As part of our new effort to highlight opinion columnist and their work that could have and should have been covered as straight news, I wanted to highlight a pair of articles by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. The first, which dates just before Christmas, highlights some interesting statistics purporting to show that "[w]e liberals are personally stingy."
Kristof places himself willingly in the category of being a liberal and goes on to criticize everyone from Democrats to residents of "Northeastern states" for not living up, in their personal lives, to their political proclamations of helping those who are less-well-off than themselves. Sounds like an excellent topic for a news story, but Kristof's column provides an excellent substitute.
I was pleasantly surprised that Kristof spent a good portion of this column dealing with the claim that conservatives are merely giving their money to their churches:
When liberals see the data on giving, they tend to protest that conservatives look good only because they shower dollars on churches -- that a fair amount of that money isn't helping the poor, but simply constructing lavish spires.
It's true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.
According to Google's figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.
In any case, if conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It's great to support the arts and education, but they're not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.)
Now Kristof's apparent suggestion that churches don't even help the poor would hopefully never make it into a news story because many I am aware of do help the poor and needy. Nevertheless, Kristof's article is a good example of an issue that could easily have been turned into a news story.
An important angle he overlooked would be the fact that charities funded by private individuals are often more effective than government funded charities. Private charities are capable of trying new things -- see Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation -- while government charities are often directed more towards assisting groups and causes that help the politicians get re-elected. Obviously this is not always the case, but the economic efficiency of private charity should not be overlooked. Also important to look at, and Kristof hinted at this, is the fact that some private charity is not that effective and is more about promoting the individuals doing the giving. Both sides of the issue must be covered.
The second, and far more heart wrenching of Kristof's columns, was his up-close look at the sickening world we live in when it comes to sex trafficking and the consequences in one girl's life.
While the story of the girl's experience in the brothel is extremely disturbing, the fact that Kristof had to spend a rather significant portion of his column disputing whether sex slavery exists today presents a situation that is nearly as upsetting:
After my last column, I heard from skeptical readers doubting that conditions are truly so abusive. It's true that prostitutes work voluntarily in many brothels in Cambodia and elsewhere. But there are also many brothels where teenage girls are slave laborers.
Young girls and foreigners without legal papers are particularly vulnerable. In Thailand's brothels, for example, Thai girls usually work voluntarily, while Burmese and Cambodian girls are regularly imprisoned. The career trajectory is often for a girl in her early teens to be trafficked into prostitution by force, but eventually to resign herself and stay in the brothel even when she is given the freedom to leave. In my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground, I respond to the skeptics and offer some ideas for readers who want to help.
Pross herself was never paid, and she had no right to insist on condoms (she has not yet been tested for HIV, because the results might be too much for her fragile emotional state). Twice she became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions.
The second abortion left Pross in great pain, and she pleaded with her owner for time to recuperate. "I was begging, hanging on to her feet, and asking for rest," Pross remembered. "She got mad."
That's when the woman gouged out Pross's right eye with a piece of metal.
Sex slavery's existence in today's world is a story in and of itself. Often when the story gets reported, as it was about a week ago in the Times on prostitution in South Korea, it is mostly a matter of politics.
Another take on the story could be the fact that sex slavery doesn't receive the kind of attention it should. When was the last time Hollywood looked at the issue in a way that portrayed the industry for its disgusting evilness? Kristof has been writing on this subject for a number of years now and its too bad he is still struggling to get people to recognize the evil of this trade.
This Kristof column does not deal specifically with religion, but religion relates in the sense that many of the non-governmental groups fighting sex trafficking in the world today have faith-based backgrounds.
Kudos to Kristof for this pair of excellent columns. He remains one of my favorite opinion columnists and that's probably because instead of merely spouting off his opinions or what his friends or saying, he actually goes out there and reports news.