Leslie Barnes on Nicolas Kristof as Global Saviour

Join us for next week’s CuSPP seminar:

Live-Tweeting and Distant Suffering: Nicholas Kristof as Global Saviour

Thursday 26 April, 1pm, Milgate Room, AD Hope Bldg, SLLL

In his foreword to Somaly Mam’s The Road of Lost Innocence, Nicholas Kristof celebrates the Cambodian sex-trafficking survivor for embodying “the resilience, courage, and nobility of the human spirit.” Kristof, a journalist for The New York Times, has played a significant role in defining sex trafficking on the global stage. He has penned numerous editorial pieces about sexual violence toward women around the world; created a “trans-media project,” called Half the Sky, aiming to “put an end to the oppression of women and girls worldwide”; documented in his NYT column his interactions with two Cambodian sex workers whose freedom he purchased in 2004; and in 2011, live-tweeted a brothel raid orchestrated by Mam.

In this essay, I situate Kristof’s narrative self-fashioning in the context of the neoimperialist rescue fantasies his writing perpetuates. I am interested in the tensions created in Kristof’s texts, and in particular, the ways in which the Twitter episode suspends the implied witness somewhere between the immediacy of what Craig Calhoun calls the “emergency imaginary” and the physical and temporal remove of Luc Boltanski’s “distant suffering.” In his writings, Kristof constructs and disseminates a set of claims about the truth of sex trafficking, presents himself as a global saviour figure, and encourages the “ironic” participation of his witness, who is moved less to take part in a cosmopolitan morality centred on justice for the Other than to identify with the celebrity/saviour figure and to contemplate his or her own narcissistic performance of solidarity.

Leslie Barnes is Senior Lecturer in French Studies in SLLL. Her publications include Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

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