The friendship former NBA player Dennis Rodman has with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un is not as bizarre as commentators suggest. It certainly seems odd to befriend a man whose government is known for starving its people and imprisoning generations of a family for false crimes against one. And his outburst with CNN’s Chris Cuomo last week in which he essentially accused the American Kenneth Bae, who has been held captive by North Korea since 2012, of deserving an 15-year sentence to hard labor for unspecified crimes was disturbing.
In case you missed it, he said, "Do you understand what he did in this country?" Rodman asked Cuomo. "No, no, no, you tell me, you tell me. Why is he held captive here in this country, why?"
"I would love to speak on this," Rodman rambled on drunkenly (as he later admitted), before quickly switching to a new topic.
But humans love spectacle – think Americans’ fascination with Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga and way back when, Madonna, when she still shocked. They are human equivalents of car wrecks that cause temporary cultural rubbernecking until a new human crash arrives. The tubby young basketball-loving dictator and Mr. Rodman are not sensations in and of themselves, although the lavishly tattooed Rodman who often sported fluorescent hair was temporarily when he played professionally, but they are novel to one another and together, they focus international attention on themselves in a way that neither could alone. Think Jesse Jackson meeting with former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Apart, they are like vinegar and baking soda, but together they cause a media eruption!
The difference between Mr. Rodman and Mr. Jackson is that Mr. Rodman no longer needs the façade of a cause to explain why he could joke with a man who executes people for speaking the truth or watching foreign DVDs. In his own words, “I'm just an individual that wants to show the world the fact that we can actually get along and be happy for one day."
The more important issue is glamour. For Kim Jong Un, Dennis Rodman is a prop like one of his many propaganda films that enhances the power and allure of him as a leader to the poor victims who happened to be born within North Korea’s borders. As Virginia Postrel writes in her new book “The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion,” glamour “can inspire life-sustaining hope and sometimes spark real-world change, offering both solace and direction.”
No doubt that was what he was trying to offer up to his subjects through the 6’7 Mr. Rodman, who not only sang happy birthday to him but bowed low in respect during a basketball exhibition game last week. The dictator could not have asked for a better scripted film. Think about it – a famous (or at least in the eyes of the information-starved North Korean people’s minds) basketball star from the evil empire of the United States bows to their leader as if he is worthy of worship. The symbolism of the performance feeds perfectly into the worldview the oppressive state hammers home wherever and whenever it can – the one that paints North Korea as the brightest star of all the nations and Kim Jong Un its glorious, god-like leader.
In the process, whether Mr. Rodman intended it or not, he is complicit in assisting the latest murderer-in-chief of North Korea with propping up his “theatre state” by polishing the lies Kim Jong Un feeds his people. For that Mr. Rodman is more than weird. He is evil.
That he is either so incapable of self-reflection to realize this or so naïve to think that his personal antics will lead the world to greater happiness doesn’t matter. The end result is the same for the millions whose lives, if not literally extinguished, are daily crushed by a government that does not value life beyond its ability to further the goals of the state. The saving grace is that with every foreign broadcast and DVD that increasingly slip into the country, a piece of the emperor’s clothes disappears.