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December 10, 2002

Does Kristoff Care? Call me

Does Kristoff Care?

Call me naive, but I get the feeling that Nicholas Kristoff and the NYT are far more interested in pointing out problems rather than doing anything about them. Case in point, today's editorial by Nicholas on the slow collapse of South America

Maria Amelia Miranda stood yesterday in the Iapi shantytown here in Monte Chingolo, south of Buenos Aires, and cried. Three of her seven children — girls ages 8, 7 and 3 — have intestinal worms, up to a foot long, that she must periodically pull from their bottoms. But the worming medicine costs about $1.40 per child, and she can't afford to buy both the medicine and food for the children.

When I was nature counselor at my old summer camp, we watched a Discovery channel documentary on the Lesser Flamingo that I had recorded one winter. The Lesser flamingo nests only in salt pans covered with an inch or two of water, and they don't nest every year, since most years are either too dry or too wet for their tastes. When they do nest, the adults have to leave the young before they have fully fledged for better feeding grounds. The new feeding grounds can be sixty to a hundred miles away, and to get to them the young have to walk. They form huge groups, with thousands of chicks in each, and start walking. Each day a few fledge and fly away to join their parents. The others keep walking.

The water they walk through is incredibly rich in minerals, and those minerals leech out onto the legs of the chicks, so that eventually the remaining chicks are stumbling towards their distant refuge with cakes of salt and minerals the size of softballs on each leg. The balls are called manacles, as the chicks with them hobble forward like a prisoner in leg chains. Most manacled chicks walk until they can no longer move, much less fly, then stand motionless in the African sun until they die, or are eaten by hyenas. The five minutes the documentary spends on the chick migration is pretty heart-rending, enough so that the narrator felt compelled to explain why the cameramen and crew weren't out there rescuing chicks. It boiled down to "Messing with natural selection can have unfortunate side-effects later on." It made sense, in a cold, evolutionary way, but it didn't fly worth a damn when presented to a roomful of nine-year-olds.

The kids I showed the documentary to knew without thinking what the right thing to do was, which was drop everything and help when you see a creature in distress. It takes an adult to look upon the face of misery and then turn his back to it. I know exactly what every normal American kid would do if they saw the suffering that Kristoff saw, what they would do if they were in his place. I just don't know what Kristoff did.

Worm medicine for three Argentinean girls would cost $4.20, according to Kristoff. I wrote him an e-mail, asking if he did the human thing and bought them medicine. I got what I expected in response, a form letter "Thanks for your message. This is an automatic response, because I can't respond individually to the emails--then there'd be no time to write the column. But I read them all and appreciate both the compliments and the complaints, as well as the information and ideas for future columns."

I'm not saying Kristoff didn't buy worm medicine for the little girls. But you would think that the writer of an editorial calling on Washington to help the Argentines would strengthen his position somewhat by listing what he did personally to help the Argentines. After all, shouldn't you be willing to do what you are telling others to do? The content of the editorial signals that Kristoff isn't going to accept any cold, logical, invisible hand arguments when it comes to spending my money and yours to alleviate the suffering of Argentinean children.

I'm not arguing against spending money on ridding Argentina of intestinal worms. I'm in favor of it, especially if the alternative is spending money on farm and steel subsidies. But if I'm not willing to spend my own money, if I'm not willing to lead by example, then my arguments are hollow.

At the very end of the flamingo documentary, as if to assuage the righteous indignation of the children watching, the documentary cuts back to one of the last remaining manacled chicks, one that they had filmed making a single agonized step every fifteen seconds or so earlier on, a chick prevented from moving any faster due to the literally pounds of mineral deposits on each leg. Every step that doomed chick made took a supreme effort, yet it would not stop. When they showed it again, they talked one more time about the necessity of letting natural selection take its course. Then they cut the manacles off and watched the chick fly off into the distance.

"Sometimes, you just have to help" said the narrator.

Sometimes you just have to help, but if you want others to help, then you have to be the example. Nicholas Kristoff may or may not have helped those little girls, but if he is not willing to say that he did, then he loses all moral authority when it comes to saying what others should do. If the New York Times wanted to help, then the least it could do would be to link to, or just list, the websites where its readers could help. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to read that editorial, people that could make a donation to an Argentinean charity right there and then. Here's one, Por los Chicos. All you have to do to help is click a button. Here's another. Here's a third. I found them in less than a minute, which means that the lowliest intern at the NYT could have do so as well.

Demonstrably, the lowliest intern at the NYT did not. No one at the NYT did, which means that as far as Argentine children with intestinal worms hanging out of their ass are concerned, the fine people at the New York Times prefer hectoring to helping. Say what you will about the Rainbow Grocery, but their policy, idiotic as it was, was at least consistent with what they saw as their moral principles. The NYT does no such thing, which I suppose means that they have none, or none worth acting on.

I at least clicked the button.

Zod: Well, aren't you the saint!

Posted by Bigwig at December 10, 2002 03:05 PM | TrackBack
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