In the past I’ve been intrigued by Nicholas Kristof’s columns in the NYTimes, which often deal with anguish, both global and domestic. I was bemused when he actually bought two prostitutes in SE Asia, sent them home, and set them up in small legit businesses where one prospered and the other reverted to her old wicked job. Lately he’s taken on reservation alcoholism and the enabling beer businesses just off the Sioux rez in White Clay.
Such misery accounting raises a lot of questions. Like, what kind of a guy does this stuff? I figured another Manhattan superior do-gooder working off his liberal guilt. Then I read his official bio. (below)
Nicholas D. Kristof
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times since 2001, writes op-ed columns that appear twice a week. Mr. Kristof won the Pulitzer Prize two times, in 1990 and 2006. In 2012, he was a Pulitzer finalist in Commentary for his 2011 columns that often focused on the disenfranchised in many parts of the world.
Mr. Kristof grew up on a sheep and cherry farm near Yamhill, Oregon. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard College and then studied law at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, graduating with first class honors. He later studied Arabic in Cairo and Chinese in Taipei.
While working in France after high school, he caught the travel bug and began backpacking around Africa and Asia during his student years, writing articles to cover his expenses.
Mr. Kristof has lived on four continents, reported on six, and traveled to more than 150 countries, plus all 50 states, every Chinese province and every main Japanese island. He jokes that he’s one of the very few Americans to be at least a two-time visitor to every member of the so-called Axis of Evil. During his travels, he has had unpleasant experiences with malaria, mobs and an African airplane crash.
After joining The Times in 1984, initially covering economics, he served as a Times correspondent in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. He also covered presidential politics and is the author of the chapter on President George W. Bush in the reference book “The Presidents.” He later was Associate Managing Editor of the Times, responsible for Sunday editions.
So this guy came by his contacts and balls not far from where I grew up in Portland and with the same background (orchards and sheep) as my maternal relatives. He’s the kind of smart that’s certified by prestigious institutions and the kind of bold that takes him into dangerous territories. Born in 1959, he’s young enough to have been my son. Since his parents (post WWII from Austria-Hungary -- the same as Adolf Hungry Wolf) taught at Portland State University where my own mother graduated as a returning student in 1961, I know that his background is more than agriculture, though from the way he approaches life, he seems more like a Reedie than a PSU guy. Maybe it’s the Harvard years.
But what I didn’t understand was how he could write about human misery and unknown places without being reviled and stigmatized the way some are, the assumption being that to be interested in such sadness means one is just like them. What patrons, what guardian angels, what magic, what bargain with the Devil has managed to protect him? I sent him an email asking the question. No answer so far.
Beyond that, I asked him a third unanswerable question. Why is it that the public seems to have a kind of appetite for such stories -- drastic, lethal, suffering, entirely “other” -- but they don’t do anything about it and they don’t want to hear the same story twice. African poor people living in caves to avoid bombs once. Cambodia girls in sexual bondage next. Then drunken Sioux sprawled in the streets. So what else is new? Surprise me.
I got onto YouTube and Google. The problem is not lack of vividness and documentation. One YouTube vid after another shows us people with appealing faces, searching eyes, eloquent hands. Maybe it’s too much like National Geographic, so we see these human beings as though they were lions and elephants on a preserve, confident we will never meet them in reality and they have nothing to do with us. Maybe we’ve watched too many “Kirk/Spock” debates about how we mustn’t interfere in the fates of other people. We’ve certainly had enough illustrations of how often our interference messes everything up, turns out not even to be helpful -- with luck, only laughable. (The classic example is a shipment to the Ethiopian desert of “sandals” that turned out to be glamorous high heels for evening plus a shipment of canned tuna -- with no can openers.)
So is Kristol a nice country kid who grew up hearing the dawn bleating of sheep under his bedroom window and still recognizes that sound in the villages of herders in strange places around the planet? Simpler than that. Yamhill is not far from downtown Portland, OR, where Nicholas’ parents, distinguished college professors taught at PSU. Read about them here: http://www.oregonlive.com/education/index.ssf/2010/06/kris_kristof_concentration_cam.html The father is the one who went to Reed. Also, for his Ph.D, to U of Chicago, where he found his wife, who is an art history professor. (A lot of echo in this story, but I have never swum a river on a leaky inner tube as the senior Kristol did and paid for it in a concentration camp.)
You can tell a lot about a person when you can see him. There are two videos below of interviews of Kristof. The first one is also with his wife, whom you will see is a major force in her own right besides being his co-writer.
The second is more specifically about Nicholas and social action.
This second interviewer asks Kristof bluntly what can be done about the horrific things that happen around the globe, particularly human trafficking. Kristof, whose parents were founders of the Portland chapter of “Amnesty International,” said that the media has the power of “naming and shaming” and this is what he has tried to use. But sometimes the dynamics of the situation can be changed with publicity. The girl who went back to the brothel returned because she was hooked on meth and the brothel was her source. But after Kristof’s story, the attention focused on this place was enough higher that the cops asked for more bribes, which were a basic part of doing business. Eventually, this ate up enough profit that the madam closed her brothel and started a grocery store.
He also said that attempts to stop female genital mutilation from outside the cultures that practiced this have made no impact at all. But in places where a local had realized how useless and nasty the practice was and started protests from INSIDE, things did change. (I wonder whether Kristof knows about the English pop culture practice of genital mutilation that is investigated in a video called “The Perfect Vagina.” I’m not talking piercing, I’m talking removal of the labia for cosmetic purposes. I won't link.)
Kristof would be very willing to admit there’s always a lot of work to be done at home. But, as he said, “You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone.” Now I understand. Kristof was raised in the William Stafford/Gary Snyder/George Johanson circles of the Portland Leftie intelligentsia. I hardly knew them, but many were part of the First Unitarian Church.
In June 2010, Ladis “Kris” Kristof, aged 91, was buried from the Saint Johns Catholic Church in Yamhill. Earlier he had written: "I remain a rationalist and an optimist... If man has been able to create the arts, the sciences and the material civilization we know in America, why should he be judged powerless to create justice, fraternity and peace?" His son would undoubtedly nudge him to make his statement formally gender-inclusive.