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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