* This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on the CIHA Blog based at the University of California, Irvine.