What the basketball star's visit to North Korea says about American celebrity culture.
1. My first thought, after watching George Stephanopoulos interview Dennis Rodman on ABC's This Week last Sunday, was this: Has anyone ever been more of a walking indictment of contemporary educational standards, and of the contemporary obsession with celebrities, than this guy? (I mean Rodman, not Stephanopoulos.) I don't know much about Rodman's career, but I gather that he was once a college basketball player, which I assume means that at some point in his youth he actually sat in college classrooms and was taught stuff by actual teachers. I found out online that he's “written” four books – but his genial inarticulateness on This Week, his seemingly blithe indifference to the nightmarish truth about life in North Korea, and the general impression he gave of utter foolishness and ignorance makes one wonder what book, if any, he has ever read. My preoccupation here, please note, isn't with the big dumb jock himself but with the values of a culture in which somebody who can dunk a ball into a hoop becomes an international demigod and, long after his athletic career is over, is able, thanks to such vehicles as Celebrity Apprentice and Celebrity Rehab, to remain a household name while, say, any number of brilliant researchers toil in obscurity making medical breakthroughs.
2. Then again, the fact that Rodman appears to have been the first American to meet the new North Korean dictator is a striking indication that modern celebrity culture, which is overwhelmingly an American creation, has taken root even in the presidential palace in Pyongyang – which makes Rodman's state visit to North Korea, in an admittedly twisted way, a kind of victory for the good old U.S.A.
3. And here's a question: Is Rodman's “diplomacy” really that much more absurd or misguided or disgraceful or disastrous than that of the alleged professionals whom we're paying to carry it out? At least Rodman is more honest than the folks at Foggy Bottom. (Benghazi, anyone?) And at least he's conceivably capable of learning and admitting the error of his ways, whereas most of the State Department types who have crossed my path – the sort who, whether they really believe it or not, slickly insist that, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood is “moderate” – will never, ever change their tune.
4. And let's not lose sight of this: Rodman is part of a long and ignoble tradition. As John Avlon noted the other day in an article for CNN, Charles Lindbergh befriended Hitler, Paul Robeson palled around with Stalin, and Gabriel García Márquez was chummy with Castro. Avlon also lists a number of celebs who, out of sheer cluelessness, have accepted huge sums of money to perform for the likes of Qaddafi – but that's not quite the same topic. Surprisingly, there's a bunch of big names Avlon left out. Since I live in Norway, I immediately thought of explorer-hero Thor Heyerdahl (also a buddy of Castro's), and novelist Knut Hamsun (who met Hitler, wrote a eulogy for him, and sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize). But why didn't Avlon mention Hugo Chávez's many Hollywood comrades, most notably Sean Penn (who campaigned with him last fall and called him “inspiring”), but also Danny Glover, Naomi Campbell, Tim Robbins, Benecio del Toro (star of the Che Guevara films), and Kevin Spacey? Even dopey showbiz-gossip magazines, websites, and TV shows have raised eyebrows over these famous folks' fascination with the Venezuelan strongman. Why no mention by Avlon of Oliver Stone, who in addition to schmoozing Chávez also made a hagiographic film about Fidel, telling reporters that “the American attitude to Castro is so caricatured. He's the guy with the beard, he's a commie, he's the guy you have to attack right away with 'How many people are in prison? When will you hold elections?' These very negative and hostile questions that set the wrong tonality. The wrong questions are being asked.”
5. One significant difference between Rodman and many of these other celebrity amigos of dictators, past and present, is that they had better educations than he did. Oliver Stone went to Yale. He, Penn, and a bunch of the other tyrant-huggers plainly consider themselves intellectuals, which Rodman certainly doesn't. Which, of course, is why he's the one who went to North Korea: Penn, Stone, and company might not have found it morally problematic to spend a few days basking in the admiration of a Kim Jung Un, but they're sharp enough to realize that for most of their left-wing fans and friends who have no problem with their Chávez and Castro connections, the sight of them cozying up to Kim would be a bridge too far.
6. It's more or less clear, I guess, what attracts a celebrity with intellectual pretensions to a left-wing dictator. But what about Dennis Rodman? Well, obviously, he's received massive amounts of publicity (he just didn't realize, or, perhaps, didn't care, that it might not end up being good publicity). But it's more than that. Celebrity seeks out celebrity. It's almost a matter of chemical attraction. Hanging with the super-famous reassures you that you're famous, which is all that really matters. Smart or dumb, many celebrities at Rodman's level are so self-absorbed, so lost in their own fame, and so detached from real life that they're incapable of perceiving the difference – for ordinary people – between living in a totalitarian state and a free country. Their only means of judging another individual is to ask themselves: (a) how big a celebrity is this person and (b) how much does he adore me? Kim loves basketball, and loves Rodman, and so what's for Rodman not to like? All else – namely, the starving and imprisoned millions – is mere “politics” and moral equivalence.
7. Don't laugh, but it's just possible that Rodman, more than Oliver Stone or your typical State Department attaché, may be educable. Presumably operating on this assumption, Stephanopoulos, at the end of their colloquy, handed him a copy of a Human Rights Watch report on North Korea. I've read my share of Human Rights Watch reports, and I can't easily imagine Rodman getting through one of them or, if he did, grasping the dimensions of the problem through all that dry, technocratic prose. If he's genuinely able and willing to do some reading about the subject before he returns to Pyongyang (as he's said he will) to visit his new bro, I'd urge him to crack open Melanie Kirkpatrick's recent Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad or Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom, both of which put human faces on the statistics about life (and death) under the Kim dynasty. If, deep down, Rodman has any moral sense at all, a few pages chosen at random out of either of these books should be enough to make him ashamed of pretty much everything he's done and said in recent days. He might, I suspect, be interested in a passage, from pages 93-4 of Kirkpatrick's book, about institutional racism in North Korea, where theirs is considered “the 'cleanest race,' possessing a unique moral purity.” So virulent is this racism that women who are imprisoned for having escaped to China, and who carry “Chinese seed,” are routinely subjected by jailers to beatings or hard labor until they abort spontaneously. “In cases where the repatriated woman gives birth,” writes Kirkpatrick, “her newborn is taken away from her. The infant is drowned, smothered, left outside in the elements, or clubbed to death.”
Have a nice trip back, Dennis! Say hi to your new friend.
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