December 11, 2012

Nicholas Kristof can kiss my Appalachia


You don’t have to know how to read to recognize the face of a hero.

Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is never one to let details stand in the way of a good crusade, and this time around is no exception. It seems everybody’s favorite ham-fisted interventionist spent some time in Appalachia recently, and what he turned up might surprise you. Or, well, if you’ve ever read a Kristof column it might not. It seems Kristof has uncovered a SHOCKING CRISIS in America. Thank god for this guy. What else would we all be needlessly strident and overwrought about if not for him?

Kristof tells us that impoverished parents (“moms and dads” he writes — paternalism is essential to every aspect of the man, even down to his prose) are pulling their children out of literacy programs because they fear that if the children learn to read they may no longer be classed as disabled and thus eligible for a Supplemental Security check. Or rather, he tells us that two people told him about this. One, Richard Burkhauser, is a pet scholar for a conservative think tank. The other is Billie Oaks “who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County.” One tragedy here is that Oaks may well know whereof she speaks, but her claim is being used as grist for the Kristof concern mill.

Kristof follows this salacious claim with a parade of misunderstanding interleaved with his usual schadenfreude-ey rubbernecking disguised as backstory.

Some of my favorites:

“This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”

One, you are not that kind of liberal, Kristof. You are an IMF/ Kony 2012 Liberal. Two, that is a very generous recasting of the ways that most conservatives frame their arguments for abolishment of social safety nets.

Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

It would be much better if these men and women went abroad and really EARNED those disability checks, yes?

There’s no doubt that some families with seriously disabled children receive a lifeline from S.S.I. But the bottom line is that we shouldn’t try to fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it.

I don’t know, I’m pretty sure the bottom line was that first sentence of the two there. I won’t continue, if only to save space.

After this point Kristof brings out another of his hallmarks: objectifying the subject of our concern. This is an egregious case, even by his standards. He points out that the organization with which he’s going on a home visit is active in Sudan or Somalia. Ergo, if they are visiting families in the states, those families must be as exotic to us as people from the distant-seeming places. He mentions that one parent speaks with such an accent that he can barely understand her. And then, in a complex operation, he tells us how she, this mother, was treated as an object in her own life—raped, given drugs—so that we might pity her, but also to confirm that we are correct to objectify her ourselves. It is lurid and thoroughly Kristof-ian. he does it again a few paragraphs later, writing:

Of American families living in poverty today, 8 out of 10 have air-conditioning, and a majority have a washing machine and dryer. Nearly all have microwave ovens. What they don’t have is hope. You see it here in the town of Jackson, in the teenage girls hanging out by the bridge over the north fork of the Kentucky River, seeking to trade their bodies for prescription painkillers or methamphetamines.

His outrageous appliance-listing ire-baiting aside, Kristof is feeding us pity pornography, showing the objectification of these women (and the subjects of his colorful stories are nearly exclusively women) as justification for objectifying them in his own writing. At this point whether his portrayal of these women has an accuracy becomes irrelevant.

Save the Children, his exemplar organization, sends other members of the community to homes to teach parenting skills and encourage parents to read to their children. Kristof quotes local teachers and principals talking about the difference early literacy programs like this can make. And they’re right. It’s generally understood now that the benefits of being read to and of early classes are broad and lasting. It’s an important point, and one worth repeating. It does not, however, furnish any sort of imperative to Kristof’s strange brand of lascivious concerned-uncle rumor-mongering.

Over on his Esquire politics blog Charles Pierce puts Kristof’s column in the context of similar welfare-check furor in the mid-nineties. Needless to say, conservative blogs have erupted with acclaim for the column. And even I, on the blog of a publisher, have lost track of the thread, which is just this: literacy programs are laudable. But we are not undergoing a crisis of literacy. Using literacy to disguise the same old hogwash regressive attacks on social welfare programs does a disservice to the importance of the former. Or wait, maybe I had two threads: the literacy thing, and the part where Kristof remains a dangerous ass.




Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.