He who allows oppression, shares the crime. – Erasmus Darwin
My two main sources of topics are emails from readers (thank y’all very much!) and things I find on other blogs and websites. I subscribe to a number of them and visit several others daily, and though most of the items I can use are of the “news” variety I also derive inspiration from other people’s blog essays. When this happens I always give credit, but what’s interesting is that sometimes I go off in a slightly or wholly different direction from the original source. Regular readers know that one of the blogs which most often inspires me in this way is The Naked Anthropologist, by Dr. Laura Agustín; I first discovered her while researching “Something Rotten in Sweden” and since then I have learned more about the issues surrounding “human trafficking” from her than from any other source. I highly recommend her column, which provides a wealth of valuable insight into the way problems are defined into existence by people who like to put everything and everyone into tidy little pigeonholes and then become frustrated and angry when people refuse to stay put in their assigned slots.
She and I have both had Nicholas Kristof on our minds lately (and though I can’t speak for her, let me tell you that for me that experience is rather like having a really annoying song stuck in one’s head). Kristof’s been harping on this whole “sex slave” thing for years now, but it seems as though lately his name and asinine statements keep popping up practically everywhere I look. Anyhow, Dr. Agustín’s December 4th column started out by reporting that an article which cited and largely agreed with her about Kristof was apparently censored by the site’s managers:
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?
This is especially interesting because In These Times is not entirely hostile to sex workers; Michelle Chen’s “Making Sex Workers Visible in the Village Voice Media Ad Controversy” (which mentioned yours truly and linked this blog) was first published on the site and concluded with the sentences, “Even people who object to sex work on principle or support anti-trafficking crackdowns can’t deny that sex work will always be a part of society, whatever the law says. In their struggle for justice and respect, sex workers don’t need to be “saved” from that reality, but they do need to be heard.” Yet apparently, questioning Kristof’s motives and/or veracity are Not Allowed. Dr. Agustín continues:
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 can 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?
This is where I veered off in a different direction; Dr. Agustín went on to talk more about Kristof’s colonialist viewpoint (interestingly comparing it to that of the narrator in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), but my mind followed the thread which led from that reductionist (and pigeonholing) term “seventh grader”. In a comment on her blog, I wrote:
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!
Then in her reply to my comment, she saw something I hadn’t really considered; that the “all or nothing” syndrome I brought up might explain why In These Times censored that article:
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.
She also called my attention to the hostile comments on her earlier Kristof article, pointing out that most of them did not understand what was wrong with the label. Interestingly, a number of the anti-Kristof comments in that thread made the same observations about his creepy fascination with young “sex slaves” as I have on several occasions; one even asked “Would you want him near your daughter?” (I certainly wouldn’t).
Kristof and his ilk (including all who support him and stop their ears to criticism of his motives and methods) want the whole world crammed into tidy little pigeonholes that they define, and because they’ve decided that “prostitution is humiliating” they conclude that all prostitutes are “slaves”, that armed and brutal force is the way to “free” them, and that criminalization and brothel raids are therefore “good” no matter what happens to the victims of those raids once Kristof has gone back to New York.
(UPDATE: Whether due to Dr. Agustin’s criticism, action by author Lindsay Beyerstein or an honest mistake by In These Times, the vanishing article has been restored; I have updated my link to reflect this. Thanks to Windypundit for calling it to my attention).
One Year Ago Today
“Mecca” debunks the oft-repeated prohibitionist lie that wherever prostitution is legalized or decriminalized the number of hookers surges dramatically.