Writing on Nicholas Kristof’s tweets about saving sex slaves, I said that the important point to criticise is his boast to have caused the closure of six brothels. Whether you believe that brothels are workplaces or slavery dens, you need to ask what the result will be for those working inside when those sites are suddenly closed down (some answers to that are described in this video).
Someone at In These Times wrote about that article of mine, apparently agreeing with my main points, but the post was taken down the same day, making me wonder if the site owners will not allow any criticism of Kristof. Is he such a sacred cow for liberal-leaning news-site managers? Even if they claim to be independent, as it says on their website? It seems absurd, what harm did their blogger do?
The writer had called her article ‘Seventh Grader’ is not an insult: The Naked Anthropologist vs. Nicholas Kristof, in reference to my comment that it is offensive he would ‘refer to a young person in Cambodia with a made-in-USA label like seventh grader‘. She thought it was silly of me because Kristof writes for a US audience who understand that 12-year-olds belong in seventh grade. But many people understood what was annoying about Kristof’s comment, and my guess is he himself likes to think of his work as international, since he at least sometimes lives in Cambodia and writes for the New York Times.
The issue here is colonialism, the imposition not just of the words seventh grader but of the whole world view behind them, a world in which people who are 12 are said to be school children and nothing else because 12-year-olds are claimed to have the right to absolute innocence, lives in which neither work nor sex have a part. Such a claim is questionable in the USA itself, but to transport it wholesale onto a young stranger in Cambodia, a girl glimpsed in a brothel, is to impose an outside interpretation on that girl and the cultural context she’s found in. You may say, based on your belief of what’s right in your culture, that she’s a seventh grader, but you thereby maintain control of someone not in a position to resist, you exploit and victimise her without knowing anything real about her. Kristof says she’s a slave, therefore she is one: is that right?
The writer’s note that the World Food Program labels the world’s children according to the same system of school grades only underscores that we are dealing with colonialism. I write about the Rescue Industry, but many before me have written about the counter-productive thing that is Aid, particularly the version that sends bags of food to hungry places. There are hundreds of resources for such critiques online, or you can read Barbara Harrell-Bond’s Imposing Aid or Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty, if you want it in a more popular style. These out-of-date concepts of Helping are oppressive and haven’t actually stopped structural hunger yet, but they provide hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs for folks from richer countries who assume that their way of life is the best, most successful one despite the presence of many grave social problems and conflicts. Again, the issue is the control the coloniser exercises over the colonised.
This is not cant against the USA. Chinua Achebe commented famously in a critique of Heart of Darkness that Joseph Conrad used Africa
as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. . . The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. Things Fall Apart
As we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, guilt, desire. Those found in the jungle or brothel are objects in a theatrical drama in which he plays the central role. Did anyone saved in those recent brothel raids want to be rescued as they were, with the results that came about, whatever they were? That is what we do not know, and as far as I can see, we are not going to find out from Kristof or In These Times.
I’ll talk about the idea of whiteness on another occasion.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist