Aside from the immediate sense of disgust that came over me upon learning of ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman’s recent hijinks in North Korea, the incident offered an opportunity to reflect on the influence of politics in our lives and where we draw that subjective line between what is thought-provoking political fodder and what can now be coined “Rodmanesque” tomfoolery.
The Rodman controversy began last February, when he made his first trip to North Korea and met with the “Supreme Leader,” Kim Jong-un. The 31-year-old ruler inherited his post after his nefarious father, Kim Jong-il passed away in 2011.
North Korea maintains one of the world’s most abysmal human-rights records, including an absolute stranglehold on freedom of speech or any hint of a civil liberty. Violators of its Draconian laws are sent to torturous concentration camps.
In 2012, American businessman Kenneth Bae was apprehended by North Korean authorities and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for, essentially, having pictures on his computer hard drive of the country’s deplorable conditions. Bae was officially charged with attempting to overthrow the government.
Enter Dennis Rodman and his buffoonery. Just before his latest visit to North Korea, to play an exhibition basketball game and sing Happy Birthday to the dictator, whom Rodman called his “friend for life,” the imbecilic hoopster lashed out (in a self-admitted drunken stupor) at a journalist because of a question about Bae’s imprisonment and the possibility of Rodman asking his buddy Jong-un about the situation.
Rodman’s incoherent response and boot-licking images of his trip grabbed headlines and prompted me to question the point where sports, culture and politics collide.
Celebrities have a longstanding fascination with dictators.
The peculiar bedfellows and couplings fall into two categories: the ideologically curious (or ignorant, like Rodman) and the greed mongers.
Most baby boomers remember Jane Fonda’s dalliance with the North Vietnamese, motivated by her anti-war stance. During her 1972 trip, “Hanoi Jane” (a moniker she acquired stateside during the trip) was photographed sitting atop a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. The photograph, which quickly made its way around the world, seemed to illustrate Fonda’s support for the North Vietnamese regime. Years later, she rejected this notion in her biography, saying that she was manipulated into taking the picture.
Rod Stewart, Elton John and Frank Sinatra all opted to play (and get paid) in apartheid South Africa while much of the world was standing against the injustices of the system. The artists’ lame excuse then, and now, is that they do not mix their politics with their art (or the amount of green in their bank accounts).
Locally, several communities’ ire has been sparked when images of some of Hollywood’s gilded class rubbed elbows and lauded despised despots. Sean Penn’s and Oliver Stone’s enchantment with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez was noteworthy and infuriating to Venezuelans living in Miami who had to flee Chávez’ Bolivarian Revolution.
Perhaps the most noted example of celebrities in search of a friendly dictator is their infatuation with Cuba’s Castros, mainly Fidel. Jack Nicholson called Fidel “a genius.” Stephen Spielberg described his visit with the Cuban dictator, “the most important eight hours” of his life. And Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte went as far as to sign a petition in support of the Cuban government’s actions to suppress political dissent.
Famous artists, athletes and public figures have the right (as we all do) to exercise freedom of speech and thought.
However, it’s clear that they will be highly scrutinized and sometimes criticized for their actions and affiliations. The intense scrutiny is part of the spoils of celebrity status.
Rodman is learning the hard way the adage, “If you lie with dogs, you get up with fleas.”