Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thoughts on Kristof Reax

Nicholas Kristof published four op-eds on the DRC recently, to a mix of cheers and boos. Over at Congo Siasa, Jason Stearns wonders why Kristof is such a polarizing figure: "As far as I can tell, many working on advocacy in the US, especially those trying to mobilize grassroots support, are very enthusiastic about Kristof.... On the other hand, most of my colleagues and friends in the field can't seem to stand his simplistic approach towards the issues."

Kristof's first piece (here) details the prevalence of rape in eastern DRC and describes the horrific ordeal of a 9-year-old rape victim named Chance, whose parents were killed in front of her. The second (here) profiles Lisa Shannon, an American who established Run for Congo fundraisers after watching a show on Oprah about the war in Congo. The third (here) lauds the work of Denis Mukwenge, the doctor who runs a hospital in eastern DRC and operates on rape victims and other women who suffer from fistula damage. And the final piece (here) provides recommendations about what can be done to alleviate the suffering of the people and help resolve the conflict. Throughout the series, Kristof insists on the magnitude of the crisis and provides graphic details meant to illuminate what Congolese are enduring: the pregnant women sliced open by machete; the children who bear witness to unimaginable cruelties; and the coinage of words such as "auto-cannibalism" and "rerape." And he complains repeatedly that no humanitarian crisis has generated so little attention or such a pathetic international response: "That’s why I’m here," he says.

So what's not to like? Why should the few of us who care about DRC view Kristof as anything other than an ally with a much-needed megaphone, a well-placed friend in a cause that has been too often overlooked?

Stearns provides part of the answer: Kristof simplifies the war to the point of stereotype. As Stearns shows, it's not all that hard to describe what the fighting is about, but Kristof comes perilously close to resorting to Heart-of-Darkness stereotypes. The militias "rape, mutilate and kill with a savagery that is almost incomprehensible," Kristof says. "This is a pointless war, driven by by warlords, greed for minerals, ethnic tensions and complete impunity." Wronging Rights object that he gives us the names of the children who were raped, against internationally recognized proscriptions (and the Times' own guidelines); Texas in Africa takes issue with his claim that the crisis is under-reported; and a fieldworker in Bukavu objects to the notion that no one but Kristof is paying attention to the crisis: "What self-aggrandizing rubbish" he says.

I've disliked Kristof's Africa reporting for a while, so I'm not necessarily the most objective judge. For years, he has been one of Kagame's most uncritical admirers. (He does offer some muted criticism of Rwanda in this series.) He also gave a remarkably stunted justification a few years ago about his rationale for writing about Darfur rather than the Congo.

There is also the matter of tone. Like a number of other readers, I find it more than a little self-congratulatory. (I can't be the only one who finds it strange that on the very day the first article was published, Kristof That's-Why-I'm-Here-in-Kivu was already hobnobbing with the great and the good in Davos. Or that, according to his speakers' bureau, he charges $30,000 per speech, for an hour during which he offers a "compassionate glimpse" into global poverty and "gives voice to the voiceless.")

One reason I find his writing off-putting is that it's--well, bad. It's lazy and uninteresting. He describes the girl who was raped as having eyes "luminous with fear," and the hills of Kivu as "lovely, lush, and threatening"--which sounds like the tag line for a Joan Didion rewrite of the Sound of Music. The details he provides of the victims' ordeals seem gratuitous as well. They're meant to elicit pity, but they come off as lurid. For every reader who responds to these stories by writing a check, there are probably a hundred others who find in them a confirmation of their belief in the intractability of Africa's problems.

But for all my dislike of Kristof's writing, that's not, in the end, why I found myself objecting so strongly to this latest series. The problem is that there's a gap between what he insists the Congo requires from the world and what he appears to think it requires of him. If the Congo is the catastrophe he says it is, then he ought to respond in a way that's proportional to it. A week's visit, followed by a handful of columns, seems inadequate. The Congo is not a drive-by spectacle.

Kristof, like Hillary Clinton--who visited the region last summer--deserves credit for bringing some attention the problem. They are among the few who have the power to direct global attention to an issue who have actually bothered to pay the Congo any attention at all. But without meaningful action and follow through, these visits risk coming off as well-meaning at best, but at worst as emblematic of the very failures they condemn.

So how about it, Nick? Can we count on you to report regularly on the Congo, to push and prod the world's leaders at Davos and elsewhere, to continue to educate yourself and stay abreast of the issues, to shame your employer into giving this conflict a higher profile, to become, even, something of a bore on the topic? After all, if you don't act like this catastrophe matters--I mean, really, really matters--how can you insist that anyone else should?

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