“And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” -- Elie Wiesel (quoted by Dean Judith Kelley at the beginning of this event)
On February 5th, the Sanford DeWitt Wallace Center and Rubenstein Lecture Series hosted Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in conversation with Duke Sanford professor Frank Bruni.
Kristof’s journalistic career spans a wide range of focal areas, including women’s rights, domestic and international human rights, global health, and domestic politics. But the throughline underlying these diverse areas of interest is a desire to shed light onto stories and voices that the world is not paying attention to. Kristof’s focus on compassion and empathy while engaging in the role of a storyteller is what particularly struck me.
As a Public Policy student interested in foreign policy and development that is sustainable, holistic, and restorative, I was inspired by Kristof’s ultimate goal of representing the experiences of populations flying under the radar of the mainstream media.
I am unable to do justice to the wide range of topics covered during the event, but a few stood out to me.
I was struck by the first discussion about the media's role and responsibility in the upcoming 2024 presidential election. In addition to maintaining the media's role as a "truth squad" and fact-checker, Kristof urged that the media promote fairness. Kristof drew parallels to the 2016 elections, describing the media's actions as both condescending to Trump supporters and an "entertainment value" business model, focusing on what would garner views and attention rather than seeking a truthful portrayal of politics.
The theme of condescension and resentment politics continued with the question of what the Democratic Party can do to "win back" working class voters across the board, with Kristof claiming that the Democrat Party's perception as "elite" with inaccessible policy agendas is alienating working class voters.
As an active and civic-minded citizen, this discussion reinforced the importance of using empathy to ensure that underlying good policy intentions are matched by good policy outcomes for all stakeholders.
I was also impacted by how much of a driving force hope has been throughout Kristof's career. When discussing the often "doom-and-gloom" atmosphere of the media and political coverage, Kristof said, "We cover planes that crash, not the ones that land." From this point, I understood that realistic story-telling entails covering both positive and negative developments in order to inspire hope and form a call to action against injustice.
Moving away from Kristof's domestic work, the discussion shifted to his international engagements and work covering voices clamoring to be heard by American audiences but silenced by a lack of attention and deprioritization by media business models.
On the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza, Kristof emphasized the hyper-polarization surrounding picking loyalties, which fundamentally undermines the recognition that there has been and continues to be tremendous suffering on both sides, including innocent civilians.
Kristof discussed his multiple visits to Darfur, where the Janjaweed militia is conducting an ongoing genocide campaign against innocent Darfurians; the Tigray region in Ethiopia, where similar asymmetric targeting of innocents occurs; and the persecution and genocide of Myanmar's Rohingya community.
Kristof also talked about his interactions with Ukrainians who are determined to kick Russia out of the country and reclaim their sovereignty; he told two stories about women who demonstrated extraordinary bravery in the face of war, torture, imprisonment, and worse.
Despite witnessing and hearing about these experiences, Kristof maintains hope by recognizing that in the most extreme cases of evil and wrongdoing, in the face of enormous costs and suffering, he has invariably encountered the extraordinary resilience, tenacity, and inherent goodness of human beings.
I am currently enrolled in a Public Policy course called "Strategic Storytelling" with Professor Catherine Admay, in which we discuss how to tell stories responsibly and how to access empathy in order to do justice to the stories of others while reading or listening.
While I am trying to sort out the puzzle of how to center local stakeholders' voices in discussions about community development, an enterprise with colonial roots and perverse incentives when confronted with geopolitics and national security rhetoric, Kristof's words about why he continued to return to Darfur spoke to me.
He mentioned that he had met people who "haunted him," to the point where he was desperate to tell their stories and spark a sliver of compassion in a world that has been conditioned to ignore hard realities.
In pursuing policy work in the future, this event has inspired me to always seek to prioritize underrepresented voices and communities in mainstream narratives so that we can all exercise the muscles of empathy and compassion that make us all human.
Sam Sreeram is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Duke University, pursuing a double major in Public Policy and Political Science and a certificate in Human Rights. Sam is interested in the policy areas of expanding youth voter turnout and civic education as well as dimensions of women’s rights, such as enshrining reproductive rights, combating gender-based discrimination and violence, and encouraging female political participation. Sam is also interested in sustainable development and peace-building in the contexts of countries and communities in the Middle East and North Africa regions. In the future, Sam hopes to work within the Foreign Service, USAID, or at a development-focused NGO in the future.
On campus, Sam is involved with the Duke Writing Studio as a peer writing consultant, Duke’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention & Education (SHAPE) Initiative, and Duke Sangeet, a student-run Indian Classical music community and performing group. Sam enjoys playing an Indian Classical percussion instrument called the Ghatam, and has been learning and performing for the past twelve years.
It was a night energized by Nicholas Kristof’s enduring optimism. Despite a career that has spotlighted some of the worst atrocities in recent history, he continues to find hope in the progress of humankind and the individuals who have motivated him to continue his mission of giving a voice to the world’s most vulnerable populations.