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Thursday, March 23, 2006

An anti-Kristof reader

Why do I dislike NY Times writer Nicholas Kristof? (I'll put aside the whole Stephen Hatfill anthrax letter libel suit, from which Kristof has been dropped.) Because Kristof is the worst kind of shill for the status quo -- a smart person and good writer who too often uses his skill not to expose holes in moderate American political opinions, but to paper over them. When I get angry at the glaring omissions in a seemingly liberal Times op-ed or a news story, Kristof is often the writer.

Here is the only letter I ever got printed in the Times:

Nicholas D. Kristof ("Let Them Sweat," 6/25) warns the anti-sweatshop movement that by opposing sweatshops, we threaten the livelihood of millions who are grateful to have a job at all.

Sweatshop workers who[m] I have spoken with need their jobs desperately, but they also have a litany of complaints. They want what any worker wants: fair treatment under the law, reasonable compensation, the right to organize a union without being fired. Sweatshop workplaces have actually been improving in these areas worldwide--to the benefit of all parties involved--thanks to anti-sweat pressure and attention in the first world.

Anti-sweat activists don't seek to destroy sweatshops. We seek to improve them, and we are doing so.

Benjamin Wheeler
Columbia Students Against Sweatshops
New York

(I should note that I caught some flak from other CSAS members because I used the group's name and other members didn't like my conciliatory wording. To my knowledge, no members held leadership positions in the mildly anarchist-leaning group, and I figured it would be a good plug for CSAS.)

(To digress much further, do you think that American Heritage's (informal) definition (after their primary, military definition) of "flak" is off? It's not as extreme or direct as "1) Excessive or abusive criticism". Their "2) Dissension; opposition" is more appropriately vague, but I think allies and colleagues are just as often the principal sources of flak as are opponents. I would use something like "Criticism, often knee-jerk and short-lived, in response to a specific perceived error or overstep". Bill O'Reilly doesn't "catch flak" for being generally conservative and pompous, he "cathes flak" for hypocritally harassing female employees, berating 9/11 victims' family members, etc. He also "cathes flak" for calling Kristof a Christmas-attacking "left-wing idealogue", but luckily for him, Kristof's column challenging O'Reilly to honor the message of Jesus by accompany him to Darfur is shut away in the TimesSelect ghetto. Hillary Clinton doesn't "catch flak" for being a calculating poll-motivated fence-sitter, she "catches flak" for calling for a pro-choice condemnation of abortion, for heading up the health care initiative, etc. Finally, why do dictionaries not mention extremely common idioms, such as "to catch flak" and "to take flak", alongside more noun definitions? They do it with verbs; see American Heritage on "cut", though it skips "cut it out" in favor of the presumably common southern phrase "cut a fat hog".)

Back to Kristof. Here's a column I wrote for the Columbia Daily Spectator, after the 2000 election in Taiwan that finally ousted the party of Chiang Kai-Shek, in which Kristof figures prominently. I didn't know of Kristof at the time, but he went on to write more in the same rosy neo-liberal vein:

Our Cozy History with Taiwan's Ousted Party
by Ben Wheeler
May 2000

Whenever we are struck by a political event out of the blue, like we were by Saturday's election of a reform president in Taiwan, we uninformed Americans rely on our news outlets to fill us in on the situation.

To help us out, The New York Times ran a piece Sunday called "Decision in Taiwan: The Nationalists," providing a history of the storied Nationalist Party started by Sun Yat-sen and made powerful by General Chiang Kai-Shek. This party and its army, the Kuomintang (often abbreviated in English as the KMT), ruled China from roughly the fall of the last dynasty in 1912 to the Communist revolution in 1949.

"While they had a good deal of support from Americans," The Times' Nicholas D. Kristof wrote, "the Nationalists became detested in China because of their corruption, brutality and failure to fight the Japanese invaders. In 1949, the Communists under Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalists and forced them to flee."

At this point, Kristof continued, they were forced to "move their seat of government to the offshore island of Taiwan, which had just been recovered from Japan in 1945." Kristof dutifully recited the evils of the Nationalist regime in Taiwan. These included "massacring local people during upheavals that began on Feb. 28, 1947," having "little ideology other than self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment," and that they "imposed their ideas and language on Taiwan. . . [dragging] away critics of the regime." "Initially," said Kristof, "[dissidents] were often killed immediately; later they tended to face torture and sham trials."

This is a fine summary of a complicated period in history, and the context is useful for understanding what it means that Taiwanese voters rejected the Nationalist candidate. But it would have been nice to see an expanded explanation of the "good deal of support from Americans" that the KMT received.

Two books by journalists who covered the region, William Corson's "The Armies of Ignorance" and David Wise's "The Invisible Government," tell of a period of United States support for KMT activities that has managed to avoid cluttering our history [text]books. The CIA, declassified documents tell us, waged a long covert war against the Chinese Communist government of Mao Zedong. The KMT, who wanted to reclaim its rule of China, was a natural choice for US support in opposition to Mao.

In 1949, while the Nationalist leadership retreated to Taiwan, 10,000 KMT troops relocated to northern Burma under General Li Mi to prepare incursions into China's Hunan province. Li needed steady funding, and the greatest currency of the region then--as now--was the poppy-extracted drugs, opium and heroin. The Golden Triangle, the area of Southeast Asia covering Laos, Burma and Thailand where the active KMT took root, produces approximately 80% of the world's heroin and opium even today.

As General Tuan Shi-wen later told a reporter for the London Weekly Telegraph, "Necessity knows no law. We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army and an army must have guns and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium."

In its quest to fight communism, the CIA saw no problem in helping the KMT to develop its own sources of income--even if this meant drug trafficking. Thanks to the use of CIA airplanes and airfields controlled by the CIA front company Civil Air Transport (CAT), the KMT flourished in its control of opium. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that CAT flew weapons and supplies from the CIA base in Bangkok, Thailand to a network of emerging KMT strongholds. On return runs, CAT planes would transport whatever cargo the KMT wanted shipped, with no questions asked.

By 1975, the KMT controlled four-fifths of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle, greatly supporting its regime in Taiwan. This naturally did not sit well with the US's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Explaining that the CIA and the region's great drug traffickers were "natural allies," DEA agents interviewed in journalist Elaine Shannon's book "Desperados" reported that they "frequently discovered that they were tracking heroin smugglers who were on the CIA payroll." DEA agent General Joseph Stilwell complained to Washington--but the fight against communism was deemed more important than the fight against drugs.

"For more than a decade," The New York Times reported Monday, "Washington has urged Taiwan to let true democracy flower."

How nice of us. Democracy might have come sooner had the United States been able to see beyond the crusade of anti-communism to the brutality of the KMT.

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