For years, I have watched activists vainly attempt to focus a spotlight on the problems of Central Asia, only to be thwarted by the media’s steadfast refusal to, as CNN put it, “learn the stans”. Corruption, poverty, torture, mass violence — what does it take for Central Asia to merit real coverage, the kind which does not involve being measured against the portable Playstation (and found lacking) or having borders redrawn by CNN “anchor”-cum-inadvertent Tajik nationalist Josh Levs?
My friends, I give you Sting.
In November 2009, Sting was paid two million dollars to perform a concert in Tashkent in honor of Islam Karimov’s daughter, Gulnora Karimova, a tea magnate turned J. Lo-esque pop star and possible heir to the throne. Tickets were priced at $1000-2000 each. Sting later said that the concert was sponsored by UNICEF — a claim that UNICEF was very surprised to hear.
In February 2010, the Sting saga exploded in the international press, with dozens of media outlets accusing Sting, a spokesman for Amnesty International, of hypocrisy regarding his public stance on human rights and the environment. “Sting in the pay of tyrannical Uzbekistan regime”, “Sting wrapped around Uzbek dictator’s finger” went the more subtle headlines; “Sting plays concert for daughter of ‘boil your enemies’ dictator” screamed the Daily Mail. (The story is a particular favorite of the British press — apparently British people still care about Sting, whom I last dimly recall trying to sell me a Jaguar a decade ago.) Even the reliably apathetic Fox News got in on the act, blasting Karimov as a “little known dictator who burst upon the international scene in 2005” by killing “up to 5000 people” in Andijon.
Suddenly, the media were outraged by what was happening in Uzbekistan. This outrage, of course, was focused squarely on the takedown of their Tantric tabloid target. But in their quest to vilify Sting, the media ended up accidentally covering the following issues: the plight of the Aral Sea, the use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, corruption and nepotism in the Uzbek government, the use of torture in Uzbekistan’s prisons, the arrest of photographer Umida Akhmedova, poverty and low wages among Uzbek workers, and the 2005 Andijon events. I know many Uzbek activists who have been working to bring these issues to international attention for years. Apparently all they really needed was two million dollars to send a washed-up pop star into the fray.
Recently Sting issued a self-aggrandizing apology in which he insisted that “cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counter-productive, 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.” (Sting is, of course, known for masterfully bridging cultural divides in the former Soviet sphere— how else would we Westerners ever have learned that “the Russians love their children too”?) Far from placating his critics, the apology has fueled the fire, prolonging the controversy — and the subsequent coverage of Uzbekistan required to chastise him properly — in the international media.
In many ways, this seems like a crass celebrified version of the Great Game — an UZ Weekly world in which Central Asia functions as the playground of pompous pop stars and their disingenuously righteous foes. However, there just may be an upside.
In condemning Sting’s decision to profit from a dictator, media outlets sent a clear message to the world’s fallen pop elite: play Uzbekistan, or other authoritarian regimes, and risk international outcry.
But this is entirely the wrong message to send. If anything, we should be encouraging our C and D-listers to travel to dictatorial regimes, bringing back with them a barrage of media coverage on the issues that human rights activists futilely attempt to publicize.
On that note, I propose the following: Heidi Montag, ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what you can do for Uzbekistan.