Pilgrims and Idiots

How celebrities should handle visits to authoritarian countries in today's world.

Rondong Sinmun
Rondong Sinmun

Earlier this week, former All-Pro basketball star Dennis Rodman made headlines around the world for a highly unusual visit to North Korea. "I come in peace," he said on Twitter. "I love the people of North Korea." He also seemed to hit it off with the country’s young leader Kim Jong Un, to whom he referred as a "friend for life," taking in an exhibition basketball game featuring the Harlem Globetrotters and posing for smiling photos.

Rodman’s comments raised a few eyebrows. The North Korean regime is ranked by Freedom House as the world’s most repressive dictatorship, and for good reason: The people of North Korea have suffered for more than 60 years under the family of Rodman’s new friend, whose members have allowed millions to starve while building up a mammoth military machine.

Rodman will likely emerge relatively unscathed from the affair, the butt of jokes rather than a target of contempt due to his history of quirky and often inane public utterances. But his antics stand as a vivid reminder of the dumbing down of the phenomenon known as the political pilgrim. The phrase originally described eminent intellectuals, primarily from Great Britain and Europe, who became converts to communism after visits to the Soviet Union. (Vladimir Lenin less charitably referred to them as "useful idiots.") George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, André Gide — all figures familiar in intellectual circles during the 1930s — returned from visits to Soviet factories, collective farms, and new industrial cities convinced that, as the saying went, they had seen the future, and it worked. They were impressed by the youth, optimism, and ingenuity that predominated under the rule of Joseph Stalin, which they contrasted with the bourgeois decadence of their own, capitalist societies.

The problem, of course, is that the values that had enabled these writers and artists to become famous — freedom of expression and thought most prominently — were rejected absolutely under the Stalinist system. When pressed on the absence of freedoms in the vanguard state of world revolution, the original political pilgrims would either deny that artistic repression was suppressed or, in more than a few cases, would justify political control of the arts as a temporary but necessary step in the construction of a genuinely socialist culture.

Eventually, of course, apologetics for Stalin became intellectually untenable and the reputations of the political pilgrims duly suffered. George Bernard Shaw may principally be remembered as one of the greatest playwrights in the English language, but in that chapter of his biography where his political convictions are assessed, he comes across as both too naïve about the propaganda he was being fed by Soviet authorities and too cynical about the importance of intellectual and artistic freedom.

With the onset of the Cold War and, especially, the revelation of Stalin’s crimes, the political pilgrim phenomenon underwent something of an evolution. First, Third World revolutions supplanted the Soviet Union as the destination of choice for those seeking alternatives to capitalist democracies. Second, the intellectual level of the pilgrims notably declined. Instead of distinguished novelists visiting Russia, we saw actors, popular musicians, and political activists taking the tour in Vietnam, Cuba, and later Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.

With the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Marxist idea, the political pilgrim has essentially become an historical relic. The only "revolutionary" country that today draws well-known personalities from the democratic world is Venezuela, with leftist Hollywood figures like Sean Penn, Danny Glover, and Oliver Stone making the journey to experience the Bolivarian revolution first-hand.

Ironically, the decline, to the point of near-extinction, of the socialist model, has been accompanied by a major increase in opportunities for celebrities to visit and even do business in countries under authoritarian leadership. Where the Soviet bloc was relatively isolated from the global economy and culture, countries like China, Russia, and Venezuela are thoroughly integrated into the world trading system and world culture generally. For athletes, film stars, and musicians, performing for audiences in dictatorships is increasingly commonplace, as are the opportunities to make fawning and foolish comments about the leaders.

Take the case of Hilary Swank, the star of Million Dollar Baby and other well-received films. Swank created a stir when she participated in a glitzy birthday celebration for the strongman of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2011. In her words of appreciation, Swank bubbled that she "could feel the spirit of the people, and everyone was so happy." "Happy birthday, Mr. President," she added.

Swank subsequently regretted her words. Unlike Belgian action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, who also appeared at Kadyrov’s garish celebration, Swank was at the pinnacle of her career, and so took to heart the subsequent shaming campaign by journalists and human rights organizations. She issued apologies and claimed ignorance of Kadyrov’s ugly record of repression. In fact, the evidence suggests that she was forewarned of the dangers of appearing at Kadyrov’s party. The Human Rights Foundation apparently wrote her weeks before the event to express its concern and to remind her, if she didn’t already know, about the history of Kadyrov’s rule in Chechnya. By any standard, it is a damning history, and one easily accessed through a cursory search of the Internet.

Sports is another tricky area. Dictators and tyrants have a long history of using sports to burnish their own stature, not to mention their self-image as the manliest of world leaders. Although there were exceptions — the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1980 Moscow Olympics — world-class competitions were usually hosted by democracies.

Now that is changing. Authoritarian leaders actively seek to host all manner of sports events, while democracies often find global sports an expensive nuisance. Authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin has been particularly aggressive in lobbying for the most prestigious competitions. In 2014, Sochi will host the Winter Olympics, at a projected cost of $50 billion. And in 2018, Russia will host soccer’s World Cup.

Meanwhile, Belarus will play host to the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship. This despite President Aleksander Lukashenko’s reputation as the "last dictator in Europe." Gulf monarchy Qatar has been selected by the world soccer ruling body to host the World Cup in 2022. And in 2012, Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa’s most brutal dictatorships, was a host of the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s most prestigious soccer tournament.

Should there be some sort of code of conduct for high-profile figures from democratic countries who have the opportunity to visit repressive societies? Actually, all that is called for is a modest dose of common sense.

First, the most important difference between conditions today and conditions that prevailed for the communist-era political pilgrims is the amount of information that is readily available about the nature of dictatorships. We even know quite a bit about North Korea, the world’s most secretive society, due to journalistic accounts based on testimony from recent exiles. A half-hour Google search by celebrities (or their agents) should be sufficient to ascertain whether a regime holds political prisoners, conducts torture, censors the press, or represses artistic freedom.

Second, authoritarians greatly value praise from the democratic world and will thoroughly exploit any comment that can be interpreted as legitimizing their rule. Under these conditions, a visitor’s silence can be golden.

Third, while a visitor may feel uncomfortable criticizing a host leader to his face, having a quiet talk with a dissident or family of an imprisoned blogger can send an important message both to the opposition and to the oppressor about the principles that animate democratic societies.

Celebrities should give some thought to whether that trip to Grozny, Caracas, or Minsk is really necessary. If just the fact of being present at a celebration for a leader like Putin, Kadyrov, or Fidel Castro can be seen as a kind of validation of their legitimacy, then it’s advisable to stay at home.

Finally, and especially for athletes and sports enthusiasts, consider supporting boycotts of tournaments in repressive settings, or alternatively, using the threat of boycotts to encourage enhanced democracy and better human rights standards.

Dennis Rodman escaped opprobrium for his behavior in what amounts to a nationwide concentration camp because, well, Dennis will be Dennis. Other mortals, however, won’t have that excuse to fall back on. What citizens of democracies do or say in China, Iran, Russia, or Venezuela increasingly matters in an integrated world. It matters especially to those who are fighting for freedom of thought and expression — democratic allies operating in isolation and under duress. When we come to their countries, we should, where possible, give signs of solidarity and, where not feasible, at least do no harm.

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