What sort of pressure do high-profile Americans need to put on foreign dictators to convince them to change their ways? Is any kind of engagement at all a sign of support, or can it expose internationals to U.S. culture and values?
This is not a question for American politicians grappling with Syria, Egypt or other troubled places. It's an issue for American entertainers, who despite their large entourages, seem to have no idea that some wacked-out foreign leader who pays them pots of money to perform might not be such a good guy.
It was true for Beyonce, Usher, Nelly Furtado, 50 Cent and Mariah Carey, all of whom performed for Libyan strongman Moammar Ghadafi. (Now that he's dead after the revolution there, that gravy train has stopped, at least.) It was true for Hilary Swank and Jean Claude Van Damme, who celebrated the birthday of brutal Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov. It was true for Kanye West, who collected an estimated $3 million for his performance at the wedding reception of Aisultan Nazarbayev, grandson of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Basketball player Dennis Rodman seems to think his visits to North Korea are some sort of diplomatic outreach, while instead they expose him for the attention-seeker that he is.
But the case of singer-dancer-actress Jennifer Lopez is perhaps most troubling. Lopez this summer serenaded Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – even reprising, Marilyn Monroe-style, a "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" performance. The Central Asian leader is considered one of the worst violators of human rights, according to organizations which track such behavior.
Now, Lopez tells Cosmopolitan magazine that she is sorry she performed, saying:
Being seen as a role model means taking responsibility for all my actions. I am human, and of course, sometimes I make mistakes. But I promise that when I fall, I get back up. . . I will learn the lesson and move on to face other challenges.
The apology is disingenuous at best. The Human Rights Foundation reports that this was not Lopez's first offense – she has, in fact, earned some $10 million performing for "some of the world's worst thugs and their cronies."
And nearly as baffling is that Lopez thinks she is a "role model." She's a talented singer and dancer, and a known (if not terribly talented) actress. How does that make her a role model? She's not Eleanor Roosevelt. She's an entertainer. That doesn't give her any authority in the area of international relations, or even a town council agenda, and it certainly doesn't make her someone to emulate.
The suggestion that somehow she just didn't know that Turkmenistan was a horrible human rights violator is beyond credibility. Celebrities have staff who attend to such excruciating details such as what sort of bottled water must be available backstage at concerts. But they don't even do a Google search on a foreign leader?
It's pretty obvious what the answer is to all of those questions, and it's a one-word answer: money. Had these performers not been given massive sums for the private shows, they likely would not have gone. Perhaps the cash prize is so big they don't really want to know where it's coming from. Certainly, they were hoping the rest of us wouldn't know. Lopez's behavior is appalling, but inconsequential – since, fortunately, she is not a "role model."