We might be tempted to dismiss the latest antics of Dennis Rodman, the freak show of a former NBA great who’s now cozying up to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as the desperate bleats of an attention-starved celebrity.
But, let’s give the flamboyant Rodman his due. He now follows proudly in a long line of what Vladimir Lenin reportedly called “useful idiots” – Western notables who, through moral blindness or fact-starved naiveté, lend their public support to dictators who seek to undermine the West while brutalizing their own people.
In this, his fourth trip to Pyongyang over the past year to spend time with North Korea’s boyish dictator, Rodman brought along some ex-NBA players to play an exhibition game against a North Korean team. At Pyongyang Indoor Stadium on Wednesday, Rodman bowed to Kim and led the singing of “Happy Birthday” to him. A day earlier, he called the dictator “my friend” and said he loves him.
Rodman has, to say the least, strange tastes when it comes to friends and tourism. Kim is, after all, the “Hermit Kingdom’s” ruthless new young leader who, to ensure that he would face no competition atop his nation’s power structure, recently ordered the high-profile execution of his own uncle.
We should not be surprised, however, for Kim follows in the footsteps of his notoriously brutal father and grandfather in a reign of terror over their backward nation that dates back to the end of World War II.
North Korea remains a place of extraordinary hardship. While Kim lives in extravagance, most of his 24 million people struggle every day to survive. The country has little electricity or running water; its people eat rats, mice, frogs, sparrows, dandelions, weeds and even undigested corn from the feces of farm animals; and they suffer from stunted growth, bloated stomachs, and flaky skin.
The ruling family allows no conceivable threat to its power, so a free thought of any kind – a computer, DVD or Bible, or an unscripted remark about Kim – can put someone before a firing squad or in a harsh prison. In this ultra-Stalinist state, everyone spies on everyone else, and in the prisons, people are forced to watch the execution of relatives while parents and children view one another as competitors for food.
In cozying up to Kim, Rodman joins an oh-so-proud lineage of Westerners who have been blinded by their proximity to power, or by visions of the future utopia that autocrats promise to create.
The sad practice – which lends unfortunate Western acceptance to ruthless dictators, steering attention away from their crimes – was particularly pronounced during the early Soviet years. Leading Americans, Brits and others, including the singer Paul Robeson and the writers George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Doris Lessing, praised the Soviet Union, falling for Stalin’s promises of a workers' paradise. The New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, essentially denied the 1932-33 Soviet famine that killed millions of people.
Useful idiots abounded during the Vietnam Era and shortly thereafter. “Hanoi Jane” Fonda famously visited North Vietnam during the war, denouncing America’s political and military leaders as “war criminals.” In the late 1970s, leftist lawyer William Kunstler defended the postwar regime that sent tens of thousands of people to “re-education camps,” prompting many to seek freedom via rickety boats on the open seas. “I don’t believe in criticizing socialist governments,” he said in a startling admission of moral relativity, “even if there are human rights violations.”
More recently, the Middle East has been a rich province for useful idiots. Rep. James McDermott was among a small group of House members who visited Iraq in 2002, met with top officials of Saddam Hussein’s government, and criticized President Bush for his threats of military action. That Saddam was one of history’s truly gruesome butchers, torturing his people in unspeakable ways, didn’t deter McDermott.
Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among those lawmakers who, in pre-Arab Spring days, visited Damascus, Syria, to find the supposedly moderate leader who was hidden in Bashar al-Assad. His years of terror sponsorship and close collaboration with the radical regime in Tehran didn’t deter her, either.
So, all hail Dennis Rodman, for he’s no singularly misguided figure. He is, instead, just the latest in a long line of useful idiots.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.” Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.