The Ethics of Singing For Muammar

Sing, Nelly---and charge him through the nose.

Singer Nelly Furtado has been attacked recently for accepting a million dollars in 2007 to entertain Muammar Gaddafi and his family. The idea seems to be that, as ringingly put by screenwriter Mark Tapper,

“It is quite simply willful blindness to claim that there is no moral dimension in the choice to perform privately for a monster like Gaddafi, and in being paid exorbitantly from funds no doubt stolen from his own people, or misappropriated from foreign aid or dirty deals.”

Furtado isn’t the only one who crooned for the Libyan dictator, apparently. Mariah Carey, Usher, Lionel Richie, Beyoncé and other performers also accepted big bucks to give Muammar and his family a good time.Furtado is donating her fee to charity in the wake of criticism like Tapper’s and Beyoncé has also donated the million that she received to charity, apologizing profusely. Mariah Carey is begging for forgiveness.

I’m glad that the stars are giving their money to worthy causes, and no doubt it is a good public relations move in a society where half-baked ethical notions become conventional wisdom before much thought has been applied to them. Nevertheless, Furtado and the rest did nothing wrong by entertaining Gaddafi.

The critics of Furtado and the other performers are applying a bizarre double standard. The United States not only does business with brutal regimes—notably China— but also encourages American companies to do business with them. We buy oil from Libya, which gives money to Gaddafi, but it is morally repugnant, according to Tapper, to take a million dollars from the dictator in exchange for —what? Putting a smile on his face? Getting his son to tap his foot?

An ethical violation has to involve real or intended harm. What harm did Furtado do? She persuaded a mad dictator to grossly overpay her to sing. The money gets put back into the U.S. economy. Not a single Libyan is any worse off for Furtado’s warbling. Does her willingness to perform for Gaddafi somehow burnish his reputation or credibility? Are world leaders saying, “I think we should take Gaddafi more seriously; after all, Nellie Furtado sang for him!”?

This isn’t the Pope giving a murderous dictator an audience, or the Nobel Prize committee giving him the Peace Prize—like it did to Yassir Arafat. Furtado is a performer, who has no responsibility for the conduct, ethics crimes or motives of the members of her audience, and should not be assigned any. Her ethical duty is to give any audience its money’s worth, not to calibrate what portion of her talent to display according to the virtue of her fans.

An American lawyer who is hired by Gaddafi would be showing neither respect nor accordance with his despicable client’s beliefs or behavior—that’s in the legal ethics rules, and is part of the foundation of the lawyer’s professional role. A doctor would do her best to save his life, and the American Medical Association is unwavering in its assertion that the act of doing so would be completely ethical, no matter what crimes Gaddafi has committed or terrorist acts he has seeded. An American President would shake his hand, receive him at the White House, perhaps fete him with a dinner, and attend his Olympics if Libya was awarded one.

But Furtado is ethically required to turn down a million dollars to do for Gaddafi what she would do at a concert for an audience full of anonymous ticket-buyers, whose collective crimes and misdeeds might fill a season of “Law and Order”? Why? There is no ethical prohibition against making bad people happy. Making people happy is always ethical, as long as it is legal and doesn’t do any harm to anyone else.

Ultimately, the argument that Furtado, Carey, Richie and Beyoncé have crossed an ethical line comes down to “dirty money,’ because there isn’t anything else to argue. Tapper, for example, condemns Furtado’s “being paid exorbitantly from funds no doubt stolen from his own people, or misappropriated from foreign aid or dirty deals.”

Utter nonsense:

  • If the money was “dirty,” it’s clean now: it was earned fair and square.
  • What does the fact that the fee received by Furtado “was exorbitant” have to do with Tapper’s argument? 1) It’s not exorbitant if Gaddafi was willing to pay it; 2) By Tapper’s own logic, it is reasonable for Furtado to charge premium prices to sing for a creep like the Libyan dictator; call it her “monster rates;” 3) Isn’t it good, in Tapper’s judgment, that Furtado gouged Gaddafi? Or is he arguing that she shouldn’t have sung for him, but if she did, she really should have given the poor guy a fair price?
  • The “dirty money” argument has some validity when it involves contributions to political campaigns by criminals or terrorists. In the context of commerce, however, it is pointless and illogical. Tapper is proposing that merchants, retailers and providers of services should refuse the commerce of those who are perceived as wrongdoers, imposing extra-legal punishment for crimes without due process of law. In fact, he is just proposing that performers have this obligation.

This is, when one looks at it, another example of the lack of respect accorded to sports and entertainment professionals. After 9/11/01, nobody suggested that American business should shut down for a week, just that it was somehow wrong to play sports, perform plays, play music and tell jokes. The criticism of Gaddafi’s entertainers comes from the same toxic well. If a performer chooses to make a statement or assert a point of conscience by rejecting a million dollars to perform for a revolting head of state, bravo or brava: I’m duly impressed. But if a singer chooses to make a tyrant a cool million poorer in exchange for a song or too, that is a completely ethical decision too.

If she sang for him NOW, while he was killing his own people, then Tapper would have a better argument. A performance now would risk looking like approval, support, or at least a lack of concern for his victims. In 2007, however, he was just a particularly despicable audience member who could be relieved of some cash in a commercial transaction for services.

Nellie has nothing to be ashamed of for singing for Gaddafi on 2007.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Singing For Muammar

  1. Jack,
    This is one of your best articles in recent memory (which is not to suggest your other work has been sub-par). I’m amazed how people assume that taking money from “bad” people somehow implies complicit consent of that person’s actions. If I own a business, should I have refused service to John Gotti because his money was likely earned by illegal means? Though you made mention of political contributions being different, there was a similar fuss made over Ron Paul having received a number of small donations from self-proclaimed “white supremacists” and while he vehemently denounced their message, he chose not to return the money (which I tended to agree with).

    Besides, would the critics rather Gadaffi still have the extra millions to further fund the war he’s currently waging against his people? Perhaps Furtado’s exorbitant fees saved the world misery as they could have been instead used to buy more weapons, fund worldwide terrorism, or even pay for a VIP trip to Disneyland (*gasp*)? The point being, would we rather the money be in the hands of vapid (albeit non-tyrannical) pop-stars or those of an evil and ruthless dictator bent on war-mongering and the systematic destruction of human rights?

    In my mind, it’s no contest.


    • Thanks Neil…like you, I’ve been bugged by this attitude for a long time. And even in the case of political contributions, the problem is more one of linkage…if a terrorist gives me money for my candidacy, then someone can presume I’m appealing to terrorists. But the money is just money.

  2. I suppose Paul McCartney meeting with Putin when he performed in Red Square a few years ago would fall into the same category. Who criticized Sir Paul?

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