The Common Good
August 2007

Truth and Consequence

by Jim Wallis | August 2007

An eyewitness to massacre and genocide finds shame, hope, and possibility for a moral world.

Nicholas Kristof, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, won his second Pulitzer in 2006 for what the judges called "his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world." Through a combination of humanitarian commitment, fearless reporting, and sheer doggedness, Kristof has brought the stories of poverty-stricken and exploited people to the morning paper and demanded that we care. Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis interviewed Kristof in January 2007 in Davos, Switzerland.

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Jim Wallis: You've identified the big, important moral issues of our time—something few journalists do well. How did you figure it out?

Nicholas Kristof: My journalistic break was covering the Tiananmen Square democracy movement; I was on Tiananmen Square when it was crushed. It was very traumatic for me. We don't know, but probably 500 people were killed.

Over time it also became clear that number-wise it really wasn't such a big deal in the context of all of China. I remember at one point reading that every year in rural China, 3,000 people die in floods and that 700,000 young women and girls are kidnapped and sold. Gradually I began to grope for some way to cover these issues that affect a lot of people but that don't fit into our paradigm of government repression.

Wallis: Those stories didn't make the news.

Kristof: No. I thought that one of our real failings as journalists in China was not adequately covering the "one child" policy. There was a renewed crackdown when I lived in Beijing, and probably no government policy in the world affected more people in a more intimate way than that crackdown against families. It took us a few years to notice because it happened in rural China—we were paying much too much attention to what was going on in the center.

Over time as a foreign correspondent, I became interested in public health issues, and I wanted to make these stories resonate with American audiences. I remember coming across a family where the mother had just died of malaria. The grandmother was looking after her four kids, and she had one mosquito net that could fit three kids. Every night she had to figure out which three of the kids got to sleep under the mosquito net and which one didn't—this in an area where kids are dying right and left of malaria.

As a human being you can't just put that behind you. Those people sort of haunt you, especially when those issues don't really see a lot of follow-up. They're still not really on the agenda. So you want to go back and write about it again.

A couple of things drive me to these issues. One is just the numbers involved. Another is that we actually know what to do to solve these issues.

Trafficking, for example: The first time I was in Cambodia, I saw 10-year-old virgins being offered for sale very openly in little shops. There were two girls who particularly left an impression. One was 14 and had been sold by her stepfather, and her best friend had been kidnapped. They were both locked up in this brothel. The mother searched all over Cambodia to try and find her daughter and finally, the previous week, had found her in that brothel and demanded that the brothel owner release her. Of course the brothel owner refused, saying, "I've paid good money for your daughter." And that was it. The mother didn't have any pull with the police and the brothel owner did.

But over time some groups did protest, and that really had an effect. That brothel was eventually closed down. As for malaria, you can buy a mosquito net for $5 and at least protect one family. These problems seem both vast and also eminently solvable. That's not true of all issues, but for some it is.

When you see really nasty things, you are reminded that there really is evil. In the case of Darfur you have a government deciding, as a matter of national policy, that children of a given tribe and skin color are going to be thrown into the fire. You talk to family after family where that's happened. It seems to rip apart the human fabric so much that the only human response seems to be to try to knit things back together—to try to stand up and respond.

There is a danger in treading beyond the boundaries of objective journalism and into some kind of advocacy. People will call me and say, "You're such a great crusader." I always flinch at that. But you really can't just forget about these people you meet when it's so easy to make a difference.

Wallis: You were one of the first journalists to say that evangelicals played an important role in confronting the crisis in Darfur, HIV/AIDS, and human trafficking. How do you see new constituencies coming together to make a difference on these issues?

Kristof: One reason I've emphasized the contributions of the Right and especially the Christian Right is that I think that a lot of my readers—my normal audience tends to be liberal and secular—don't understand that part of America. If you really want to bring about change, you don't just want to appeal to your own constituency, you want to try to build those bridges.

On trafficking, for example. Both the Left and Right have been working on the issue, but with considerable suspicion for each other. The whole issue of prostitution tangles things up, but whatever one thinks about whether it should be legal or illegal—whether one should call it prostitution or sex work—everybody agrees that 15-year-old girls should not be in brothels, denied condoms, and all this.

Wallis: Having worked with the conservative religious world, how would you describe what's going on?

Kristof: I think there's a real change. The Religious Right initially tended to look more inwardly, within the U.S. It was mostly driven by culture war issues. But over time you began to see conservative Christians and other conservative religious figures realize they could make a real difference abroad. They became concerned with issues like AIDS and trafficking.

It frankly was a little bit embarrassing to me as a liberal to see that leadership on some issues was being done more effectively by conservative Christians with whom I disagreed a lot. Initially Paul Wellstone had been a real leader on trafficking. After he died it seemed to me that most of what was making a real difference on the ground was being done by conservatives.

The liberal tendency in addressing foreign issues has often been to rely on the U.N. and to change legal mores—to convene a convention and fly people in business class from around the world to just wring their hands about it.

There is an element to which that does make a difference, but meanwhile I go out and see missionaries in the middle of nowhere having an impact. It doesn't make a big difference overall in a country, but in that little town those kids get education, they get health care, they get vaccinations, and it makes a very real and tangible difference. Over time I developed a sort of grudging respect for what some conservative Christians were doing on some of the most pressing development issues.

I thought that to some degree I could use that to prod liberals, whether Christian or secular—to shame them, to embarrass them—to do more.

Wallis: Do you get into conversations with these folks about issues of faith and their concerns?

Kristof: To some degree. Missionaries are often very puzzled by me. There are these awkward moments where they want to pray for me. I remember visiting a bunch of Pentecostals who were just doing some amazing stuff in Mozambique and could not have been better people, but who were very suspicious of a New York Times person.

Wallis: [laughs] Did they lay hands on you?

Kristof: They did their best. [laughs] But I have a grudging respect for the authenticity of that. Sometimes a certain unfairness creeps in at Manhattan cocktail parties about "Pentecostal missionary nuts" who are doing this or that. At times there is some nuttiness to it, but those people are living tough lives and doing wonderful, life-saving work.

Take the whole notion of tithing—that money might not always be used effectively, but it is a real commitment. A lot of people who scoff at conservative Christians have never made any level of contribution remotely like that.

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