Dennis Rodman is the person boring people think is outrageous. Grasping for something interesting to say and lacking the ability to coherently say much of anything, the former NBA star long ago hit upon a simple and effective idea: he’d distract us from his soporific personality and witlessness with piercings and tattoos, feather boas, and hair dyed like a Jackson Pollock painting.
To promote his memoir Bad As I Wanna Be—a cri de coeur against those who found him tedious, which he mistook for fist-shaking offense—Rodman famously attended a book signing wearing a wedding dress, a boring stunt that bored journalists embraced (the Chicago Sun-Times recently enthused that wild-and-crazy Dennis "has sported everything from a wedding dress to a Mohawk”). It soon became journalistic law: one couldn’t mention Rodman in print without reference to his scripted outrageousness.
But Rodman has now managed something approaching an actual outrage: his slobbering friendship with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s cherubic little totalitarian who recently demonstrated his reformist bona fides by having his ex-girlfriend machine-gunned for crimes against the state. It’s worth pointing out that Rodman wasn’t clever enough to manage the Kim association on his own: the introduction was made by (my former employer) Vice Media, which cleverly gained access to North Korea through Kim’s affection for the former Chicago Bull.
It was at this moment that I realized that he was, in fact, being serious; that Rodman wasn’t in on the joke.
For a washed-up 52-year-old former athlete, what’s the most outrageous thing Rodman could do in an age when tattoos are de rigueur, stupid haircuts banal, and gender-bending a civil-rights issue? Well, obviously, it’s celebrating Stalinism, declaring the commandant of the world’s largest concentration camp to be a first-class friend and father, and adopting the nomenclature of evil by referring to Kim Jong-un only as “the marshal” ("Playing basketball on the marshal’s birthday? That’s a historical moment”).
At press conference in New York yesterday, a slurring and rambling Rodman, along with his sponsor, an Irish betting website, announced that his recent trip to Pyongyang yielded a basketball tournament called the Paddy Power Dennis Rodman Invitational, a bit of capitalism in a country best known for mass starvation and nuclear brinksmanship.
Rodman, who has “written” a number of books—stream-of-consciousness tales of the outrageous, leavened with the occasional page of Pearl Jam lyrics—then revealed that he would be “writing” another with Kim, though he coyly refused to divulge details of its premise. And if that weren’t enough, he announced that he would train North Korea’s Olympic basketball team for the next three years.
Displaying only a glancing knowledge of the juche philosophy, Rodman assured the assembled journalists that he’d “love to make a shitload of money, but it’s not the money” that motivated him to travel to North Korea. Indeed, a surprising number of people are suggesting that Rodman’s diplomatic efforts might actually bear fruit, despite his dismissive comment to journalists that it’s “not my job to ask about Kenneth Bae,” the American citizen currently languishing in Kim’s gulag.
At yesterday’s circuslike press conference, lending credibility and an ounce of diplomatic cover to this exercise in vanity and crass corporate promotion, was North Korea expert Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, who explained that Rodman’s propagandizing for Kim was a cost-free gamble because “private citizens do not carry the risk of delivering political prestige or some type of diplomatic recognition when they engage with the DPRK.” It’s silly to believe that Rodman, his generation’s dull-witted John Reed, hasn’t provided an impressive propaganda victory for the regime.
But Pinkston believes that Rodman-style engagement—whatever that is—might help deliver the captive people of North Korea into a new way of thinking: “The alternative to civil society engagement is to isolate the DPRK completely and prevent socialization processes that can accelerate critical thinking.” A lovely tangle of words, but how the North Korean leadership will, at Rodman’s behest, cave to Western demands of more personal liberty is unclear.
“Basketball diplomacy” is, of course, an especially empty phrase, nothing more than self-promotion for an aging sports star and a gambling website. But we’re still treated to Rodman and his surrogates mumbling wistfully about a potential diplomatic “opening,” “bridging the gap” between democratic presidents and North Korean slave masters, and the usual airy nonsense about “bringing people together,” while never explicitly acknowledging that Kim’s subjects have no choice in the matter.
Rodman assures us that North Korea’s “not bad,” that its current warden is “a very good guy” and a “good dad.” Those critical of the Kim dynasty, which has held the country hostage since 1953, should be ignored, says Rodman, because he has twice been an honored guest in their Potemkin state. American journalists “write what you hear, but you don’t see what you write,” he says. Rodman might know nothing much at all, but he knows what he’s been shown. (A disgraceful representative of Paddy Power, Rodman’s sponsor and protector, prevented him from answering one journalist’s brilliant question, “Who are your starting five dictators?”)
It was at this moment that I realized that he was, in fact, being serious; that he wasn’t in on the joke. Rodman asked journalists to quit with the mean questions about human rights and “take him seriously,” a difficult task even for those who can make out what he’s saying. But I’ll take the bait this once and tell Comrade Rodman that no serious person can look at the vast prison camp that is the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and see a “good” country, or embrace as a “friend” a “marshal” who has sentenced his subjects to a life of misery and penury.