Tag Archives: colonialism

Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof and the Cult of Personality

CultMany wrote to me during the brouhaha about Somaly Mam and Nicholas Kristof as though I were not paying enough attention to it. There are lots of events in the fields of anti-trafficking, the sex industry and now even the Rescue Industry that I glance at and don’t find remarkable enough to comment: after 20 years of observing I find it difficult to be really surprised by anything. While I appreciate how infuriating bogus experts are, I published the following to remind everyone that individual personalities are only superficially important in the now highly institutionalised scheme of things.

Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof and the Cult of Personality, 16 June 2014, Jacobin

By Laura Agustín

A Cambodian activist against sex slavery, Somaly Mam, recently resigned from her foundation after an outside investigation confirmed she had lied to attract donors and supporters. The revelations of Mam’s fraudulence are old news, however — Simon Marks’s reports have been appearing in the Cambodian Daily since 2012, and many other debunkings and doubts circulated much earlier among institutions, researchers, and activists trying to reverse unfounded sensationalism about sex trafficking.

Newsweek published some of Marks’s work on May 21, provoking outrage in the New York media establishment — less towards Mam than one of her greatest fans, self-styled slave rescuer Nicholas Kristof. He is accused of hoodwinking liberal-identifying readers and letting down the cause of journalism. Both accusations miss the point.

An editor from this media in-group asked if I would write for them about Somaly Mam’s resignation, having seen tweets indicating I don’t consider it significant. She suggested I write about problems of “accountability” with institutions like Mam’s, along with the “history and failures of the organization and others like it.”

I asked if she was acquainted with my work, mentioning my research on projects to help and save women who sell sex, documented in Sex at the Margins, which originatedthe concept of a “rescue industry.” Since my analysis rarely gets into the mainstream, the focus of anything I do for such outlets would have to explain the basics about that industry. The editor replied that she was not interested in anything so broad. I said if she wanted someone who has studied Mam’s annual reports and the workings of her rescue centers, I have not. I got no reply.

To focus on accountability implies that one accepts that there is a verifiable phenomenon to be accountable about, to espouse the fundamental propositions about human trafficking promoted by government, moral entrepreneurs, and the media which cry that trafficking, especially the kind where women sell sex, is the great scourge of our time. To focus on accountability assumes that the dominant narrative is based on reality, and all we have to do is quibble about individual ethics and demand high standards. This is all wrong.

There are flagrant injustices that need to be addressed regarding undocumented travel and labor, including selling sex. Exploitation of all kinds is rampant, and libertarian claims to bodily autonomy, the adult right to trade sex for money, and “no borders” are not enough. As I’ve been saying for many years, new migration and labor policies can begin to address the problems — not criminalization, policing, the infantilization of women, or raising “rescuer” to a saintly profession. The trafficking hoo-hah is not “myth,” but a terrible misnomer and misframing  — the glossing of complex social phenomena into a simplistic idea that fails over and over, even on its own terms.

In the wide field I call the rescue industry (all missions to “help” women who sell sex, or save them from it), one personality like Mam more or less is unimportant. She became a figurehead through a cult of personality, the phenomenon by which people uninformed about a subject look up to an individual as an inspiring symbol, endowing them with expertise and special knowledge, imagining they are leaders. Cults of personality rely on an unquestioning belief that the hero worshipped has the right fine feelings about an issue, perhaps gained through personal experience.

Human trafficking as a cause began to catch on with the general public in part when film stars attached themselves to it, adding patronage of exciting causes to their portfolios. Various UN agencies named actors as “Goodwill Ambassadors,” lending needed color to the endless parade of men in suits (bureaucrats), men in uniform (police), and frowning women that held sway. Such celebrities presumably inform themselves by reading what comes up easily in online searches, which means media reports parroting uncorroborated statistics and sensationalist horror stories.

To make their knowledge seem real, however, and to be able to project their feelings of caring, celebrities make field-visits to rescue centers in poorer countries. A long list of Hollywood and other celebrities have used such visits to demonstrate their empathy — many specifically visiting Mam venues: Mira Sorvino, Ashton Kutcher, Susan Sarandon, Meg Ryan, Demi Moore, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Emma Thompson, and many more. I have written many times about visits like these as an expression of colonialism.

In the world of NGOs, visits by a raft of different characters are viewed as an unfortunate but necessary part of survival. Whole days are dedicated to showing outsiders tidbits of projects in the hope that flattering reports will reach donors’ eyes. Those receiving visits carefully orchestrate them to be entertaining and rewarding for visitors, including by arranging photo opportunities. It is totally conventional for the same objects of pity to be wheeled out every time: They have learned their lines and how to behave appropriately, they know how to hug visitors and smile for the camera. It would be too time-consuming to set up a new scenario for every visit.

The repetition of stories by the same inmates is well known, as is the phenomenon by which victims learn to embellish their stories to provoke more sympathy in listeners (including researchers and program evaluators). That these narrations are often exaggerated in performance or fabricated out of whole cloth is so well known in NGO circles as to be banal. Everyone does it, one old hand wrote me.

Those not familiar with this world are upset to discover that Mam made theater for visitors, because they seem to assume that NGOs must be squeaky-clean ethical. But NGOs (even if their tax-status is called nonprofit) are organizations with employees who want careers, security, and decent salaries so they can buy houses, cars, and everything else employees of profit-making businesses want.

NGOs operate in a precarious world of capricious funding in which they are forced to write proposals for projects in vogue with donors, even projects that contradict their own beliefs. NGO workers cultivate an attitude of benevolently caring more about their social causes than others do, but this is identity-formation, not fact — the building of a satisfying self-image to project to the world. These are conventionally career-seeking people, not self-sacrificing saints.

Of course, fabricating stories to get more followers and money is unethical, and Mam seems to have done a lot of it. Inventing a few false victims for public consumption does not, however, prove there are no real victims or that Mam’s activities never helped anyone. This is why the SMF foundation had her resign — so that activities can continue and damage can be limited.

Will any donors lose significant confidence and withdraw funding because of revelations that her story and two others were falsified? I doubt it. Donors do not like to admit they were duped. But if some do stop funding SMF, they will simply shift support to other similar institutions engaged in the same cause, since the money was already earmarked for it. And some new figure with the ability to stir feelings will eventually emerge from the hundreds of groups now dedicated to sex trafficking and sex slavery.

Figureheads and personalities are of little significance, anyway. The anti-trafficking movement is now structurally mainstreamed in overlapping national and international initiatives — bigger, like the US Trafficking in Persons Office and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and smaller, like the Swedish Institute. Multinational projects like the Global Slavery Index provide official-looking data on trafficking that rest on the wobbliest of sources.

The machinery is now well-oiled. Personalities are beloved by the general public, but dry technocrats and calculating consultants are in charge, with the regular intervention of opportunist politicians.

Then there are the journalists. A few years ago, a veteran New York literary agent said she could not consider my book proposal because she believed Nicholas Kristof. If he was right, I could not be. Kristof’s flying photo-shoots to the jungle were worth more than my twenty years of research. For members of the liberal mainstream that expect the New York Times to be responsible and unbiased, his protagonism in the sex-trafficking craze has been a moral seal of approval, and those liberals feel betrayed by him.

Never expecting institutions like the Times or the Guardian to be unbiased, I paid little attention to Kristof until late 2011, when he live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia alongside Somaly Mam. When I expressed revulsion at this on my blog, I received hate mail. One was not permitted to question Great White Hunter reporters. I was a nobody — how dare I write on this topic? I responded with The Soft Side of Imperialism: Kristof and the Rescue Industry.

Despite many takedowns, Kristof has maintained his popularity, in another cult of personality that simply refuses to ask critical questions. After Mam’s exposure in Newsweek, Kristof first said mildly that it is difficult to pin down facts in Cambodia, excusing himself by faulting a backward nation. After being upbraided loudly by other journalistshe disavowed Mam in a move even more repulsive than his original adulation. But to complain about his misplaced faith is merely an attempt to shift the blame from his followers’ own original flawed act: allowing a sanctimonious Braggadocchio to define the facts in a complex and contradictory field.

One can understand how people swallow grand claims at the outset of a craze, but not years later, after repeated public failures to find large numbers of self-identified victims, the obvious re-branding of old categories like pimping as “trafficking” in order to inflate numbers of villains, and the steady debunking of myths like the sky-rocketing of sex trafficking at sports events.

Why do supporters whine that Kristof deceived them when they have no one to blame but themselves for refusing to face the truth for so many years? They complain that journalists should be accountable, but Kristof writes on sex trafficking in his columnist identity, on editorial pages where his is not the only mediocrity. He is part of a mainstream media machine that supports the status quo and ignores ideas not originated by old-boy networks.

Sad personal stories constitute the most convincing evidence of suffering presented by figureheads like Mam and Kristof. But even if all these were verifiable, they cannot justify the enormous outlay in time, money, and spirit assigned to this cause over time. And sad stories are much less common than the not-so-sad, less sensational stories told to many dozens of field researchers who have interviewed women who sell sex, many of them undocumented migrants (even leaving aside self-identified professional sex workers). Yet these more complicated stories are disqualified by anti-trafficking adherents who dismiss anything that throws doubt on their crusade.

The current fuss about Kristof and Mam reproduces the cult of personality that caused trouble in the first place. To focus on individuals is to avoid addressing structures. A couple of self-promoting showoffs pale beside proliferating government machinery that now churns out salaries and prestige for thousands worldwide caught up in a movement based on fraud.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Cry with trafficked women: Colonial prurience and 3-star hotels

I’ve been ill a great deal this year and for the past month bowed down by a death, but the imminence of August cranked me up sufficiently to vent my now annual disgust at tours from the US that take well-paying travellers to gawk at and pity poorer people in Other Countries (who always smile in the photos taken, of course). If there is anything I hate it’s this. In 2011 I wrote Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour, illustrating it with the egregious Kristof, who has not a jot of shame about looking like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. Given the sexual aspect, the word prurience came to mind: socially-sanctioned permission to be a voyeur, to go to bars abroad you wouldn’t set foot in at home as part of a do-gooding ‘social justice’ trip. To my mind, this is sex tourism.

This year’s tour to Thailand Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking is aimed at aspiring individuals. What might they mean by that? And why do they call this a delegation to end trafficking rather than, if not pure tourism, a first step towards understanding trafficking? The pretension is obviously meant to provide something to add to CVs, the way internships in impressive-sounding organisations do, though at least those last some months, whereas this tour takes a week (5 -12 August). Look at the rhetoric:

Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings. Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking, and will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle to expose and ultimately end the trade in human lives.

This is B-movie-type public-relations prose: facilitating – delegation – geared – confronting – realities – global trade – human beings – comprehensive education – mechanics – human trafficking – participants – comprehensive education – mechanics – underlying causes – freed from slavery – rebuild one’s life – frontlines of the struggle – expose – end the trade – human lives. Nothing concrete, nothing real.

For those who aren’t clear as to why I call this colonialism, note the clear differentiation between Subject (tourist) and Object (exotic other). I believe this is the first time they claim tourists will talk with people who have been freed from slavery – an obvious pitch to the cheapest of sentiments. I am appalled that Global Exchange maintains any credibility. Last year I wrote the following in Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk, because online sales of folkloric and supposedly authentic third-worldish objects is how GE started:

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

This year they provide an itinerary, which includes:

In the morning drive to Chiang Mai: Check into Guesthouse
Visit local project
At night visit nightclubs and bars to observe night activities

It’s been made clear to me that ordinary people in the US have no understanding of what colonialism means and how they themselves perpetuate it. That needs work. Perhaps having broken the spell of not writing I’ll begin again now, even if it is August.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The Em- of Empowerment: Neoliberal missionaries and maternalism

I remember where I first heard the word empowerment. It was a poor, not very attractive place, the kind celebrities visit to have feel-good photos taken of themselves hugging children who appear to adore them. The girls at Somaly Mam’s over-visited home for ex-victims of trafficking are regularly required to perform the emotional work of gazing happily at rich visitors from abroad (as in this shot the US State Department has the nerve to call ‘diplomacy’).

Celebrity Rescuers like Shay Mitchell imagine they are experiencing Love:

My friends and I went to [a Mam] center, and we literally got out of the truck and the younger girls were running to me and my friends. They hadn’t met us before, they had no idea who we were. They didn’t care. It was just the fact we’d come to visit — that was enough for them to come up and give us a hug. They were saying, “Sister, sister.” That was unconditional love like I’ve never felt in my entire life.

That’s a lot of naiveté, even for a missionary. Do these folks actually not know that oft-visited residents learn how they are meant to greet fat-cat visitors? And there’s a jolly neoliberal proposition:

Somaly has heart-and-hand necklaces . . . They’re survivor-made products and when you purchase them, you’re helping a survivor become financially self-sufficient.

Self-sufficient – Is she kidding? Mam’s website is characterised by statements like We help victims of sex slavery to become survivors, and empower survivors as part of the solution. Thirteen years ago I wrote the following piece daring to doubt the idea of empowerment, and I haven’t changed my mind today. (More repellent feel-good photos here, if you can stomach them. Below, I do believe some of the faces from another Mam photo shoot are the same as above)

The Em- of Empowerment: Injecting pride in unwilling subjects?

Laura Agustín, Research for Sex Work, 3, 15-16 (2000).

The verb is transitive: someone gives power to another, or encourages them to take power or find power in themselves. It’s used among those who want to help others identified as oppressed. In Latin America, in educación popular, one of the great cradles of this kind of concept, the word itself didn’t exist until it was translated back from English. To many people, if they know it at all, the word empoderamiento sounds strange. It’s an NGO word, used by either volunteer or paid educators who view themselves as helpers of others or fighters for social justice, and is understood to represent the current politically correct way of thinking about ‘third world’, subaltern or marginalised people. But it remains a transitive verb, which places emphasis on the helper and her vision of her capacity to help, encourage and show the way. These good intentions, held also by 19th-century European missionaries, we know from experience do not ensure non-exploitation.

In the current version of these good intentions, ‘first-world’ people and entities use their funds to help or empower those less privileged. They spend money to set up offices and pay salaries, many to people who remain in offices, often engaged in writing proposals that will allow them to stay in business. These organisations have hierarchies, and those engaged in education or organisation at the grassroots level often are the last to influence how funds will be used. Those closer to the top, who attend conferences, live in Europe or have career interests in the organisation, know how proposals must be written to compete in the crowded funding world. This condition of structural power should not be overlooked by those concerned with empowerment, who more often view themselves as embattled, as non-government, as crusaders situated against conservative policies. Yet, when a concept like empowerment comes from above in this way, we needn’t be surprised at the kind of contradictions that result—literacy programmes that don’t keep people interested in reading, AIDS education that doesn’t stop people from refusing to use condoms.

To empower me as a sex worker you assume the role of acting on me and you assume that I see myself as an individual engaged in sex work. If I don’t see myself this way, then I am disqualified from the empowerment project, despite your best intentions. The identity issue here is crucial; funders and activists alike are currently interested in valorising cultural and individual difference. While it is a great advance to recognise and ‘give voice to’ human subjects who were before marginalised or disappeared, the problem remains that if you want to inject pride in me that I am a worker and supporter of my family and I don’t recognise or want to think of myself that way, the advance won’t occur, in my case.

But, you say, those are the real conditions, we live in a world of funders and partial successes. We’re doing the best we can, and we acknowledge that these empowerment projects often fail. Since it’s to no one’s benefit that successes be quite so partial, let’s consider whether there is any way which this empowerment concept might be conceived differently, forgetting for the moment the funder and his funds.

In educación popular, in programmes sometimes called capacitación [capacity-building], people get together to talk, sometimes with the encouragement of a person from ‘outside’. This person might be called an animadora or an educator, her job to facilitate conditions where subjects might realise they have a problem in common which, if they acted together, they might be able to move toward solving. I’m describing a very fundamental, ‘pure’ version, perhaps, now complicated in many places in many ways by different histories, international contacts, hybrid forms. Still, it’s worth considering what the most basic idea always has been.

Here, the most the outsider does is provide the suggestion of a time and place, with perhaps a very basic reason for getting together, perhaps just ‘meeting neighbours’. Who finds out about this meeting? Everyone who lives there, if it’s a village or small barrio and people talk to each other fairly freely. Letting people know can be an important task of the outsider. Sometimes, in larger places, an ‘identity’ is targeted, but it can be a very general identity, such as everyone concerned to improve conditions in the community.

The educator/animator might suggest the group talk about a topic such as how to get running water, bus service or rubbish collection—topics of concern to everyone, including sex workers. Or she might present a question—such as why everyone is talking about migrating to work somewhere else—and hope people will respond. But if they don’t, and if nothing seems to happen, her job is to resist the temptation to push the conversation. The hope is rather that if people feel free to talk, they will, eventually, if only to see if others share their feelings. This process can be extremely slow and even invisible, and no money or materials from outside are required. The profound assumption is rather that people themselves already know a lot—what they want, what they need. If they agree after some time that a technical fact or help is needed that none of them possess, then they might feel ‘empowered’ to search for that fact on the outside.

Does the ‘outsider’actually need to be there during this process? The answer depends on the person, on how quietly encouraging she is, on how patient and undisappointed if the group doesn’t take off, agree on anything or if it agrees to a programme the opposite of what the funders want.

Can this vision be applied when funders seem concerned solely with the sex organs of people assumed to ‘identify’ themselves as sex workers? If educators must ‘target’ prostitutes as those who come to a meeting? Perhaps, if the same kind of mostly undirected sharing of experiences is encouraged. Many times sex workers will then be heard to discuss not sex, clients and condoms—the topics always brought up by funders—but all the other aspects of their lives, which are not peculiar to them as sex workers. They might talk about a new song, a new dress, a new club—or a new idea for getting together to protect and help each other.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Chink in the Evangelical wall: Sex trafficking, colonialism and Christian ethics

In Are Evangelicals Monopolizing, Misleading US Anti-Trafficking Efforts? Yvonne Zimmerman, author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking, is asked if US anti-trafficking crusades could be called colonialist. She replies, ‘It’s an argument waiting to be made’. Since I’ve been making it for ten years, I had to write to her. It’s certainly true that the critique of colonialism is not often heard, despite the term Rescue Industry‘s spread.

Evangelical bloggers did not like hearing the word. John Mark Reynolds reacted scathingly in Surprise! Evangelical Efforts Against Sex-Trafficking are ‘Colonialist’! followed by Derek Rishmawy in Sex-Trafficking, Evangelical ‘Colonialism’ and the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. He gets prize for the most ignorant sarcastic crack: If that’s ‘colonialism’, then it’s the holy colonialism of God at work through his people. Welcome to the White Man’s Burden, shamelessly justified all over again, where the idea of colonialism is treated like a joke – or ‘joke’.

To make things worse, Reynolds used a flagrantly racist image to bias his own piece, showing a dark-skinned and/or dirty man handling an innocent white child. The shot is one of several someone created for campaigning purposes – whether they understood the inherent racism I don’t know.

I asked Yvonne to tell me what Other Dreams of Freedom is about and why she wrote it.

It is very popular for American Christians to be involved in anti-trafficking activism. Although some American Christians are interested in a broad understanding of trafficking that includes exploitative labor, usually they mean sex trafficking. And usually by sex trafficking they mean commercial sex – any exchange of sex or sexual services for money. They think that if people no longer sell sexual services they will be free from trafficking, so they favor programs that ‘fight trafficking’ by trying to get people to leave the sex industry. Means to this end vary from educational scholarships to job-training programs to brothel raids. In terms of law and policy, many American Christians support the abolitionist agenda to criminalize all sex-money exchanges.

I am a scholar of religious studies and ethics. I wrote Other Dreams of Freedom to examine why this anti-trafficking perspective feels so appealing and ‘right’ to many American Christians. When I was doing the research between 2005 and 2008, George W. Bush was president and his administration was constructing an international anti-trafficking agenda, often referring to God, God’s intent for human life and Good and Evil. I focused on anti-trafficking legislation (TVPA), the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, public policy statements and press releases. These were not trying to be religious, but I saw how they expressed a very particular religious and moral sensibility.

But Other Dreams of Freedom is about more than Bush. The understanding of human trafficking that his administration endorsed is wildly popular in the US; Americans who identify with a wide variety of other religious traditions defend this view. My book shows how Christian theology rooted in Reformed Protestantism infuses and shapes much American culture and moral sensibility, including the connections between sex, freedom and morality. My analysis of the theological sources clarifies why Americans are so quick to see commercial sex to be inherently degrading and immoral. The book discusses the unintended consequences of using a single religious perspective to build foreign policy in a multi-religious world.

Morgan Guyton at Mercy not Sacrifice also wrote about the original interview, and Yvonne left a comment that mentioned me, so I left something, too. Guyton replied:

What I have carried with me from my first job at a little NGO in DC called the Nicaragua Network is that any kind of real support we offer to people in disadvantaged situations anywhere must always have its terms dictated to us by the people we’re supposedly helping. We called it the solidarity model. In Christianese, I would call it ‘servanthood’ rather than ‘service’. It’ s great that young evangelicals are interested in social justice, but it seems like the way it’s often packaged makes it more like a form of tourism than anything else. I’m interested in reading more.

Yvonne Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Note that Christian Evangelism exists outside the US and behaves similarly when it comes to trafficking: here is a recent note about CARE in the UK.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Kristof’s asinine smarm: the Soft Side of Imperialism redux

For everyone now suffering from Mr Smarm’s documentary – which I’ve only heard about – here’s The Soft Side of Imperialism again. When being irritated or outraged in a way that feels visceral and personal it is useful to be reminded of the structural issues propping up liberalism, and Kristof is an egregious example of apologist for US imperialism.

Numerous people have written to express particular outrage that Kristof’s Facebook game should be like FarmVille, with women taking the place of farm animals, to be looked after. Others wrote to say the word smarmy was just right to describe him. Rescue Industry magnate supreme, fond of bragging about his multiple Pulitzer Prizes – which are circulated amongst members of the same old white-boys’ club eternally – this unattractive man is also a mediocre writer. Is the movie version any good?

Kristof and the Rescue Industry:
The Soft Side of Imperialism

by LAURA AGUSTÍN, 25 January 2012, Counterpunch

Reasons abound to be turned off by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He is too pleased with himself and demonstrates no capacity for self-reflection. He is too earnest. He claims to be in the vanguard of journalism because he tweets. He is said to be Doing Something about human suffering while the rest of us don’t care; he is smarmy. He doesn’t write particularly well. But most important, he is an apologist for a soft form of imperialism.

He poses for photos with the wretched of the earth and Hollywood celebrities in the same breath, and they are a perfect fit. Here he is squatting and grinning at black children, or trying to balance a basket on his head, and there he is with his arm over Mia Farrow’s shoulder in the desert. Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.

In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak for girls and women and then shows us how grateful they are. His Wikipedia entry reads like hagiography.

Keen to imply that he’s down with youth and hep to the jive, he lamely told one interviewer that “All of us in the news business are wondering what the future is going to be.” He is now venturing into the world of online games, the ones with a so-called moral conscience, like Darfur is Dying, in which players are invited to “Help stop the crisis in Darfur” by identifying with refugee characters and seeing how difficult their lives are. This experience, it is presumed, will teach players about suffering, but it could just as well make refugees seem like small brown toys for people to play with and then close that tab when they get bored. Moral conscience is a flexible term anyway: One click away from Darfur is Dying is a game aimed at helping the Pentagon improve their weapons.

Kristof says his game will be a Facebook app like FarmVille: “You’ll have a village, and in order to nurture this village, you’ll have to look after the women and girls in the village.” The paternalism couldn’t be clearer, and to show it’s all not just a game (because there’s actual money involved), schools and refugee camps get funds if you play well. A nice philanthropic touch.

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. Hollywood westerns lived off the image of white Europeans as civilizing force for decades, depicting the slaughter of redskins in the name of freedom. Their own freedom, that is, in the foundational American myth that settlers were courageous, ingenious, hard-working white men who risked everything and fought a revolution in the name of religious and political liberty.

Odd then, that so many Americans are blind when it comes to what they call humanitarianism, blissfully conscience-free about interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards. The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. (Mill required benevolence, but imperialists always claim to have the interests of the conquered at heart.) Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior.

In the formation of the 21st-century anti-trafficking movement, a morally convenient exception is made, as it was made for military actions in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The exception says This Time It’s Different. This time we have to go in. We have to step up and take the lead, show what real democracy is. In the name of freedom, of course. In the case of trafficking the exception says: We have achieved Equality. We abolished slavery, we had a civil-rights movement and a women’s liberation movement too and now everything is fine here.

With justification firmly in place, the US Rescue Industry imposes itself on the rest of the world through policies against prostitution, on the one hand, and against trafficking, on the other. In their book Half the Sky, Kristof and co-author Sheryl WuDunn liken the emancipation of women to the abolition of slavery, but his own actions –brothel raids, a game teaching players to protect village women – reflect only paternalism.

It may be easier to get away with this approach now than it was when W.T. Stead of London’s Pall Mall Gazette bought a young girl in 1885 to prove the existence of child prostitution. This event set off a panic that evil traders were systematically snatching young girls and carrying them to the continent – a fear that was disproved, although Stead was prosecuted and imprisoned for abduction.

In contrast, in 2004 when Kristof bought two young Cambodians out of a brothel, he took his cameraman to catch one girl’s weepy homecoming. A year later, revisiting the brothel and finding her back, Kristof again filmed a heartwarming reunion, this time between him and the girl. Presuming that being bought out by him was the best chance she could ever get, Kristof now reverted to a journalistic tone, citing hiv-infection rates and this girl’s probable death within a decade. She was not hiv-positive, but he felt fine about stigmatizing her anyway.

Then last November, Kristof live-tweeted a brothel raid in the company of ex-slave Somaly Mam. In “One Brothel Raid at a Time” he describes the excitement:

Riding beside Somaly in her car toward a brothel bristling with AK-47 assault rifles, it was scary. This town of Anlong Veng is in northern Cambodia near the Thai border, with a large military presence; it feels like something out of the Wild West. (New York Times)

There’s the cavalry moment again. A few days later Kristof boasted that six more brothels had closed as a result of the tweeted raid. Focused on out-of-work pimps, he failed to ask the most fundamental question: Where did the women inside those brothels go? The closures made them instantly vulnerable to trafficking, the very scenario Kristof would save them from.

Some Rescuers evoke the Christian mission directly, like Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission, which accompanies police in raids on brothels. Or like Luis CdeBaca, the US Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking, who unselfconsciously aligns himself with William Wilberforce, the evangelical Christian rescuers claim ended slavery – as though slaves and freed and escaped slaves had nothing to do with it. CdeBaca talks about the contemporary mission to save slaves as a responsibility uniquely belonging to Britain and the US.

Kristof positions himself as liberal Everyman, middle-class husband and father, rational journalist, transparent advocate for the underdog. But he likes what he calls the law-enforcement model to end slavery, showing no curiosity about police behavior toward victims during frightening raids. Ignoring reports of the negative effects these operations have on women, and the 19th-century model of moral regeneration forced on them after being rescued, he concentrates on a single well-funded program for his photo-opps, the one showing obedient-looking girls.

Kristof also fails to criticize US blackmail tactics. Issuing an annual report card to the world, the US Office on Trafficking presumes to judge, on evidence produced during investigations whose methodology has never been explained, each country according to its efforts to combat human trafficking. Reprisals follow – loss of aid – for countries not toeing the line. Kristof is an apologist for this manipulative policy.

To criticize the Rescue Industry is not to say that slavery, undocumented migration, human smuggling, trafficking and labor exploitation do not exist or involve egregious injustices. Yet Kristof supporters object to any critique with At least he is Doing Something. What are you doing to stop child rape? and so on. This sort of attempt to deflect all criticism is a hallmark of colonialism, which invokes class and race as reasons for clubbing together against savagery and terrorism. The Rescue Industry, like the war on terrorism, relies on an image of the barbaric Other.

It is important not to take at face value claims to be Helping, Saving or Rescuing just because people say that is what they are doing and feel emotional about it. Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Discussing Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe said Conrad used 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)

The latest sahib in colonialism’s dismal parade, Kristof is the Rescue Industry at its well-intentioned worst.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist