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No One Is Free Until All Are Free

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Reprinted from Truthdig

This column is adapted from a talk Chris Hedges gave Friday night at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Violence Against Women Protest, March 2015 in London
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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, a ban 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 f*cking 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.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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