Comedian Ellen DeGeneres loves to tell everyone to be kind. It’s a loose word, kindness; on her show, DeGeneres customarily uses it to mean a generic sort of niceness. Don’t bully. Befriend people! It’s a charming thought, though it has its limits as a moral ethic. There are people in the world, after all, whom it is better not to befriend. Consider, for example, the person of George W. Bush. Tens of thousands of people are dead because his administration lied to the American public about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and then, based on that lie, launched a war that’s now in its 16th year. After Hurricane Katrina struck and hundreds of people drowned in New Orleans, Bush twiddled his thumbs for days. Rather than fire the officials responsible for the government’s life-threateningly lackluster response to the crisis, he praised them, before flying over the scene in Air Force One. He opposed basic human rights for LGBT people, and reproductive rights for women, and did more to empower the American Christian right than any president since Reagan.
George W. Bush’s presidency wasn’t just morally bankrupt. In a superior reality, the Hague would be sorting out whether he is guilty of war crimes. Since our international institutions have failed to punish, or even censure him, surely the only moral response from civil society should be to shun him. But here is Ellen DeGeneres hanging out with him at a Cowboys game:
And here is Ellen DeGeneres explaining why it’s good and normal to share laughs, small talk, and nachos with a man who has many deaths on his conscience:
Here’s the money quote from her apologia:
“We’re all different. And I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different,” she told her studio audience. “When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean be kind to the people who think the same way you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”
This is what we say to children who don’t want to sit next to the class misfit at lunch. It is not — or at least it should not — be the way we talk about a man who used his immense power to illegally invade another country where we still have troops 16 years later. His feet should bleed wherever he walks and Iraqis should get to throw shoes at him until the end of his days.
Nevertheless, many celebrities and politicians have hailed DeGeneres for her radical civility:
There’s almost no point to rebutting anything that Chris Cillizza writes. Whatever he says is inevitably dumb and wrong, and then I get angry while I think about how much money he gets to be dumb and wrong on a professional basis. But on this occasion, I’ll make an exception. The notion that DeGeneres’s friendship with Bush is antithetical to Trumpism fundamentally misconstrues the force that makes Trump possible. Trump isn’t a simple playground bully, he’s the president. Americans grant our commanders-in-chief extraordinary deference once they leave office. They become celebrities, members of an apolitical royal class. This tendency to separate former presidents from the actions of their office, as if they were merely actors in a stage play, or retired athletes from a rival team, contributes to the atmosphere of impunity that enabled Trump. If Trump’s critics want to make sure that his cruelties are sins the public and political class alike never tolerate again, our reflexive reverence for the presidency has to die.
DeGeneres isn’t a role model for civility. Her friendship with Bush simply embodies the grossest form of class solidarity. From a lofty enough vantage point, perhaps Bush’s misdeeds really look like minor partisan differences. Perhaps Iraq seems very far away, and so do the poor of New Orleans, when the stage of your show is the closest you get to anyone without power.