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.