Histories, Aesthetics and Cultures of Dissent
Edited By Ben Dorfman
Ben Dorfman - Intellectuals and Dissent: Dennis Rodman, Memory Refractor
Abstract This piece addresses the strange case of Dennis Rodman in North Korea—a case bending and blending memories of Cold War ideologies and conflicts as well as revealing a secret yearning for intellectual figures and ideas we somehow simultaneously eschew. Subtly, we connect the intellectual with dissent; the sharp edges of critique with the sage. That’s at the same time we often say sages are the last thing we want. All of it becomes a strange cocktail when mixed with the wanderings of a wayward basketball star to and from the communist kingdom of North Korea.
Intellectuals have never had an easy time of it. Of course, there’s the angst associated with being one. An intellectual, wrote Albert Camus at a date of which I’m not precisely sure (in Grayling 2004, 84), is “someone whose mind watches itself.” It’s a torturous process, that—the self-doubt, the inner interrogation, the fact-checking, the questioning of one’s what one knows and what one doesn’t, the search for new horizons; on and on, one might say, with angst and self-torture. Some years after Camus’ death, the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1972) argued that knowledge is in fact schizophrenia. Knowledge is a machine constructed of contrasting parts—parts in conflict with themselves. Perhaps they described the intellectual as well. “Smart” men and women may be machines working against their own purposes. At least, I’ve been told, some feel that’s the case.
Intellectuals haven’t only been victims of self-inflicted ennui, however. Lack of social and political acceptance has plagued the intellectual as well. Sometime after the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC), e.g.—a portentous event in Western history—Socrates was forced to eat hemlock. That was for “corrupting” the youth of Athens. Ah; thinking for oneself. Not worshiping the gods. Questioning accepted truth—that kind of thing. It’s ironic—Socrates, via his student Plato, would father much of the Western tradition. It’s perhaps the ultimate example of being misunderstood in one’s own time. That’s as the test of one’s “own times” might be “all times”—larger acceptances of sets of ideas whose power isn’t comprehended in the era from which they come, yet return to define that era at any rate.
Still, we do celebrate intellectuals. Regularly. At least today. Every Nobel Prize is a fête of a “great minds.” MacArthur Genius Grants, Man Booker Prizes, grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Arts are all celebrations of educated elites (Zuckerman 1996). Every proclamation that scientists have ← 183 | 184 → provided a “breakthrough” or social thought has achieved “new paradigms” is an ode to rarified thought (I derive my vocabulary of “new paradigms” from Thomas Kuhn [1962, 19]—a paradigm shift is when “one conceptual worldview is replaced by another”). In seminal work in the 1970s and 1980s, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1986; 1993) claimed we work on the field of “cultural production.” We create legitimacy. We look for currency. We build social and economic systems to get it (i.e., wealth can concern cachet as much as money). It seems, anyway, Bourdieu might well have been right.1
Still, recent years haven’t always been kind to intellectuals. The 1970s, e.g., featured attacks on “master thinkers.” “Master thinkers,” claimed the philosopher André Glucksmann (1980, 189), wanted to be “everything.” “Master thinkers” sought a “bird’s-eye” view of the world—unique insight into truth. “Master thinkers” (a code word for intellectuals) were “metaphysicians”—alchemists of the mind. The “intelligentsia” thought “destinies” for “humankind;” they made proclamations about how humanity has been and where it should go (“salvational expectation” and “millennial prediction” is how one scholar [Koselleck 2004, 21] has phrased it). We’ve heard this before. Strongmen like Hitler and Stalin often spoke that way—that humanity had a single “place” where it was supposed to “arrive.” One needn’t be a 1970s philosophical radical, as Glucksmann was, to imagine we didn’t need that kind of thinking anymore.
Still, intellectuals, or at least “intellectualism” (the act of being an intellectual), may not be easily dismissed. In the face of globalization and broad trends towards democracy, the desire to question “experts” has clearly emerged—the de-hierachicalization of society, more than one commentator has noted, has opened cultures of “I count too” and “why should we listen to them?” (often associated with the decline of the “public” intellectual [Jacoby 1999; Posner 2003]). Still, but if in secret, we can harbor desires for intellectuals. Like fatty foods or a Henry Miller novels in the ‘50s, we can want them, consume them and look at them but not want to admit to others that we do. Of course, some eat cheeseburgers and read Tropic of Cancer in public. The president of the European Commission, e.g., Manuel Barroso, recently called on intellectuals to come together to form a new “European Narrative” (see Deventer et. al. 2013). It was time to re-embrace the high culture and the Enlightenment heritages for which Europe is well-known. Again, we’re flooded with information about book awards, Nobel Prizes, Kennedy Center Honors and new members of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (the French ← 184 | 185 → order of culture) designed to tell us who the “smart” among us are. That’s while such attitudes can also be received as humbug. Intellectuals are “eggheads,” a journalist once proclaimed (see Halliwell 2007, 21). The “educated” among us simply talk against common sense.
I’d like to show that we love fat and light porn novels. I.e., despite the anti-intellectual tenor of many modern societies, we crave intellectualism anyway. My case in point is Dennis Rodman in North Korea. The American basketball star visited the isolated communist monarchy in 2013 together with the exhibition basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters—for non-sports fans, a legendary group of trick basketball players with a history extending back to the 1920s. Rodman, for better or worse, was reviled for the act. A lot of fingers were pointed his way in a few days of furor. Why, though? Why the anger at a sports star (also famous for his colored hair, dating of Madonna and cross-dressing [he wore make-up and a boa at the release of his autobiography Bad as I Wanna Be (1996)]) for doing something off the beaten path; a well-timed publicity stunt, as such? The answer, I think, is that we wanted more. We wanted an “intellectual.” For better or worse, that was to tell us where we’re supposed to “go.”
Now, I’d cringe if I I’m forced to say where intellectuals come from. Again, Socrates was one, wherein the onus seems to fall on ancient Greece. “My good Crito,” Plato (1981, 47) wrote Socrates as having said in of one of the dialogues around the time of his trial, “why should we care so much for what the majority think?” “The good life” and the “just” were just so much more important. The seeds of independent thought were planted early. “Love of wisdom,” as the translation of “philosophy” goes, had a lot to do with critical investigation. A pattern of critical thought emerged at a time when democracy was developing as a state form and the Acropolis’ Parthenon was a relatively new building. There should be an edge and introspection to the intellectual way.
Voltaire (1977, 162) wrote about intellectuals as well—“men of letters,” he called them in his Philosophical Dictionary (1768), a centerpiece of the Enlightenment period in which he argued that intellectuals were “isolated writers.” Solitary scholarship was the way to go; pensiveness should trump passion, and the loudmouths of public debate. The irony, of course, was that Voltaire was such a loudmouth. At least one might construe him to be. The French king Louis XV banned Voltaire from the French capital of Paris, e.g. for seditious writings; the Swiss kicked him out of Geneva for speaking against Calvinism. When he died in 1778, the Church didn’t want Voltaire on consecrated ground for his anti-Catholic attitudes. ← 185 | 186 → Whether speaking against religions or monarchs, Voltaire was hardly the picture of quietude he himself seemed to advocate. In the end, Voltaire may have been the ultimate gadfly (see Žižek 2008; Davidson 2010)—a Mercutio whose wit had a razor sharp edge.
The big wind-up for the term “intellectual,” however, may have come with the 1894–1906 Dreyfus Affair. L’Affaire, as the French simply call it, was a turning point in European history. It brought up issues of anti-Semitism, nationalism and interstate competition between Europe’s major powers (Begley 2009). It interrogated the traditions of “enlightenment,” asking how, in fact, enlightened they were. In 1894, the French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, of Jewish descent, was accused of pilfering military secrets for the Germans. It was clear the evidence against him was trumped up. It was found that Ferdinand Esterhazy was the real perpetrator of the espionage—Esterhazy being a descendent of a prominent military family and supported by the establishment (it was easier to have a Jew, qua European outsider, as the fall guy). The government remained entrenched. They refused to release Dreyfus. Esterhazy should be tried. He was—yet acquitted. Scandal reigned. Dreyfus was imprisoned and forced into retirement. After four years of confinement off the French Guianese coast on Devil’s Island, supporters were optimistic Dreyfus would be acquitted too. He wasn’t. Dreyfusards (Dreyfus supporters) demonstrated in the streets. Anti-Dreyfusards (often anti-Semites) did as well. The “intellectuals” sided with Dreyfus. Those wondering about intellectuals did not. “The Manifesto of the Intellectuals”—a document calling to reopen Dreyfus’ case—was signed by a range of famous French minds (Émil Zola, Marcel Proust, Claude Monet and Émil Durkheim among them). Just a day or two before, Zola wrote J’accuse!—one of the great invectives against injustice and government corruption in modern times. The trial against Dreyfus, wrote the French author (Zola 1998, 45), was a “nightmare” for those who “knew its details.” It was plain as day for those with critical minds that injustice had been done. There should be a “movement of opinion” against malfeasance, one critic wrote (in Winock 1997, 26). Zola got his movement—the mobilization of “the mind” in the service of larger humanity (on the Affair generally, see Derfler 2002). Those who opposed Zola saw the rise of intellectuals as a political force.
Now, Dreyfus was vindicated. By 1906, he was, in fact, reinstated to his captaincy in the French Army—a victory, it seemed, for the forces of inquiry and right. The after effects were precisely to bind those ideas, however—“inquiry” and “right.” The Dreyfus Affair put intellectuals—the “educated” and “insightful”—firmly on the side of politics. The intellectual’s job was to “enlighten” in the name of “humble people” (Zola 1998, 42). It was a deeply moral charge for specialized ← 186 | 187 → class—a historical one, if one will. The “emancipation” of “humankind,” in Zola’s phrasing (1998, 43), was the point. It was a goal to be achieved if not exactly through any means necessary—it’s hard to say what kind of protest Zola wanted—than at least through the senses of moral outrage one had at one’s disposal.
Some agreed. The Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1971, 5, 9)—one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party—wasn’t wild about intellectuals only as artists, scientists and university professors. Intellectuals like Zola’s were to be appreciated; encouraged. However, only coming from the educated classes, intellectuals were a bit bourgeois; they bordered to close to the “traditional intellectual” that served landed interests (Gramsci 1971, 452). Gramsci did, however, like the notion of the intellectual’s activism. “Organic intellectuals” were what Gramsci sought—intellectuals as an “elaboration” of the “political field.” The “political field” meant class conflict—workers against capital. “All men are intellectuals,” wrote Gramsci. We needed to realize that. The problem was that we hadn’t ascribed all men the “function” of intellectuals. Gramsci took Zola’s paradigm one step further and made it yet more revolutionary.
Writer Julian Benda was unsure about this. Benda was an early twentieth century critic—little remembered, for better or worse, except for a book entitled Les Trahison des Clercs (1927; The Treason of the Intellectuals). The basis for Benda’s reputation, however, came through indicting if not precisely the politicism of Zola and Gramsci—he was personally on the political left (Müller 2006)—than at least through questioning the worth of “politicized” intellectualism. “If we mention Mommsen, Treitschke, Ostwald, Brunetière, Barrès, Lemaître, Péguy, Maurras, d’Annunzio [or] Kipling [important figures in early twentieth century intellectual culture]” Benda wrote, “we have to admit the ‘clerks’ [Benda’s term for ‘intellectual’] now exercise political passions with all the characteristics of passion—the tendency to action, the thirst for immediate results, the exclusive preoccupation with the desired end, the scorn for argument, the excess, the hatred, the fixed idea” (Benda 2007, 46). Benda took a Voltaire-esque approach—truth, not politics, was the intellectual’s domain (though, again, there’s irony there given Voltaire’s own anti-establishmentarian bent [Ozouf 1989]). The intellectual, Benda (2007, 42) wrote, is “all those whose activity…is not the pursuit of practical aims.” Intellectualism sought truth for its own sake. Social change and political upheaval was for another time and place.
Now, the later twentieth century—with its global conflicts, conceptualization of political systems, mass media and competition between economic views—made such issues complex. Perhaps the two greatest intellectual stars of the post-War era, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir (I’m picking and choosing here ← 187 | 188 → for the sake of brevity [though see Judt 2011]) were of the Zola-Gramsci mold: political, “engaged” (a popular Sartrean term [see Martin 2000; also Pihlainen’s article in this volume]) and concerned with “humanity.” “Why does one write,” Sartre (1993a, 331) asked in 1947? Were we looking for “abject passivity?” Did we seek “art for art’s sake”—saying to say, and but mold statements we wanted to make? Should we just “reflect?” In a war, Sartre (1993a, 65) wrote, “there are no innocent victims.” Humanity was in decided struggle—a struggle for its own future. Humankind could maintain the status quo. That was largely oppression and fear—the “anguish” of “nothingness,” as Sartre (1993b, 12) phrased it. Or, was it an anguish that could be transformed? For many of the time—Sartre, de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (though there were disagreements about how)—change was the point. It was to “act upon things,” as Sartre (1993b, 67) phrased it; to “change” the world, as Marx and Engels (1993, 62) once phrased it. Intellectualism—thought and introspection—was an activity through which one sought to liberate oneself as well as the lives of others. That was by way of turning principle in to action.
Still, “principle into action” had its pitfalls. Again, I’m being brief. However, it was a noticeable affair when Sartre and de Beauvoir—more than a few European intellectuals, in fact—failed to denounce Stalin (the French Communist Party at-large managed to avoid this as well).2 In the name of social change, many intellectuals and the political organs to which they attached themselves, even as fellow travelers, failed to distance themselves from dubious systems—totalitarian ideologies whose potentially benign principles had nonetheless deleterious results (Tony Judt [2011, 156] notes that the fact that many intellectuo-communists seemed to deny the existence of Soviet crimes was sometimes even held forward as a redeeming naiveté of the communist; the better nature of ← 188 | 189 → his or her intellectual reflection). Politics became the “opium” of intellectuals, Raymond Aron (1962, 155) argued. Now, the problem wasn’t just Marxism. It was the belief in any predetermined end (setting up a Glucksmann-esque critique). History became an “abstract ideal”—a “must.” Imperative overcame possibility. Determined insistences on liberty, argued Aron and others (Karl Popper  offered a similar critique), weren’t necessarily wrong. Overweening combinations of intellectualism and political messianism could nonetheless diminish our possibilities as much as open them. It could tell us what was right rather than allowing us to find out for ourselves—or even investigating thoroughly, or letting history show, whether or not it in fact was.
Now, some (many, perhaps) embraced intellectualism from the left. Positions of Marxism, socialism and liberal democracy were often de rigueur. Zola free-speechism, Marxist-Gramscist intellectual “organicism” and other attempts, no matter how consistent or confused, to speak of liberational historical processes formed a continuum many expected to go together—that “educated minds” had predilections for cosmopolitan emancipation and egalitarian universalisms that but found expression in different ways. Some did, however, approach intellectualism from the right. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, e.g. at least for a time, embraced National Socialism. For at least a year as Rector of Germany’s Freiburg University, Heidegger sought the favor of Nazis. After the War, justifications for his views were vague and unapologetic; he wore the regalia and spoke of the “self-assertion” of German knowledge. He sought a “new era,” claimed Heidegger (2010, 48) in a 1966 interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, in which a new sense of knowledge’s “use” by the nation was necessary to overcome the “technical organization” of Western society—a “technical organization” Heidegger claimed to be “inauthentic” (it manifested itself in what he called “planetary technology,” or global over-rationalization). The real non-conformist intellectual accepted no cosmopolitan shibboleth as but “right.” He or she had the right to deconstruct knowledge in other ways and towards other conclusions—e.g., the value of the parochial, the national, peoples and more “organic” levels of experience that were part of Nazi ideology.3 Again, complexities abound. Heidegger didn’t personally promote death camps. He didn’t persecute Jews himself (it’s at least not clear he did). He resigned as Rector of Freiburg in 1934—early in the ← 189 | 190 → Nazis’ dominance in Germany. He didn’t say “no,” however. He didn’t speak out.4 Neither did intellectuals such as the conductors Herbert von Karajan or Wilhelm Furtwängler. Small protests such as speaking against the firing of Jewish colleagues (something Furtwängler did do in his time as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic) did not change the larger course of events (Shirakawa 1992). Mealy-mouthed protest in the face of a sea of death and despair was but a small drop of opposition in an ocean of overt tragedy.
It was here figures like Glucksmann (1980, 199) intervened. Intellectualism left or right was, somehow, “theory” against reality. It was forcing “predicates” behind all things—that one sensed one was analytically right, and that meant driving principle home as the raison d’être behind all things. This deserved to be questioned. Perhaps, in fact, what one found was that “master thinking” wasn’t master thinking at all. Perhaps (a touch like Bourdieu, but not exactly) it was just bare toadying. I’ll shift to Glucksmann’s contemporary, Michel Foucault, for a moment. The intellectual, Foucault (1980, 132) wrote, may not be the “bearer of universal values.” The intellectual may not operate outside power, decided interests or one’s own urge to position oneself in particular ways. Intellectuals may not have insights into “truth”—“genius” realizations emerging from “rarified minds” knowing better than others. Rather, intellectuals may “occupy…specific position[s].” They may do things in relation to social norms larger than themselves, sometimes even by opposing them, that contribute to the “general functioning of the apparatus of truth” ← 190 | 191 → embodied in those norms. Intellectuals may serve if not agendas and interests, then “orders” of knowledge (Foucault 1994). Intellectuals are burdened with the same blinders as all of us—the same tools to formulate their ideas. Not unlike Gramsci, what may be different is the role.—an intellectual is a matter of who we ascribe as such more than anything anyone “is.” It’s not that some—important people—don’t occupy the role. But again, at work is a sense of who’s important and who’s not. In part—though it’s hardly all of Foucault’s thesis—it’s us who do the ascription.5
In general, I’m on board with this idea. Intellectuals have historically come in many shapes and sizes. They appear as writers, artists, journalists and politicians. They are activists and professors, conductors, painters and occasionally self-made men and women breaking into the world of “ideas.” Intellectuals might be “unattached” (Mannheim 1968, 140), posing themselves Benda-esque among society’s “mutually conflicting forces,” offering insight but not decided political ends. They can be committed—Dreyfusards, activists, free speech advocates and raisers of consciousness. They can form revolutionary “vanguards,” winning the day for “progress.” They can do the opposite as well: opposing revolutions, or supporting those we don’t like (National Socialism, for example). Two things seem to be salient, however. Quoting one recent book (Falk 2003, xx), when it comes to the intellectual, “ideas matter.” We conceive, somehow, that intellectuals are involved with ideas: that theory, insight and learnedness are the intellectual’s terrain. We imagine that they look for futures by studying the past, and because of their erudition, they might be able to tell us what those futures might be. We see them, somehow, as involved with “salvational expectation” and “millenial prediction” (again, Koselleck 2004, 21). That, however, is another point: that that’s something that we do; that “philosopher kings” (Falk 2003a, 1) is something we look for; that we elevate the “rumpled-looking” (rumpled because of all the thinking) to “leadership” roles. Now, as far as kingship is concerned, people have a diversity of places to which they wish to be led. Destiny is not a single place; many groups have different leaders and many intellectuals take the head. Many have different concepts about what the idea of leadership means (see Falk in this volume). It is darn interesting that it ← 191 | 192 → happens, though; it’s darn interesting that the ideas, even of the “solitary writer,” should concern where we should go. I’ll turn to Noam Chomsky (in Samuels 2012) for a moment. As he notes from his own intellectual position, it’d be a stretch to say intellectuals are “beautiful.” They’re obtuse and do many strange, and sometimes regrettable, things. From time to time, however, we deem, or at least it seems we have deemed, them necessary. That’s for their ideas. Again, somehow, that’s because those ideas are supposed to tell us where to “go.”
How to discuss l’Affaire Rodman?
We perhaps might go back in time. The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea was founded in 1948. It was, like so many things in the late 1940s, a result of the Second World War. The Korean peninsula, occupied by Japan since 1895, was divided between the Americans and the Soviets after its 1945 liberation. A pro-American regime was installed in the South (Syngman Rhee’s) declaring statehood in May 1948. The North, headed by the Soviet trained Kim Il-Sung, declared statehood in September that year. It was an adversarial act. There were controversies about elections throughout the peninsula, neither regime qualified as anything near “democratic” and it’s hard to say if any of the powers behind the two Koreas were interested in democracy as opposed to power in the first place. In any case, war broke out between the two states in 1950. It was a bloody war—back and forth, costing thousands and thousands and thousands of lives (it was also the first UN based international action [Haruki 2014]). After a few years of here and there—involving everyone from the Koreans to the Americans to the Chinese—the republics ended essentially back where they started: with an armistice declared along the 38th parallel. As many know, the two countries are officially at war to this day. Tensions flare up from time to time as peace has never been declared between the two states.
As the country is often singled out as bizarre, many have a sense that North Korea became something of a hereditary socialist monarchy. One author has called it a “paranoid state” (French 2007) and it’s a description that fits. The state maintains its own stripe of communist ideology called Juché (self-reliance, more or less [Suh 2013]), and it maintains an unparalleled cult of personality around its rulers: Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and the current Kim Jong-Un (the “Great Leader,” “Dear Leader” and “Outstanding Leader,” respectively). Its rulers are hereditary—bizarre, as communism is supposed to be anything but (the Soviets executed the Russian royal family in 1918 in the name of plebian de-hierarchicalization, e.g.). ← 192 | 193 → North Korea isolates itself almost as fully as anyone can in today’s world. It allows little journalistic access; there are documentaries, but the construction of virtually all journalism addressing the country surrounds how hard information is to get.6 The “Peoples’ Republic,” as it monikers itself, allows virtually no Internet access and maintains an Orwellian state media in which it’s rumored that radios in Pyongyang apartments can be turned down but not off. The state surveilles its citizens (extensively) and few consumer goods from the West are allowed to come in. The deaths of the “Great Leader” (Il-Sung) and the “Dear Leader” (Jong-Il) provided the modern world with some of its greatest examples of internationally-broadcast mass hysteria. I’m not sure what North Korean television news said when Jong-Il died. I haven’t been able to find it. When Il-Sung died, however, it was announced that “thousands of cranes descended to fetch him” (Tetteroo and Feddema 2001). Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Pyongyang residents wept, threw themselves on the ground and went into near conniption as they thought about the birds removing from the earth their departed leader’s soul.
Now, it’s after Jong-Il’s death (2011 [which also included popular near conniption; I’m just not sure how much]) that the Rodman case takes off. There was secession intrigue at the end of that year—that when it was clear that Jong-Il was on his death bed. It seemed more than one dauphin was on hand. One potential inheritor was Kim Jong-Nam—Jong-Il’s eldest son. Via the usual rules of inheritance, it would seem he would be the automatic choice—the right hand son taking the reins from the father. Authorities caught Jong-Nam using a false passport to visit Disneyland in Tokyo, however (see BBC 2001), bringing that plan to an end. Kim Jong-Chul, also older than the Jong-Un who would eventually accede, was another possibility. For reasons that aren’t totally clear, however, he was passed over too. The family’s former Japanese chef claims less than convivial relations between father and son as the reason (Sang-Hun and Fackler 2009). That left Jong-Un. He is, it seems, an enigma. Little is known about him personally. Policy-wise, where we can know something, little has changed. North Korea’s economy has opened but the smallest amounts. There are propaganda films of him gesturing slightly towards Western consumerism patterns, but movement on the economic front has been slow, to say the least (French 2015). The extensive gulag system instituted by both the father and grandfather remains intact. Travel to the country remains as difficult as ever. The country’s nuclear program remains in full swing (though it sometimes has difficulty getting test missiles off the ground [BBC 2012]). Jong-Un continues the ← 193 | 194 → “military first” politics that hallmarked his father’s regime. The country declared in 2013 that it didn’t see itself as bound by the terms of the 1953 armistice treaty. This was a frightening prospect for people aware of the tensions along what is generally recognized as the world’s most heavily militarized border (see New York Times 2013; Park and Snyder 2013).
What does appear to be the case, however, is that the man is a basketball fan. It seems few pictures exist of the Jong-Un previous to his ascension. It’s speculated that he went to boarding school in Switzerland. Perhaps he did. If he did, it was under a false name. Again, if he did, he might have also been photographed. One of the photographs that appears to be Jong-Un (though there’s controversy over whether or not it’s actually him) features a young Korean man on a soccer pitch wearing a Chicago Bulls number 91 jersey—the number Dennis Rodman wore during his professional career (CBS 2013a). The stage was set for some fabulously strange doings.
Now, Rodman himself—an American basketball Hall of Famer—was a star but still second tier player on the Bulls championship teams of the 1990s. The star on those teams—perhaps the biggest star in all basketball history—was Michael Jordan. Jong-Un is reputed to have first invited Jordan to come to North Korea. The invitation was declined (Gladstone 2013). Rodman, together with the risqué documentary outfit Vice and the exhibition basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters, said yes. It was a unique, if again extremely bizarre moment, in both basketball and political history.
In a way, that there was precedent for this. In 1971, American table tennis players were the first Americans other than members of the Black Panther Party to visit communist China. It was an opening volley in a range of negotiations eventually culminating in Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the country—a visit whose effects we still feel today (that through having opened China more internationally). 2013 was different, however. American diplomats—notably members of the Clinton administration—had already visited North Korea. Jimmy Carter visited the country in 1994. China was a force bridging North Korea and the West via its move to a more central place in world markets and politics. In the post-Cold War era, sports were hardly needed as an overture if countries wanted to change their systems. It also has to be said, his fame aside, that Rodman was a distinctly odd choice. Pierced from head to toe and often sporting multi-colored hair, he was the diametric opposite of the staid citizen promoted by the Juché regime. The UK’s Daily Mail reports that North Korean men are allowed to choose among one of ten official hairstyles. None of them, it appears, include color (Brady 2013).
Uncanniness aside, on February 26, 2013, Rodman, the Globetrotters and Vice (with backing from the media company HBO) landed in Pyongyang. They were ← 194 | 195 → greeted by officials. There was much handshaking and back slapping and there were photo ops galore. The entourage—Rodman, Globetrotters and everyone else—took the standard tour of the important monuments of the country’s show capital: massive statues of the two previous leaders, captured American warships (one, actually), monumental communist building projects, collectivist farms and other sites testifying to socialist derring do. They stayed in the one hotel open to international tourists and were followed closely in their every move.7
Basketball-wise, Rodman and company trained a youth team. They taught them the American tricks of the trade and the free-style form making the American game so popular. They then, of course, watched a game – a fixed affair between North Korean athletes and American players. It resulted in a perhaps predictable tie. During the game, Jong-Un made a “surprise” appearance. He was applauded – deafeningly so. Rodman made a short speech. He was applauded (maybe even more deafeningly so—near treason in North Korea). The players—with Rodman at the center of it all—had dinner with the enigmatic leader. They had drinks. They partied. There were more photos. It was a short visit. On March 1, Rodman left the Kims’ fiefdom. He returned to the U.S. via China (the only way out for tourists). On his way out, Rodman termed the North Korean leader his “friend;” it had been, he proclaimed, a brotherly hoop fest. It breaks the narrative. However, when he had gone in, Rodman, referring to a hit song from 2012, tweeted that perhaps while on the trip, he’d meet the “Gangnam style dude” (a singer named Psy). Psy had tweeted back “I’m from the SOUTH, man!” (Brzeski 2013). It seems, in fact, that he was.
Now, the reaction unfolded, in fact, both during and after the visit. During the visit—on February 28th, to be exact—the U.S. State Department offered passive-aggressive commentary. Asked what he thought about the visit, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell offered that the American foreign ministry was not a “clearing house” for private individuals seeking to travel to North Korea. “There are some Americans who go there,” the official offered. However, the branch of government concerned with foreign affairs had no further comment (Dewey 2013). It was a hard stare across the Pacific Ocean at the bepierced Rodman as he was chaperoned around Pyongyang. The White House—the home of an intellectually-bedecked Nobel Prize winner—also didn’t mention Rodman, but pulled a few less punches. No reference was made to Rodman himself. Jay Carney was terse, however: “Instead of spending money on celebrity sporting events to entertain the elites of that country, the North Korean regime should focus on the well-being ← 195 | 196 → of its own people, who have been starved, imprisoned and denied their human rights” (Nakamura 2013). Rodman was within his rights to go. No one but no one in the halls of American government was pleased, however. Then the damn broke. Ranges of talk shows took up the issue; sports commentators all of a sudden became international affairs experts. Experts on international affairs wanted to weigh in on the comings and goings of a sports figure. “I fear he might go over there and start another world war,” sports commentator Skip Bayless (ESPN 2013) offered on the popular ESPN network. It was a wrongheaded move that didn’t represent the best of the game (whatever that was). CBS’ This Morning program offered Rodman’s visit as “ridiculous.” Anyone with things “in perspective” the show’s hosts noted—including former public television profundus Charlie Rose (CBS 2013b)—could see the ludicrosity of what was afoot (Rose guffawed at but the thought of trying to justify Rodman’s visit). Rodman wasn’t only an American cause célèbre, however. Why, one writer from Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeime Zeitschrift (2013) wondered—one of Germanys leading newspapers—was Rodman in front the international press referring to Jong-Un as a “cool guy?” Why was he violating not only American sensibilities, but those, at least potentially, of a wider liberal world as well? Commentary from Israeli (Bob 2013) to Indian (Spelatnick and Hosenball 2013) to French newspapers (Mesmer 2013) echoed these sentiments. If one stopped and asked, what was the former coéquipier of Michael Jordan doing in the neo-Stalinist state, inquired Le Monde (Mesmer 2013)? Was it a joke, or was it some kind of attempt to engage international affairs? No doubt: the curiosity was largely U.S.-based. International intrigue was also peaked, however, as it was unclear what the basketball player had intended to do.
The pièce de résistance, however, came on the American talk show This Week—a magazine show covering political events. In discussion with Rodman but days after his return stateside, host Georges Stephanopoulos—a Bill Clinton advisor and holder of degrees from Oxford and Columbia – asked Rodman if, in making his trip and referring to Jong-Un as a “friend,” he (Rodman) had been aware of “[Jong-Un’s] threats to destroy the United States and his regime’s horrendous record on human rights.” Did Rodman know, Stephanopoulos wondered, about the history of the Kims’ dictatorial regime and their totalitarian control of the lives of millions? Did the author of Bad as I Wanna Be know about the gulags, missile tests, anti-American threats and anti-democratic tone? Did Rodman have any awareness of the context in which he operated? Did he have a modicum of social or historical knowledge he might bring to the situation? Was there a logic to what he had done—a principle from which he was working? Could he use any modicum of ideas, rational set of concepts, political worldview or philosophy to explain to us his actions? ← 196 | 197 →
Very simply, he couldn’t respond. Rodman fished. Rodman hit upon interpersonal themes. He’d heard about problems, yes. He knew something was wrong in the isolated state so frequently in the news and so distinctly set off from the world around it. He had some awareness of what North Korea was. Not more than anyone else, though. For Rodman, it was a personal trip—a, “sure, why not?” situation. He tried to talk apolitically: maybe Jong-Un and U.S. President Obama could get together—they were, after all, both sports fans. Hoops and baggy shorts might transcend all. Stephanopoulos pressed. He looked annoyed. He raised his eyebrows; he smirked. Rodman tried to say issues had more to do with Jong-Un’s father and grandfather than Jong-Un himself. Jong-Un had inherited his dictatorial characteristics. The genes were to blame; it was all a mistake. Stephanopoulos was distinctly unimpressed. One of the well-coiffed and well-spoken members of the Clinton administration served Rodman with a report from Human Rights Watch. He told Rodman about North Korean history—death camps and murders. He regaled the be-Gucci’d ballplayer with tales of abuse and malfeasance. Stephanopoulos suggested that were Rodman to read the report, he would “learn a lot more” were he to return to the country. He then turned to the trip’s documentary maker (Vice’s Shane Smith) for some “intelligent” discussion.
Stephanopoulos’ line echoed over the next several days. “Reckless behavior is not diplomatic,” wrote Kori Schake (2013) for The New York Times. The basketball star had been used by a regime that would have jailed him were he one of their own citizens (Rodman’s hair, after all, hardly fit the appropriate paradigm). Though some (Cooper 2013) argued that there was a level of legitimacy in celebrity diplomacy, any possible breakthrough that might come in North Korea would be despite Rodman’s “naiveté” and “clumsiness.” It was the wrong guy to send and we shouldn’t think different (of course, he hadn’t been sent). Rodman, right in line with title of his autobiography, had been as “bad” as he wanted to be. He was doing what felt right. He hadn’t thought, though; he hadn’t reasoned. Rodman hadn’t moralized or philosophized. Indeed, he had gone even while the North Koreans held an American citizen in custody (Kenneth Bae, for supposed illegal entry into the country to spread propaganda). Rodman, apparently feeling guilty, tweeted that Jong-Un should do him a “solid” and release Bae (Fisher 2013). He nonetheless went back. Since starting to compose this article, that, in fact, was twice.
Clearly, problems depend on how one looks at them. Without a doubt, actions can be problematic in and of themselves. In 1963, e.g., philosopher Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of SS colonel Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann, ← 197 | 198 → like many former Nazis, fled to Argentina. He was caught in 1960. In front of an Israeli court, Eichmann attempted to defend his genocidal past by citing both then-current law and the then-present cultural and administrative momentum in Germany. “He did his duty,” Arendt (1963, 153) noted. He obeyed the norms and expectations provided him. Eichmann wasn’t smart; he hadn’t particularly good reflective tools. He was “banal”—the everyman. Still, he was culpable. Regardless of intellectual capacity or cultural currents, Arendt suggested (Arendt, ironically enough, being Heidegger’s one-time lover), one can think for oneself. One can use one’s own judgment. History, argued Arendt, is littered with examples of people choosing to do different (she notably invoked the evacuation of the Jews from Denmark in the latter days of that country’s German occupation; an example of decided reflection and courage). That evil might be everyday—that it might be “banal”—was no excuse for engaging in it.
The historian Daniel Goldhagen made not dissimilar arguments in 1997. Attempting to identify Hitler’s “willing executioners,” Goldhagen argued it was important to not abscond general members of society from responsibility for nihilistic acts manifesting themselves in the worst human violence. “Obfuscating labels like ‘Nazis’ and ‘SS men,’ ” Goldhagen (1997, 6) argued, took responsibility for the Holocaust away from where it lay. Germans perpetrated the killing—ordinary people like one meets every day. He very simply argued that it would be wrong to think otherwise.
Maybe Rodman was a Goldhagen German or an Arendt Eichmann. Perhaps, by legitimizing, recognizing and palling around with the North Korean leader and his regime, he might have supported their crimes. One can’t, and never should, downplay how extensive those are. Reports identify tens if not hundreds of thousands in North Korea’s prison camps (Human Rights Watch 2014). Free speech has no role in North Korean life; it’s the party line or no line at all. According to most measures (e.g., Economist Intelligence Unit 2012), no state maintains a worse record on civil rights. Freedom of thought is an alien concept. There is no right to assemble except in state sanctioned forums. Long story short, the country verges on a total rights travesty. Indeed, an Israeli organization even argued that Rodman has legal culpability. North Korea supported a Japanese terrorist group (the Japanese Red Army) in the 1972 massacre of Israeli citizens at the Lod Airport in Tel Aviv (twenty-six were killed). Rodman supported North Korea. Perhaps Rodman had retroactively sanctioned the massacre of Israelis (Bob 2013).
Now, there are points here. Goldhagen and Arendt may be correct. Society, the “every day,” “all of us”—normal people—allow things to happen. Those are sometimes unthinkable. As Foucault (1979, 308) once asserted, we often allow “petty ← 198 | 199 → cruelt[ies]” as we move through space and time. We engage subtle forms of harm that can expand when given the right conditions. No one is excusable from the evil one knows surrounds one or, if one doesn’t know evil is there, at least senses that it might be present. One’s moral compass may have no right to be turned off.
Culpability is a different matter than reactions, however. Culpability is a different problem than why we reacted—or at least some in the media and public offices reacted—to Rodman in the way that they did. Again: did anyone truly find Rodman culpable in the North Korean regime’s rights abuses? Did anyone really think a basketball player—a notoriously flamboyant one at that—was going to provide a morality lesson: that he would be a philosopher of world affairs or historical change? Did we really expect to find Zola- or Sartre-esque protests against injustice—outraged statements about the inviolability of humankind or the nature of universal law? Did we even imagine we’d get a Heideggarian justification of regimes we find repugnant yet perhaps, in some strange way, as part of a rant against capitalism or modernity or some other such concept, one might defend? Did we really expect Voltaire’s “isolated writer”—the solitary seeker of truth working quietly by candlelight to discover the secrets of society, politics and humankind; the intrepid pursuer of verisimilitude reflecting on the human essence and its means and ways?
Indeed, it seems, that’s exactly what we expected. We looked for Voltaire, Sartre, Heidegger, Furtwängler, Gramsci—someone; someone with a plan. We looked for thoughtful repose and the power of “ideas.” Now, I admit: “we” is a tough configuration. The public mind is hard to detect. Especially in the age of globalization, “we” largely functions in the space of what one anthropologist (Appadurai 1990, 299) has termed “mediascapes” and “ideoscapes”—“concatenations” of images, ideas, bits and pieces of commentary and politics swirling through public space. How much of that is us and how much that is the sports networks and George Stephanopouloses of the world is hard to tell. “We” are often “imagined”—societies are driven by intuitive ideals as much as any “reality” (see Anderson 1983). Still, one finds atmospheres. Rhetoric and discourse unfolds. Communications emerge. One “thinks.” One “reacts.”
The problem lays there. It lays with what’s happened to intellectuals not among themselves, but among us. In 1963, the American historian Richard Hofstadter investigated anti-intellectualism in American life. He argued that it had many sources—the fundamentalisms of American religion, business culture, intellectuals’ transformation into technocrats (including the retreat into the university [see also Jacoby 1987]); democracy itself. It was once understood, Hofstadter (1963, 145) argued, that leaders “were…intellectuals.” Leaders didn’t necessarily promote ← 199 | 200 → themselves as “elite”—“more than” or “superior to” others. They were not necessarily “above” anyone else. That they might have ideas, however—concepts and philosophies—was accepted. That one might think studiously was understood. Indeed, it was sought. Ideas were the “very fabric of the nation,” Hofstadter writes. In something nearing an overture to archaic democracy, one shouldn’t govern in the absence of ideas. If we weren’t all philosopher kings, we needed those who were. We needed those who might communicate and tell us what politics should be and how to transform philosophical truth into justice and principles for social action that would take society where it wanted to go. It was said out loud in the social body that our desire for such things was real.
Again, what changed is hard to say. I don’t want to turn this in to an American issue because it’s not exclusively. Hofstadter’s comments concern the nature of democracy regardless of where it’s to be found. As Hofstadter poses it, however, democracy eats itself. It undoes “aristocrats” (Hofstadter 1963, 133). It demands that one think for oneself. Democracy is based precisely on a critical voice towards those above you. It demands an egalitarian spirit; the equality of all. Once that spirit is invoked however, ideas are under threat. That’s because ideas are everyone’s property—they don’t belong to just “some.” “Rights,” “freedom,” “representation,” “democracy” and “civic life” were once the property of an elite. They were once discussed in Paris salons and Boston coffee shops—fodder for the visionaries who would form new nations (“philosopher kings”). Transferred from the “kings” to plebeians, however, the concepts of kings were no longer that: the concepts of kings. It’s my vocabulary, not Hofstadter’s. However, when everyone’s a philosopher king, who needs philosophy anymore? So came the levelling of the Western, and perhaps international, political demos.
Still, ideas never left. Concepts had to be there somewhere. The formulations and arguments on which new societies were founded couldn’t just disappear because everyone “owned” them. Someone had to stoke the coals and tend the fires as the system was based on critique and probing into the world around one. It was based on the idea that one might not always do as others do, go with what the “majority thinks” (Socrates again) or that one might at least say what one thinks (wherein one has a thought). We were thus left in a dual position. Pray to the intellectuals and one wasn’t democratic. One suggested one might know more than others, wherein knowledge might not be the property of all when, by right, it was (i.e., no one “owned” democracy’s ideals). To never engage intellectualism, however, meant to risk letting democratic dreams go. It meant perhaps relinquishing the heart of democracy itself: ideas—ideas—such as equality, the replaceability of officials, the notion that all of us had power (none more than ← 200 | 201 → others) and the ability to build and critique systems that would capture and reflect these diverse realities. It meant not always saying a complex concept was humbug, and it was only “eggheads” who sought such things. That’s again while one had to be very careful with such things. Letting out that desire too much—the desire for intellectualism—could signal that equality was a complex concept; that it wasn’t always “come on; they can’t know better than you! We’re all the same!” If one had to consume a cheeseburger it was best done late at night. That’s so that when the family came down in the morning, they’d never know.
To that extent, the issue was us. What we want; our appetites; our desires. Indeed, at least on the part of some commentators—Stephanopoulos was the most obvious though not only example—this issue seems to have been precisely that. Rodman didn’t do what we say we don’t want, yet really, we do. Rodman didn’t torture himself. Rodman didn’t reflect on the morality and direction of history. He didn’t look to the future or interpret the past. He invoked no academic or cultural lexicon; no specialized knowledge or deep thought. Rodman had no perspective—he was absent intonations on what politics, life or society meant. Indeed, we weren’t sure what Rodman was thinking. That’s if he was thinking at all. That was our standpoint—that thinking was important, and that at least at the right moment (when we’d like), thought should be turned into political or historical principle. That was, in fact, our standpoint, though: that intellectuals mean something. That’s often at the same time that we say that they don’t. Somebody hand me Tropic of Capricorn. I’ll pretend I’m reading only the “clean” parts.
It feels appropriate to leave off with the issue of dissent and historical memory. A few points emerge. Firstly, intellectualism as it’s been characterized here doesn’t always involve dissent. Zola, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Voltaire all spoke against the societies around them. They defied authority and lived dangerously in their own times. It was meaningful. Without Zola, Dreyfus might never have been exonerated. Sartre and de Beauvoir contributed to pressures on mid-twentieth social conformities inspiring a generation of counter-culture. Voltaire was a hero of the French Revolution. All contributed to change—driving societies towards new frontiers and challenging systems many saw as wrong.
I want to be careful with Heidegger, von Karajan and Furtwängler. These were not Adolf Eichmanns. They did not actively support the Holocaust (though Heidegger’s newly published diaries include some stunning anti-Semitism [Rothman 2014]). Though they offered tacit support to the regime by either speaking at least momentarily on its behalf or remaining within its physical ← 201 | 202 → spaces when so many fled, they nonetheless did so largely from the insulated domains their prestige—intellectual prestige—allowed them to maintain. One could claim, anyway—claim—this kept them at arm’s length from the crimes being perpetrated around them. Furtwängler, of whom one can find films in which he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in front of Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler on Hitler’s birthday, claimed he remained in Germany to save German music. “It was my intention,” Furtwängler argued in front of a de-Nazification court, “prove that art meant more than politics” (Shirakawa 1992). The goal was to save the legacy of Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. I don’t doubt that’s true. As with Heidegger’s philosophy, there’s near universal agreement on the aesthetic power of Furtwängler’s conducting and the originality of his interpretations. Von Karajan is also near-universally admired for his musical acumen and aesthetic intellect. These were figures serious about their art (see Kater 1999). Still, how far is one from evil when one does live its political, social and geographic space? Is one ever fully isolated from the world around one no matter how august one’s position might be? Furtwängler was present while Nazism perpetrated the worst crimes possible. Should he not be held responsible for that? Certainly one wonders the same when one sees photos of Heidegger dressed as a Brown Shirt, and, though he eventually fell from the Nazi party’s favor, one can only imagine what von Karajan had to do to climb to the top of German music in the early 1940s.
Still, we look for intellectuals to articulate. We look for them to say. We look for them to explain. We look for intellectuals, as one sociologist (Coser 1965) put it, to be men or women of “ideas”: to express the modes of thought we maintain through which we discern right and wrong, past and future, destiny and the wrong way or false step. Even if it was in terms of weak-kneed defenses of why they didn’t dissent, figures like Heidegger, von Karajan and Furtwängler were at least able to do that. They could at least say something about why they went with the status quo, evil though it was. Rodman couldn’t even muster that. He had no words. He had no framework or lexicon. He had no philosophy to appeal to nor worldview to illustrate. It was problematic. Again, though, I’d pose it as less Rodman’s problem than ours. It’s our appetite for thought’s hidden pleasures, the taste of “ideas” and feeling for senses of the “unique” we had at stake. “Eggheads!” we proclaim, as we watch the work of the sage who would lay out the destiny of humankind. That’s while we crack an egg open, butter some toast and prepare ourselves for the breakfast we really want to eat. That’s as opposed to the one we’re supposed to have when the kids come downstairs. “Intellectuals” indeed… ← 202 | 203 →
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1 Again, the idea, in essence, was that prestige is a kind of social currency as well; one needn’t always have money to get far. See Schwarz (2012).
2 Sartre was never a member of the French Communist Party—an organization deeply criticized for the period of its pro-Stalinist stance. This is important detail. What I’m pointing to, however, à la Judt, is that the left often had complex positions to negotiate. How much could and did one step back from the project of “really existing socialism,” as it was often phrased (socialism or communism in practice), before one abandoned the entire idea? Even by relative apologists for Sartre—those pointing out that he maintained a highly nuanced and often critical relation with the Stalin-lead Soviet regime (e.g., Birchall 2004)—it’s noted that the distancing was hardly complete. Indeed, there were more than a few strange attempt to provide a particular logic for Stalinism (including in writing) and for a short time in the early ‘50s, there was a clear rapprochement with the pro-Stalinist French Communist Party. Between the USSR’s invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, though (1956 and 1968), this would eventually change.
3 Social Darwinism and “biological nationalism”—some sense of the evolution of naturally and archaically distinct peoples—C.M. Vasey (2006) has noted, are the roots of National Socialist ideology (over and above anti-Semitism). These, as such, were linked via blends of theories of tradition and supposedly “indisputable” facts of the natural world and historical cycles.
4 Heidegger’s relationship with Nazism has been a highly significant point of debate—largely due to Heidegger’s almost universally agreed upon status as one of the handful of most important philosophers of the twentieth century (his emphasis on being, as opposed to knowledge, as well as his particular mode of describing being, represented major innovations). Figures such as Victor Farías (1989) have laid out an active role for Heidegger. Again, it was largely from the locale of the university—not, perhaps, the center of the wheel of national politics. Some care needs to be taken, however. After his resignation as Rector at Freiburg, Heidegger did not come out in obvious support of the movement as in the single year of his rectorate and, in fact, he wasn’t always viewed positively by the oft-lesser philosophers clearly ingratiating themselves with the Nazis (that leaving all issues of the precise way in which his philosophy may or may not have related to Nazism aside). Ultimately, I’d side with Tom Rockmore here: Heidegger’s insensitivity and intransigence on the issue of relating to Nazism, both during and after the Nazi period, is astounding given what was known as to what was going on, and what happened. As Rockmore (1992, 241) writes, “Heidegger, who is sensitive to being, is startlingly insensitive to human being.” His philosophical observations may have been genius. They were nonetheless connected to and sometimes used to support, perhaps the most beastly set of ideas in the modern age.
5 Largely, Foucault suggests our ascriptions of the social world are made before we get there; they exist, in his view, in “orders of discourse,” or “codes” of knowledge (Foucault 1994, xx). Still, we participate the in the functioning of those orders. Power structures are reproduced via the participation of the actors involved. Again, that isn’t by “will” in a traditional sense. It’s not a deliberate and “thought through” choice. Those orders and the subjects within them—and the value of their actions in that context—are nonetheless deeply intertwined. Social ascriptions wouldn’t exist if we didn’t participate in their historical life.
6 For some of the documentary work done on North Korea, see Tetteroo and Feddema (2001); Vice (2008); Vice (2013); Frontline (2014).
7 All of this can be seen in the Vice (2013) documentary on the Rodman visit.