Culture

If Qaddafi Wins, Can Fitty Keep His Money?

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With great hotness comes great responsibility.

"Artists may find themselves standing on the wrong side of an ethical line if political circumstances shift suddenly," warn the Los Angeles Times' Reed Johnson and Rick Rojas in a report on the "potential ethical breaches" of pop stars who play private gigs for dictators and their family members.

Since Saif Qaddafi emerged as the Simon Cowell of dictators' sons, performers like Mariah Carey, Beyoncé Knowles and 50 Cent are finding they won't get rich and may die tryin' when they perform for foreign potentates. Since the start of the Libyan civil war, they and other songbirds have been pressured to give away the million-dollar paychecks they received for playing for the family of Libya's Brotherly Leader Moammar Qaddafi. Johnson and Rojas say the stars are "tempted by fat fees and all-expense-paid trips by private jet to a remote tropical island or luxury resort." Among the rogues gallery of music fans: "Fortune 500 corporations, Wall Street tycoons and nouveau-riche developing-world businessmen." Also Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose croaking cover of "Blueberry Hill" at a star-studded charity concert will live in infamy.

The article does not really question the idea that performers have an ethical responsibility in choosing their audiences, but since it's always about Sting around here, I'm interested to see the King of Pain giving a provocative dissent:

Sting, for his part, offered no public mea culpa for playing the Uzbekistan concert [for the daughter of dictator Islam Karimov], for which the former lead singer of the Police, well-known for his concert work on behalf of human rights and ecological causes, reportedly pocketed as much as 2 million British pounds. Sting later said he was "well aware of the Uzbek president's appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment. I made the decision to play there in spite of that."

"I have come to believe," the rock star declared, "that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counterproductive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular."

Even Richie Cunningham did a better job singing this song.

I don't think either the L.A. Times' scolding or Sting's inflated sense of his own diplomatic powers really applies. On this matter I agree with Hitler. When news surfaced that some of his favorite artists had signed a communist pamphlet, the easygoing Führer waved the matter off, saying, "I don't take any of that seriously. We should never judge artists by their political views. The imagination they need for their work deprives them of the ability to think in realistic terms. Artists are simple-hearted souls. Today they sign this, tomorrow that; they don't even look to see what it is, so long as it seems to them well-meaning."

Even if you grant performers an informed interest in politics, it doesn't follow that they have an obligation to tailor their careers around it. In the 1980s, a group of musicians joined Silvio from The Sopranos in singing their refusal to play concerts in then-segregated South Africa. The musical result was poor, and the gesture had the same effect as the proverbial pee-pee in a dark suit. But to the extent the action showed real political engagement it was because it was done by choice. Other people played Sun City with little financial damage.

Even assuming Qaddafi is so toxic you can't with sound conscience take his dinars, that didn't just become the case a few weeks ago. That Qaddafi was an enthusiastic murderer of his own citizens and those of other countries has been known for decades. And those other countries include the United States. Unlike Saddam Hussein, Raoul Cédras, Slobodan Milosevic and other strongmen the United States has attacked, Qaddafi has a well established record of killing Americans. In the middle of the last decade the American and British governments – in a shameful attempt to make it look like the Forward Strategy of Freedom was working – tried to rehabilitate Qaddafi. But diplomacy doesn't change facts. If you believe Qaddafi is untouchable now, you had no excuse for not believing it before.

And if it didn't bother you before, that just means you haven't let politics colonize one of the few areas of freedom our insect overlords still allow us: performing music. Which is how it should be, because artists are simple-hearted souls. You should have kept those loonies, Nelly Furtado.