Tuesday, June 14, 2005

In Which We Take Up Our Little Axe Once More

It appears that this is going to be The Week of Mugging Liberal Columnists. An exchange in one of my health policy listservs has roused my latent ire for Nicholas Kristof, and damned if I'm going to sit on it any longer. I know everyone else probably got their mad on over this last January or even the one before, but I didn't have a blog then, so it's just going to have to be now.

Nicholas Kristof is a creepy-ass bleeding-heart patriarchalist with a seriously fucked relationship to women, whose endlessly self-chuffed pseudo-emancipatory adventures in the skin trade are not only inherently offensive but cause more harm than good, on more levels than I have leisure to detail today.

I address myself to the overall arc of his Great Cambodian Prostitute-Buying Adventure, because it illustrates tidily the massive problems both with his gender paradigm and with his approach to social problem-solving. I will, however, note in passing that in general, whenever he goes on a mission to some wrecked and destitute region and drums up a starving denizen to recount a heartrending story, that denizen is always, without fucking fail, a woman. Nicholas Kristof plainly views himself as Savior to the Oppressed Women of the World, bearing manfully up under the weight of a suitably liberalized and updated-for-the-21st-century White Man's Burden. This is deeply, deeply creepy.

As many of you no doubt already know, in January 2004 Kristof published the first of a series of columns in the New York Times (alas, you have to be registered to read these, but it is free if you can be bothered), detailing how he went to Cambodia to investigate child prostitution, and how in Poipet he met and then purchased two girls from brothels, to set them free and turn their lives around. Over the course of five columns, he detailed his exploits in meeting, bargaining for, successfully purchasing and returning the two girls to their families. A year later, he published a second series in which he returned to check up on the progress of his purchases, who obligingly arranged themselves into a tidy one-success-one-lost-cause binary
for his narrative convenience.

Along the way, he missed no opportunity to big up his 'wildly unjournalistic' chutzpah in actually doing this craaaazy thing, and to trumpet his own bona fides and gonzo-humanitarian cred. What comes through loud and clear, however, is his grossly sexist, proprietary and cultural-imperialist attitude to the women he seeks to liberate.

Let me first take a moment to dispatch the merit of his project from the get-go.

From a feminist perspective, and certainly if you're a white western man, buying prostitutes to free them is desperately, fatally not on. However pure the intent, we live in a society deep-structured with sexism, and we don't have the luxury of assuming we can arbitrarily empty these acts of their societal content. The reason this act made so many people squirm at the time, and the reason Kristof won't stop banging on about its unorthodoxy, is down to this. There is a frisson of illicit sexual power there, and it's real, and it's corrupting. It taints the project from word one.

2) As an approach to solving the problem of sex trafficking, it's worse than useless, it's actively harmful. As many people have pointed out, buying prostitutes creates a market in prostitutes. Duh. But beyond that, it generates the illusion that, if enough people were as caring and generous and proactive as Nicholas Kristof, we could *each* buy a woman out of prostitution and then yay! there'd be no more prostitutes!

That piecemeal liberal-charity approach is actively harmful because it works to obscure the real root causes and material conditions that engender prostitution. So while everyone involved gets to feel that they're doing their bit and making the world better (which, give them credit, they're [mostly] genuinely trying to do), those underlying dynamics, which will continue to throw up prostitutes (and, for that matter, suicide bombers) as fast as we buy them out, go unaddressed.

Generalized, this method siphons people's genuine goodwill and instinct to help others off in completely impotent directions, leaving the underlying problems untouched. And then, corollarily, when one of Kristof's purchases ends up right back in the business a year later, the narrative move is to blame her, as being somehow incorrigible. As not wanting to be saved. As if buying her and dumping her right back in the exact conditions that sent her to the brothel in the first place, the only change being one hundred Kristof-supplied (and undoubtedly Times-reimbursed) dollars in her pocket, had a Sno-Cone's fucking chance in hell of working out.

I want to share a handful of vignettes from the process, as they speak more eloquently than I could to how squirm-makingly the whole thing proceeded, from beginning to end.

Here, Kristof is interviewing one of the girls, Srey Neth, to determine her suitability to receive his emancipatory largesse:

"Do you really want to leave?" I asked. "Are you sure you wouldn't come back to this?"

She had been watching TV and listlessly answering my questions. Now she turned abruptly and snorted. "This is a hell," she said sharply, speaking with passion for the first time. "You think I want to do this?"
What's fascinating here is that, while Kristof is busy plying his irrelevant, meaningless and ahistorical gating standards, she's telling him so. And he doesn't even see it. He thinks he sees passion for escape, and to a certain degree that's there too. But what he misses entirely is this 17-year-old girl telling him not that she doesn't want it, but that 'want' has nothing whatsofuckingever to do with it. It's an extraordinary moment, accidentally reproduced through the idiot lens of Kristof's consciousness. Srey Neth sees herself in her own material context with infinitely greater clarity than her would-be liberator does.

The liberation of the second girl, Srey Mom, turns out to be fraught and bumpy; from the beginning she's being established as the bad girl, the difficult daughter. Kristof haggles over her (a humiliation he neither mitigates nor marks), makes a deal with her owner, and then encounters a hitch:

But at Srey Mom's brothel, her owner announced that the debt was not $70, as the girl had thought, but $400.

"Where are the books?" I asked. A ledger was produced, and it purported to show that Srey Mom owed the equivalent of $337.
But it also revealed that the girls were virtually A.T.M.'s for the brothels, generating large sums of cash that the girls were cheated out of. After some grumpy negotiation, the owner accepted $203 as the price for Srey Mom's freedom. But then Srey Mom told me that she had pawned her cellphone and needed $55 to get it back.

"Forget about your cellphone," I said. "We've got to get out of here."

Srey Mom started crying. I told her that she had to choose her cellphone or her freedom, and she ran back to her tiny room in the brothel and locked the door.


"Grab this chance while you can," the owner begged Srey Mom. But the girl would not give in. After half an hour of hysterics about the cellphone, I felt so manipulated that I almost walked out. But I finally caved.

"O.K., O.K., I'll get back your cellphone," I told her through the door. The tears stopped.

"My jewelry, too?" she asked plaintively. "I also pawned some jewelry."

So we went to get back the phone and the jewelry — which were, I think, never the real concern. Srey Mom later explained that her resistance had nothing to do with wanting the telephone and everything to do with last-minute cold feet about whether her family and village would accept her if she returned.
Do you see? Do you see what he did? Do you see why she had 'cold feet'? She was being sold, not to her freedom, but to a man, a man whose first act of ownership was to tell her she had to choose between her tiny bit of personal property and her freedom. Poor ill-used, well-meaning Nicholas: after a half-hour of 'hysterics' [oh jesus christ there is no single word in the English language better calculated to incite me to homicidal feminist rage], he felt so 'manipulated' he almost packed in his heroic quest to save the ungrateful, irrational Srey Mom. Lucky Srey Mom, he's so soft-hearted he 'caved'.

And when, drawing on her professionally acquired skills at pleasing men, she feeds him the tremulous, emotional explanation he so obviously requires for her recalcitrance, he bites like a fucking large-mouthed bass. Like a john.

At the end of that column, he pauses for self-satisfied rumination:

So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We'll see.
'Find freedom so unsettling?' 'Slink back to slavery?' Is he for fucking real? This is analysis of a sophistication roughly equalling that which traces terrorism to people who 'Hate Our Freedom'. It's offensive, and grotesque, and profoundly, bottomlessly ignorant.

In his blog
, Kristof explains how he came to choose these two, and what he was looking for in a rescuee. An afterthought reveals volumes about the character of his gaze:

In Cambodia, there was one teenager, Jen, a shy, sweet farm girl, whose freedom I had intended to purchase. But later, I couldn't find Jen, so she's presumably still in Poipet, slowly dying. [my emphasis]


...I still wonder about Jen and the accidents of fate. If she had just been around when we visited, then I might have tried to buy her freedom and not Srey Mom’s.
Why the thinly-veiled regret at having chosen 'hysterical' Srey Mom instead of demure, pleasing Jen? Flash forward a year: the follow-up series. Having left each girl with her family, each with $100 explicitly given to help them become little entrepreneurs, having treated us in technicolor to the bathetic excesses of Srey Mom's welcome home, Kristof returns now to check on his investments. (Now we get the full interactive treatment, complete with unbelievably prurient 'before' pictures of Srey Neth on display in her brothel bedroom and earnest voiceover from Kristof.)

Surprise! Srey Neth, the Good Grateful Girl, has made it. She has not returned to the brothel. If you look carefully though, you'll find that it wasn't Kristof's entrepreneurial intervention that saved her. She started a little grocery shack with her $100, and for a while she was successful, but then, outrage! Her starving family members, failing to understand the necessity to plow profits back into inventory, kept taking and eating her wares! They ate her out of her store, those greedy, ungrateful, economically-illiterate starving Cambodian villagers. So oops, it was about to be back to the brothel for Srey Neth, when a real aid group (for what that's worth), American Assistance for Cambodia, caught up with her and sent her to beauty school. Now she's a trainee hairdresser, and she cut Kristof's hair, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Except, you'll be exactly none shocked to learn, Srey Mom. In case you missed all that foreshadowing, Srey Mom was the Bad Girl. She didn't really want to stop being a prostitute. Not enough, anyway. Kristof goes back and to his endless, puke-inducingly fatherly disappointment, finds her back in the same brothel:

I hate to write anyone off, but I'm afraid that Srey Mom will remain in the brothel until she is dying of AIDS (36 percent of girls in local brothels have H.I.V., and eventually it catches up with almost all of them). I finally dared tell her my fear. I described some young women I had just seen, gaunt and groaning, dying of AIDS in Poipet, and I told her I feared she would end up the same way.

"I'm afraid of that, too," she replied, her voice breaking. "This is an unhappy life. I don't want to do this."

Maybe that's what I find saddest about Srey Mom: She is a wonderful, good-hearted girl who gives money to beggars, who offers Buddhist prayers for redemption - but who is already so broken that she seems unable to escape a world that she hates and knows is killing her.
Can you fucking gag on the sanctimony? The ultra-thin veneer of sympathy overlaying vicious judgmentalism that 'she was addicted to methamphetamines, and that craving destroyed her will power, sending her fleeing back to the brothel so that she could get her drugs'?

The absolute fucking gall of it. Kristof took a drug-addicted teenage prostitute, bought her, took her back to the home she'd fled because she fought intolerably with her violently abusive mother, and on the strength of a tearful happy-reunion scene left her there with $100 to start a pork stall in the market. And he has the endless seething gall to be Disappointed, to Write Her Off With Sadness In His Heart, when he comes back to find his miracle cure didn't take.

That, that right there, is why for all his desperate bleedinghearted aching for world pain, for all his laudable desire to bring our attention to the suffering of people across the globe, for all his plush $25,000 Michael Kelly Award, that is why Nicholas Kristof is in the end a Really Bad Thing. But hey, at $150 a head, twenty-five G's will buy a fuck of a lot of teenage whores.

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