The Plight of the “Distant Stranger”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Many of us have read Nick Kristof’s columns over the years. And, perhaps, like me, you’ve been moved by his words, shaken by his stories, struck dumb with melancholy and grief. But, inevitably, the “plight of the ‘distant stranger’” assumes its role in feeling the events happening over there.
The HBO documentary, Reporter, will challenge you to come closer, to care, to take action as he pursues uncovering the truths behind human rights violations and personal suffering. With Kristof leading the way, the viewer bears witness alongside his two traveling companions, a med student and a teacher, to the tricky trail the journalist walks when reporting in war-torn Congo.
The film portrays some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of being a reporter in a conflict zone. When Kristof encounters a 41-year-old woman of 60 pounds lying at the edge of a village about to die, he acts. When a warlord responsible for the raping and pillaging of thousands gives thanks to the Lord, he bows his head; when that same man, General Nkunda asks him to eat with him, he dines. Few of these decisions are made without some type of deliberation — a grimace, a pause, a controlled look. But, in the end, he always writes.
He perseveres and tries to understand the underlying aspects of the people involved. And, he asks the difficult questions that have gotten other journalists killed. I’m not trying to saint him, but I now better appreciate his work as he attempts to discover a fuller aspect of all the human beings involved. He continues to tell the difficult stories of a region that gets covered during catastrophic events, and then forgotten within a blink’s time of a celebrity foible or the next breaking news event.
I hope we can interview him for the show some day in the future and hear how he wrestles with these difficult choices — and how he continues on.
Someone in Eight Million
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
The New York Times recently concluded its “One in Eight Million” series. It’s a lyrical compendium of 54 audio-visual stories that shine a light on ordinary (and not so ordinary) New Yorkers — from an urban taxidermist to a “Type-A” teenager. These sound-rich features are all told in the first person and provide a window into the intimacies of people’s lived experiences across the five boroughs of New York City’s eight-million-thick metropolis.
The series’ concluding segment featuring a 57-year-old grandfather of four named Joseph Cotton took my breath away. He cares for his “grandbabies” with such love, attention, devotion, and patience in a way that’s tender but not possessive. He knows the time will come when he’ll need to let them go. He says:
“Eventually I’m gonna lose them. Eventually they’re going to get to be 15, 16 years old. They’re going to be: ‘I ain’t hanging with pop-pop. Because they’re going to have other interests, they’re going to be doing other things. I’m looking for greatness from them. So they can’t hang around me and find greatness.”
I recently attended an improv workshop with a professional actor who commented that he’s known artists who are masterful at their craft but aren’t so masterful at being loving partners or caregivers. People who love well don’t necessarily get noticed or celebrated for their particular artistry; I immediately thought of Mr. Cotton when I heard this. I’m grateful to the series for noticing him.
(photos: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)
Reconciling “Intrusive Paternalism” and “Soft Power”
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
“This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.”
Last Friday, Krista sent around David Brooks’ recent editorial on the disaster in Haiti. As the quote above suggests, he discusses the connection between the scale of damage in Haiti and the nation’s “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”
One of the many questions the situation in Haiti raises is how those in wealthier nations can help prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future. Brooks provides his own diagnosis on effective foreign aid, based on a few domestic examples:
In [the U.S.], we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.
These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear Binyavanga Wainaina’s voice in the back of my mind, whom Krista spoke to in our program “The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective.” Wainaina is a Kenyan writer who has often been a vocal critic of foreign aid:
A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.
I find Brooks’ call for “intrusive paternalism” hard to reconcile with Wainaina’s warnings about the “soft power” of foreign aid. But, the question still remains — what can we do to help prevent another Haiti?
One possible answer to that question comes from next week’s guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, who speaks of an approach to foreign aid that uses “a hard head and a soft heart.” She’s the CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, which aims to combine the economic accountability of venture capital with the human-centric concerns of traditional philanthropy — an approach that is innovative, but also comes with its own questions.
Bono Rocks His Own Soul
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I’ve been skeptical about celebrity pet charity projects and rock stars like Bono who have endorsed the RED campaign — encouraging people to shop and buy stuff in order to aid impoverished Africans. It just rings hollow to me and somewhat paradoxical, even though I recognize the good intentions behind it.
And then I read these lines from his op-ed this weekend:
It’s Lent I’ve always had issues with. I gave it up … self-denial is where I come a cropper. My idea of discipline is simple — hard work — but of course that’s another indulgence.
Then comes the dying and the living that is Easter.
—Bono, lead singer of U2
Whatever brash generalizations or dismissive attitude I may have held, that changed after reading the Irishman’s contemplative words. Even though the rest of his essay is much more poetic and eloquent, it’s that second sentence above that captured me. He recognizes the falsehood of working harder. That staying at work is often an escape, a source of leisure rather than fulfilling one’s obligations and roles of responsibility at home — the mundane tasks of being present while one’s children ask for your time or hiding behind a gadget rather than engaging your spouse. Here, the man is revealing something of himself, his ordinary self. He is speaking to something greater than his own ego — and mine.
Nearly two years ago, I enjoyed Bono’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast with President Bush. Like many others, I admired the way he was reaching out; yet, his words felt removed to me — a diplomatic performance to unite disparate parties.
But, his reflection in this essay starts from his personal core. They reveal a man who is a seeker of some greater truths, both personal and universal, that have a grounding in fallibility and transcendence. And that I respect greatly.
I can only hope that Krista could interview him for SOF. Perhaps at Trinity Wall Street? Wouldn’t that be an incredible event to witness? The likelihood is minimal, but it would be a dazzling adventure. Can anybody make it happen?!
Teasing Out Issues of Race and Religion
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
It’s a mixed bag when somebody verbalizes what others dare not express. There’s always one loud-mouth that says something that makes people around him feel completely uncomfortable, even if he’s saying something that is at the back of others’ minds.
From David Kirkpatrick’s “Abortion Issues Again Dividing Catholic Votes” in this morning’s online edition of The New York Times:
“One parishioner ruled out voting for Mr. Obama explicitly because he is black. “Are they going to make it the Black House?” Ray McCormick asked, to embarrassed hushing from a half dozen others gathered around the rectory kitchen. (Five of the six, all lifelong Democrats who supported Mrs. Clinton in the primary, said they now lean toward Mr. McCain.)”
Unfortunately, I hear some of the people (loved ones included) from my home when I read this statement. I just have to wonder if some Catholic voters aren’t using the Vatican’s stances on abortion and homosexuality as a pretext, a protective shield for their prejudices. And this gets conflated in reporting about Catholic and Evangelical voters and the issues that will determine these voters’ decisions in the booth.
For one, I’d like to thank the man for articulating a sentiment — racially discriminatory though it may be — to a reporter, in public. I may have cringed, but it needed to be said — in a parish rectory, no less. And thank you to Mr. Kirkpatrick for diligently teasing out the lingering mindset of racial discrimination from social issues girded by one’s faith.
As you can see, I have strong opinions about this. What do you see? What do you think?