Hey, J.Lo, Thanks for Serenading that Dictator

The mainstream media have finally discovered human rights violations in Turkmenistan. And it's all thanks to Hollywood.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

A few days ago, Jennifer Lopez flew to a Caspian Sea resort to perform at the birthday party of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the president of Turkmenistan. It was the first time an American celebrity had performed in the former Soviet republic, one of the most repressive states in the world. Turkmen citizens lack basic rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. They are monitored by a massive security apparatus that administers threats and torture.

The media were outraged. "Jenny from the Eastern Bloc," proclaimed The Daily Mail and dozens of other outlets who have rarely, if ever, written about Turkmenistan. How could Lopez perform for a country with such grotesque human rights violations?

Human rights groups were also appalled, criticizing Lopez for lending legitimacy to an egomaniacal dictator’s propaganda ploy. "The problem isn’t that she performed in Turkmenistan," explained Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch. "It’s that she was part of a propaganda fest for a president who presides over one of the most closed, repressive governments in the world."

But in the process, Lopez opened that country up, if only a little. In their quest to vilify Lopez, the mainstream media incidentally ended up covering the following topics: Turkmen political dissidence, internet censorship, torture, prison abuse, and other issues that human rights advocates try, usually in vain, to bring to international attention.

What Lopez did was vile, albeit relatively common among celebrities seeking to make a quick profit. What the government of Turkmenistan does to its citizens on a daily basis is far worse. But these two misdeeds together have the potential to benefit those who should be at the heart of this debate: the people of Turkmenistan. Lopez is being pressured to donate her fee to charity, like Hillary Swank did after playing for Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov in 2011. The Arzuw Foundation, an organization struggling to raise money to support educational opportunities for Turkmens, received a $1,000 donation in light of the Lopez affair, and has encouraged Lopez to lend her support.

This is not to say that Turkmenistan will improve in a meaningful way through this controversy. Turkmenistan is one of many Central Asian countries in which authoritarian rule has created a perverse stability. The only way that Turkmenistan is likely to change is through internal reform — a path that Berdimuhamedov shows no interest in pursuing. (Berdimuhamedov is sometimes depicted as an improvement over his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, but that is only because Niyazov concocted a personality cult that included renaming the months after his family members and constructing a $12 million gold statue of himself that rotated to face the sun.)

But contrary to the warnings of human rights advocates, the government of Turkmenistan gains no credibility through Lopez’s visit. Most people understand that a visit by an American Idol judge does not render a dictatorship just. So why the outrage? The Western public’s fascination with Lopez and Berdimuhamedov, as with all visits to dictators from celebrities — Swank and Kadyrov, Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un, Sting and Islam Karimov, Gerard Depardieu and Vladimir Putin — has more to do with the celebrity than the dictator. The dictator is a proxy through which unease with celebrity — its decadence, its unfairness — is expressed.

Lopez has denied knowing anything about the nature of Berdimuhamedov’s regime. "The event was vetted by her representatives, had there been knowledge of human rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended," said a statement obtained by E! News. In other words, Lopez appears to live like Berdimuhamedov — surrounded by obsequious sycophants with little knowledge of, or moral obligation to, the world outside their kingdom.

Celebrities and dictators have a lot in common. They lead lavish lifestyles acquired by questionable means, insulated from the everyday people whom they claim to represent. "Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got/ I’m still Jenny from the block," Lopez sang, a sentiment little different from that of Berdimuhamedov who commented that his "biography is in many respects typical of people of my generation." Celebrities and dictators engage in contrived pageantry — Lopez with her tabloid relationships, Berdimuhamedov and his rigged horse races — and surround themselves with acolytes who tell them they can do no wrong. Their bloated presence is felt everywhere.

Most importantly, celebrities and dictators are rarely punished for bad behavior. They violate social, moral, and legal codes and not only get away with it, but find their reputations and opportunities enhanced. "I’m tired of pretending I’m not special. I’m tired of pretending I’m not a total bitchin’ rock star from Mars," Charlie Sheen famously proclaimed in what was perceived at the time as an epic career meltdown — but which culminated in a new TV series buoyed by the publicity.

Celebrity dictatorship scandals hit home because they remind us that those with money and power sin without consequence. In places like Turkmenistan, we are powerless to fight the dictator. But we can take down the celebrity outside of our social borders, and by extension, the casual greed which he or she embodies — a morality tale satisfying to a public otherwise uneasy with discussing privilege, power and class.

The outrage surrounding Lopez’s trip has more to do with the West’s conflicted attitude toward fame than it does with abuses in Turkmenistan. Human rights advocates should view celebrity gaffes as what they are — a special treat, destined to drum up interest, albeit temporary, in otherwise unpopular causes. (If they see it this way already, they should never admit it.) The Western public can indulge in schadenfreude while having the uncomfortable political debates celebrity downfalls inspire. (Witness the smart analyses of race relations brought on by Paula Deen.)

Celebrity visits to dictatorships are at best beneficial, at worst irrelevant. The greatest problem in Turkmenistan is not Jennifer Lopez, or even Berdimuhamedov, but systemic corruption and abuse that date back decades and continue to destroy the lives of ordinary people.

Ordinary people tend to play a side role in these celebrity debacles — much as they play a side role in the political life of their own nations. If the mainstream media are truly outraged about dictatorships, they should talk to the people who have to live in them. Tell their stories — and make them the stars.

Sarah Kendzior is a writer and analyst who studies digital media and politics in authoritarian states. She has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University. Her work has been published by Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, Slate, Radio Free Europe and numerous academic journals.