Should Celebrities Regret Singing for Gadhafi’s Family?

I blogged nearly two weeks ago about the Ethics of Doing Business in Libya. The concern there was about the ethics of involvement in Libya by, well, “businesses” in the traditional, i.e., corporate, sense of that word. But the controversy that emerged short after that, and that continues still, concerns high-profile members of the entertainment business — celebrities like Usher, 50 Cent, and Mariah Carey. Basically, it has come to light that a whole fistful of such stars have, at various times, done private concerts for members of the Gadhafi family. And now, in light of the continuing violence in Libya, most of those stars are expressing regret and doing things like donating the money to charity. (For details, see Public consequences of pop stars’ private gigs, by By Reed Johnson and Rick Rojas for the Los Angeles Times.)

A few people have pointed out that the timing of the celebs’ crisis of conscience is just a little bit off. Libya has been a dictatorship for decades, and its leader has been a vicious madman just as long. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote on his blog at Reason, “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.” If it’s right to give the money back now, it was likely wrong to take it in the first place.

But we can also question whether anyone does, or should, give much of a hoot over where these celebs sing, or for whom. The LA Times quotes Sting — a star with a reputation for charity work and activism — as defending having sung for the daughter of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov:

Sting addressed criticism saying 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.” He added, “I have come to believe 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.”

The man has a point. Though it may sound like a self-interested argument, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

(Cavanaugh’s blog entry has a wonderful quote from, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who shrugged off artists behaving in ways that might have taken by him to be treasonous: “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.”)

But this leads me wonder: just what is the objection to singers singing for dictators? Is the money the problem, or is it having sung for (or more generally having done business with, or having provided a service for) an evil man’s family? Consider: if the money really is the problem — i.e., if this really is a case of filthy lucre — then donating the money to charity really does utterly absolve the stars in question of any blame. Or at least it would if the timing weren’t so questionable. Singing for free would also be OK. Indeed, if the money is all that matters, then stars might have a positive obligation to sing for wealthy tyrants and give the money to charity. After all, what could be better than squeezing a few million out of a mad dictator’s family in order to do something good with it? And if singing for free (or singing for money and donating it to charity) isn’t OK, then that seems to imply that the money isn’t the problem either.

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