Leave Dennis Rodman Alone

by Benjamin Studebaker

So Dennis “The Worm” Rodman is back from North Korea and he’s made a new friend out of its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. Rodman was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos about his experience, and Stephanopoulos made no effort to hide his disdain for Rodman’s visit and for the positive things Rodman had to say about his new friend. Typically, I am not bothered by knowledgeable people who talk down or condescend to less knowledgeable people. It is not a particularly kind thing to do, but I understand the frustration of trying to make a point to someone who does not have the requisite intellectual background to receive it in the way one intends. I am however perturbed when an individual is wrongly condescended to by someone with no significant superiority of thought or knowledge. This prompts me to write this post, a defence of Dennis Rodman’s conduct in North Korea.

Here is Rodman’s interview with Stephanopoulos:

To summarise Stephanopoulos’s argument:

One cannot be friends with someone who sometimes acts immorally, therefore Dennis Rodman was morally obliged to be rude to Kim Jong-un and to denounce him.

While not everyone agrees with Stephanopoulos, he is certainly not alone if the YouTube comments are any guide. Here are a couple YouTube comments on the video expressing these sentiments less dispassionately:

After watching this Ive come to the conclusion that Rodmans a retard. Who would call this guy a friend. North Korea is the same as nazi germany. I hope after they meet rodman they assume all Americans are retards that like basketball and they dont shoot a nuke over here.

Rodman is stupid, He’s great Guy?… what did you and him fuck eachother ova there or something?…..really judging about everything you said did you even go to north Korea? Smh….you suck you funny looking man.

My principle objection to this is what, precisely, does anyone have to gain from Dennis Rodman either not going to North Korea or going to North Korea and being aggressively rude to his host? How does it benefit anyone for Rodman to refuse Kim’s friendship?

Some argue that Rodman’s visit lends legitimacy to the regime or helps it survive, but I fail to see any mechanism by which Dennis Rodman’s visit could hasten or delay any potential collapse of the North Korean state. If Rodman presented Stephanopoulos’ human rights letter to Kim, does anyone expect in seriousness that Kim’s heart would melt and he’d throw open the doors of his prison camps? Would Kim be so heartbroken at the rebuke of one of his favourite 90’s NBA players that he’d change over the North Korean state to please him? I do not think even Stephanopoulos is so daft as to believe such. How can being friends with a person who does awful things be wrong if it does not contribute to the furthering of those awful behaviours? The man who rejects friendship on some foolish principle gains nothing and loses only the opportunity for friendship.

But you know what would have happened if Rodman were rude to Kim? He wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to spend nearly so much time with the supreme leader, to learn about him and to get inside his head. He wouldn’t be the one American in the world right now with the most intimate knowledge of the personality and workings of North Korea’s head of state. Dennis Rodman has had the experience of a lifetime. If history is any guide, no state lasts forever. One day the DPRK won’t be around anymore, and Dennis Rodman will have been the only westerner who got to know personally one of its heads of state. And in the meantime, if there’s one thing Rodman has illustrated, it is that Kim Jong-un is not simply an insane person, he is someone who is at the very minimum capable of holding an amicable conversation with a westerner.

Some laugh and say that Kim Jong-un was lying or manipulating Rodman when he said that he does not desire war, but why should he be? What does the DPRK have to gain from war with the United States? Any damage North Korean nuclear weapons could inflict on the United States or its allies would rebound a hundred-fold on the regime. It’s far more likely that North Korea seeks nuclear weapons to deter the United States from removing its regime from power than that it genuinely seeks to be the aggressor in a future war. Kim Jong-un enjoys being Kim Jong-un far too much to throw all that away with a reckless attack on a country whose power vastly exceeds his own.

The naive and ignorant position is the one espoused by Stephanopoulos, that Kim Jong-un is some chaotic evil stereotype, seeking only death and destruction with no capacity for communication or reasonable negotiation. All people are the result of their genetics interacting with their surrounding environment. Being born the heir to the DPRK gives one a rather unique perspective, a rather skewed sense of what is good and what is bad, but it does not make one a lunatic or a mindless purveyor of evil and violence. Kim Jong-un probably sees himself as the embattled defender of a poor and mostly defenceless nation against a global hegemon, an aggressive superpower. His understanding is coloured by that perspective. His perspective isn’t right–he misunderstands us just as we misunderstand him–but this does not mean that he is himself a fundamentally bad or blameworthy person. If you were born in Kim Jong-un’s shoes, how could you turn out differently? People do not choose to do bad things deliberately, they stumble into them by accident and as a result of benign but ultimately misguided intentions.  Every person is just as capable of doing terrible things given the wrong environment. Even you, even me, even George Stephanopoulos. Let he who is not dominated by his nature and his nurture cast blame and lecture on “responsibility”.

So let’s cut Dennis Rodman a break. He had the adventure of a lifetime and he made a friend, however sketch. In the meantime, the rest of us got to learn a little bit more about Kim Jong-un and North Korea, so we’re all winners here. Dennis Rodman got to play 14 seasons of NBA basketball, grab nearly 12,000 rebounds, and, in retirement, leverage that into an opportunity that has, to this point, been denied to more or less every single American and European. Kudos to him. Now let’s let Dennis get on with being Dennis.