I was always partial to Dennis Rodman, ever since the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons days when he was known as The Worm and led the league in rebounding, technical fouls and weirdness. In his career, he won 5 NBA championships. He made it into the Hall of Fame. And then he dissolved into pop culture haze until last year when he surfaced in North Korea doing something that desperately needs to doing: de-regulating diplomacy.
The world did not take well to Dennis Rodman’s vision of diplomacy. Almost everyone took shots at him from every direction.
- Council on Foreign Relations: His visit was probably unethical.
- U.S. Treasury Department: He most likely violated United Nation sanctions.
- Former Governor Bill Richardson: Rodman gets an “F” in diplomacy
- White House press secretary: “I’m not going to even dignify [Rodman's visit] with a response.”
Even the NBA took a dim view of it: “Standing alongside our partners at the NBA, we do not condone the basketball activities to be conducted in North Korea this week.”
Why so much vitriol? What exactly was everyone so pissed off about?
No one doubts that diplomacy with North Korea ought to take place in one form or another. And over the years many top people have tried their hand at it–Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Bill Richardson. It’s arguable that Rodman isn’t even the weirdest person to do some Hermit Kingdom diplomacy. In 1995, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair wrestled in front of 190,000 fans in Pyongyang and that entourage included Muhammed Ali who, at one point during the trip, came out with this wonderful chestnut:
“No wonder we hate these motherfuckers”
But no one remembers that.
What they remember is Dennis Rodman waving around an unlit cigar in dark glasses hiding alcoholic eyes wearing something he picked up from a yard sale at the Michael Jackson estate getting into Geraldo-worthy yelling match with a CNN anchor via live satellite link.
The argument between Rodman and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo has two thrusts. One is the accusation that the game was a “birthday gift” to Kim Yong-en. The other is that Rodman hasn’t done anything to help free an American missionary named Kenneth Bae.
There are important unspoken assumptions at work here.
Assumption 1: Kim Yong-un is a maniacal dictator and famous basketball players playing an exhibition game for his birthday only legitimizes him.
But that’s strange because diplomatically speaking he’s already been recognized as the leader of the country. There is no sentiment that this is an illegitimate government in the mold of the Ukraine or Egypt; it’s just a really bad government. Therefore the basketball game transmits the message that it’s all right to be a bad government, because you can still have sports stars come and perform for your personal pleasure. In other words, it made Kim happy and we should all try as much as possible to make dictators unhappy because then the job won’t seem so great and fewer people will aspire to it and hence there will be fewer dictators and more democracies. Yes!
Or more realistically: it’s bad because it makes Kim look good to his own people. This is important because it stifles incipient internal revolution. Therefore logically we should always try to make dictators look ridiculous in the eyes of their own people so the people will be so mortified by loss of face they will erupt in open revolt. Rodman, you should have put a pie in his face. If you’d done that the country would be a casino by now. Clearly.
Though assumption 1 was mentioned consistently in the press coverage of Hoops Diplomacy, it didn’t get trotted out nearly as much as assumption number 2 (probably because the West has been legitimizing/propping up/bribing/giving handjobs to dictators of all stripes for many many years).
Assumption 2: if you go to North Korea and you don’t try to free Kenneth Bae, you’re a bad person, a selfish person. In the famous CNN interview, anchor Chris Cuomo continually circles back to that. You don’t even need to bring in the China double standard (countless politicians have courted China without mentioning any of the legion of foreigners who are in jail here for questionable reasons), because no one knows what Bae actually did and, frankly, no one really cares. For better or for worse, in the Rodman case Bae is an empty symbol, nothing more.
Dennis Rodman–flamboyant, loud, inarticulate, drunk, weird and pierced–only takes on global meaning versus an American missionary–a devout Christian–with a history of helping children. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bae was involved in underground missionary work, probably for very noble reasons. Against an uninterrogated, unassailable archetype like that, Rodman can only come off looking like a crazy black man.
And that brings us to the real crux of the argument: Dennis Rodman is simply unacceptable as a diplomatic figure. Even Ric Flair–who once called himself a “limosine-ridin’, jet-flyin’, kiss stealin’, wheelin’ dealin’, son-of-a-gun (who kissed ALL the girls worldwide and made em cry)” had the decency in a recent interview to comment thusly on the Rodman affair: “I just know if I was over there, I’d be on my best behavior every minute.”
As an expat in China for over a decade, obviously I have encountered my fair share of diplomats and people who work in diplomatic context. The first diplomat I knew in China was a Canadian, way back in the day. She was a nice person, very proper. I joked with her that she had to be because if she was otherwise, it be major international scandal. She admitted that yet there was some pressure in that regard.
Well let me tell you I have been to parties held inside embassies and consulates in China where whole pharmacies of drugs were consumed in between massive mountains of booze. Orgies took place in diplomatic properties and residences–and probably still do. It’s well known in Beijing circles that the embassies threw parties in the ’80s and ’90s because there weren’t that many public places for expats to get together and go a bit nuts. The parties got wild. It wasn’t much of a secret.
A few nights ago I was in a bar in Shanghai talking with a few girls–friends of mine–when a guy sat down and started talking to us. Turns out he holds a pretty important position in a major European consulate. To me he handed a name card. To the girl next to him he handed a condom. He later tried to make out with my friend, laying some story on her about having a girlfriend he was trying to break up with who lived in a different city. Someone else later told me he was married.
So you can understand why Rodman is confused about the global reception to Hoops Diplomacy. You can understand where he’s coming from when he tearily asks a ESPN reporter:
“What makes me so damn bad? What makes me this bad, awful person?”
Nothing in particular, Dennis. You’re just not part of the club.