When Academics Attack

Academics, let me tell you, often take their arguments too far. They might for example confuse what should be a commentary, say, on the privileging of white male anti-sex slavery crusaders with a condemnation of the crusade itself. And that’s… ridiculous. Unfortunately, this is exactly Laura Agustín does in a recent book review at The Naked Anthropologist. Hers may be one of the more infuriating examples of Ivory Tower privilege you’ll ever see:

It is good luck for Good Men that sex slavery has been identified as a terrible new phenomenon requiring extraordinary actions. In the chivalric tradition, to rescue a damsel in distress ranked high as a way knights errant could prove themselves, along with slaying dragons and giants. Nowadays, Nicholas Kristof is only one of a growing number of men seeking attention and praise through the rescue of a new kind of distressed damsel – poorer women called sex slaves. In this noble quest, women who prefer to sell sex to their other limited options are not consulted but must be saved, and human rights are the new grail. The association with Christianity is not casual.

Siddharth Kara, another man seeking saintliness, uses lite economics – another trendy way to get noticed these days. His Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, inexplicably published by a university press, is not a scholarly work. Neither based on methodological research nor reflecting knowledge of literature that could give context to the author’s experience, the book reads like the diary of a poverty tourist or the bildungsroman of an unsophisticated man of moral sentiments demonstrating his pain at unfathomable injustices. This places Kara in the tradition of colonial writers who believed that they were called to testify to the suffering of those not lucky enough to be born into comfortable Western society.

There’s nothing new about this argument, of course. The whiteness and elitism of progressive reformers, to take one historiographical example, has come under serious scrutiny in recent decades. Historians note, for instance, that these reformers often imposed a set of prerogatives upon poorer people who were, for excellent reasons, unable to adhere to the racial and gender norms demanded by an increasingly-middle class society. And yeah, the argument makes some sense. But it is not the whole story: whistle blowers and the like still served important purposes and sometimes enacted important and unequivocally good change.

The same myopia is at work in Agustín’s argument. I have no problem seeing Kristof or Kara as part of a longer tradition of “chivalric” men enacting patriarchal privilege. I have a major problem with seeing them solely, or even primarily, in that light. That’s ahistorical; they also happen to be reporting on people about whom almost no one else in the mainstream western print media is also reporting, and about a group of women for whom notions of liberal autonomy and human agency are theoretically useless heuristics. So yeah, duly noted that their “privilege” owes to some combination of whiteness and manhood, but let’s not get carried away here: there are scores of beaten, battered women, without the comforts of tenure, a living wage, and a cozy university office, who would think Agustín’s argument was far more a product of privilege than anything Kristof or Kara have done in their name.

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