Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Nicholas D. Kristoff, George W. Bush, and the Intervening American

A confluence of depressing stories of late: Peter Landesman's horrifying tale of the traffic in sex slaves in the U.S., and Nicholas Kristoff's heart-wrenching, ambivalent dispatches from Cambodia, telling the tale of his attempt to free a couple of Cambodian girls from a prostitution ring (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4; only the final two are still free). One doesn't have to say too much about the horror in these stories. The blight of prostitution, especially in the third world, is a terrible one, and as for sex-trafficking...well, even if, as seems likely, not all the details in Landesman's story pan out (and everyone with a heart should hope it isn't all true), I can still only agree with Timothy Burke: everyone involved in this trade, the enablers, the pimps, the cargo-carriers, and especially the johns, is evil.

But Timothy's condemnation puts me in mind of another set of reflections from his pen (or keyboard, as it were); an essay on intervention that I cited long ago, back when my feelings about international intervention, and the Iraq war, were a lot more settled. It also puts me in mind of The Quiet American, Graham Greene's intense meditation on sin, ignorance, and good intentions, all in the context of America's growing involvement in--and, crucially, America's eclipse of European influence over--Vietnam. Timothy, reflecting on how "a weak and evasive leader, George Bush, can pursue an utterly destructive method of intervention and [nonetheless] command the loyalty of many people of good will [solely] because the alternative seems to be the hypocritical defense of a corrupt network of hollow national leaderships, and the betrayal of human emancipation," came to a heavy conclusion: "We [meaning, I think, us liberals] are all interventionists now...The question of the 21st Century is not whether interventions should happen, but how they should happen. It is a question of method and result, not of yes or no." I said at the time that he was right, and I still think that, as much as the past year has shaken my liberal (inter)nationalist dreams. Intervention is an unavoidable reality at the present moment. What I have also been thinking lately, and that which I connect with Kristoff's small-scale experiments with "liberation," is that the real imperative of intervention isn't just a function of this moment, but a moral imperative of much deeper and murkier roots.

Consider Kristoff: the intervening American. He comes to Cambodia, checks out sweatshops, observes the girls selling sex. He travels with an interpreter, with a producer and a cameraman and a driver. He has loads of cash and contacts. He gets it into his head to buy the freedom of a couple of these girls enslaved in local brothels. He has to pick those he's going to free (a morally complicated story all on it's own). He has to haggle with the brothel owners. He has to deal with--and if you read between the lines, understand that this really means "override"--their doubts and fears. He takes them away from one social network (and exploitive one, to be sure, but also one that envelopes and perversely sustains them) and returns them to another one: their families, which in one case rejoiced in their return, and in another case couldn't care less (they'd gotten her into prostitution to pay debts in the first place). The conceptual realities which Kristoff has used his money and power to leap over in pulling this off--differences language, social mores, gender roles, moral schemes and so much more--are the sort of thing that could keep multiculturally sensitive academics busy for years. And, in the end, one of the girls returns to the brothel, while the jury is out on the second.

Was he right to do so? Was it worth it? The answer is, of course, yes: prostitution is hideous, and the poverty that drives one to it is a sin. Of course he should intervene, no matter how clumsy his interventions may or may not turn out, in the long run, to have been. Perhaps the long-run shouldn't be our criteria for judging interventions: maybe the immediate need is all we can properly label, and respond to.

You can see where I'm going with this with Bush, of course. Leaving aside the possibility that the Iraq war really was just a Haliburton conspiracy from beginning to end, what are you left with? An ignorant but good-intentioned American, with a big army and lots of money and all the popular support in the world. And over there is Iraq, and it might be a threat, and in any case the Iraqi people are suffering horribly. Clearly we can do something. So...why don't we? Alden Pyle came to Vietnam, and he figured communism was bad news, and moreover, he didn't like how the British journalist Robert Fowler just strung along his Vietnamese mistress, never offering her the chance of the decent marriage. So he got involved. In Greene's view, the result was catastrophe, because the stupid "quiet" American couldn't imagine how complicated the world really was (easy analogy to the Bush administration here: "The Iraqis will welcome us with open arms"); and more importantly, he couldn't conceive at just how bloody his hands already were, and how much more bloody they were likely to become. However, unlike in the film (as I wrote in a thread at John Holbo's blog), Greene recognized in the book that sin covered Fowler as well; that his "wise detatched European" was every bit as compromised by his actions in Vietnam has Pyle's were. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. In which case, if damnation will follow regardless, why not act? At least someone might not have perform sex acts for money for a little while. At least a tyrant will be overthrown. At least someone's life might be at little bit better, right?

No easy answers, especially not for us middle and upper-class liberal Americans, who have the power to intervene--to buy the freedom of sex slaves, to bomb a tyrant's palace, give help the poor and desperate in the way many others cannot. To be sure, the imperative of "evil" does not end the conversation: there are, after all, consequences to consider. And clearly, the calculation of consequences in Kristoff's case was far less troublesome than it was in the case of Pyle's, or Bush's--Kristoff's acts may well result in a lot of confusion and false expectations on the parts of those whose freedom he swept in and bought (and those he didn't), but at least by no stretch of the imagination was anyone going to die. Whereas Bush's intervention was all about violence. So no: they are different sorts of Americans, performing different sorts of interventions. And yet still, I can't help but wonder if the call to intervene, the weight which the fact of poverty and horror and hurt places upon us, and the reaction it elicits from us, isn't fundamentally the same in all cases, and I wonder if getting hung up on those "consequences" isn't a way of brushing aside evil (well, sex-trafficking is a really complicated subject...), walking past hurt (hey, for all I know, those prostitutes like the life they're leading...), keeping our wallets shut when we hear the call of the beggar (you know he's just going to spend it on alcohol anyway...), and wasting time talking about concepts like "sovereignty" as if they were eternal realities, when they are in truth anything but. Obviously, I'm trying to load issues of war and freedom, sexuality and dignity, on to my earlier post. Unreasonable? Or are they, ultimately, the same issue after all?