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Nicholas Kristof speaks at UO

May 2nd, 2007 by dk

A dear friend and I recently heard Nicholas Kristof give a talk at UO about Darfur. I was surprised to learn later that we were both disappointed. I thought I was the only one.
First there was his voice! Three syllables into his talk, my mind was racing to explain why this great writer has become a globetrotter, why he’s seldom on the TV yak shoes, why he’s such a throwback to the rugged risk-taker war correspondent. His voice is straight out of “Princess Bride.” (“Marriage … what IS marriage?”) Not only high, but distinctly whiney. OK, that’s petty and silly and I’m glad it’s behind me. I’m over it.
He didn’t really offer a speech. It was more of a talk. Verbal pauses can be charming and inviting, but he seemed uncomfortable or unprepared. Maybe it was just jet-lag. He smiled when he was being introduced, but he didn’t seem to be enjoying himself once he had our attention.
The introductions themselves were problematic. There’s a certain pomp you can expect in these circumstances and we got it, but why? If the topic at hand is filled with urgency, why the long drum roll?
The night before, David Sedaris was on campus and he employed a brilliant anti-hero strategy for his own introduction. Ten minutes before he goes on stage, he finds the most unlikely person and offers them twenty bucks to introduce him. In this case, it was a 16-year-old who pronounced the speaker’s name correctly and shared with the audience how he just got $20. Thirty seconds, max. The introducing of introducers had three layers for Kristof, each thanking those who came before them. (I must admit it was better than what unbridled liberalism can produce on campus. Just last week, Greg Palast was in town and the introductions lasted for slightly longer than his speech. His three introducers took 45 minutes. He spoke for 40.)
Then there was the talk itself, which showed what Kristof can show. Heartbreaking pictures and stories of people suffering the unspeakable. How to speak about the unspeakable? There’s the agony and the glory — the worst of mankind, set beside the best. The courage of those who speak up and speak out. Unfortunately, the subtext was strong — HE was heroic. HE has risked life and limb to bring these stories to us. HE is the best mankind has to offer.
Really?
Behind him is his driver and his photographer and his interpreter and his editor and all the machinery of The New York Times. And his parents, who were there, and his educators, and the committee who chose him to be a Rhodes scholar, the heritage that comes with being an Oregonian. All that context could have been highlighted, but no. All eyes on Nick, he was the show.
He’s a rock star who is Out There making a difference. And we’re a bunch of people watching him. We can do our part by giving him a standing ovation. “The talk wasn’t great, but You are Great. And look at us, we’re standing for you, after working a full day and rushing through dinner, which is still digesting. We’re standing. Because You’re Worth It, and we’re smart enough to recognize it. Why, we may even go right home tonight and sign up for TimesSelect, so we can read your columns on the Web two days before they run in our daily paper.”
The self-congratulations were gushing in every direction.
But I fear it means less difference in the end will be made.

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