The White Thought Leader’s Burden: Nicholas Kristof Saves the World

In a New York Times column from November 2011, Nicholas Kristof described how he rode along with Somaly Mam, an activist against the Cambodian sex trade, as she andKnight_Santiago several armed police officers raided a brothel. Kristof plays up the danger of the event, describing the officers’ assault weapons and his own trepidation, while playing up the bravery and nobility of Mam and her mission. Of course, the implicit message is that the humble scribe, Kristof, is also brave and noble, not only accompanying Mam in the raid but also using his international platform as a Times journalist to spread word of her deeds around the globe. Kristof, for those who do not know, has a reputation for traversing the globe and using the power of the pen to bring attention to crimes and injustices that the West, for whatever reason, chooses to ignore. He stokes the fires of moral duty and compassion within his readership, making the case for action and intervention, so that the mighty West might use its powers and wealth to save lives and right wrongs.

Unfortunately, the world is rarely so black and white. As Melissa Gira Grant writes in a New York Times op-ed, Mam has been exposed as a fraud and, on Wednesday, resigned from the foundation she started to “rescue” sex workers. Human Rights Watch has found that the draconian measures adopted by the Cambodian government in response to the activism of Mam and her cheerleaders like Kristof have done more harm than good vis-à-vis the rights of Cambodian sex workers. According to the HRW report, sex workers in Cambodian are indiscriminately arrested and abused. Police extort, assault and rape sex workers with impunity. Rather than work in conjunction with the sex workers themselves to design and implement programs and policies that would uplift sex workers, the Cambodian government has responded solely by stamping out the problem with violence. By apologizing and resigning, Mam has admitted some responsibility for this turn of events. Don’t expect the same from Kristof.

For Kristof and his kind, Western intervention leaves no room for nuance. He doesn’t probe the intricacies of an issue or examine the consequences when Western pressure materializes around it. People don’t want to know that “saving the world” is complicated, any more than they want to believe that people might prefer something other than Western values or institutions, or that the effects of globalization might not all be positive. They want to believe that the West should and can realize the dreams of utopian liberals: end world hunger, stop genocide, eradicate inequality and exploitation, etc. – all without dramatically altering the global status quo. According to people like Kristof, it is never complex, deep-rooted structural parameters like colonialism or capitalism that are at fault, but Western ignorance or indifference. That the West has the agency to make the world a better place is never in doubt; the problem is people just do not know or care about these problems, but that’s all going to change with his next think piece, gosh darn it!

While this approach is already problematic, Kristof makes it worse by criticizing feminists in the U.S. for not caring enough about all these non-U.S. problems he brings to the forefront. As Katha Pollitt points out in The Nation, Kristof has lambasted American feminists for “saving Title IX and electing more women to the Senate” rather than Cambodian sex slaves. This is just another example of the conservative critique of critics of U.S. domestic policy arguing that those critics should turn their gaze outward, toward abuses abroad. Just as we would expect activists in places like Iran and China to agitate for reform in their own backyards, why shouldn’t U.S. activists direct their efforts toward the monumental problems within the U.S.? Just because interventionist cheerleaders like Kristof operate from the conceit that the West is as perfect as to act as a global savior does not mean that everyone shares that view. Indeed, given our terrible track record at policing the world and “liberating” oppressed states, perhaps what is needed is less journalists exercising white affluent privilege to create new causes for other white affluent people to share to demonstrate their cosmopolitan credentials, and more inward-looking honesty about how flawed of a model we actually are, whether it be in terms of equal rights for women, race relations, environmental concerns, economic disparities… The list goes on.

Just a thought. But I’m not a thought leader.

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Misogyny and the Isla Vista Killings

On Friday, May 23, a 22-year-old man went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California. In a YouTube video and a lengthy manifesto, this man made it plainly clear that his actionsSoviet_feminism were “retribution” aimed specifically at women who had committed the “injustice” of not warming to his advances or returning his affection. He was active on a Web site promoting the so-called “men’s rights” movement, denouncing feminism and referring to himself as an “alpha male.”

Yet much of the subsequent journalism on the tragedy downplayed the killer’s motives, describing it as the senseless work of a lunatic, another aberrant “lone wolf” indicative of nothing more than the fact mentally ill people exist in our society. This in turn has led to an online backlash, as evidenced by the popularity of the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter, as well as excellent commentaries by Jessica Valenti at The Guardian and Laurie Penny at The New Statesman. I cannot hope to match either the eloquence or passion demonstrated in their pieces, and if you have not read those linked pieces, please stop reading this and go do so right now.

Unfortunately, TIME decided it would be a good idea to post a piece arguing that we cannot link the killings to misogyny:

“The very isolation that mass-homicide perpetrators feel makes them unlikely candidates to respond to societal trends. Rodger appears to have indeed been a misogynist, but this misogyny appears to have raged from within, a product of his anger, sexual frustrations and despondency rather than anything ‘taught’ to him by society. Had he not been so focused on his own sexual inadequacies, his focus might simply have moved to mall-goers rather than sorority sisters.”

The problem with this is that it begs the question where the misogyny “raging within” came from. The killer, as unhinged as he was, did not exist in a vacuum. The loathsome views he expressed in his video and his manifesto, as reluctant as we are to admit it, are familiar ones. He was, rather than being a “lone wolf,” a member of several online communities, whose members all adhere to the fundamental notion that women exist solely so that men can have a good time, that they are trophies to be won, that their value is only in the happiness they bring to men. To presume that he just randomly selected women as the targets of his vitriol and then devised a narrative from there is to give the killer too much credit. No, he was as unoriginal as he was disturbed. His actions were exceptionally abhorrent, but ideationally he was just an ardent sexist.

While I have thankfully never been a proponent of “men’s rights,” I did once subscribe to the sadly still common view that women innately prefer “bad boys” and that, as a nice and mild-mannered guy, I was doomed to failure with women. Since I was dependable and sensitive, the logic went, I would inevitably end up in the “friend zone” with whatever girl I was interested in, while she irrationally pursued a guy who would take advantage of her and neglect her. It was not until a little later in life that I realized how dangerous this thinking was. It rests on the assumption that, just because a man is nice (and, honestly, we are rarely as nice as we think we are), he is entitled to the affections of a woman, regardless of such considerations as the woman’s opinion of the man’s attractiveness, whether he was fun to be around, etc. Being a woman’s friend (and thus in the “friend zone”) was thus somehow a bad thing, as the only valued relationship between a man and woman would have to be romantic in nature. Women, according to this perspective, also cannot trusted to trust themselves; whatever man they are with of their own choosing is invariably the wrong man for them, because that man is not me.

Thankfully, as I grew older and was induced to think more critically, I realized just how awful this sort of thinking was. I also looked more closely at how relationships between men and women are portrayed, in everything from evening sitcoms to pornography. I also read and listened to just a smattering of testimonials out there by women of the horrors they have experienced, be it as victims of sexual assault, being stalked and harassed by people they know or strangers online, being paralyzed with fear and anxiety by men imposing themselves because they want sex or attention… The list goes on and on, and I will not pretend for even a moment that as a middle-class white male that I have been the foggiest inkling of the sorts of things the most average of women have to go through, even in these “enlightened” times. All I know for certain is that there is just as much a need for feminism as ever, and the fact that I am soon to be the father of a little girl who has to grow up in this world already has me worrying about her.

My last post on here was about how, as good as Coates’ essay on race relations is, I am not sanguine about it actually changing anything. The same might be said about the feminist response to the Isla Vista killings, but as deplorable as it is, the fact that a bloody rampage gets more media attention than a thoughtful exposition on racial discrimination means that more people might actually be confronted with the harsh but necessary truths that people like Valenti and Penny are putting out there. I can only hope that, instead of rushing to the comments section to rehash the same flawed arguments as in the TIME piece, more people listen to the arguments feminists are making rather than rushing to dismiss them or drown them out.

The Best Sound and Fury: The Case for Reparations

Has it really been over a month since I last posted? Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve passed all my classes and passed all my comprehensive exams, so no more coursework or tests in my extended education. All I have left is a dissertation proposal and then the dissertation itself. Not to mention also becoming a father and major role model sometime in last August!

Anyway, I’m resurrecting this blog (again) not so much to say anything new or novel, but instead to encourage people to go over to The Atlantic and read “The Case for Reparations” by the very talented essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a long read with ten chapters, and it’s not so much about an economic argument for reparations for African-Americans as it is an honest and thorough analysis of the many injustices facing the African-American community in the United States. This isn’t about statistical models, wonkish graph parties or anything like that, but a hard historical look at the institutional racism, discrimination and abuse a large segment of our national population has had to endure for generations — and the collective amnesia we so regularly take part to ignore it. It isn’t easy information to process, but it’s important for people to read it and to acknowledge that when we put the Founding Fathers on a pedastal or wax romantic about the past, we’re picking and choosing our history and failing to realize — much less take responsibility for — the fact the U.S. was built on and remains mired in racism.

It’s important for me to have written the above because lately I’ve been very down on blogging and promoting anything that might be considered a “thinkpiece.” I’ll probably never write anything as important or as meaningful as Coates’ essay, but even if I did, it would be hard for me to believe that, other than resounding in a like-minded echo chamber, such a piece would have any affect at all. Many people have already dismissed Coates’ essay without reading it; they read the title and perhaps the byline and reject it out of hand as “playing the race card” or “divisive politics” or whatever. People who care about social justice will share the article on their Twitter feeds or on Facebook, but will we really inch at all closer to addressing any of the many problems Coates outlines in his essay? It may be a great intellectual achievement and an eloquent exposition on slavery, bigotry and unaccountability when it comes to race relations in the United States, but as pleasant a sound is or as powerful a fury is, what do they amount to if they do not influence the popular consciousness or inform policy?

There’s a metaphor I like of human history being a mighty river, and each printed page is a stone, thrown into the river to raise the water level and spread the river out, until it becomes a marsh. If the stones are placed deliberately, with careful thought, then perhaps something meaningful can be built on that muddy foundation. But, as purposeful a set of stones as Coates’ essay is, will it amount to more than a pile of rocks? I doubt it. The social media buzz will pass, the essay will still be shared now and again by the people who really value the message and the effort, but for the most part, modern “journalism” will remain GIFs from Game of Thrones explaining Chinese cyber-terrorism.

What’s all the more frustrating about it is that this is a conversation America needs to have. Not just a “beer summit” that lasts a media cycle. Race is a big issue and one that comes up a lot, be it wannabe cops killing black teens with impunity or men in positions of power and influence regularly expressing racist views. Yet all one needs to do is consider how “political correctness” is treated today to see how little progress we’ve made on this issue. What is “political correctness” but, at worst, institutionalized politeness? How is that we as a society let white people believe even for a second that they are the most put-upon people in history because they are expected to think about their words before they articulate them? Granted, there are times when calling people out can get toxic, but nothing is more disgusting and crine-worthy than white middle class people spouting the old “Maybe the real racists are the people calling us racists” nonsense. No, believe it or not, the structural conditions constructed with the key pillars of racial segregation and exploitation founded in the past and perpetuated into the present are the problem, not the minor embarrassment you felt because your racist comment was identified as racist. This really isn’t that hard to understand.

So, yes, Coates’ essay is brilliant and you should read it. Yet I’m not at all sanguine that it will matter much in terms of inspiring change in our messed up world. But I hope I’m wrong.