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Laura Flanders nails much of the reason why Nicholas Kristof is so irritating:

Kristof certainly dedicates plenty of words a year to the women at the bottom of the heap. But that’s another part of my beef. A classic Kristof story portrays a former prostitute-turned-businesswoman who’s lifted herself and her children out of grinding poverty. Watch his PBS series and it’s packed with this sort. There’s abuse and grinding poverty and then there’s the woman who gives her bootstraps a tug. It’s a similar narrative to the woman with the ho-hum career in the macho business – and then there’s Sandberg, who by dint of leaning in, rises to the top of Google, then Facebook.

What are common in Kristof’s stories are heroes. What are rare are movements or groups. A hero like Sandberg can win a prize, break a record, even crack a glass ceiling, but change the working conditions for all workers?

Even a woman who isn’t aggressive deserves not to be destitute. That’s what collective bargaining is for. Yet Kristof seems to like unions less than heroes. Peruse the long list of “ways to lift women out of poverty” at the Half the Sky program web site and collective bargaining doesn’t receive a mention. Last fall, when the 87-percent female Chicago Teachers Union went out on strike, Kristof came out strongly against. In a blistering column, he wrote, “Some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be held accountable until poverty is solved…. ”

In a question and answer session on Reddit, when a reader made the point that most teachers in Chicago get laid off for financial, not performance reasons, Kristof declined to comment.

I would only add how often Kristof likes to play the hero himself, helicoptering in to rescue deserving women. Ultimately, Kristof cares far more about creating a narrative than he does about creating meaningful change. The problem with that is that his powerful voice can actually hinder the creation of change, as he pushes narratives that emphasize modern-day Horatio Alger stories and denigrates the poor organizing to demand their rights.

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  • Corey

    What are common in Kristof’s stories are heroes. What are rare are movements or groups.

    Doesn’t this really just amount to “I don’t like Nick Kristof because he’s not a leftist”?

    • So having an understanding of historical change means one is a leftist? Sad state of affairs if true.

      • DrDick

        Sadly, I think it could well be true, however. Far too many people believe in the Great Man (or occasionally a woman) Theory of history.

    • SteveHinSLC

      It’s more like “I don’t like Kristof because he’s a leftist on almost everything but one time he questioned the party line on teachers’ unions.”

      • I know right, because the party line on teachers unions is totally unquestioned support. Just ask Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel!!!!!

      • Kristoff’s attack on SSDI benefits because one person told him that parents encouraged their children to remain illiterate to continue receiving benefits also drew Erik’s ire. But hey, maybe that’s what you expect out of “leftist on almost everything” journalists.

        • SteveHinSLC

          Yeah, there were two or three paragraphs in that article that strayed from the leftist party line. But that was only a few weeks after Kristof drew Erik’s ire on the teachers’ union strike.

          Is Kristof’s constant beating the drum about oppression and violence in Bahrain also paternalistic helicopter liberalism? And maybe I’m wrong, but I think even paternalistic helicopter “look-at-me!” liberalism gets more good done than what most of us accomplish.

      • DrDick

        Kristoff is hardly a leftist. He is arguably a liberal paternalist (part of a long tradition of affluent men and women trying to save the poor and underprivileged from themselves). It is the latter part of that that is annoying.

        • tt

          Do you think Half the Sky’s proposal that Western institutions pressure foreign governments to enact legislation more favorable to women’s economic interests (e.g., their ability to own land) is an example of liberal paternalism? I think it is, but I also think it’s a good idea, and that it’s complementary rather than opposed to more movement or labor-oriented approaches to empowering poor women.

          • DrDick

            That is one of his (very few) more realistic proposals, but yes it is a bit paternalistic. The problem with Kristoff is he seems to suffer the “Dances With Wolves Syndrome”, that the benighted natives need saving, rather than they need the resources to save themselves. He also seems to think he knows the right answer for everyone.

            • Anna in PDX


    • Kal

      When leftists use “liberal” pejoratively, we are thinking of Nick Kristof (& ilk).

      He’s the classic type, who loves to make a big show of his big heart, but won’t touch the messy work of making actual change with a 10-foot pole (or, his equivalent, a quick weeklong tourist visit).

      • Kal

        Pity for the suffering is encouraged. Solidarity with their self-activity? No, no, agency is only for the serious NYT journalists, benevolent Senators, visionary entrepreneurs, and so on.

  • Kristof is one of those tourism journalists, travelling to a place for a couple of weeks and then writing about it with a presumed authority. He’s like Thomas Friedman, but he likes talking to poor people a bit more often. Also, a quick web search can often uncover errors in his work.

    • Phoenix Rising

      oh, be fair! Nick Kristof has bought (some of the same) teenagers out of brothels in Phnom Penh several times!

      He can’t help it that they don’t understand he’s freed them from slavery and go back to the pimps who bought them first.

      He also can’t help that the larger problem isn’t amenable to being solved during a 30 day tourist visa’s duration.

  • UserGoogol

    As a general principle, people have a tendency to want to write about heroic individuals more than broad social movements. Even when people are telling stories about labor unions or whatever, they tend to want to write stories about individual labor leaders. That’s just how narrative structure tends to go. Of course, that article does list things about Nicholas Kristof which go beyond merely the general sins of writers as a whole, so it seems he takes it an extra step beyond the general literary biases, but this is a fairly widespread problem people have.

    • I only want to use this opportunity to point out that not one of my 49 This Day in Labor History posts has been focused on an individual. That’s quite intentional and seeks to counter the point you mention, which is too often true.

      • Vance Maverick

        And who managed to transcend the problem? One brave professor with a stick.

        • Really, it’s the stick that deserves the credit.

        • arguingwithsignposts

          I thought it was a professor who desired a stick?

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            He desired a head. He had a stick…and it was a metaphorical stick, which is the best kind!

      • LeeEsq

        UserGoogol has a point though. Many, perhaps even most people, like stories about heroirc individuals overcoming the odds. Very rarely do they like stories about collective movements. Its probably because many people like to imagine themselves as the heroic individual rather than one piece of a larger movement. Ideology isn’t really an issue. Lots of leftist narratives speak of revolutionary champions overcoming the odds.

        Personally I’m a fan of movements rather individual heroism. The results tend to be better regardless of the goal. To use a non-Leftist example, I think that one reason why Japan was able to turn itself into a modern state with success during the 19th century was because they were lead by committee rather than depending on one person for everything.

  • thebewilderness

    I don’t like Kristof because he is a misogynist asshat. What? You hadn’t noticed?

    • Vance Maverick

      I would quite sincerely enjoy seeing this substantiated.

      • Phoenix Rising

        I’m pretty sure that the nature of hyperbolic claims in blog comments is demonstrated well by these claims. They cannot be defamatory, merely insutling, because they cannot be falsified.

        Indeed, how can a person be an “asshat”? As explained by one of the ESL students in the film ‘Good Morning Viet Nam’, a person cannot look like shit. It is impossible. Similarly, your enjoyment will be postponed indefinitely because Kristof does not in fact wear an ass on his head–his ass or any else’s.

        • Vance Maverick

          You snark, but I was serious. It’s not enough just to imply that everybody knows. I’m as irritated by Kristof as the next LGM reader, so I’d literally be glad to understand the irritation better.

          • thebewilderness

            Go to Amazon. Read 3 star reviews. Read his work.
            I could link you to a bunch of posts by women who are revolted by him and his exploitative journamalism, but it really is painfully obvious what he is doing. There is a long tradition of it in journalism. I’m not saying he is Rita Skeeter, but he is obviously a misogynist of the first water.

            • Anonymous

              Let’s face it: if you linked to a bunch of women voicing precisely the same argument and with citations up the wazoo, it’d only be proof of a feminazi conspiracy to ruin a good man’s work or some such. Dudes like Vance clearly need a man to reiterate every.little.thing.

      • Anonymous

        You need further proof of his misogyny beyond the fact that he actually believes in and making his living in advancing the hackneyed pre-Raphaelite concept of the Fallen Woman?

        In case we’re in danger of forgetting: it’s still misogyny when you “buy” the Poor Ladiez and it’s still misogyny heavily laced with white supremacy and a hearty dash of imperialism when you choose to critique and advocate intervention in the the Far Away Brown People’s Existences by appealing to charitable and benevolent white men’s chivalry. When it suits the hawks, they also feign a deep interest in the well-being of the third world’s women. (Until they bomb them.)

        • Vance Maverick

          Now we’re talking. Make the argument with a bit more detail and care, and pretty soon you’ll have convinced me that it was obvious! ;-)

          PS. I understand the association with the Pre-Raphaelites (many of whose subjects/mistresses/wives were indeed “rescued” in this patronizing sense, and whose paintings indeed gaze at women in this way), but it’s still fun to imagine that misogyny of the “pedestal” variety was ended by that one hero, Raphael.

          • The Dark Avenger

            The Pre-Raphaelites refers to a 19th Century English art movement, not the painters who came before Raphael.

            The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (also known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The three founders were joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form the seven-member “brotherhood”.

            The group’s intention was to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. Its members believed the Classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite”. In particular, the group objected to the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the English Royal Academy of Arts, whom they called “Sir Sloshua”. To the Pre-Raphaelites, according to William Michael Rossetti, “sloshy” meant “anything lax or scamped in the process of painting … and hence … any thing or person of a commonplace or conventional kind”.[1] In contrast, the brotherhood wanted a return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art.

            • Vance Maverick

              We’re in agreement.

          • Anonymous

            Well, the important thing is that you had a good chuckle and a bit of fun out of the whole thing. This women-as-humans lark can be a bit of drag, can’t it?

  • Much better than a previous, wisely aborted Kristof slam. I won’t defend Kristof on anything, but continuing a dialog with Erik, changing a very few words in your post would change nothing about your meaning, but they would decrease the pushing of undesirable buttons.


    I would only add how often Kristof likes to play the hero himself, helicoptering in to rescue deserving women. Ultimately, Kristof cares far more about creating a narrative than he does about creating meaningful change.


    I would only add how often Kristof seems to play the hero himself, helicoptering in to rescue deserving women and cataloging an exotic travelogue of suffering>/i>. Ultimately, Kristof’s actions seem more about creating a narrative for his column than about creating meaningful change.

    • I have little concern with pushing people’s buttons, as should be clear at this point.

    • And look, just because Kristof fits into a literary narrative of white men sexualizing the women they “rescue” is not my problem.

      • Erik, your comment declares that you know what his intent is (“his interest”)- you don’t, and it is not germane to your point how he IS. The only thing that matters is how his actions might be perceived, so there is zero value for you in reading his mind and looking into his heart. If you write like that, you will hurt yourself rhetorically. I just accidentally did what I am accusing you of doing. What I meant is that I will THINK that you have hurt yourself rhetorically. If I elide what is obvious to me- that this is what I think, not what I know- I will will come across as an even bigger ass than I am now- I have learned this the hard way. So I will add some window dressing and not tell you how you are, but how I perceive you and your words.

        If you have no desire to convince anyone of anything, or to avoid meaningless hand grenades, what is there left beyond the shtick? I am not trying to read your mind or look into your heart. I certainly think you have a ton of value beyond your shtick. Maybe you can think about it. I’m only revisiting this because the straw that broke my back was some previous stuff related to Kristof that was barely echoed here, and that I think this post is obviously a massive improvement.

        • Kurzleg

          PP –

          This strikes me as good advice. As in marriage, it’s better to present criticism as “What I hear you saying” or “What I see you doing” since it allows that the critic may be misinterpreting or that the object of criticism my not be expressing her/himself clearly. Rather than laying blame, you’re asking for clarification or correction with regards to your interpretation.

  • Data Tutashkhia

    Kristof is a guy who’s employed by the NYT. According to his contract, he has to submit so many words, acceptable to his editor, every couple of week. That’s his job, for this he gets paid. That’s what he does. What else do you all expect from the guy, and why?

    • The Dark Avenger

      I dunno, perhaps consistency is too much to ask for under the terms of his employment, especially since as a NYT reporter he’s probably part of a union or employees’ association himself.

      • Data Tutashkhia

        I don’t normally read him, but when I do, he sounds pretty consistent to me. Clearly, he’s got a schtick, and he’s milking it for all it’s worth.

        • Vance Maverick

          I think you’re pointing out that Kristof is a symptom of a larger problem. Can’t we complain about both?

          • Data Tutashkhia

            I’m not sure it’s a problem, necessarily. Back when I lived in the Soviet Union, one would use official newspapers for what they are good for: as a wrapping paper. Well, and sometimes as toilet paper; unpleasant, but it does the job. Normally, it wouldn’t occur to anyone to read them.

            What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that if you do find, once in while, something interesting to read in a newspaper – that’s a gift. If not, that’s normal, not something to complain about.

            • William Berry

              This is not the Soviet Union— at least, not yet.

              Somewhat naively, perhaps, we have usually expected more from our newspapers. They are still used to wrap fish, but generally after we read them.

    • JL

      Just because someone in a position of moderate influence is predictably bad doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize them for it.

  • StevenAttewell

    Surely it’s more of a William Gladstone than a Horatio Alger story?

  • Thom

    Good post, Erik. I’ve long found Kristof irritating but had not put my finger on the causes. You express it well.

    • Thom

      You and Laura Flanders, of course.

  • tt

    I don’t really get the criticism. Looking at the “economic empowerment” section of the Half the Sky Movement website, (http://www.halftheskymovement.org/issues/economic-empowerment), it’s true that collective bargaining isn’t mentioned, but what is mentioned aren’t just things that would help aggressive women. The proposals suggested are

    1) Equalize education and skill training
    2) Microfinance (with a welcome acknowledgment that it’s not a panacea)
    3) Reform laws to make it easier for women to own land and bank accounts

    These proposals would seem to genuinely increase the economic power of women and do not depend on women being “aggressive.”

    Now, maybe “collective bargaining” should be on this list. I don’t know enough about Africa to know whether that’s a reasonable approach. Collective bargaining requires certain conditions to work; for example, it doesn’t work in a highly competitive industry with lots of small producers like agriculture. If you or Laura Flanders have an argument for why collective bargaining would be a more useful approach to the problem than what Half the Sky is proposing, that would be an extremely interesting article. But I just don’t see any evidence for the idea that Half the Sky is just interested in helping heroes rather than improving the lives of women generally.

    • Now, maybe “collective bargaining” should be on this list. I don’t know enough about Africa to know whether that’s a reasonable approach.

      And that, for me, is the problem.

      If the Chicago Teachers’ Union was the Bangladesh Teachers’ Union, Kristof would most likely have tripped over himself defending their right to organize. The membership CTU is 87% female, and 50% people of color, but they don’t need a Nice White Man to speak for them. They’re scary and loud and in-your-face, which means that they’re not the sort of brown women Kristof is interested in. He’s all about helping women of color in other countries, but he attacks a group made up largely of women of color here, because they’re holding up their half of the sky without his help.

      • tt

        OK, but the question of what, if anything, we should do in Africa is a separate question than what stance we should take on teacher unions. And honestly, I’m more interested in criticisms of what Kristof is doing and saying about Africa, because that’s covered in a deep and critical manner far less often in the media/blogosphere.

  • c u n d gulag

    Nick Kristof – “Helicopter Liberal.”

  • arguingwithsignposts

    Also, while it’s nice that this contrary opinion about Kristof gets out there, it is just like Friedman in that nobody in the pages of the NYT says this stuff. Kristof’s writing is distributed through the helicopter liberal info circuit (Aspen, Davos, NYT, TED), while counter-arguments languish in the pages of truthout.org and similarly less-read corners of the Internet.

    The only way you’ll counteract such totebaggery is to publish such essays in the very places where those folks are published. I’d love for the NYT to have the courage to do so, but it doesn’t look like they’re willing to step up to that plate.

    • Kurzleg

      but it doesn’t look like they’re willing to step up to that plate.

      Why do you say that? Has the attempt been made?

      • arguingwithsignposts

        When Paul Krugman can’t even actually mention the name of David Brooks or Tom Friedman as being stupid about economics, I’d assume the attempt has been made at least somewhere. But it is a fair point. One has to wonder whether the Times has entertained such. Maybe an e-mail to the public editor would clarify.

    • Halloween Jack


      Oh, good lord. Where did you pick that up? A Rage Against Prairie Home Companion concert?

      • Vance Maverick

        (c) DougJ of Balloon Juice, afaik.

      • arguingwithsignposts

        Actually, an old school Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me With Attitude concert.

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  • Jesus, it’s not that complicated (in my opinion!).
    He saw “Pretty Woman” and imagined himself as the Richard Gere charachter (or at least, that’s what comes to mind every fucking time I read his latest Op-Ed).
    Alternatively, (in my opinion!) he’s super jealous of David Bowie and is personal conubial bliss.
    The rest of women-kind interests him not so much . . . .

  • Ed K

    I used to do an assignment in critical reasoning courses where I asked my students to find and do a formal analysis of the argumentative content of NYT op-eds. Besides being every bit the misogynist pseudo-liberal that everyone above correctly identifies him as being, the astonishing thing was that Kristof was basically the writer that killed that assignment. As far as I can tell, he’s never once made an argument for anything. It’s all narrative, from which he makes impossibly hasty and ungrounded generalizations. He’s not only misogynist, but grossly fallacious.

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