Skip to main content

Dennis Rodman's moral responsibility

By Frida Ghitis
January 8, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
Dennis Rodman sings "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, January 8. In his latest round of "basketball diplomacy," Rodman made his fourth visit to North Korea, one of the world's most totalitarian states, to participate in a basketball game between a team of North Koreans and <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/06/politics/gallery/nba-in-north-korea/index.html' target='_blank'>a team of former NBA players</a>. Dennis Rodman sings "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, January 8. In his latest round of "basketball diplomacy," Rodman made his fourth visit to North Korea, one of the world's most totalitarian states, to participate in a basketball game between a team of North Koreans and a team of former NBA players.
HIDE CAPTION
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
Rodman, ex-NBAers play North Korea
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • People are captivated by the spectacle of Dennis Rodman's trip to Korea
  • Frida Ghitis: Rodman has gone beyond just saying he isn't interested in the politics
  • By praising Kim Jong Un, Rodman increases his obligation to act, she says
  • Ghitis: Choosing to do nothing when you can help suffering people is a moral failing

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- It's hard to imagine a more bizarre juxtaposition than Dennis Rodman and the North Korean regime. We can't look away and, surely, that's part of the plan. Rodman, the fantastically strange former basketball player, loves the spotlight and he knows how to draw our attention. He can be outrageously entertaining. Usually, it's all relatively harmless and inconsequential.

But Rodman's North Korean visits and his avowed friendship with Kim Jong Un, the country's dictator -- "I love the guy," he has said repeatedly -- have placed him in the middle of something deadly serious.

Rodman's trips to North Korea, ruled by the world's more repressive regime, bring up a moral controversy over one of the most fundamental questions faced by society, by countries, and by each human being:

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

What is our responsibility in the face of terrible injustice and great suffering?

The dilemma was framed succinctly in biblical times: Are we our brother's keepers?

In some respects, Rodman's interaction with Kim and his regime overlap with the issues we must wrestle with when we hear about the killing in Syria, the turmoil in the Central African Republic, even the plight of the homeless in the U.S. Simply -- what, if anything, are we going to do about it?

Rodman has come under withering criticism for befriending the young dictator. A member of Congress likened the visits to sitting down to lunch with Adolf Hitler. For his most recent visit Rodman has organized an exhibition basketball game with former NBA players to celebrate Kim's birthday. Critics say he has helped legitimize, and thus strengthen, the regime.

Rodman defiant in odd N. Korea defense
Rodman sings Happy Birthday to NK leader
Rodman disavowed by US diplomats

Rodman sang "Happy Birthday" and bowed to North Korea's absolute ruler, behavior that no doubt will serve Kim's massive propaganda at home.

Even if he would rather ignore it, Rodman rightly faces sharp questions because of the sheer brutality of the regime with which he is interacting; because Kim is a big fan of his. Because he might, just might, be able to make even a small positive difference.

It's hard to know precisely what Rodman's views are on the issue of his responsibility to intercede on behalf of Kim's victims. The pressure of reflecting on the matter, of facing questions about his views and his intentions, is visibly getting to him. On Tuesday, when CNN's Chris Cuomo asked him if he planned to bring up with his North Korean hosts the case of Kenneth Bae -- an American imprisoned without charges for more than a year by the North Korean regime -- he became practically incoherent with anger, declaring, cigar in hand, that he didn't "give a rat's ass" what Cuomo thought.

His suggestion that Bae is guilty of some unspecified crime makes his behavior even more reprehensible. Bae's family was dismayed. In a press release, his sister said, "Rodman could do a lot of good ... but instead he has decided to hurl outrageous accusations at my brother."

By all appearances, Rodman views his unique opportunity to meet with the North Korean leader, the result of Kim's passion for basketball, as little more than a chance to bask in the warm limelight that has become more elusive with the passage of time. The complicated problems are not his concern, despite his suggestion that basketball might "open the door a little bit." With him, it's about hedonism and fame. That's his philosophy.

Rodman says he has no interest in the politics of North Korea. "Whatever (Kim) does political-wise, that's not my job. I'm just an athlete."

Saying you don't like politics, as so many do, is a transparent excuse for inaction, for ignoring our responsibilities as human beings.

For his part, Rodman has done much worse than completely ignoring the suffering of the North Korean people.

If he had kept quiet, we might have given him the benefit of the doubt and chalked it all up to sports diplomacy, an elusive effort to thaw tensions. But Rodman has gone out of his way to praise the ruler of an imprisoned, starving nation.

Not only has he showered praise on Kim, but he has extended it to his father and grandfather, the previous dictators who handed the country down as if it were a private family heirloom. "They were great leaders," he said, adding that he is not the only one who loves the young Kim. "His country likes him -- not like him, love him." That's because, as Rodman explains, "the guy's really awesome."

There is no such thing as a neutral stance on a situation like North Korea's. Kim inherited a regime whose brutality defies belief. More than 150,000 people are imprisoned in a network of gulags -- camps where entire families, generations of individuals deemed a threat to Kim's authority, are kept in horrific conditions. Famines have plagued the nation, killing hundreds of thousands, as resources are diverted toward the military, including the buildup of a nuclear arsenal.

Kim has threatened his neighbors (and the U.S.) with nuclear war and has detonated nuclear devices as recently as last year.

We all have a responsibility to speak up, to do what we can when weak people are so clearly victimized. For most of us, there are limited opportunities to help, and there are many issues competing for attention. Rodman, on the other hand, has a unique chance to at least try to make a difference.

Choosing to do nothing when you may have the ability to help is an even greater moral failing than ignoring a crisis when it is more difficult to intercede on behalf of the powerless.

Perhaps Dennis Rodman will have a moment of lucidity and do something meaningful. Perhaps he will surprise us. For now, behind his permanent sunglasses and shining lip rings, he is offering only weird entertainment, and an unintentional reminder that human beings have larger responsibilities.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT