Unease in the Absence of Drama

There’s a rule out here in Hollywood – ignore them. They’ll appreciate it and you won’t come off as a jerk, as some yokel from Iowa who just saw a movie star and wet his pants. Locals know this. Nod if you must, and go about your business, and that’s more than politeness. High drama is for the soundstage or the location shoot, where the studios hire extras to be awed, or whatever the script calls for – not for the tobacco shop on Wilshire or the bookstore on Sunset. If these celebrities want drama their publicists will hire people to provide that, or they’ll tip off TMZ and the paparazzi. That’s a commercial decision, so a few years ago, at a theater over in Century City, now long gone, that really was Robin Williams locked arm-in-arm with Jack Nicolson, walking across the lobby at intermission deep in an animated conversation about something or other – and that was their business. Only an asshole would try to trail them and listen in, although these days everyone would try to get a cell-phone shot to post on-line a few seconds later. Everyone wants to add a little drama to their life, or borrow some. They visit Hollywood. They don’t live here.

Then one of these stars that everyone loves somehow, impossibly, dies, and the borrowed high drama explodes. Robin Williams just died, he hung himself, and the personal grief exploded all over Facebook and such places, from those who never knew him. Few did. He was an odd man. Still, those who loved his work, which wasn’t him exactly, say they felt a loss, which is puzzling. That led to someone posting this on Facebook – “I just want to put it out there that it is also okay not to have any feelings when something bad happens to a celebrity.”

Elizabeth Nolan Brown notes how that post was slammed:

This was met with initial, emphatic approval from a few, quickly followed by admonitions. Didn’t she get the memo that we were all supposed to be using this as a PSA about mental health? They bet she wouldn’t be singing this tune if she or someone she knew had suffered from depression!

Now there’s nothing wrong with using the surprising (apparent) suicide of a surface-happy comedian as a catalyst for discussing mental health issues. But how absurd to suggest it is wrong not to.

Something odd is going on here, and others react:

This reminds me of when Princess Diana died. I found out when I walked to the corner store to buy the newspaper. I read the headline and thought “Shit, that’s too bad” and didn’t give it another thought. Then the worldwide hysteria erupted and it was all Diana, all the time. I just didn’t understand what the big deal was. My wife, friends and family thought I was incredibly callous to have almost no reaction to Diana’s death.

Same thing with Robin Williams – I liked him and more than once busted a gut listening to him, but he was an entertainer with no connection to me. Why should I grieve? It sucks that his demons took him down and I understand why some people are sad, but I just can’t muster it.

Another person offers this:

It is as if Facebook and Twitter reactions to celebrity deaths and tragedies have supplanted going to church as the cultural litmus test for letting the greater community know you are a good person and people are compelled against all reason to participate.

And here’s the best of the reactions:

If someone were to die at the age of 63 after a lifelong battle with MS or Sickle Cell, we’d all say they were a “fighter” or an “inspiration.” But when someone dies after a lifelong battle with severe mental illness and drug addiction, we say it was a tragedy and tell everyone “don’t be like him, please seek help.”

That’s bullshit. Robin Williams sought help his entire life. He saw a psychiatrist. He quit drinking. He went to rehab. He did this for decades. That’s HOW he made it to 63. For some people, 63 is a fucking miracle.

Robin Williams did what he could and his persona drama was his own. He was a brilliant and unique comedian and a pretty good actor too. Let his work speak for itself. That wasn’t him, and no one has any right to “him” – so don’t borrow his drama for your own purposes. That’s the rule out here in Hollywood. Don’t be a jerk.

That’s easier said than done. People like drama, so when President Obama told his team that his organizing principle in foreign relations was “Don’t do stupid stuff” – dramatic moves always backfire – Hillary Clinton said that was no organizing principle at all. She likes high drama – we should have armed the Syrian rebels and all that. Be bold, even if it seems stupid. There may be a bit of Lady Macbeth in all this – sometime ya gotta kill to get ahead – but she made it sound patriotic, knowing how much Americans like high drama. They might even elect someone in 2016 who provides that for them.

Obama still isn’t listening to her:

Defense Department officials said late Wednesday that United States airstrikes and Kurdish fighters had broken the Islamic militants’ siege of Mount Sinjar, allowing thousands of the Yazidis trapped there to escape.

An initial report from about a dozen Marines and Special Operations forces that arrived on Tuesday and spent 24 hours on the northern Iraqi mountain said that “the situation is much more manageable,” a senior Defense official said in an interview.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking to reporters Wednesday night at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., said it was “far less likely now” that the United States would undertake a rescue mission because the assessment team reported far fewer Yazidis on the mountain than expected, and that those still there were in relatively good condition.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, credited American airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops as well as efforts of the Kurdish pesh merga fighters in allowing “thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days” and to escape the militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

That’s boring. There will be no dramatic rescue mission where the United States gets to be heroic, even if more than a few of our guys die, and even if it means we’d have “boots on the ground” and effectively have a third Iraq War on our hands, or the third chapter of the same Iraq War that started when we tossed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait more than twenty years ago, and even if we’d now REALLY piss off those ISIS jerks and they’d come over here and blow up Cleveland. There will be none of that. Obama sent in a small team to assess the situation and the situation wasn’t as dire as everyone said, and those trapped folks are being led out of there now. Then Obama withdrew that small team. We weren’t going back into Iraq to fix everything again. There was no need to do anything stupid.

There was also no high drama anyone could borrow – we should act now, we should have acted sooner, this is all Obama’s fault, this is all George Bush’s fault, we’re going to war again, we should have never left Iraq and should still be at war, this would have never happened if Sarah Palin were president, and so on. It’s all moot. We didn’t do anything stupid. We did something small that let us understand the actual problem and resolve it – a few airstrikes and making sure the Kurds could do their work was all it took. That’s why they call the guy No-Drama Obama. That’s why Hillary Clinton sensed an opening. People actually hate that sort of thing. They want their drama.

In the New Republic, Cameron Hudson argues here that this Obama Doctrine of genocide prevention is sensible, but it’s not particularly satisfying to those who like high drama:

In an interview Friday with Tom Friedman of The New York Times, Obama remarked, “When you have a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened, and a country is willing to have us in there, you have a strong international consensus that these people need to be protected and we have a capacity to do so, then we have an obligation to do so.” Some would argue that this explanation walks back from the high-minded justification for the forceful response to the potential massacre in Benghazi, Libya, in late 2011 when Obama asserted that a failure to act “would have stained the conscience of the world.” More importantly, it sets a new and seemingly higher bar for taking action to prevent genocide – one that is unlikely to be replicated very often.

If that’s the intent, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Genocide prevention, as a community of practice, is in need of bookending. In a world full of nails – or potential nails – the U.S. military is the literal hammer. Absent a clear understanding of the circumstances when force could be used to save lives, advocates and communities at risk hold out false hope that the cavalry is coming, when it so rarely is. Understanding when a military response is on the table and when it is not will focus our attention on the cheaper, more politically palatable non-military options that should always constitute the heart of genocide prevention.

That’s what happened here, and in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller sees Obama as inherently risk-averse:

The Friedman interview revealed another important reason why Obama’s risk aversion is likely to endure. The president raised the issue about the lack of follow-up to help Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow. “Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions… So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?'”

Even though he doesn’t come out and say it, you get the sense that if there was a chance to do it over again he’d be much more engaged. But there’s another way to read the president’s comment, too. And that’s this: Military action is only one step in a complex process that requires a huge investment to create a relatively stable and functional transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. And Obama understands that hitting the Islamic State (IS), as necessary as it may be, is hardly a panacea for rebuilding the new Iraq. More to the point, that’s not America’s job. And Obama isn’t going to correct his Libya mistake by getting bogged down in nation-building in Iraq.

As much as we crave drama, Obama won’t do anything stupid, although also in Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko notes things often get out of hand:

The expansion of humanitarian interventions – beyond what presidents initially claim will be the intended scope and time of military and diplomatic missions – is completely normal. What is remarkable is how congressional members, media commentators, and citizens are newly surprised each time that this happens. In the near term, humanitarian interventions often save more lives than they cost: The University of Pittsburgh’s Taylor Seybolt’s 2008 review of 17 U.S.-led interventions found that nine had succeeded in saving lives. But they also potentially contain tremendous downsides – as recent history demonstrates.

On April 7, 1991, the United States began airdropping food, water, and blankets on the largest refugee camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border that were sheltering Kurds displaced by Iraqi Republican Guard divisions brutally putting down an uprising in northern Iraq. That same day, when asked how long the U.S. military would play a role within Iraq, President George H. W. Bush declared, “We’re talking about days, not weeks or months.” In support of the humanitarian mission in northern Iraq, the United States concurrently began enforcing a no-fly zone above that country’s 36th parallel. In August 1992, a U.S.-led no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel of Iraq was formed by unilateral declaration to compel Saddam Hussein’s cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors and to protect the Shiite population caught in a counterinsurgency campaign in the southern marshlands. Bush was right about the U.S. military involvement not being weeks or months: The northern and southern no-fly zones lasted another ten and a half years.

Yes, limited actions – not doing stupid stuff – can be just like Woody Allen said of his mother’s pot roast – the more you chew the bigger it gets. Obama may find his small smart stuff soon becomes big and stupid, even if it wasn’t stupid at the start, and there’s that drama queen, Hillary Clinton, lurking in the background. She seems to think that the United States made a big mistake by not supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) back in 2012 or so, when we could have done something dramatic. Our keeping out of it did, after all, create a power vacuum that eventually led to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. She says that’s obvious, but in the Washington Post, Marc Lynch says it’s not:

The academic literature is not encouraging. In general, external support for rebels almost always makes wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve… Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective. …

Syria’s combination of a weak, fragmented collage of rebel organizations with a divided, competitive array of external sponsors was therefore the worst profile possible for effective external support… An effective strategy of arming the Syrian rebels would never have been easy, but to have any chance at all it would have required a unified approach by the rebels’ external backers, and a unified rebel organization to receive the aid. That would have meant staunching financial flows from its Gulf partners, or at least directing them in a coordinated fashion. Otherwise, U.S. aid to the FSA would be just another bucket of water in an ocean of cash and guns pouring into the conflict.

And the power vacuum thing is also questionable:

The idea that more U.S. support for the FSA would have prevented the emergence of the Islamic State isn’t even remotely plausible. The open battlefield and nature of the struggle ensured that jihadists would find Syria’s war appealing. The Islamic State recovered steam inside of Iraq as part of a broad Sunni insurgency driven by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloody, ham-fisted crackdowns in Hawija and Fallujah, and more broadly because of the disaffection of key Sunni actors over Maliki’s sectarian authoritarianism. It is difficult to see how this would have been affected in the slightest by a U.S.-backed FSA (or, for that matter, by a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq, but that’s another debate for another day). There is certainly no reason to believe that the Islamic State and other extremist groups would have stayed away from such an ideal zone for jihad simply because Western-backed groups had additional guns and money.

Had the plan to arm Syria’s rebels been adopted back in 2012, the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved.

Kevin Drum adds this:

Supporters of more aggressive military action have an easy job: all they have to do is point out what a mess the Middle East is today. And they’re right: it’s a mess. The obvious – and all too human – conclusion to draw is that things would be better if only we’d done something different three years ago. And the obvious different thing is more military support for the Syrian rebels.

But this is a cognitive error. Most likely, if we had done something different three years ago, the entire region would still be a mess – possibly a much worse mess – and we’d be right in the middle of it, kicking ourselves for getting involved in yet another quagmire and wondering if things would have gone better if only we’d done something different three years ago. Except this time the “something different” would be going back in time and staying out of things.

Our bias for the dramatic is the problem:

It is human nature to believe that intervention is always better than doing nothing. Liberals tend to believe this in domestic affairs and conservatives tend to believe it in foreign affairs. But it’s not always so. The Middle East suffers from fundamental, longstanding fractures that the United States simply can’t affect other than at the margins. Think about it this way: What are the odds that shipping arms and supplies to a poorly defined, poorly coordinated, and poorly understood rebel alliance in Syria would make a significant difference in the long-term outcome there when two decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq barely changed anything?

Alex Massie, however, says what we face now is new and different:

Make no mistake, we may not consider ourselves at war with ISIS but they most assuredly reckon themselves at war with us. And with anyone else who does not share their murderous corruption of Islam. The world has rarely been short on horror but there is something especially horrifying about ISIS. If heads on pikes won’t convince you, what would be enough to persuade you this is an evil that must be confronted? And if not confronted today it will have to be confronted eventually. Because these are not people and this is not a worldview that will be content to carve out territory and then, once it has established its base, live quietly and peacefully ever after.

In the end, all the wrangling about cause and effect and who started what and who is to blame this or that becomes a form of dissembling dithering. In the end we are responsible. Not so much on account of the unforeseen consequences of past blunders but because we – the United States and its NATO allies – have the power, the equipment and the opportunity to do something about it.

At the Washington Post, Adam Taylor chimes in:

What’s really worrying is that despite all the confusion over its name, the Islamic State “brand” actually seems pretty solid – and worryingly global. Its distinctive black-and-white flag was flown in London last week, and leaflets supporting it were handed out in the city’s Oxford Street on Tuesday. An American was arrested at a New York City airport this month after authorities were tipped off by his pro-Islamic State Twitter rants. The group has begun publishing videos in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil in a bid to reach Indian Muslims. There are credible reports that the group is hoping to target Asian countries – and Indonesia is so worried that it banned all support for the Islamic State. The list goes on and on. Whatever you call it – the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, or something else – its brand is potent.

Hell, even China is starting to worry:

China has been fighting a low-level separatist insurgency of its own in Xinjiang for decades and worries that foreign Islamic groups are infiltrating the region, emboldening the simmering independence movement. Uighur exile groups say China’s government overstates its terrorism problem and falsely paints protests that turn into riots as premeditated terror attacks. In any case, Beijing is likely alarmed by IS’ criticism of its treatment of the Muslim Uighurs and the group’s alleged plan to seize Xinjiang, no matter how far-fetched the idea might be. But just how actively authorities will deal with any IS threat remains to be seen.

Obama might not like drama but he’s got high drama in his hands now whether he likes it or not – unless Massie and Taylor are being overly dramatic. We’ve faced awful people before. Hitler was no sweetheart. There’s also the possibility that the best way to deal with dramatic threats is not to offer an even more dramatic response. Matching evil murderous rage with righteous murderous rage hasn’t served us well. When Dick Cheney said it was time to “take off the gloves” – and we did – no good came of that. War crimes trials may follow one day. Still, that sort of thing is dramatic, and folks love their drama. On the other hand, some things are just heartbreakingly sad, if not tragic, and not our business. The death of Robin Williams comes to mind.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to Unease in the Absence of Drama

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    Right on. I missed a number of posts (and the news generally) due to a trip, but have seen the last three, relating to Hillary Clinton.
    Back in 2008, much to the horror of my progressive friends, I supported Hillary Clinton during the Hillary-Barack winter and spring days before she conceded. Now, much to the horror of my progressive friends (who now despise Obama and, I think, would despise most anyone who doesn’t hew to their party line), I admire Barack Obama as a genius in political organizing. He is despised because he does things in a different way than the dramatists, and he is effective, to the extent anyone can be effective in this always churning world in which we live.
    My belief is that the vast majority of Americans, the quiet ones, worry a lot about our getting re-entangled in Iraq, or anywhere else. But we also have humanitarian instincts. There is a shrinking, though still very large, contingent of American Exceptionalists, who believe that every answer is found at the end of the barrel of a gun, and we have better and more such toys.
    Change may be slow, but it is inexorable. The “New American Century” got legs for awhile, but Afghanistan-Iraq sort of dulled our enthusiasm for controlling the world.
    Hillary Clinton is master of theatre, as is her husband. As is Obama. She did quite a masterful job as Secretary of State, and based on that experience, I think she would lead, similarly.

  2. Rick says:

    I hadn’t thought of it this way, but yes, maybe what bothers Hillary Clinton about the way Barack Obama does things is his lack of drama, which only confirms my impression of her — that is, that she’s more conservative than she looks.

    It’s certainly true that conservatives are more emotional than thoughtful, get excited about starting wars but forget to figure out ahead of time how to end them, and are swayed more by the optics of an issue than what might be a workable resolution. Those who are paid to think for a living would likely already know that what she would have done in Syria, which is to give in to the temptation of jumping in with both feet to arm one opposition group or another, has not only not worked for us in our history, but also has come back later to bite us in the ass (think arming jihadists in Afghanistan, as well as backing Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war). The fact that she has been saying the things she has been saying lately — not only about what she would have done differently in Syria, and implying that Obama’s seemingly fairly successful foreign policy record has been a failure, but also that she doesn’t seem to even understand the necessity of not doing “stupid shit” — has to give all Democrats pause about what may be the only hope they have in 2016.

    In short, after Obama leaves, no matter who replaces him, we seem to be destined to return to the dark ages.

    Adam Taylor in the Washington Post:

    “Whatever you call it – the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, or something else – its brand is potent.”

    Okay, I move we all settle on calling it the “So-Called Islamic State” (SCIS). All in favor?


    • Dick Bernard says:

      There is another thought that comes to mind, and it is that exceedingly odd looking “map” of what ISIS (or whatever its called) controls: sort of looks like blood vessels….

      I come from an organizing background, which is probably why I so admire Obama’s skills in working situations differently than most politicos. “Back in the day” an opposing national organization (I’m talking teacher organizations now), went after my organization, the much larger NEA, with an organizing plan that I thought of often in Newt Gingrich’s day (he did the same things in the same way).

      After the ‘war years’ (we merged out here), a former opponent shared with me their playbook, which was very succinct – typed on one sheet of paper, one side, double-space.

      One provision that comes to mind: organize corridors – in this case Interstates – larger school districts. You take over in the bigger places, in the corridors, and the rest will supposedly take care of itself.

      In the end, it worked for them for awhile, but it didn’t work well for long. Once we figured out how they were doing things, and decided to go on the offensive, they lost effectiveness. I think ISIS can be reduced to a guerrilla band IF some kind of leadership finally emerges in the area which recognizes and respects diverse beliefs and allows them to share some of the power.

      But, what do I know…?

      PS: I’d agree that Hillary is probably conservative, as you say. On the other hand, as one whose conservative relatives would call a raging liberal, I’ve long said that the most truly “conservative” people I know are the liberals. They just do their conservatism in a different way.

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