THE GOOD SHEPHERD: A Q&A With Globe-Trotting New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof


BY JONATHAN VALANIA Last week we got New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on the horn to discuss his new book, A Path Appears, co-authored with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, which extols the innovative but largely un-heralded efforts of a dedicated few to leave the world a better place than they found it. Just a few days prior, Kristof had been at the center of a cultural storm that erupted in the wake of his appearance on REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER along with Ben Affleck and Sam Harris, so we gave him an opportunity to clarify some points that got lost in the shouting and hair-pulling. DISCUSSED: People who are making a difference; studying inner-city violence like a viral epidemic; utilizing the accrued wisdom of seniors to mentor at-risk youth; reparations for blacks; how the global plight of women is connected to everything that is wrong in the world and how to fix it,  the existential threat to journalism and the fight to the death between extreme and moderate interpretations of Islam.

PHAWKER: Before we jump into the book could we just briefly revisit the Bill Maher encounter, I’d like to give you a chance to air your side, you couldn’t really get a word in edgewise from what I saw of it. Let me just say a word upfront before we dig into this, as a disinterested party watching it all unfold, it seemed to me that Sam Harris was looking to have a collegial discussion based on empirical facts and data etc. and that immediately Affleck just blew a gasket and just slimed him with the racist tag which  just shuts down the debate before it even got off the ground and I was a little surprised to see you join in on that.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, I mean,  I wanted to have a conversation I didn’t think the conversation was much of a — it didn’t end up being much of an enlightening conversation, more of a brawl, than anything.

PHAWKER: That’s television for you.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah that’s television it was clearly very entertaining because it went viral, which sort of surprises me, I hadn’t thought it particularly viral-worthy.

PHAWKER: I realize this is a huge, long conversation but just briefly if you’d like to make a couple points that you weren’t given the chance to on the show.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF Basically, I think that Islam is a vast and incredibly diverse religion and I don’t think that it’s intrinsically intolerant. For much of its history it was arguably more tolerant than Christianity, I do think that today, it does indeed have a real problem with tolerance with the repression of women but that is one strain of it and I think it is unfair to target 1.6 billion muslims with one stain, it’s, this is true but hugely incomplete.

PHAWKER: Okay but where is that massive majority of peaceful and tolerant Muslims? Why are there not 1.6 billion in the streets condemning the extremism and intolerance and culturally-codified misogyny that’s misrepresenting the tenets their religion.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Muslim people have been denouncing ISIS right and left.

PHAWKER: It just seems to me that the voices of moderation are impotent or muted, at best, which I don’t understand if the numbers of moderates are so legion. Why is it that tens of thousands will fill the streets if somebody draws a cartoon of The Prophet but sawing off the heads of Western aid workers and journalists in the name of Islam barely rates a hashtag on Twitter and a few op-eds of tepid condemnation?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Some of the real heroes fighting for religious tolerance are Muslim in the Muslim world. I had a friend, a Pakistani who was murdered which reflects both the heroism of some of these people, and the repression that exists, both are real. My problem is focusing solely on the intolerance when there are also these extraordinary people risking their lives to speak up for a minority face, for tolerance.

PHAWKER: Okay let’s move onto the book which is the reason we’re talking here today. The overall message seems to me, to be very simply that it’s not hopeless, there are significant people making a difference in the world and that’s important. Yes?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, I think there are a lot of people who would like to give back, make a difference but they feel kind of overwhelmed by the scale of the problems, they don’t really see that one person can be more than a drop in the bucket so they give up or tune out. And in fact we think there are a lot of ways where one can be a real impact of transforming other lives.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about some of the people from the book such as Dr. Gary Slutkin who’s pioneered the study of inner-city violence like a viral epidemic.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Gary Slutkin was an infectious diseases specialist who had spent much of his career in Africa trying to stop the spread of infections, after coming back to Illinois to be near his aging parents, he was looking for a way to use his expertise and he looked at the violence of inner city and it struck him that this is really a public health challenge very similar in ways to infectious disease and it affects people with compromised immunity, growing up in a gang ridden area and it spreads among them with many of the same patterns that a virus would. So he started this organization, Cure Violence, that uses a public health approach to address what we think of as a criminal problem and it has been very successful, originally in Chicago but has now spread to many other cities in the US and even to foreign countries. It’s not going to eliminate all murders but it can reduce murders and inner city violence by 70% and it does it very cheaply.

PHAWKER: There’s Lester Strong, who is bringing retired Americans in to tutor and mentor young people, work in schools, etc.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Lester Strong is an African American who grew up in disadvantaged circumstance and initially the school system thought he was just one more kid who was kind of hopeless. The teacher moved his desk out into the hallway because they thought he was incapable of learning. And then he got coaching from several people in the community who turned him around, turned into a brilliant student who ended up valedictorian and had a long and successful career, at the end of which he decided he wanted to give back and he now runs Experience Corps, which takes seniors and turns them into mentors supporting at risk kids the way he was once mentored. So they have experienced Corps volunteers all around the country try to do for today’s kids what was done for Lester years ago.

PHAWKER: This is a bit of tangent but it’s directly connected to the discussion of poverty and I wanted to ask you where do you stand on this question of reparations because I really do think that if we gave every African American in this country $100,000 that would totally change the game, totally change the game.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah I mean I’m sympathetic to it on equality grounds. I mean, there would be administrative issues about who qualifies, this kind of thing, but on principal I think if those could be ironed out I’d be sympathetic to it. I think politically though it has zero chance so I’d rather focus on remedies I think do have a political chance you know of making a difference, there are various interventions to address inequity that I think actually are politically feasible. An early childhood intervention would be at the top of my list of things that are both politically feasible and would have a real impact in reducing inequity.

PHAWKER: How did the global plight of women become your cause?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Two reasons why it became why it became so important to me. One is just reporting around the world, it seemed to me that so often injustice was tied to gender, so terrible things were happening to people because were female, opportunities were denied to them because they were female. And the corollary of that was that the victims were not only those individual women, they were really the societies as a whole and you try to think why Afghanistan isn’t thriving, or Yemen isn’t thriving well in large part it’s because only half of the population can get an education, can go very far to contribute to society, so you try to figure out where you can get leverage to address various issues around the world, from civil conflict to climate change, to poverty, then often the best leverage, the best traction you get is by educating girls, bringing those educated women into the formal labor force, bringing them out of the margins and into the center.

PHAWKER: Final question, let’s talk about the Times, there was announcements made last week that there would be big cuts in the newsroom, obviously all newspapers are struggling. Are you hopeful about the future of journalism, whether or not that includes newspapers, and the cause of journalism?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I’m worried about the future of journalism, I think that mainstream news organizations haven’t been experimental enough over the last dozen years or so. I think that information is valuable and is likewise valued, so business models will emerge, but I’m not 100% sure that this will enable a lot of the existing main stream organizations to move onto that new track and I’m also not entirely sure that there will be a good business model for some kinds of news that I think really is important, like covering state legislatures or city council aggressively or covering the conflict in Eastern Congo, the most lethal war since World War II. If you’re an executive producer of a television show, you can send a camera crew off to Congo, cover what is clearly an important story, and your ratings will drop compared to a show that puts a Democrat and a Republican in a room together and have them yell at each other. That is one of the problems I think we face, how we are both very attentive to a market and also cover things that are really important and that’s one of the reasons I play with social media, why I do videos, why I have my win a trip contest, I do a Facebook game, you know, why I track celebrities on some of these trips, to try to figure out ways of making some issues I care deeply about more resonant with the public.