New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has, for decades, been one of the most visible and trusted voices in covering conflict and humanitarian crises in the developing world. Kristof’s career has had an almost singular focus on issues of poverty, hunger, and violence, to the extent that he himself is routinely drawn into his stories in awkward and compromising ways.
When Kristof has turned his eyes to his own country, he’s often focused on similar injustices, such as his laudable work covering the case of Kevin Cooper, a Black man imprisoned for decades on death row despite the existence of DNA evidence that could exonerate him (evidence that was ignored by then-California AG Kamala Harris). It wasn’t surprising, then, to see Kristof covering the tumult in Portland, Oregon, as a diverse group of protesters weathered brutal, protracted violence at the hands of local police and federal agents.
The resulting column, titled “Help Me Find Trump’s Anarchists in Portland,” is a perfect example of Kristof’s work, in that it clumsily erases any form of nuance and cultural awareness toward his subjects in service of his broader point: that the police in Portland were responsible for more violence and lawlessness than the protesters pushing back against state power.
That broader point is essentially correct. But Kristof’s argument is so lazy, ignorant, and reductive that it outweighs his tepid indictment of brutal state violence. Here’s the lede, emphasis mine:
I’ve been on the front lines of the protests here, searching for the “radical-left anarchists” who President Trump says are on Portland streets each evening.
I thought I’d found one: a man who for weeks leapt into the fray and has been shot four times with impact munitions yet keeps coming back. I figured he must be a crazed anarchist.
To be fair to Kristof, he made it through two full sentences before slipping into a moronic Boomer voice, but from this point on, we’re in for a bumpy ride. It turns out the protester in Kristof’s lede is a radiologist who works as a street medic.
Dr. Wolf, an assistant professor at Oregon Health Sciences University, helps at a medic stand operated by volunteers from the medical school. Could they be radical-left anarchists? No, they’ve imposed order on the anarchy of the street by establishing qualifications for field medics and a hierarchy among them, so that any badly injured protester will immediately get the right kind of care.
You can see immediately what the tone of the piece will be: Portland’s protesters are normal people, not “radical anarchists,” because they have careers and use concepts like organization and efficiency to accomplish their goals.
I know what Kristof is doing here. He’s clearly writing for an audience as ignorant and incurious as he is: middle-aged Times readers with the same boring, stereotyped assumptions about anarchists. This is pretty much Kristof’s whole schtick. He drops into a fucked-up place, writes about the tragedies of the people there, erases much of the cultural context and agency of his subjects, and then leaves.
You can see these themes running through his entire Portland piece. The most glaring mistake is that Kristof very clearly has no idea what an anarchist is. He’s fallen into the classic trap in which a Times columnist thinks that because they are paid an enormous amount of money to write words, those words must mean whatever they think they mean. In reality, they do not, as anarchist-journalist Kim Kelly spelled out in the Washington Post in June:
This reflexive tic to associate anarchism with thoughtless discord betrays a profound ignorance of leftist ideology. The problem is that no one seems to understand what anarchism is or what its adherents are seeking to accomplish — and that lack of understanding is going to end up endangering a lot of people.
In practice, to be an anarchist is to dream of a kinder, more equitable society, and to do one’s best to get us closer to making that dream a reality. For every minute of protest footage showing anarchists out in the streets, there are untold hours spent attending endless meetings (anarchists love meetings), cooking and delivering food and supplies to those who need it, researching far-right groups, planning demonstrations, providing child care and other support to comrades, and taking part in other communally minded projects. It may sound hokey, but anarchism is about love as much as it is rage; there is a certain utopian romance to it.
This description, of course, would not fit in with the cute point that Kristof is trying to make: that there is a major distinction between “good” protesters and anarchists.
It’s difficult, in some ways, to write a piece telling Kristof to fuck off. It’s clear that his heart is in the right place, but it’s also clear he lacks the introspection and intelligence to do the work correctly. Instead, what you get are narratives that fit the presuppositions of his audience. When he goes abroad, he sticks to a familiar script about people in developing countries who are wretched and poor, broken and battered by war and famine. Here’s Kristof himself explaining it, from a 2014 article in Slate:
When he arrived in Sudan that weekend, he said, “I’ll be out to find the most compelling story that I can within a limited time.” He predicted that he’d hear “some heartrending story about some 30-year-old man. And, frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote. I want to get American readers to care about my story, and if I have some middle-aged man in my lede, they’re going to tune out.” Instead, Kristof would hold out for a more compelling subject, like “some 9-year-old girl with soulful eyes.”
Kristof feels lousy when he has to “cut somebody off and say, ‘It’s terrible that you were shot in the leg,’ ” he said. “Meanwhile, I will go off and find someone who was shot in both legs.” But he does it because he knows that if he finds a compelling story abroad, Americans back home will line up to help. “I want to make people spill their coffee when they read the column,” he said. “I do want them to go and donate, volunteer, whatever it may be, to help chip away at some of these problems.”
These are structures that the American middle class is comfortable with, the journalistic equivalent of a little paper quarter-saver at the supermarket checkout counter that promises to send the proceeds to hungry children. Kristof’s pieces create a massive amount of sympathy for the symptoms of global poverty and conflict and do very little to interrogate the structures and causes that allow that strife to flourish. His career has been instructive to me, a white man who has covered conflict and crises abroad, mostly by providing a great example of all the pitfalls someone in my position can fall into. Also, the shit about the “nine-year-old girl with soulful eyes” is really weird!
The most dangerous part of Kristof’s Portland piece is what it implies but doesn’t say: that the cops are in the wrong in Portland because they are beating up and gassing radiologists and moms, not just the “bad” kind of protesters. He writes:
OK, I’ll fess up: Sure there are anarchists and antifa activists in the Portland protests, just as there are radiologists and electricians, lawyers and mechanics. Report on the ground here and any single narrative feels too simplistic. The protesters aren’t all peaceful, nor are they primarily violent. They’re a complicated weave, differing by time of day.
He’s almost, almost getting it here, but again, fails to build an actual understanding of “anarchists” or “antifa” into that “complicated weave.” He continues:
I’m against all violent attacks on officers, and I worry that Trump’s provocations are succeeding in seeding violence — as we’ve already seen in Seattle, Oakland and elsewhere. Every time angry progressives burn a building down, they win votes for Trump.
But if the state’s targets had actually been the kind of anarchist bogeyman Kristof believes in, he’s almost saying that violence could be justified. What he’s telling you is that his real priority isn’t preserving human life and dignity for all, but promoting a worldview that seeks salvation for worthy victims alone, while the impure remainder deserves all the gas, pain and tears that they get.