On November 1, 2016, in Tishman Auditorium of the New School, I had the honor to introduce Nicholas Kristof, this year’s honoree at the Spirit of Jan Karski Award Ceremony. My introduction was informed by the works of Hannah Arendt and Erving Goffman, as they speak to each other and provide a way to understand the tragic legacy of Jan Karski.
I am thrilled to introduce this year’s recipient of the Jan Karski award, as the award honors the work of this year’s prize winner, Nicholas Kristof, and as his work helps us remember Jan Karski and illuminates the nature of his actions, both his heroism and their tragedy.
Karski went into the belly of the genocidal beast, into the Warsaw ghetto and a Nazi transit camp, becoming an eyewitness to modern barbarism. He crossed Nazi Europe to report what he saw to the leaders of the surviving western democracies. But he failed in his objective: to convince the allied leaders, including Roosevelt (with whom he did have a face to face meeting), to make ending the systematic annihilation of European Jewry a principle objective of the war effort. As a result, Karski himself realistically understood his mission as a failure, and in a very real sense it was.
But sometimes realism is misleading.
His meeting with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in Karski’s memory most vividly represented the failure. Years later, in an interview shown in Claude Lanzman’s Shoah, Karski recalled their meeting. As it concluded, Frankfurter told Karski that he appreciated the veracity of his testimony, but still didn’t believe it. This is the enduring tragedy. “Karski’s tragedy.” But it is not only his. It also is ours. To recognize a humanitarian crisis is one thing. To truly comprehend it, and to take the required action in response to this understanding, is something else.
We know that horrors exist in our world, but somehow we don’t really believe that they are happening, or don’t want to act upon belief. We act as if they didn’t exist because they are so removed from how we experience the world, and so unsettle our understanding of our experience, of ourselves. Horrors seem unreal. Moral beings, even anti Semites, don’t intentionally and industrially slaughter their fellow human beings.
Even a Jew such as Frankfurter couldn’t get beyond this state of inaction. His stance is ours, caught between knowledge and belief, frozen in inaction.
This frozen zone of Karski’s tragedy is distinctively Nicholas Kristof’s beat. It is the hallmark of Kristof’s journalism to make visible the inhumane, to break through the common sense that tells us the barbaric couldn’t possibly exist, to move his readers to action. He reports to provide information about that which we don’t want to know.
He works tirelessly, using a variety of different rhetorical strategies to make the inconceivable, the apparently unreal, real, to make it apparent, and further to make it actionable. He has provided information, and challenges his readers to respond. His columns, articles and books on the democracy movement in China, the tragedies of Darfur, Iraq and Syria, human trafficking at home and abroad, the refugee crises, fistulas, the global struggle for women’s dignity and rights, and the lived experience of poverty in America, reveal the tragedies of our time and call for action. As Karski revealed the horror of the twentieth century, Kristof reveals the horrors of our times. And like Karski, Kristof is engaged in a struggle to get us to pay attention, with some success, but also with failure.
Human trafficking continues. Syria only gets worse. Kristof’s reports from Darfur span a decade. We good Americans still fear and turn our backs on refugees, as did Roosevelt and Frankfurter, honorable men, and the broader public turned their back on the European Jewry. I’ll add, including some of my distant relatives. The struggle for Kristof, like the struggle of Karski is not only to tell the world, to make human suffering visible, but also to move us, in the face of a commonly accepted but severely limited realism, by making the suffering they reveal real.
We sociologists know that this is harder than people generally think. If we “define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” This so-called Thomas theorem is a central proposition of my field. It is through such power of definition that we create our selves, that we constitute our social world. The way we express ourselves, both in the expressions that we intentionally give and the expressions we inadvertently give off, constitutes the social realities of nation, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. It explains their persistence and their potential plasticity. When people assert that race is a social construction, for example, sociologists know, or at least we think we know, that this in no way makes race any less real. We human beings confirm this reality in what Erving Goffman classically named “the presentation of self in everyday life,” and we face difficult constraints in working to reframe our presentations in such a way as to change that reality. It can be a long hard struggle.
This struggle is Kristof’s, his response to “the tragedy of Karski” that he strenuously works on. It is poignantly revealed when he posed a question in a column “Do You Care About a Dog More Than a Refugee? He brings things to our attention, and does all he can to make these things real. There is an absurdity in this, demonstrated in the question, “dog or refugee.” It suggests futility.
But that we gather here now and think about such matters is a strong rebuttal to such a conclusion. Rather there is hope against hopelessness. There is the power of what I call in my work “the politics of small things,” an idea drawn from the political thinking of Hannah Arendt, whose ghost walks the halls of The New School.
The horrors of the Shoah continued despite Karski. But because someone visibly said no to modern barbarism makes the world a different place than the one that would have been if he hadn’t acted the way he did. We remember and celebrate his heroism, and thus, an alternative to the realistic acceptance of barbarism exists. We are challenged. We can act then accordingly.
We honor Nicholas Kristof tonight because he has acted in such a way. Nicholas Kristof and Jan Karski both have made a difference, sources of light in dark times, as Karski illuminates the quality of Kristof’s achievements and as Kristof honors the legacy of Karski, and as I have the great pleasure to present to you tonight’s honoree, Nicholas Kristof.