Democracy Lab

Hey, J.Lo, Thanks for Serenading that Dictator

The mainstream media have finally discovered human rights violations in Turkmenistan. And it's all thanks to Hollywood.

A few days ago, Jennifer Lopez flew to a Caspian Sea resort to perform at the birthday party of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the president of Turkmenistan. It was the first time an American celebrity had performed in the former Soviet republic, one of the most repressive states in the world. Turkmen citizens lack basic rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. They are monitored by a massive security apparatus that administers threats and torture.

The media were outraged. "Jenny from the Eastern Bloc," proclaimed The Daily Mail and dozens of other outlets who have rarely, if ever, written about Turkmenistan. How could Lopez perform for a country with such grotesque human rights violations?

Human rights groups were also appalled, criticizing Lopez for lending legitimacy to an egomaniacal dictator's propaganda ploy. "The problem isn't that she performed in Turkmenistan," explained Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch. "It's that she was part of a propaganda fest for a president who presides over one of the most closed, repressive governments in the world."

But in the process, Lopez opened that country up, if only a little. In their quest to vilify Lopez, the mainstream media incidentally ended up covering the following topics: Turkmen political dissidence, internet censorship, torture, prison abuse, and other issues that human rights advocates try, usually in vain, to bring to international attention.

What Lopez did was vile, albeit relatively common among celebrities seeking to make a quick profit. What the government of Turkmenistan does to its citizens on a daily basis is far worse. But these two misdeeds together have the potential to benefit those who should be at the heart of this debate: the people of Turkmenistan. Lopez is being pressured to donate her fee to charity, like Hillary Swank did after playing for Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov in 2011. The Arzuw Foundation, an organization struggling to raise money to support educational opportunities for Turkmens, received a $1,000 donation in light of the Lopez affair, and has encouraged Lopez to lend her support.

This is not to say that Turkmenistan will improve in a meaningful way through this controversy. Turkmenistan is one of many Central Asian countries in which authoritarian rule has created a perverse stability. The only way that Turkmenistan is likely to change is through internal reform -- a path that Berdimuhamedov shows no interest in pursuing. (Berdimuhamedov is sometimes depicted as an improvement over his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, but that is only because Niyazov concocted a personality cult that included renaming the months after his family members and constructing a $12 million gold statue of himself that rotated to face the sun.)

But contrary to the warnings of human rights advocates, the government of Turkmenistan gains no credibility through Lopez's visit. Most people understand that a visit by an American Idol judge does not render a dictatorship just. So why the outrage? The Western public's fascination with Lopez and Berdimuhamedov, as with all visits to dictators from celebrities -- Swank and Kadyrov, Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un, Sting and Islam Karimov, Gerard Depardieu and Vladimir Putin -- has more to do with the celebrity than the dictator. The dictator is a proxy through which unease with celebrity -- its decadence, its unfairness -- is expressed.

Lopez has denied knowing anything about the nature of Berdimuhamedov's regime. "The event was vetted by her representatives, had there been knowledge of human rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended," said a statement obtained by E! News. In other words, Lopez appears to live like Berdimuhamedov -- surrounded by obsequious sycophants with little knowledge of, or moral obligation to, the world outside their kingdom.

Celebrities and dictators have a lot in common. They lead lavish lifestyles acquired by questionable means, insulated from the everyday people whom they claim to represent. "Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got/ I'm still Jenny from the block," Lopez sang, a sentiment little different from that of Berdimuhamedov who commented that his "biography is in many respects typical of people of my generation." Celebrities and dictators engage in contrived pageantry -- Lopez with her tabloid relationships, Berdimuhamedov and his rigged horse races -- and surround themselves with acolytes who tell them they can do no wrong. Their bloated presence is felt everywhere.

Most importantly, celebrities and dictators are rarely punished for bad behavior. They violate social, moral, and legal codes and not only get away with it, but find their reputations and opportunities enhanced. "I'm tired of pretending I'm not special. I'm tired of pretending I'm not a total bitchin' rock star from Mars," Charlie Sheen famously proclaimed in what was perceived at the time as an epic career meltdown -- but which culminated in a new TV series buoyed by the publicity.

Celebrity dictatorship scandals hit home because they remind us that those with money and power sin without consequence. In places like Turkmenistan, we are powerless to fight the dictator. But we can take down the celebrity outside of our social borders, and by extension, the casual greed which he or she embodies -- a morality tale satisfying to a public otherwise uneasy with discussing privilege, power and class.

The outrage surrounding Lopez's trip has more to do with the West's conflicted attitude toward fame than it does with abuses in Turkmenistan. Human rights advocates should view celebrity gaffes as what they are -- a special treat, destined to drum up interest, albeit temporary, in otherwise unpopular causes. (If they see it this way already, they should never admit it.) The Western public can indulge in schadenfreude while having the uncomfortable political debates celebrity downfalls inspire. (Witness the smart analyses of race relations brought on by Paula Deen.)

Celebrity visits to dictatorships are at best beneficial, at worst irrelevant. The greatest problem in Turkmenistan is not Jennifer Lopez, or even Berdimuhamedov, but systemic corruption and abuse that date back decades and continue to destroy the lives of ordinary people.

Ordinary people tend to play a side role in these celebrity debacles -- much as they play a side role in the political life of their own nations. If the mainstream media are truly outraged about dictatorships, they should talk to the people who have to live in them. Tell their stories -- and make them the stars.

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Espionage? Moi?

Sure, Paris is a hypocrite when it comes to spying. But it isn't alone.

If you buy the latest reporting out of Europe, France is outraged, simply outraged, at news that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on the European Union through its mission in New York and embassy in Washington. French political parties are now rumbling about offering asylum to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor at the center of the leaks. The French government is demanding answers from the United States about its snooping. Monsieur Le Président himself, François Hollande, is calling for an end to the spying.

All of which is pretty hilarious, given France's penchant for stealing American defense technology, bugging American business executives and generally annoying U.S. counterintelligence officials. If you've been paying attention, you know that France is a proficient, notorious and unrepentant economic spy. "In economics, we are competitors, not allies," Pierre Marion, the former director of France's equivalent of the CIA, once said. "America has the most technical information of relevance. It is easily accessible. So naturally your country will receive the most attention from the intelligence services."

It's thus tempting to toss aside France's protests as rank and witting hypocrisy over economic espionage, which of course they are. But the leaks about the NSA's collection of economic information and the difficulty in explaining the differences in how it's used on opposite sides of the Atlantic spell trouble for American cyberdiplomacy around the world.

Lest you doubt that France has dirty hands in corporate spying, there's a long, storied and public bill of particulars against La République Française's intelligence agencies.

France's espionage against American companies, described as "aggressive and massive," dates back to the 1960s and is largely born out of a desire to prop up its defense industry, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, which delicately referred to France as "Country B." France lacks a domestic defense market large enough to support cutting edge development so it opts to steal American military technology in order to save R&D costs and enjoy advanced weaponry for its own military and competitive for exports abroad.

France's economic espionage hasn't been confined solely to America's defense industrial base, though. In the late 1980s, French intelligence reportedly spied on premiere firms such as Texas Instruments and IBM in a bid to help out its domestic computer industry. Reports of hidden microphones in the seats of Air France picking up the indiscreet business chatter of American executives have since become common intelligence lore.

The snooping burst into the public sphere during the 1993 Paris Air Show, the world's biggest aerospace confab. It's usually prom for the aviation industry, a chance for countries to show off their latest and greatest fighter jets and commercial airliner. But the show hit a sour note when a CIA document listing dozens of American companies targeted for espionage by France leaked to the public, prompting firms like Pratt & Whitney and Hughes Aircraft to hold back products or withdraw from the show entirely.

The spying continues even today, according a recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. The NIE declared France, alongside Russia and Israel, to be in a distant but respectable second place behind China in using cyberespionage for economic gain.

This was the kind of spying that, with rare exceptions, the United States swore it never did. Sure, America snoops on foreign governments for the odd advantage in trade talks. Long before Edward Snowden shared details of the European Union's leaky fax machine, the New York Times was reporting how the United States used the CIA and NSA to help it in trade negotiations with Japan. But the U.S. intelligence community would (almost) never spy on a foreign company just to benefit an American one.

In other words, stealing secrets to help a government is fine. Stealing secrets to help a business is not. "There's a big difference between that and a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple's software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product," President Obama recently said after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Now that the particulars of U.S. eavesdropping are on display that distinction between spying on Apple and the Defense Department is going to be even harder to make. As Bloomberg reported today, part of the U.S. strategy to curtail Chinese cyberespionage against American companies rests on pressuring China by naming and shaming its corporate snooping activities and trying to engage it to establish rules of the road.

It's hard to embarrass China over a norm of dubious existence whose violation a number of countries don't find all too embarrassing. The recent NIE on cyberespionage makes clear that of the U.N. Security Council, Russia, China, and France view it as an acceptable practice.

Whether France, China, or other countries buy America's pinky swears about the economic secrets it hoovers up or are simply demagoguing the issue is immaterial. It's easy to muddy the picture with much of the global public. We need only look back to 2001, when France belted out howls of protest at Echelon, the worrisome NSA program of its day, in the wake of a European Parliament report branding the United States as a global economic snoop.

Nor is it just in France and China that America's protests fall on deaf ears. Take a stroll through the National Counterintelligence Executive's (NCIX) annual reports on foreign economic espionage and you'll find a ballpark of about a half dozen to a dozen chronic offenders over the years. Beyond the core group of problem countries, NCIX has found entities from as many as 108 countries "involved in collection efforts against sensitive and protected U.S. technologies" in some years. Moreover, a number of American allies also just aren't as eager to follow America's lead in making trade secret theft a criminal, rather than just civil matter.

If the United States wants to get something more from China on economic espionage than the hypocrisy and Gallic shrug it gets from France, it's going to have to try something different. Lectures about unevenly shared beliefs and intelligence revelations that name more than they shame likely won't be enough. For China and others, the distance between our economic intelligence collection and theirs is a distinction without a difference.

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