Kristof’s seventh-grade sex slave, censorship and colonialism

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

15 thoughts on “Kristof’s seventh-grade sex slave, censorship and colonialism

  1. Maggie McNeill

    Even in the United States, not all 12-year-olds are in 7th grade; I was 12 until two and a half months into 9th grade. Nitpicking? I don’t think so. The idea that a 12-year-old is a seventh-grader, regardless of her actual grade, life circumstances or maturity level, is no different from the idea that a 16-year-old is a “child” due to being as little as 366 days short of her 18th birthday.

    Americans tend to adhere to the dangerous concept that labels define reality; the majority of people in this country (including most politicians) believe that to belong to a political party defines one’s beliefs, that it’s an “all or nothing” package deal like Christian sects. And I’ve encountered people who make the bizarre argument that the courtesans of history could not have been prostitutes because they were respected while prostitutes are degraded victims. The label (whether “prostitute”, “Republican” or “7th grader”) is believed to tell those who hear it everything they need to know about the individual it is used to refer to.

    What I’m trying to say in my long-winded way is, you are absolutely right to zero in on Kristof’s use of that term as an important clue to his attitude and aims; it’s your gift for seeing things like that (which others often miss) that make your writing such an eye-opener!

    1. laura agustin Post author

      If you look at some hostile comments made on my earlier Kristof article, the one In These Times referred to, you will see how people did not at all understand what was wrong with the label. Perhaps it is what you say, that Kristof must be all right or all wrong, and since he went to fancy schools and writes for the Times, he must be all right – ergo, I must be all wrong. It is a very dull way to look at the world.

      1. Maggie McNeill

        Dull in the sense of “boring” and also in the sense of “obtuse”. Trying to dissect an issue with the “all or nothing” knife results in nothing but a bloody mess.

  2. Joe Macare

    Someone just brought this to my attention and I want to make clear that the post was not removed deliberately by In These Times for any reason. What happened, believe it or not, is that we switched over to a new version of our content management system (CMS) the same day Lindsay Beyerstein uploaded that post, and in the process the post was lost. Unfortunately Lindsay had written it directly into the CMS so there wasn’t even a draft to salvage. We’re looking into finding a cached version; however, we’d also be quite happy for Lindsay to express the same sentiments again.

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  4. Windypundit

    I’ve been reading Lindsay Beyerstein’s writing for years, and she has a history of working with publishers who aren’t terribly web savvy. Until recently, the RSS feed on Lindsay’s Duly Noted blog at In These Times lead to a feed that didn’t include any of her writing. That this was deleted accidentally seems totally plausible.

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