Clooney! Theater! Naked meltdowns! What were we talking about again?

Last Friday was an odd news day, particulaly in the world of white-dude-to-the-rescue humanitarian advocacy. It was a day that began with George Clooney's arrest outside the Sudanese embassy, continued with This American Life's retraction of Mike Daisey's much-acclaimed monologue about working conditions at the Foxconn factory in Shenzen, and ended with Invisible Children founder Jason Russell's naked spree through downtown San Diego. 

With the benefit of a couple of days' distance, what's striking is how removed these events seem from the actual issues under discussion. Whatever happened to these three American guys, it doesn't change the very real conditions on the ground in the Nuba mountains, the factory floors of China or Central Africa.

I know it's not quite fair to lump in Clooney here -- he intended to get arrested, after all -- but it's hard not too see a common dynamic at work here: A man taking on a worthy (albeit more complex than he presents it) cause, generating enormous publicity for his own efforts while denigrating the political and media establishment for never having noticed the problem before he came along. 

More public attention directed toward humanitarian issues is great. The problem is that when one of these saviors gets significant facts wrong or becomes mired in professional or personal scandal, it makes things harder for those who work on these issues full time. James Fallows has some thoughts along these lines in reference to the Daisey case:

When they get all huffy, Chinese nationalists love to present the Western press as being irremediably biased against Chinese achievements and ambitions, and willing to pass along the most outrageous slanders about China without checking them for accuracy or even plausibility. A site called Anti-CNN is a well-known outlet for such views. This is a constant nuisance when you try to write critical assessments. Worse, it gives ammo to those inside China who want to pooh-pooh complaints about safety, pollution, working conditions, and so on. Daisey is everything they warned against, come to life.

Similarly, Russell's meltdown is especially unfortunate since the uproar over the Kony 2012 campaign had finally seemed to be entering a more productive phase. Invisible Children was taking the responses of its critics seriously and as Chris Blattman noted, a rare and needed discussion of advocacy effectiveness -- typically confined to the development blogosphere -- was taking place in more mainstream outlets:

The big story has shifted from viral video to the oversimplification of complicated issues, the accuracy of advocacy, and the white savior complex in aid. Really. Newspapers are taking a nuanced view of aid and advocacy. This is big.

After Friday's antics, it's going to become quite a bit more difficult to have that conversation.

To second David Carr, the point isn't that journalism -- or advocacy -- should be left only to professionals. There's a place for celebrity advocates and nonprofessional storytellers. But the frequent problem here -- as with the often oversized attention given to the role of social networking technology during the Arab Spring -- is that when the story becomes about the international response, we often forget about the issue -- and the people -- we were talking about in the first place. 


Afghanistan shooter "proud" that "we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants" in 2007 battle in Iraq?

The Army has released the name of the suspect in last weekend's shooting rampage in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales:

His lawyer, John Henry Browne, said on Thursday that the suspect was a 38-year-old man who had been injured twice while serving in Iraq.

He also said the accused had witnessed his friend's leg blown off the day before the killings.

A 2009 news article on the Army website, which has been removed but is still available in Google's cache, quotes a Staff Sgt. Robert Bales (it's not confirmed that this is the same Bales) who participated in the Battle of Zarqa, also known as the Battle of Najaf -- a bloody confrontation between Iraqi security forces, assisted by U.S. and British troops, and the radical Shiite group, the Soldiers of Heaven: 

The twilight had turned to darkness, through which the Charger platoons prepared to maneuver around the helicopter. Clemmer issued orders to his platoon leaders to envelop the crash. As the platoons stepped off, AK-47s opened up from four huts to the north.

"The SF was still in control of the birds at that point," Butler said. "That's when the first Hellfire went off." "It was like a match lit up," said Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, team leader in C Company's 1st Squad, 1st Platoon. "It looked like a toy with a candle lit underneath it. Fire straight up."

The account speaks of an intense battle between U.S. forces -- Lt. Col. Barry Huggins' 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Stryker battalion -- and a "well armed Shiite paramilitary faction" on Jan. 28 and 29, 2007.

The mortar section fired missions and alternately dug in. By the early morning, the 60 mm tubes were ensconced inside fighting positions. The platoons on the crash-site perimeter were also using shovels in throwback defensive tactics.

"The cool part about this was World War II style, you dug in," Bales said. "Guys were out there digging a fighting position in the ground. You're taking a shovel and digging as fast as you can."

But most remarkable about the battle, writes reporter Don Kramer, was that:

In the end, the most important metric was the casualty count: 250 enemy fighters killed, 81 wounded and 410 detained and not a single 2-3 Inf. Soldier hurt or killed. Sophisticated, relentless firepower defeated superior numbers on ground of the enemy's choosing....

What cannot be measured occurred at the end of the battle. Defining 'agility,' American Soldiers seamlessly shifted into humanitarian operations."

Here, Bales appears in the narrative again:

After a while, however, the clearing operation morphed with the humanitarian. As Soldiers pulled out the injured, it became apparent to their horror that these fanatics had brought their families to the fight.

"Once we started clearing the town we actually started carrying people back out," said Staff Sgt. Bales, a team leader in 1st Platoon, C Co. "We'd go in, find some people that we could help, because there were a bunch of dead people we couldn't, throw them on a litter and bring them out to the casualty collection point."

And here's where it gets a little bit creepy:

"I've never been more proud to be a part of this unit than that day," Bales said now a member of 2-3 Inf. headquarters, "for the simple fact that we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants and then afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us. I think that's the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy, someone who puts his family in harm's way like that." [Ed. italics added].