No One Is Free Until All Are Free
This column is adapted from a talk Chris Hedges gave Friday night at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia—The scourge of male violence against women will not end if we dismantle the forces of global capitalism. The scourge of male violence exists independently of capitalism, empire and colonialism. It is a separate evil. The fight to end male violence against women, part of a global struggle by women, must take primacy in our own struggle. Women and girls, especially those who are poor and of color, cannot take part in a liberation movement until they are liberated. They cannot offer to us their wisdom, their leadership and their passion until they are freed from physical coercion and violent domination. This is why the fight to end male violence across the globe is not only fundamental to our movement but will define its success or failure. We cannot stand up for some of the oppressed and ignore others who are oppressed. None of us is free until all of us are free.
On Friday night at Simon Fraser University—where my stance on prostitution, expressed in a March 8 Truthdig column titled “The Whoredom of the Left,” had seen the organizers of a conference on resource extraction attempt to ban me from the gathering, an action they revoked after protests from radical feminists—I confronted the sickness of a predatory society. A meeting between me and students arranged by the university had been canceled. Protesters gathered outside the hall. Some people stormed out of the lecture room, slamming the doors after them, when I attacked the trafficking of prostituted women and girls. A male tribal leader named Toghestiy stood after the talk and called for the room to be “cleansed” of evil—this after Audrey Siegl, a Musqueam Nation woman, emotionally laid out what she and other women face at the hands of male predators—and one of the conference organizers, English professor Stephen Collis, seized the microphone at the end of the evening to denounce me as “vindictive.” It was a commercial for the moral bankruptcy of academia.
Moral collapse always accompanies civilizations in decline, from Caligula’s Rome to the decadence at the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Dying cultures always become hypersexualized and depraved. The primacy of personal pleasure obtained at the expense of others is the defining characteristic of a civilization in its death throes.
Edward Said defined sexual exploitation as a fundamental feature of Orientalism, which he said was a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Orientalism, Said wrote, views “itself and its subject matter with sexist blinders. … [The local] women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” Moreover, he went on, “[w]hen women’s sexuality is surrendered, the nation is more or less conquered.” The sexual conquest of indigenous women, Said pointed out, correlates with the conquest of the land itself.
Sexual violence directed at Asian women by white men—and any Asian woman can tell you how unrelenting and commonplace such violence and sexualized racism are—is a direct result of Western imperialism, just as sexual violence against aboriginal women is a direct result of white colonialism. And the same behavior is found in war and on the outskirts of the massive extraction industries that often spawn wars, such as those I reported on in Congo.
This sexualized racism, however, is hardly limited to wars or extraction sites. It is the driving force behind the millions of First World male sexual tourists who go to the developing world, as well as those who seek out poor women of color who are trafficked to and thrown into sexual bondage in the industrialized world.
Extraction industries, like wars, empower a predominantly male, predatory population that is engaged in horrific destruction and violence. Wars and extraction industries are designed to extinguish all systems that give life—familial, social, cultural, economic, political and environmental. And they require the obliteration of community and the common good. How else could you get drag line operators in southern West Virginia to rip the tops off Appalachian mountains to get at coal seams as they turn the land they grew up in, and often their ancestors grew up in, into a fetid, toxic wasteland where the air, soil and water will be poisoned for generations? These vast predatory enterprises hold up the possibility of personal wealth, personal advancement and personal power at the expense of everyone and everything else. They create a huge, permanent divide between the exploiters and the exploited, one that is rarely crossed. And the more vulnerable you are, the more the jackals appear around you to prey on your afflictions. Those who suffer most are children, women and the elderly—the children and the elderly because they are vulnerable, the women because they are left to care for them.
The sexual abuse of poor girls and women expands the divide between the predators and the prey, the exploiters and the exploited. And in every war zone, as in every boomtown that rises up around extraction industries, you find widespread sexual exploitation by bands of men. This is happening in the towns rising up around fracking in North Dakota.
The only groups that wars produce in greater numbers than prostituted girls and women are killers, refugees and corpses. I was with U.S. Marine Corps units that were soon to be shipped to the Philippines, where their members would visit bars to pick up prostituted Filipina women they referred to LBFMs—Little Brown Fucking Machines, a phrase coined by the U.S. occupation troops that arrived in the Philippines in 1898.
Downtown San Salvador when I was in El Salvador during the war there was filled with streetwalkers, massage parlors, brothels and nightclubs where girls and women, driven into the urban slums because of the fighting in their rural communities, bereft of their homes and safety, often cut off from their families, were being pimped out to the gangsters and warlords. I saw the same explosion of prostitution when I reported from Syria, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Nairobi, Congo—where Congolese armed forces routinely raped and tortured girls and women near Anvil Mining’s Dikulushi copper mine—and when I was in Djibouti, where girls and women, refugees from the fighting across the border in Ethiopia, were herded by traffickers into a poor neighborhood that was an outdoor market for human flesh.
Sexual slavery—and not incidentally pornography—is always one of war’s most lucrative industries. This is not accidental. For war, like destroying the planet for plunder, is also a predatory endeavor. It is a denial of the sacred. It is a turning away from reverence. Human beings, like the Earth itself, become objects to destroy or be gratified by, or both. They become mere commodities that have no intrinsic value beyond monetary worth. The pillage of the Earth, like war, is about lust, power and domination. The violence, plunder, destruction, forced labor, torture, slavery and, yes, prostitution are all part of unfettered capitalism, a single evil. And we will stand united or divided against this evil. To ignore parts of this evil, to say that some forms of predatory behavior are acceptable and others are not, will render us powerless in its face. The goal of the imperialists and corporate oligarchs is to keep the oppressed divided. And they are doing a good job.
We must start any fight against capitalism or environmental degradation by heeding the suffering and plaintive cries of the oppressed, especially those of women and girls who are subjugated by male violence. While capitalism exploits racism and gender inequality for its own ends, while imperialism and colonialism are designed to reduce women in indigenous cultures to sexual slaves, racism and gender inequality exist independently from capitalism. And if not consciously named and fought they will exist even if capitalism is destroyed.
This struggle for the liberation of women, which goes beyond the goal of dismantling corporate capitalism, asks important and perhaps different questions about the role of government and use of law, as radical feminists such as Lee Lakeman have pointed out. Women who engage in the struggle for liberty across the globe need laws and effective policing to stop from being blackmailed, bullied and denied access to cash and to resources that sustain life, especially as they are disproportionately left with the care of the sick, the young, the old and the destitute. It is male violence against women that is the primary force used to crush the global collective revolt of women. And male violence against feminists, who seek a more peaceful, egalitarian and sustaining world, is pervasive. To challenge prostitution, to challenge objectification, to challenge hypersexualization of women is to often be threatened with rape. To challenge mining, to stand up to protect water, to assist a truth teller, if you are a woman, is often to be threatened with not only economic destitution but violence leading to prostitution. We must as activists end that objectification of women and end male violence. If we do not, we will never have access to the ideas and leadership of women, and in particular women of color, which is essential to creating an inclusive vision for a better future. So while we must decry violence and exploitation against all of the oppressed, we must also recognize that male violence against women—including prostitution and its promoter, pornography—is a specific and separate global force. It is a tool of capitalism, it is often a product of imperialism and colonialism, but it exists outside capitalism, imperialism and colonialism. And it is a force that men in general, including, sadly, most men on the left, refuse to acknowledge, much less fight. This is why the struggle for women’s liberty is absolutely crucial to our movement. Without that freedom we will fail.
Abuse and especially sexual abuse of women are commonplace in war zones. I interviewed Muslim girls and women who were forced into Serbian brothels and rape camps, usually after their fathers, husbands and brothers had been executed. And in preparing a Truthdig column headlined “Recalled to Life” I spoke with a woman who was prostituted on the streets of Camden, N.J.—according to the Census Bureau the poorest city in the United States, a city where I spent many weeks with the cartoonist Joe Sacco doing research for our book “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.”
“They’d suck your dick for a hit of crack,” Christine Pagano said of prostituted women on Camden’s streets, adding that the men refused to wear condoms. “Camden was like nothing I had ever seen before. The poverty is so bad. People rob you for $5, literally for $5. They would pull a gun on you for no money. I would get out of cars, I would walk five feet up the road and get held up. And they would take all my money. The first time it happened to me I cried an hour. You degrade yourself. You get out of the car. And some guy pulls a gun on you.”
“I gave up on everything at that point, I wanted to die,” she said. “I didn’t care anymore. All the guilt and the shame and leaving my son, not talking to my son, not talking to my family.”
“The last time was the most brutal,” she said. “It was on Pine Street near the Off Broadway [Lounge]. There’s weeds on the side. I never took tricks off the street. They had to be in cars. But I was sick. I was tired.”
A man on the street had offered her $20 to perform oral sex. But once they were in the weeds he pulled out a knife. He told her if she screamed he would kill her. When she offered some resistance he stabbed her.
“He was trying to stab me in my vagina,” she said. He stabbed her thigh. “It’s kind of bad because I actually never ended up doing anything about it [the wound]. It ended up turning into a big infection.”
“He made me hold his phone that had porn on it,” she said. “He never really pulled his pants all the way down. And at this point I’m bleeding pretty badly. I’m lying on glass outside of this bar. I had like little bits of glass in my back. I remember being really scared. Then it just got to the point where I was just numb. I asked him if he could stop at one point so I could smoke a cigarette. He let me. I got him to put the knife down because I was being good and listening to him. He stabbed the knife in the dirt. He said, ‘Just so you know I can pick it up at any point.’ I think in his head he thought that I was scared enough. In my head I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get outta there. And it occurred to me one of the things he kept asking me to do was lick his butt. And he was getting off on this. The last time he turned around and asked me to do this I pushed him. I had myself set up to get up.”
She ran naked into the street. The commotion attracted the police. A passerby gave her his shirt to cover up. At 5 feet 5 inches tall she weighed only 86 pounds. Her skin was gray. Her feet were so swollen she was wearing size 12 men’s slippers.
The years I spent as a war correspondent did not leave me untouched. I lost to violence many of those I worked with, including Kurt Schork, with whom I covered the wars in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. I was captured and taken prisoner in Basra during the Shiite uprising following the Gulf War and ended up in the hands of Iraqi secret police. I know a little of what it is like to be helpless and physically abused. And after Saddam Hussein drove the Kurds out of northern Iraq, my translator, a young woman, disappeared in the chaotic flight of the Kurds. It took me weeks to find her. And when I did she was being pimped out, numb with trauma. The experience of hearing her sobs would cure anyone of the notion that selling your body for sex is like trading a commodity on the stock market.
Imagine what it would be like for your mouth, your vagina and your rectum to be penetrated every day, over and over, by strange men who called you “bitch,” “slut,” “cunt” and “whore,” who slapped and hit you, and then to be beaten by a pimp. This is not sex. And it is not sex work. It is gang rape.
Before I arrived in Vancouver, some of the conference organizers issued a public message commenting on my condemnation of prostitution, saying that prostitution was “complex and multifaceted.” The note went on to assure participants in the conference that the Institute of the Humanities at the university did not “take sides in this difficult and extremely contentious debate.”
But there is nothing complex or multifaceted about prostitution, not when you strip it down to its brutal physical act. It turns you into a piece of meat. It does not matter if it occurs in an alley or a hotel room. And the inevitable diseases, emotional trauma and physical injuries that arise for the women, along with a shortened life expectancy, are well documented in study after study.
Prostitution fits perfectly into the paradigm of global capitalism. The physical scars, diseases and short lives of the miners I lived with at the Siglo XX tin mine in Bolivia—most of whom died in middle age from silicosis—are yet another manifestation of the predatory nature of capitalism. No one chooses to die of silicosis or black lung disease. No one chooses to sell his or her body on the street. You go into the mines, just as you go into prostitution, because global capitalism does not offer you a choice.
“In Canada young women and girls of Native descent are forced into street prostitution in numbers far disproportionate to white women,” I was told by Summer Rain Bentham, a Squamish Nation woman who lived and worked on the streets of the impoverished Downtown Eastside in Vancouver and who courageously rose from her seat in the lecture hall and joined me at the podium in solidarity after the talk. “Our lives are deemed less valuable because the Western world has decided that we are worthless. These racist views create a hierarchy based on race even within prostitution itself for women. This means some women are indoors in strip clubs or ‘agencies’—sometimes she might be educated, and in some cases she might actually believe she has [an] option other than prostitution. This racist hierarchy leaves aboriginal women on the bottom in this case in survival prostitution with no choices, experiencing a level of violence that is hard to fathom or comprehend. Violence that will never leave her and that is perpetuated by men not only because we are women, but because we are Native women. It is men’s privilege, power and entitlement in the world that keeps women entrenched in prostitution. It is men who benefit from Native women continuing to be at the bottom. Prostitution is not what most women who have ever been prostituted or women who have never faced being prostituted would choose to do. Prostitution is not what we want for any women or girl.”
We are called to build a world where all people have the opportunity to choose security, safety and well-being over jobs that leave them traumatized, sick, maimed and even destroyed. I don’t see the point of this fight if that is not our goal.
Sexual violence and sexual submission cannot be set apart from unfettered capitalism and the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, however much the traffickers, pimps, brothel and massage parlor owners, johns and their apologists might like for them to be. They are integral pieces of a world where wholesale industrial slaughter has killed hundreds of innocents in Gaza and more than a million innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the mentally ill are thrown onto streets, where a country like the United States warehouses 2.3 million people, mostly poor people of color, 25 percent of the world’s prison population, in cages for decades, where life for the working poor is one long emergency. It is all one world. It is all one system. And this system, in its entirety, must be overthrown and destroyed if we are to have any hope of enduring as a species.
It is not accidental that many of the Abu Ghraib images that were released resemble stills from porn films. There is a shot of a naked man kneeling in front of another man as if performing oral sex. There is a photo of a naked man on a leash held by a female American soldier. There are photos of naked men in chains. There are photos of naked men stacked one on top of the other in a pile on the floor as if in a prison gangbang. And there are hundreds more classified photos that purportedly show forced masturbation by Iraqi prisoners and the rape of prisoners, including young boys, by U.S. soldiers, many of whom were schooled in these torture techniques in our vast system of mass incarceration.
The sexualized images reflect the racism, callousness and perversion that run like a raging undercurrent through our predatory culture. It is the language of absolute control, total domination, racial hatred, slavery and humiliating submission. It is a world without pity. It is about reducing human beings to commodities, to objects. And it is part of a cultural malaise that will kill us as assuredly as the continued exploitation of the Alberta tar sands.
The object of corporate culture, neoliberal ideology, imperialism and colonialism is to strip people of their human attributes. Our identity as distinct human beings must be removed. Our history and our dignity must be obliterated. The goal is to turn every form of life into a commodity to exploit. And girls and women are high on the list. In my book “Empire of Illusion” I devote a chapter, the longest chapter in the book, to pornography, which is in essence filmed prostitution. In porn a woman is not a person but a toy, a pleasure doll. She exists to gratify whatever desire a male might have. She has no other purpose. Her real name vanishes. She adopts a cheap and vulgar stage name. She becomes a slave. She is filmed being degraded and physically abused. She is filmed being tortured—with the majority of those tortured in movies being Asian women. These movies are sold to customers. The customers are aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women. Absolute power over another, as I saw repeatedly in wartime, almost always expresses itself through sexual sadism.
Capitalism, along with imperialism and colonialism, its natural extension, is perpetuated by racist stereotypes. This dehumanization is expressed in the film “American Sniper,” in which Iraqis, including women and children, are turned into one-dimensional, evil human bombs that deserve to be gunned down by the film’s hero. Those who set out to destroy another people and their land must dehumanize those who live on, nurture and love that land. This dehumanization is used to justify domination. Imperialism, like colonialism, depends on racial stereotypes, including sexualized racism and the forced prostitution of women of color, to annihilate the culture, dignity and finally resistance of indigenous populations. This is true in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Indigenous traditions and values are portrayed as primitive and worthless. The oppressed are turned into subhumans, people whose lives do not really matter, who stand in the way of the glories of Western civilization and progress, people who deserve to be eradicated.
And you can see this racism on display in porn. Black men are primitive animals, brawny and illiterate studs with vast sexual prowess. Black women are filled with raw, animalistic lust. Latin women are hot and racy. Asian women are meek, sexually submissive geishas. Porn, as Gail Dines writes, is a “new minstrel show.” It speaks in the racist cant that is the staple of the dominant white culture.
What is done to girls and women through prostitution is a version of what is done to all of those who do not sign on to the demented project of global capitalism. And if we have any chance of fighting back, we will have to stand up for all the oppressed, all of those who have become prey. To fail to do this will be to commit moral and finally political suicide. To turn our backs on some of the oppressed is to fracture our power. It is to obliterate our moral authority. It is to fail to see that the entire system of predatory exploitation seeks to swallow and devour us all. To be a radical is to stand with all who are turned into objects, especially girls and women whom the global community, and much of the left, has abandoned.
Andrea Dworkin understood:
Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore; profit is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat; corporate bloodsucking is not wicked or cruel when the corporations in question, organized crime syndicates, sell cunt; racism is not wicked or cruel when the black cunt or yellow cunt or red cunt or Hispanic cunt or Jewish cunt has her legs splayed for any man’s pleasure; poverty is not wicked or cruel when it is the poverty of dispossessed women who have only themselves to sell; violence by the powerful against the powerless is not wicked or cruel when it is called sex; slavery is not wicked or cruel when it is sexual slavery; torture is not wicked or cruel when the tormented are women, whores, cunts. The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.
The Europeans and Euro-Americans who conquered, exploited and murdered indigenous communities were not only making war on a people and the Earth but on a competing ethic. The traditions of premodern indigenous societies, the communal structure of their societies, had to be destroyed in order for colonialists and global capitalists to implant the negative ethic of capitalism. In indigenous societies, hoarding at the expense of others was despised. In these societies all ate or none ate. Those who were respected were those who shared what they had with the less fortunate and who spoke in the language of the sacred. These older, indigenous cultures held fast to the concept of reverence. It is the capacity to honor the sacred, including the sacredness of all life—and as a vegan I include animals—that capitalism, colonialism and imperialism seek to eradicate. We need to listen to women, and especially indigenous women, as we seek to recover this older ethic.
“They treat Mother Earth like they treat women ... ,” Lisa Brunner, the program specialist for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, has said. “They think they can own us, buy us, sell us, trade us, rent us, poison us, rape us, destroy us, use us as entertainment and kill us. I’m happy to see that we are talking about the level of violence that is occurring against Mother Earth because it equates to us [women]. What happens to her happens to us. ... We are the creators of life. We carry that water that creates life just as Mother Earth carries the water that maintains our life. So I’m happy to see our men standing here but remind you that when you stand for one, you must stand for the other.”
The Earth is littered with the physical remains of past empires and civilizations, ruins that cry out to us about human folly and hubris. We seem condemned as a species to drive ourselves into extinction, although this moment appears to be the denouement to the whole, sad show of settled, civilized life that began some 5,000 years ago. There is nothing left on the planet to seize. We are spending down the last remnants of our natural capital, including our forests, fossil fuel, air and water.
This time, collapse will be global. There are no new lands to pillage, no new peoples to exploit. Technology, which has obliterated the constraints of time and space, has turned our global village into a global death trap. The fate of Easter Island will be writ large across the broad expanse of planet Earth.
The ethic peddled by capitalist and imperialist elites, the cult of the self, the banishing of empathy, the belief that violence can be used to make the world conform, require the destruction of the communal and the destruction of the sacred. This corrupt ethic, if not broken, will mean the end of not only human society but the human species. The elites who orchestrate this pillage, like elites who pillaged parts of the globe in the past, probably believe they can outrun their own destructiveness. They think that their wealth, privilege and gated communities will save them. Or maybe they do not think about the future at all. But the death march they have begun, the relentless contamination of air, soil and water, the physical collapse of communities and the eventual exhaustion of coal and fossil fuels themselves will not spare them or their families, although they may be able to hold out a little longer in their privileged enclaves than the rest of us. They too will succumb to the poisoning of the natural elements, the climate dislocations and freakish weather caused by global warming, the spread of new deadly viruses, the food riots and huge migrations that have begun as the desperate flee from flooded or drought-stricken pockets of the Earth.
The predatory structures of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism will have to be destroyed. The Earth, and those forms of life that inhabit the Earth, will have to be revered and protected. This means inculcating a very different vision of human society. It means rebuilding a world where domination and ceaseless exploitation are sins and where empathy, especially for the weak and for the vulnerable, including our planet, is held up as the highest virtue. It means recovering the capacity for awe and reverence for the sources that sustain life. Once we stand up for this ethic of life, once we include all people, including girls and women, as an integral part of this ethic, we can build a resistance movement that can challenge the corporate forces that if left in power will extinguish us all.