In his forward 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, was among Mam’s most enthusiastic champions until an article published in Newsweek in 2014 challenged the veracity of her testimony. And in his writing about sexual servitude in Cambodia, he has played a significant role in defining sex trafficking on the global stage. Kristof’s mediation has taken several forms. 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 narrativeself-fashioningin the context of the neoimperialist rescue fantasies his writing perpetuates. I explore the intersections between Kristof’s writing and the various media he employs, and interrogate the effects of both on the audience he wishes to interpellate in the name of action. 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 savior figure, and encourages the “ironic” participation of his witness, who is moved less to take part in a cosmopolitan morality centered on justice for the Other than to identify with the celebrity/savior figure and to contemplate his or her own narcissistic performance of solidarity.