If the patronage or even the proximity of tyrants taints everything, we had better clean out most of the world's art museums. Historically, certain professions have gravitated toward power because, for much of history, only the politically powerful have had the resources to provide those professions the patronage upon which they depended. But who despises the painters of the Renaissance for accepting the patronage of the Medicis, the Borgias, or worse? The results arguably belong to all of us, having become the world's cultural heritage. Admittedly, we most likely won't benefit the same way from Dennis Rodman's visits to North Korea, but that doesn't explain the hate-a-thon unleashed upon the former NBA star for his befriending his famous fan, Kim Jong Un. Every so often someone works up outrage over an entertainer performing at some celebration staged by or for some dictator somewhere, but nothing has compared to the anger at Rodman. The obvious reason is that North Korea is perceived as an enemy of the United States, and for that reason some have suggested that Rodman is a sort of traitor, in spirit if not in law. People who think that way about Rodman have become what they beheld, since to think it treason to meet with foreigners deemed hostile to the state is not merely McCarthyite but outright Stalinist thinking. Rodman's visits may benefit the Kim dynasty in someone's wild dream, but how does it harm the United States?
For some critics, national interest isn't the issue. This commentator, for instance, claims that Rodman has a duty to humanity to engage if not confront Kim Jong Un over his geopolitical belligerence and his misrule of North Koreans. The commentary expresses a relatively recent attitude about the moral responsibility of artists and athletes. It flourished in the 1980s, when Jimmy Carter withheld American athletes from the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and various boycotts were waged against the apartheid regime in South Africa. "I ain't gonna play Sun City" was a popular song of the time; the thought behind it was that artists and athletes lent a kind of legitimacy to tyranny, denial of which might destabilize a regime or shame it into changing its ways. Thus Rodman, despite all absurd appearances, is thought to confer legitimacy or prestige upon the Kim dynasty by playing basketball or singing a birthday song for the ruler. This suspicion only proves that we've conferred too much prestige on celebrities like Rodman in the first place. He can outrage only those who wake up every morning looking to be outraged. The rest of us were amused by the transgressive absurdity of his first visit, but I think a lot of us are more amused now by the frothing outrage of his critics.