Monday, February 28, 2011

Libya: The entertainers

The gift that keeps on giving known to the world as the regime of Muammar Gaddafi may be nearing its end of days shortly, with the noose of armed populist outrage tightening around his stronghold, Tripoli, the capital. To go by his own unhinged statements (only slightly more so than those of Charlie Sheen), the stage is set for a Götterdämmerung event, with Libya’s world leader pretend going down in flames perhaps later this week. Or not.

But not without staining people around him, even those half a world away. Rolling Stone’s Steve Knopper reported recently about world-class entertainers including Beyoncé, Usher and Mariah Carey performing for members of the Gaddafi family at various locations, for various princely sums.

Knopper’s story was a followup on a story on the same topic that appeared in the New York Post back in January; the basis for some of the disclosures stems from diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in early February 2010.

Beyoncé apparently performed a New Year’s Eve show on the island of St. Bart’s in December 2009 for Muatassim Gaddafi, one of the dictator’s sons with a fondness for celebrity and nightlife. Carey reportedly pocketed $1 million to sing four songs at another event in St. Bart’s, according to a Feb. 23 story in The New York Times. Nelly Furtado worked a gig in Italy for the Gaddafis. Lionel Richie also performed for the family in Libya, in 2006.

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The music-industry reaction to the wave of reports, combined with the recently accelerated violence within Libya, has been swift and generally predictable.

"When I saw Beyoncé and Usher and whoever else was out partying with these Libyan criminals … these are people who have stolen tens of billions of dollars from their nation," said Howie Klein, former president of Reprise Records, to Rolling Stone. "What they all have in common is they're all kleptocracies – they've got a family stealing all the money. And for very, very wealthy American and British pop stars to take part in this kind of thing makes me want to puke."

David T. Viecelli, the agent for Arcade Fire and other acts, was more measured, couching the disclosures in a hypothetical sense (innocent until proven guilty) and putting the revelations in a broader historical frame — considering the long arc of Gaddafi’s history, not just events of the last two weeks.

"People put a big paycheck on the table, and people don't consider where the money is coming from, or what they're at least passively endorsing," he said.

"I don't want to specifically say Beyoncé or Mariah Carey behaved unethically, because I don't know all the details,” he told Rolling Stone. “But if it's true that Muammar Qaddafi's son says, 'I've got $50 million, come and play for my buddies,' I really think you have to say no to that. Given what we know about Qaddafi and what his rule has been about, you have to willfully turn a blind eye in order to accept that money, and I don't think it's ethical."

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Felicia Thomas, commenting at Rolling Stone and reacting to several naysayers, was about pitch-perfect in her sense of the complex swirl of international politics and global culture:

“I find this hypocritical. These people are just entertainers, they may not be the most abreast on politics. I saw an excellent piece on CNN talking about how both American and European leaders reversed their policy on the Gadaffi regime. It was George Bush that restored diplomatic ties with them. That was the current stance of the US when these performers performed. The majority of European leaders and countries did the same thing, including the UK Prime Minster Tony Blair. I actually saw pictures of Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi laughing and chatting with Muammar Gadaffi. [...]

“This family has been throwing parties in Cannes and other private family functions for years, without so much as people batting an eye. It's mostly news because of how they're behaving now. I'm not saying that the American and European leaders did anything wrong. To my knowledge, Gadaffi was supposedly cleaning up his act. But if our leaders can be wrong about a political figure, I don't expect entertainers to be experts. The money that these entertainers got was basically ... European and American money of corporations already doing business with the country.”

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Thomas may or may not be right about the source of those funds; it may really be (as some in the media have called it) "blood money." But she has a grasp of the strange interplay between power brokers in the world stage. She understands: For all the breastbeating and finger-wagging in the direction of Usher, Beyoncé and the rest, they were faced with the same dilemma that’s confronted the United States government in the past — and not just about Libya.

The entertainers discovered the hard way what other students of American history and government know too well: we’ve gotten accustomed to navigating the ethical shoals between our values and our interests vis-à-vis relations with other countries. We're so comfortable doing it that when embarrassments like this emerge, there’s no recourse, no way out besides owning up to it without owning up to anything.

Precisely the situation the words “No Comment” were invented for.

Image credits: Beyoncé: Brian Prahl/Splash News. Carey: CNN.

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