If you’re like me and can’t stand preachy, liberal blowhards, you may have breathed a sigh of relief last week upon reading Nick Kristof’s treacly farewell column in the New York Times. The relief, though sweet, might have been tempered by the news that Kristof has plans to venture even further afield of his skill set: he’s running for governor of Oregon.
The farewell column is accompanied by a photo showing Kristof with an earnest and well-meaning expression, holding a notebook, with a black child and some rundown shacks as background scenery. I didn’t think his own sendoff did him justice, so I thought I’d revisit some of his career highlights.
He’s been an impassioned cheerleader for global capitalism, even at its worst, as well as a mirror of ruling-class pathologies.
1) Sweatshops are good, actually
In 2000, Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, wrote a book that was excerpted in the Times under the headline, “Two Cheers for Sweatshops.” At the time, conditions in garment factories making brand-name products were widely condemned all over the world. The two portrayed this popular dislike of brutal exploitation, harassment, and workplace injuries as matter of quaint cultural difference: “Nothing captures the difference in mindset between East and West more than attitudes toward sweatshops.” Kristof was a woke neoliberal before it was hegemonic: back then, you probably didn’t realize that wanting factory workers in Asia to have living wages and safe working conditions was colonialist.
2) Fascism is good, actually
A few years later, Kristof topped his apologetics for sweatshops with an even less explicable opinion, writing in 2004 that Vladimir Putin was a fascist but that a “fascist Russia is a much better thing than a communist Russia.” Under fascism, he explained, robust economic growth is still possible.
3) White savior complex
Writer Teju Cole named Kristof in a series of tweets about the White Savior Industrial Complex, criticizing wealthy Westerners’ mindset about helping people in the Global South, which is “not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Asked about Cole’s criticism, Kristof affably dismissed him as a “middle-class educated” African.
4) Amplifying lies
The nadir of his career — that is, the point at which his work was declared bad even by other mainstream journalists — was the Somaly Mam story, which Laura Agustin analyzed in Jacobin in 2014.
Mam, a Cambodian activist against sex trafficking, was beautiful, charismatic, and a darling of the global ruling class. Mam was cofounder and president of an NGO called Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire (AFESIP), which still operates all over the world; Hillary Clinton has visited, and Sheryl Sandburg was on the organization’s advisory board. Mam had made her career on a harrowing story of trafficking and abuse.
In 2011, Kristof — who wrote a noticeably large number of columns about his efforts to rescue young Asian women from the sex industry — wrote about Mam and her story of survival. He compared her to the antislavery activists of the nineteenth century. He even called her “one of my heroes.” Somaly Mam’s organization raised a lot of money from Kristof’s coverage.
In 2014, Mam’s story, including many of the details from Kristof’s column, was revealed to be made up. What’s more, she had coached other girls to lie about the trafficking and abuse stories (one of those stories also appeared in a Kristof column). Even the public editor of the Times wrote that Kristof owed readers an explanation for the fraud.
You’ll never guess what happened next: Kristof kept his job on the Times op-ed page.
As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, his gubernatorial campaign has been endorsed by Piers Morgan.
Some of Kristof’s cloying sentimentality, criticized by Cole and others, might make tolerable campaign propaganda. After all, campaigning requires an emotional appeal. As much as I dislike Kristof, I did not hate his campaign video. His story could use more self-deprecation; after all, having covered the sufferings of people in what he cringily calls the “dark” corners of the world, winning Pulitzers, then coming home to the United States and finding that people here also suffer, isn’t exactly a relatable experience for most voters. Still, the video is bluntly confrontational and compassionate on his fellow Oregonians’ problems with drug abuse and homelessness, even alluding to the election of Ronald Reagan and the worsening of working conditions in the United States.
Yet Kristof offers few specifics on how any of this might be solved. It seems unlikely that a man who has spent his career writing apologetics for fascism and economic exploitation, while falling for just-so stories crafted to manipulate the softer hearts of the global 1 percent, is equipped to lead Oregon out of the miseries he describes in his video. Still, I suppose his newfound commitment to the sufferings of nonexotic people is commendable.
Kristof probably won’t win. While the state is likely to stay in Democratic hands, the current governor is term-limited, the primary will be crowded, and Kristof is, according to Politico, “far from a frontrunner in the field.” Oregon deserves better, of course, but even if Kristof does win, I admit I’d still enjoy the reprieve from his smarmy half-truths in the paper of record. All in all, I’m cautiously optimistic that this career move on his part is good for America.