The Rescue Industry

Kristof in Tahrir: Is that a brothel, or a KFC?

During the Egyptian Revolution, when the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was wandering Midan Tahrir giving the uprising his ponderous approval, I told friends that if Mubarak wanted to get at least one pesky journalist off his back, he need only give Nick directions to Clotbey Street — the capital’s ancient red-light district — and tell him there were girls who needed saving. Such is Kristof’s passion to rescue misused and trafficked women that he would have dropped everything to head there. And given that Nick permits no struggle for human freedom to go on without him, the revolt would surely have been suspended, and Mubarak would still be in charge.

Kristof is back, this week, with an attack on online advertising for sex work.  As always, his column starts with a moving personal story of a rescued woman, then moves without delay to assert this represents all prostitutes’ situations.   His target this time are the ads in Backpage and The Village Voice; he agrees with the largely-discredited Ashton Kutcher that these are fronts for trafficking.

Melissa Giri Grant and Maggie McNeill have already gone after Kutcher’s unsurprisingly unresearched claims, so there’s no need to do so here.  Kristof doesn’t even bother with evidence; he contents himself with writing, ‘While there are no reliable figures for human trafficking, the more we look, the more we find.” But his solution is invariable — raid! arrest! or in this case, censor! ban!  The online venues for sale of sex must be eliminated. Also predictable is the highly case-specific Marxism, which assumes that in this one profession people who sell their labor are reduced to inert commodities, while longshoremen or auto workers or New York Times columnists go on the market but retain full consciousness. Sex ads on the Web are “a godsend to pimps, allowing customers to order a girl online as if she were a pizza.” It’s hard, really, to see how Kristof takes an interest in political revolutions at all, since the only sphere of life where he allows any analysis of exploitation is sex.

Never mind that Web ads are in fact a primary way for individual sex workers to seek clients without the mediation of pimps. Never mind that banning them will only drive sex workers into hierarchical, and potentially hyperexploitative, structures of employment. Another consistent feature of anti-trafficking campaigns is their indifference to their own consequences. The moral purity of the campaigners is what counts, not the welfare of the “victims.”

Raiders of the lost tart: Salvation tweets

Anthropologist Laura Agustin has been a naggingly exact critic of Kristof’s for a long time, pointing out not just his errors of fact but the sheer trivializing vulgarity of his stunts, like live-tweeting a raid on a brothel. On the same day as Kristof’s latest column, she published a piece in Counterpunch, “The Soft Side of Imperialism.”  She draws the connections between the Sex Rescuers and other forms of a corrupted humanitarianism that justifies forcible interventions in the name of voiceless “victims.”

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 victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. …

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. … 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. …

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.

What can I say? Read Agustin’s article. This is one of the central problems — curses — of the whole human rights field. Human Rights Watch used to proclaim itself a “voice for the voiceless”; I think it’s stopped, but the both the mentality and the language (which was used in Kristof’s citation for a Pulitzer Prize) persist in innumerable places. The truly victimized still have voices. They need to be listened to, not ventriloquized. The Rescue Industry only reveals the inflation of ego and the ignorance of history that infect the practice of human rights, at their most rhetorically weighted, their most emotionally addictive.