In terms of lifestyle, dictators and rock stars occupy the same stratum. Consider only a fraction of what they share: palace residences, obsessively broadcast concern for the poor, appearances before strange crowds who chant their names, flattery from identical media sycophants, protection from hired flunkies who allow their eccentricities full expression, an ever-ready foul word for Israel, and another for the United States. Experientially, rock stardom is dictatorship without death squads and the pretense of governance.
Perhaps that’s why newly released pictures of British rock star Sting laughing it up with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2008 seem to capture a moment of natural affinity. Who but a rock star understands the demands of the dictatorial daily grind? Viewing photos in the Daily Mail of the two happy men with glamorous wives in tow, it’s easy to imagine they’re trading stories of bumbling private-jet stewards or the headaches of polo-court installation or condemning rapacious capitalists (present company celebrated, of course) or whatever else the dictator-rock star class gets up to when not dictating or rock starring.
Sting’s second career is self-righteous pontification. He has irritated on the matters of trees, earthquakes, and the poor. He has served since 1981 as “ambassador” for Israel-bashing Amnesty International. He is the unparalleled rock-star activist self-parody. Which, of course, is why his flirtations with human-rights abusers are so delectable. Yes, flirtations—plural. Sting is one of those human-rights promoting singers who take big money to sing for human-rights abusers (while opposing the evil regime of George W. Bush, naturally.)
In 2010, he played a concert in Uzbekistan organized by the regime of Islam Karimov. Accused of boiling his opposition alive, Karimov nevertheless pays well. One night’s work earned Sting £2million.
An ungenerous reading of Sting’s public comments might lead one to believe he’s sympathetic to the likes of Karimov and Assad. In 2010, he told CNN’s Don Lemon during some cause-oriented interview, “We’re asking for big government, basically.” Lemon clarified: “You want big government?” Sting’s response: “Of course we do. This is a huge problem, and only the government can solve it. You know, the man on the street can do a little bit, but big governments need to make decisions.”
What, exactly, was the “huge problem”? Here’s a better question: What’s the difference? There’s no shortage of huge problems that activists beg big government to handle, from energy policy to healthcare to wealth distribution. Sting was stuck on forests at the moment, but the details of the 11th hour crisis du jour don’t matter. The point is, if big government is your thing, no one goes bigger than dictators. In Syria—even way back when in 2008—every breath you take, every move you make, Assad is watching you. And in time, killing you. Sting doesn’t have to convince him the man on the street can only do “a little bit.”
Which is where the man on the street parts ways with Sting. The latter, as an international superstar with hundreds of millions of dollars in disposable income, dinners with world leaders, and millions of impressionable fans, can do plenty. Every time I write about some pop star-bad regime alliance, I get comments and emails begging me not to waste Contentions real estate on clueless performers. Know-nothing narcissists, I’m told, are irrelevant to the real problems we face. Maybe. But who owns the culture: cerebral neoconservative scholars or people who look, sound, and act like Sting? Viral videos of pop stars and actors pledging allegiance to Barack Obama were hardly irrelevant to the unprecedented youth vote that delivered our 44th president to the White House.
Culture matters, even when it’s superficial and base. That’s why more people need to understand that celebrity activism is an outgrowth of lifestyle. You buy a yacht, schmooze a dictator, do an Occupy photo-op, and sign on to save the rainforest. It all comes from the same silly place. Sting is only hypocritical when you look at him through the lens of convictions and values. But why would you ever do that? As a longstanding member of the superstar set, his behavior is perfectly consistent.