Kristof: The journalist as tourist

The New York Times columnist relies on orientalist cliches when writing about Iran, revealing his outdated assumptions.

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Kristof's writings 'reveal everything about the intellectual bankruptcy of the empire' [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – “Iran is a relatively rich and sophisticated country, more so than most of its neighbours.”  

Nicholas Kristof’s seemingly unconscious invocation of some of the oldest and most tiresome orientalist clichés in his recent columns in the New York Times, following a short visit to the beleaguered Islamic Republic, once again raises the question of recycled tropes and their instrumental function in not so much revealing the misperceptions of the Muslim world at large – for no-one should really care what Kristof or his “paper of record” thinks about anything – but far more immediately, the dire state of critical awareness at the heart of a floundering empire about the world at large.

The journalistic recycling of orientalist clichés should no longer be irksome because they distort and abuse reality, for they are in fact revelatory – they indeed say very little about the orientalised, but reveal a lot about the orientalist. The significance of writings such as Kristof’s is that they reveal the decline of the ideological apparatus that used to accompany imperial projects.

In a magnificent essay, “Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics”, Elliott Prasse-Freeman of the Harvard Carr Center for Human Rights, who has been tracking Kristof’s career for some time, has already exposed the New York Times columnist’s propensity for orientalist clichés. Prasse-Freeman summarises Kristof’s oeuvre into a number of precise strokes: “By playing on his audience’s orientalist, classist and racist fantasies, Kristof fabricates legible narratives out of snapshots of distant worlds. He then crafts stunningly simplistic solutions to the seemingly irrevocable problems that plague those backwards places.”

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In a previous essay for Al Jazeera, I have already dealt with the moral depravity of someone partaking in a people’s kindness and hospitality, witnessing their sufferings under crippling economic sanctions, and yet coming back from his bit of journalistic tourism and recommending even more crippling sanctions – because he is professionally compromised and intellectually challenged, and cannot “see any other way to pressure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on power”. To be sure, the business of journalistic tourism has been perfected by Kristof’s colleague at the “paper of record”, the astonishingly isochoric illiterate, Thomas Friedman. In a magnificent study, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, Belén Fernández has detailed the tapestry of that particular travesty. 

But still, the question remains: What are we to make of these enduring orientalist clichés cluttering the mind of a journalist tourist? I raise the question not to assess his journalism, but in order to have a more accurate conception of the empire served by this sort of tourism-cum-journalism. 

‘A tourist is an ugly human being’

“The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true.” Jamaica Kincaid is clinically precise in her exquisite narrative surgery in A Small Place (1988): “A tourist is an ugly human being.” She explains: “An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish … and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit this place … cannot stand you, that behind closed doors they laugh at your strangeness.”

In A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid turns the tourism industry – using the colonial and postcolonial history of Antigua as an example – upside down for a clinical surgery and leaves no filet unturned. Her insights remain punctilious when applied to journalist tourists who frequent the farthest corners of the earth from their New York neighbourhood and come to the flatly silly conclusion that the earth is flat.

Kristof begins his column with a standard journalistic cliché – in “a shopping mall for computer equipment in Tehran”, that was “brimming with iPads and iPhones” – “not to mention a statuette of Steve Jobs” – so that we learn how smart these Iranians are, and so sophisticated that they even make fun of him, a mighty American, for having an old laptop. Imagine that. 

This by now stale affectation is to say, in so many words, “that Iran is a relatively rich and sophisticated country, more so than most of its neighbours”.

Both the algorithms used in his laptop – indeed, the word “algorithm” comes from the name of the ninth century Iranian mathematician, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose work pioneered algebra and led to the decimal number system – and the abused Chinese labourers who built that laptop are the products of a global knowledge production and labour abuse of which US predatory capitalism is the corporate beneficiary.

Then, this not-so-quiet American goes travels the globe thinking the world owes him an explanation, or worse, even gratitude, for having given them iPads and iPhones. But, when India turns its hand to the same global technology, it produces tablet computers for about $35. The delusion of this technological US-centrism is what holds the chimerical construction dubbed “the West” churning out ideas and sentiments that enable and facilitate both illiterate journalists in the US and mass murderers in Europe.

Now, which one of Iran’s “neighbours” does Kristof have in mind – Iraq, Turkey, Central Asia, or the Indian subcontinent – each one of which is a cradle of civilisation that gave birth to a rich and robust society? This journalistic cliché of pitting Iranians against their Arab or South Asian or Central Asian neighbours has long since run out of currency, and yet our “paper of record” seems to have missed that boat too. Catering to the entirely Tehran-based anti-Arab or anti-Afghan racism of some Iranians is at the heart of such inane utterances – which are meant to foster the premise of a fake neoliberal bourgeois base for US-sponsored “regime change” in Iran. That is pretty much the extent of the intelligence behind that old-fashioned colonial decree of “divide and rule”.

Nicholas in Wonderland

What’s an oriental sojourn without a bit of sexual seasoning?  You may be interested in reading about Mr Kristof blushes

“You wouldn’t think a New Yorker could be made to blush in Tehran, but I was taken aback by the hookup scene of one-night stands: young men with flashy cars troll for women, chat them up and then drive off with them.”

What is that supposed to mean? That a New Yorker is so used to debauchery and sexual licentiousness that he shouldn’t be made to blush when in Iran? Where exactly in New York does Kristof live or work, and what particular neighbourhood does he have in mind, I may ask, as a fellow New Yorker? There are neighbourhoods in New York where women are instructed to step aside when men walk down the sidewalk. There are neighbourhoods in New York – right here and right now – where women must sit in the back of the bus, just like African-Americans did in the segregated south of the pre-Civil Rights era. Who does this Kristof think he is; who does he imagine his audience to be? What sort of mendacious orientalism takes over these people as soon as they cross the Atlantic and enter a country whose language and culture are more foreign than Greek to them? 

Young Iranians also get together and read poetry, watch movies, discuss literature, debate philosophy, ponder mysticism, organise mass rallies against tyranny, just like their counterparts anywhere else in the world, and the natural growth of their hormonal glands eventually draws them to a bed, as they must, for the joyous discovery of their bodies. Why is that such a remarkable thing, to use as an example to assimilate Tehran to New York in a favourable way? There are also pious and practicing Muslims, Jews, Christians, or Zoroastrians in Tehran who abstain from premarital sex, as do many New Yorkers, in all the five boroughs, including Manhattan, from one end of it to another. Does Kristof think he lives in the 19th century, with nary a soul in his hometown who can catch him with both his hands in this bizarre orientalist fantasy jar?   

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What do these journalists expect to see when they fly to a place such as Iran and write a column or two for their astonishingly parochial journal – either a harem full of concubines bathing by an indoor pool a la Gérôme and Ingres, or else chaste virgins waiting in line to blow themselves up at the nearest US military base? The sheer inanity of these columns simply defies reason. But they are priceless evidence of where this wavering empire stands in its perception of the world it has the delusion of ruling.  

Bizarre sexual hang-ups, leftover orientalist fantasies, condescending prose of a latter-day colonial officer-cum-tourist-cum-journalist, racist assumptions about a people, a culture and a civilisation about which they know next to nothing: All come together to make this vintage brand of US journalism nothing more than an extended arm of US military and diplomatic intelligence. The journalists go there and come back to confirm US foreign policy for what it is: putting a thin liberal mask over a flawed and failed imperial project to conquer a world and distort and destroy its cultures of resistance. Those distortions do nothing to alter the defiant facts on the ground – and yet they reveal everything about the intellectual bankruptcy of the Empire. 

To understand the current stage of US knowledge production about the lands they hope to conquer, control and pacify, we have to master the art of reverse reading. The significance of Nicholas Kristof is revealing the completely vacated ideological apparatus of this empire. Between the octogenarian Bernard Lewis – who once wedded his services to the dying days of British imperialism, and now to the receding horizons of the American Empire – and Nicholas Kristof, this imperial project has nothing to offer the world by way of ideologically sustaining or morally justifying itself. Pilotless drones are the perfect fact and metaphor of this empire – a killing machine with a mechanical precision and not a single sign of humanity left in, on, or about it. 

One last thing, for Kristof’s editor at the New York Times: If I were you, for heaven’s sake, I would just wipe that silly pseudo-Orientalist “insha’allah” off the final line of the column. That kind of supercilious poppycock might have worked between Kermit Roosevelt and “Sha’ban the Brainless”, the CIA agent and Iranian thug who helped topple Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and bring back the runaway Shah to power. But it scarcely works anymore – that kind of verbal tic is so cliché it ain’t even retro. As one New Yorker to another: “Capisci Paisano?” 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.  Among his most recent books is Iran:  A People Interrupted (New Press, 2008).