I seriously considered taking the Ethics Alarms post on singer Nelly Furtado posted here in March and substituting actress Hilary Swank’s name for Furtado, and Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov for now-deceased Libya dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It is the same controversy and issue with the same result: an American performing artist sells her performing talents to a brutal foreign leader, and is bullied and shamed by human rights advocates and media critics into apologizing profusely and donating the large fee ( a million dollars in Furtado’s case, a reported half-million for Swank) to charity.
This was wrong in March, and it’s wrong today.
Earlier this month, Swank and other celebrities attended Kadyrov’s birthday bash in Chechnya. She was working. But while every other corporation and contractor, as well as the United States itself, can do business around the world without being held to the impossible standard of only accepting morally exemplary customers, Swank, like Furtado, Mariah Carey and others before her, was targeted for not doing the bidding of human rights activists and sacrificing her livelihood to be their billboard. The bully in this case in the Human Rights Foundation, which unethically brutalized Swank to achieve publicity for its own mission—a worthy one to be sure, but not so worthy that it justifies a PR mugging with a $500,000 loss to its victim.
“Until the respect for human rights is such that despots find themselves in complete isolation, humanity will continue to see millions suffer while being stripped of their fundamental human rights and individual liberties. It is embarrassing that Hilary Swank [and other performers] lent their name to an event such as this. It is disheartening and shameful,” the Foundation’s president wrote, in one small part of the barrage launched against Swank.
No, it is disheartening and shameful for an innocent artist to be degraded, insulted and robbed for doing nothing wrong whatsoever. Now I’ll adapt myself, applying the appropriate parts of the Furtado essay commentary to Swank:
An ethical violation has to involve real or intended harm. What harm did Swank do? She allowed a murderous dictator to grossly overpay her to say “Happy Birthday.” The money gets added to the U.S. economy, and not a single Chechnyan is any worse off for Furtado’s paid presence. Does her willingness to appear for Kadyrov somehow burnish his reputation or credibility? Is the world saying, “I think we should admire the Chechnyan killer more; he may brutalize his people, but the star of “The Karate Kid III” came to his birthday party!”?
This isn’t the Pope giving a murderous despot an audience, or the Nobel Prize committee giving him the Peace Prize—like it did for Yassir Arafat. Swank is a performer, who has no responsibility for the conduct, ethics, crimes or motives of the members of her audience, be it one or a million, and should not be assigned any. Her ethical duty is to give anyone who will pay her fee his or her money’s worth of her talent, not to have to calibrate what portion of her art to allot according to the virtue of her fans.
An American lawyer who was hired by Kadyrov would be showing neither respect for nor approval of 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 the despot’s 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 Kadyrov 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 opening ceremonies if Chechnya was awarded one…but Hilary Swank is ethically obligated to turn down $500,000 dollars to go to his birthday party? 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 Swank, like Furtado, Carey, Lionel Richie and Beyoncé before her, have crossed an ethical line comes down to “dirty money,” or as the Human Rights Foundation would have it, “blood money.” Utter nonsense: If the money was “dirty,” it is clean now. Swank earned it, fair and square. Where is that half-million likely to do more harm—in the coffers of the dictator, or in an American actress’s bank account? A half-million bucks to say “Happy birthday”? Swank gouged him but good; it would have been unpatriotic not to take his money. You go, girl!
The “dirty money” argument has some validity when it involves contributions to political campaigns by criminals or terrorists. Then it is an endorsement of the candidate by the despicable donor, a different problem. In the context of commerce, however, the objection is pointless and illogical, not to mention selectively applied; after all, the U.S. has been willing to borrow China’s slave labor-created wealth. The Foundation’s complaint against Hilary Swank posits 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. No, I take that back: it just insists that performers and artists have this obligation, because, you know, they don’t really work.
This is 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, only that it was somehow wrong to play professional sports, perform plays, sing songs and tell jokes. [ Aside: I insisted, over the objections of my board, that my own theater company go through with the premiere of a new musical comedy on the evening of September 12, while most theaters in Washington, D.C., yielded to this hypocritical argument. And I was right.] The criticism of Swank comes from the same toxic well. If a performer chooses to make a statement or assert a point of conscience by rejecting a large fee to perform for a revolting head of state, bravo or brava: I’m duly impressed. But if she chooses to make a tyrant a half-million dollars poorer in exchange for a song or birthday wish, that is an ethical decision too.
I don’t blame Hilary Swank for caving to the onslaught, unfair though it was. Celebrities are in the public relations business, and the average movie fan isn’t going to think this through beyond the “Kadyrov BAD! Actress take money to be nice to BAD man! Actress GREEDY! Actress like BAD MAN! Actress BAD!” visceral level that the Foundation’s simple-minded argument appeals to. I am sorry she has been victimized. When Swank, like so many actresses and actors before her, hasn’t had a movie role in ten years and is hocking her Oscar, that half-million she was brow-beaten out of will be sorely missed, not that the Foundation for Human Rights will care.
After all, she’s only an actress.