I’ve Still Got Dennis Rodman’s Back

by Benjamin Studebaker

Over the last several days, an old piece of mine from March 2013 has spontaneously, seemingly out of nowhere, popped back up in my daily blog statistics–Leave Dennis Rodman Alone. Some formulation of the question “is Dennis Rodman retarded?” has led more internet wanderers here over the last couple of days than any other query. The cause? Hall of fame 5-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman has returned to North Korea, this time with a team of retired NBA players to play a game in honor of Kim Jong-un’s birthday. Rodman once again has been put on the defensive by many in the American media for fraternizing with a terrible dictator and for refusing to advocate for the release of Kenneth Bae, an American who is currently held prisoner in the country. Nonetheless, I’m still backing Dennis Rodman. Here’s why.

The new interview is with Chris Cuomo of CNN:


Cuomo seems more sympathetic to Rodman’s project than George Stephanopoulos, the interviewer last March, who was intensely hostile to the idea that any person would be friendly with Kim Jong-un for any reason and attacked Rodman for failing to scold Kim for his regime’s human rights abuses. At times, Stephanopoulos seemed condescending and belittling. Cuomo’s more nuanced critique makes two claims:

  1. Rodman should not play the game in honor of Kim’s birthday insofar as this appears to actively endorse the regime rather than merely engage with it culturally.
  2. Rodman should agitate for the release of American citizen Kenneth Bae, who is imprisoned in North Korea. The US believes he is held unjustly, and that he has not committed any crime.

Both of Cuomo’s arguments are only convincing given an assumption–that Kim Jong-un (or the handful of other English-speaking North Koreans who might be exposed to Rodman’s team during this trip)  will listen to Dennis Rodman’s political opinion. Given that Kim Jong-un was not inclined to listen to his own uncle‘s political opinion, how likely is it that Dennis Rodman is going to persuade him? Dennis Rodman was an excellent basketball player, and his basketball opinion may well be valuable, but very few even in the United States, Rodman’s home country, seems terribly convinced by his political arguments. So why would a North Korean dictator be any more easily persuaded?

The effects of the visit by Dennis Rodman and his team to North Korea are going to be rather limited, pretty much no matter what they do or say:

  1. Some former NBA players will get the once in a lifetime chance to visit North Korea, increasing ever so slightly the very small pool of knowledge Americans have about the country. They may also get to cash some checks.
  2. A handful of North Koreans will get the chance to meet some Americans and see that they’re nice guys. Maybe they’ll also get the impression that Americans are really tall and scary looking.

Will this “cultural exchange” change North Korean or American policy for better or for worse? Almost certainly not. One thing is for sure, if Dennis Rodman were to present Kim Jong-un with a list of demands, he’d not only probably not be invited back, but any number of horrible things might happen to him. It’s not as though Kim Jong-un is adverse to imprisoning American citizens for no good reason for vast lengths of time–look at Kenneth Bae.

Now, it’s true that in the course of the above interview, Dennis Rodman seems to bizarrely imply that Kenneth Bae has committed a crime. There is no evidence, at least none that the North Koreans care to share, that this is the case:

Cuomo: “You do have a relationship with this man [Kim Jong Un], you’ve said it many times, we’ve seen it demonstrated. Are you going to take an opportunity, if you get it, to speak up for the family of Kenneth Bae and to say ‘let us know why this man is being held’?”

Rodman: “The one thing about politics, Kenneth Bae did one thing… If you understand what Kenneth Bae did. Do you understand what he did? In this country?”

Cuomo: “You tell me.”

Rodman, raising his voice: “No, no, no. You tell me. Why is he held captive?”

Indeed, Rodman’s response to Cuomo is not especially articulate or well-reasoned–compare it to this blog post. Indeed, he comes across as unfamiliar with the Kenneth Bae case altogether, despite tweeting his support for Bae last May. Rodman doesn’t argue politics very well. This isn’t surprising, considering that Rodman does not have any formal education or training in politics. But does it really matter that Rodman’s political views are not especially good? Neither Americans nor North Koreans are rushing to change their policies or opinions based on anything Dennis Rodman says or does. Indeed, Rodman’s primary function in the North Korea debate is simply to draw attention to the country as a political issue. Over the last year, the only times I have seen fit to write much of anything about North Korea is when Dennis Rodman has gone there, and this blog is, if you haven’t noticed, quite political. No one person (other than Kim Jong-un) single-handedly makes the American public more aware of North Korea than Rodman, nor does any other person stir up as much debate on US-North Korean relations. Even if Rodman’s contribution to that debate isn’t very good, he gets a conversation going, and when Rodman makes bad arguments, it is good mental exercise for people to go to the trouble of figuring out or reminding themselves what is wrong with them.

The exulted philosopher John Stuart Mill would defend the role Rodman plays in the debate despite disagreeing with the content of his pro-North Korea arguments:

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

Until Dennis Rodman actually causes harm to someone through his North Korean escapades, all he’s doing is making us think about North Korea, and giving himself and a few American and North Korean basketball players a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That’s cool.

For those who are curious, or like pro basketball, these are the other former NBA players who have joined Dennis Rodman in North Korea:

Kenny Anderson

Craig Hodges

Vin Baker

Doug Christie

Sleepy Floyd

Clifford Robinson

Charles Smith