Over the past few weeks, New York Times journalist Nick Kristof has found himself in a bit of hot water with the blogosphere over two of his recent columns: the first, a piece entitled “In Iran, They Want Fun Fun Fun” (June 21, 2012) and the second, “Africa on the Rise” (July 1, 2012). What the two pieces have in common is their attempt to show, respectively, Iranians and Africans as being “just like us.” In the case of Iran, that means portraying young Iranians as fun-loving people who–like most of the world–do things like have sex and use drugs. In the case of Africa, Kristof's goal seems to be to show the economic opportunities that await foreign companies.
Kristof's approach to journalism was a subject that came up in several circles at the recent Global Voices Summit in Nairobi and is also currently a hot topic in the blogosphere. Here are a few different takes that illustrate why Kristof's work is so hotly debated.
“Farrah Joon” is a popular Iranian-American blogger who runs the blog Sex and Fessenjoon, described as “shamelessly pushing boundaries” by sharing lived experiences. After picking apart some of Kristof's claims about Iranians and their sexual and other habits, she writes:
Iranians shouldn’t be KNOWN because they like to party and have sex (ahem… like the REST of the world), they should be known for constantly trying to push past the limitations of their government. They should be known for the beautiful culture that they have kept alive despite what the hardliners do to prevent them from celebrating and basking in its beauty.
Richard Jeffrey Newman, in the US, sees value for American audiences in Kristof's reporting, writing:
I’m glad to see reporting coming out of Iran … that is based on a journalist’s first-hand encounters with ordinary Iranians. It’s not just that it’s important for readers in the United States to discover that–gasp!–Iranians are indeed ordinary people, essentially no different than we are; it’s also that this kind of coverage seems to me a fundamental sign of respect.
KABOBfest blogger Sana Saeed chose the route of parody (from the perspective of a Muslim visitor to the US), writing a piece entitled “In the US, they want fun fun fun.” A sampling:
My road trip across America leaves me convinced that change will come here, too, if we just have the patience to not disrupt the subterranean forces at work: dwindling education, an expanding gap between the rich and the poor, growing economic frustration, government intrusion and monopoly on information. My hunch is that if there is no war between the US and the Muslim world — which would probably strengthen our own struggles — hard-liners will go the way of Clinton, and the US will end up looking something like Canada during the Harper era: same dogma, broken teeth.
Kansastan! went a similar route, publishing “In America, they want values, values, values.” One sentence sums it up:
You wouldn’t think that a native Middle Easterner like myself could be made to blush in New York, but I was taken aback by how many Americans were not having sex constantly with anyone in any place.
Finally, Nima Shirazi (@WideAsleepNima) criticized Kristof's entire premise, tweeting:
For @NickKristof, bad part of an illegal, immoral Israel attack on Iran is it “might well help the ayatollahs,” not that Iranians would die.
Kristof's writing about Africa has previously been criticized by several writers and journalists, from Teju Cole–who says that Kristof's activism-journalism and “good heart” do not always allow him to “think constellationally”–to Elliott Prasse-Freeman, who writes eloquently of Kristof's “anti-politics.” More recently, Hamid Dabashi wrote a biting critique of Kristof in Al Jazeera, claiming Kristof relies too heavily on outdated and orientalist clichés.
Now, in response to Kristof's recent article, bloggers from Africa and all over the world are weighing in.
Those at the microphone telling Africa's story, too vested in their stayed narrative to adapt to a changing continent, risk being obsolete
What's really rising in Africa is a bigger chorus of voices set to obfuscate the need for a singularly-focused Western narrator
Part of the reason am advocating for balanced narrative on Africa is because messaging like this is far too dominant:
Sarah Leonard, an editor for The New Inquiry, quipped:
“Africa isn’t just a place for safaris or humanitarian aid. It’s also a place to make money.” Nick Kristof, truly a columnist for our times.
Academic Kathryn Mathers writes:
[Kristof's] use of travel writing about Africa not only evokes the heyday of eighteenth and nineteenth century explorations, but models similar appropriations of African landscapes while reducing African people to backdrops in the adventures and discoveries of Western travelers. The frontiers and new challenges of science and biology were often the mechanisms that made it possible for colonial explorers to depoliticize and secularize their encounters with African people. Today, as so starkly illustrated by Kristof’s and his companions’ writing, this same depoliticizing process is effectively managed by a relentless focus on humanitarian interventions and the challenges facing Americans who want to do good in Africa. He, therefore, frequently finds himself defending his stories about humanitarian interventions against readers’ criticisms of their costs and compromises…
Graduate student @ArriannaMarie felt that Kristof deserves some blame for Americans’ perceptions of Africa:
“GENERATIONS of Americans have learned to pity Africa.” Yes, Mr Kristof, through representations disseminated by people such as yourself
@Abena_Serwaa, who tweets from Ghana and the Netherlands, seems to have a bit of sympathy for Kristof:
It doesn't matter what Nick Kristof said about Africa/Africa rising/Africa falling….I have a feeling he would have been lambasted anyway.
Marc Bellemare, a blogger and assistant professor, thinks Kristof is the wrong target. He says “don't hate the player, hate the game,” writing:
[I think] the Kristof bashing is unjustified. Instead of criticizing Kristof for his writing, criticize those who enable it.
The New York Times is in the business of selling newspapers. Space in the New York Times‘ editorial pages comes at a premium. Don’t think for a second that the New York Times would publish Kristof’s columns in its editorial pages if they didn’t correspond exactly to what the New York Times‘ readership wants from a foreign correspondent.
These controversies surrounding Nick Kristof remind me of when my folks rant about oil companies raising gas prices before the start of a long weekend. I never fail to remind them that if they’re seeing such high prices, it’s because other consumers are willing to pay such high prices.
After all the controversy, @sassynct might sum it up best:
So I'm not the only one who thinks Nick Kristof is condescending.