Last weekend, Ellen DeGeneres and former president George W. Bush were photographed laughing together in the owner’s suite at a Dallas Cowboys game. In reaction to mounting social media criticism that she was palling around with a “homophobic bigot” who’s “committed war crimes,” Ellen shared a video of a monologue she delivered during her talk show on Monday. "A lot of people were mad,” she explained, “and they did what people do when they're mad: They tweet.”
Ellen went on to say that she and Bush are friends. “In fact, I'm friends with a lot of people who don't share the same beliefs that I have,” she added. “We're all different, and I think we've forgotten that that's OK that we're all different.” She likened her political differences (as a “gay Hollywood liberal”) with the Republican ex-president to the fact that she, unlike him, is a Packers fan. “Just because I don't agree with someone on everything doesn't mean that I am not going to be friends with them. When I say ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don't mean only the people that think the same way you do. I mean be kind to everyone."
The line was met with applause when Ellen delivered it onstage; when she posted the video clip to her Instagram, she earned more praise and gratitude from many of her fellow celebrities. “Exactly,” Reese Witherspoon commented, adding a bull’s-eye emoji. “Soooo needed and necessary,” said Jamie Foxx. Here was Jennifer Garner: “Ellen! You are amazing! ♥.” Kendall Jenner, Snooki, Lenny Kravitz — the 1 percent of the 1 percent were closing ranks.
Jameela Jamil was initially into it until her followers encouraged her to learn a little more about Bush’s policies; as of last night it appears that Witherspoon has also walked back her support, since she’s deleted her pro-Ellen tweet. (Maybe they realized the Dixie Chicks deserve better.) Ardent celebrity activist Mark Ruffalo stood apart as one of the few big names to unequivocally declare that “until George W. Bush is brought to justice for the crimes of the Iraq War … we can’t even begin to talk about kindness.”
Ellen and lots of other famous people seem particularly aggrieved by the free-for-all of social media, where their every move is documented and dissected at length. Whether they’re complaining about the fear of getting “canceled” while helming multimillion-dollar projects, or brushing off everyone who works for “them blogs,” or trying to get music critics they don’t like fired, celebs and Hollywood power players are touchier than ever these days.
It’s not surprising, then, that Ellen’s monologue about Bush reduced her critics to a mob of angry Twitter users, as if a bunch of regular people professing their sincere concerns were grousing and griping for the hell of it. (Just a bunch of haters!) It appears as if Ellen’s staffers have been aggressively submitting copyright claims on social media in an attempt to kill a satirical video by Twitter user @rafaelshimunov, who edited Ellen’s monologue to include grisly footage of torture and human suffering during the Iraq War.
Ellen’s defense might make it seem like people were expecting her to shove Bush out of his box seat on sight, when in reality the majority of her dissenters aren’t advocating against surface-level agreeability and politeness. Rather, they’re asking her to rethink the choice to elevate a cordial interaction with the former leader of the historically anti-gay Republican Party to some kind of admirable act of rising-above-it kindness. But the more powerful and insulated a celebrity gets, it seems, the less likely they are to do the work of distinguishing between the demands of petty trolls and good-faith critics.
As Ellen’s star-studded Instagram comments illustrated, she is just one among many celebrities and otherwise privileged people who love to champion any perceived moment of “positivity” against what they see as an endless onslaught of bad vibes, online and otherwise. Sometimes those positive moments are just that (give me a feel-good video of an adorable interspecies friendship any day). But other seemingly “inspiring” interactions don’t actually look so cheery when placed within a broader context — and promoting them as such can have nasty, if unintended, consequences.
Ellen’s friendship with Bush — and her insistence that she not only doesn’t deserve criticism for it, but that she should be celebrated for it — is, for this particular celebrity, par for the course. By this point in her career, Ellen could have only reached such a stratospheric level of fame by appealing to positivity over principle.
In the past year we’ve seen Ellen accept, seemingly on behalf of all queer people, Kevin Hart’s nonapology for joking about gay-bashing his own son. Her first stand-up special in 15 years, Relatable, also offered unique insights into the modern-day mindset of a woman who risked being pushed out of the entertainment industry altogether when she came out as gay 20 years ago. Back then, Ellen had to insist on her own niceness and relatability to win back the mainstream; now, cushioned as she is in Cowboys box seats among the rich and famous, her appeal to niceness mostly serves to flatten criticisms levied against her and her über-wealthy peers.
Ellen is still protecting herself and her community; the only difference is that, where once her community was other working- and middle-class queer people, it’s now the culturally powerful elite. As Constance Grady wrote at Vox, “The niceness that Ellen DeGeneres is celebrating in her friendship with George W. Bush — the niceness that she is extraordinarily skilled at performing — is not about kindness for the powerless. It’s about kindness for the powerful, for the people who helped to set in place the problems the rest of us are currently living in.”
Ellen’s decision to champion her relationship with Bush comes at a particularly fraught moment. This week, the US Supreme Court — which includes two conservative Bush appointees, justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito — heard arguments regarding whether LGBTQ people are legally protected by existing bans on sex-based employment discrimination. Should the court decide that it’s perfectly legal for queer and trans people to be fired for who they are, that disastrous outcome will be a part of Bush’s legacy. But as many of Ellen’s critics have pointed out, her solidarity with other queer people seems to have long since been subsumed by class solidarity instead.
One of the more bonkers, and infuriating, aspects of Ellen’s kindness monologue is that she goes out of her way to insist that she just bumbled her little old way into this incredibly elite setting. She said she and her wife, Portia de Rossi, got to sit in this “very fancy suite” with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ “fancy friends” — “and I don’t mean fancy like Real Housewives fancy; I mean fancy.” The video ends with her thanking Jones and his daughter, Charlotte, for hosting them, then reminding George W. and Laura Bush: “You owe me $6 for the nachos.”
It’s a clever shtick. The other people in the box seats, including the Bushes, are the “fancy” ones; Ellen’s merely a humble woman of the people who just so happens to circulate at the highest, most ideologically and economically insulated echelons of society. Whether she’d like to admit it or not, however, Ellen isn’t on the outside looking in anymore. She was once quite literally barred from employment because of her sexuality; it’s safe to say that she’s no longer at risk of being fired for her gayness, like so many other Americans are, no matter what the Supreme Court ends up ruling.
Ellen’s kindness monologue wasn’t the only instance of “positivity” and “rising above” and “reaching across the aisle” to go viral lately. Last week, actor Chris Evans was one of many public figures with enormous social media followings who shared the video of Brandt Jean, Botham Jean’s younger brother, embracing ex–Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after she was sentenced for Botham’s murder. “This is easily one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Evans tweeted, garnering him over 100,000 likes (and a lot of frustrated replies).
Of course, it wasn’t only celebrities who made Brandt Jean’s tearful speech about forgiveness and God’s love go viral. Lots of people, most of them white, were calling the video stunning and inspirational. But it’s easy to imagine that what those people were really seeking in it, as Roxane Gay described it in the New York Times after the 2015 trial of Dylann Roof, was “absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small,” even though “forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins.”
It’s telling what didn’t go viral after Guyger’s sentencing: the words of Botham Jean’s mother, Allison. At church that same night, she said she didn’t want the community to misinterpret Brandt’s actions in the courtroom: “Forgiveness for us as Christians is healing for us. But ... it does not mean everything else we have suffered has to go unnoticed.” And on the Today show, she clarified that forgiveness was healing for her family, “And so we forgive. But I don’t want forgiveness to be mistaken with a total relinquishing of responsibility.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with forgiveness — on an interpersonal level, it can be incredibly powerful and cathartic — but as Allison Jean reminds us, the problem arrives when acts of forgiveness, kindness, or other more banal niceties are afforded more attention than appeals for due process. Anne Branigin at the Root wrote that “Brandt Jean’s hug was not a political statement but a personal one,” and that “it was disheartening to see the same American delusions play out again: a high-profile display of forgiveness acting as a proxy for racial reconciliation. Racial reconciliation as a proxy for meaningful, lasting justice.”
Those American delusions play out in smaller ways on the internet every day. One of my least favorite subgenres of “heartwarming” viral imagery involve members of the police hugging black children or rescuing cats, because the only reason they go viral in the first place is the sense of unearned comfort they offer us. One “nice” cop moment becomes yet another proxy for the goodness of the police force as a whole — a reason to assume that “nice” individuals are indicative of overall systemic goodness, rather than yet another small piece in the everyday obfuscation of state violence. I, too, melted with joy when watching the recent viral video of two toddlers, one black and one white, embracing on the street — even as I cringed with the knowledge that it would be widely shared to comfort a mostly white audience with the fantasy that racism is on its way out.
Also at issue here is the collective cultural amnesia that leads people to believe all our nation’s many problems began with Trump — and if only we could go back in time, all would suddenly be well! The Ellen video derived its title on EllenTube from a tweet displayed on her show: “This Photo of Ellen & George W. Bush Will Give You Faith in America Again.” Chris Cillizza, in a CNN column, praised Ellen’s moment with W. as “anti-Trumpism in its purest form.” Because Trump’s bread and butter is discord and division, Cillizza argued, anyone who now dares to be divisive — including Democrats — are “unwittingly giving his worldview that much more power.” To pundits like Cillizza, and everyone else celebrating Ellen’s call for unqualified kindness, the supposed antidote to Trumpism is not justice at the expense of “niceness,” or what in politics is often called “civility,” but niceness at the expense of justice.
Ellen is certainly not the only powerful liberal to cozy up with conservatives or benefit from corrupt institutions. (Apparently not every famous person is as principled as Rihanna.) Michelle Obama has also famously defended her friendship with George W. Bush, whom she calls a "beautiful, funny, kind, sweet man.” Last year, speaking with Bush’s daughter Jenna Bush Hager on Today, Obama said, "I'd love if we as a country could get back to the place where we didn't demonize people who disagreed with us.”
One of the great American paradoxes is that, while we live in a country in many ways built on foundational principles of racism and sexism and homophobia, so many Americans remain deeply and profoundly unwilling to identify any individual racists, sexists, or homophobes. As David Roberts wrote at Vox in the wake of the 2016 election, “Systemic discrimination becomes a crime with no criminals.”
Here’s the thing, though: Some people are, in fact, criminals. If not instigators of literal war crimes, there are people all around us, every day, committing smaller but still significant sins against others’ human rights and dignity.
Journalist Jenée Desmond-Harris tweeted that she doesn’t think the Ellen and Bush thing is about class solidarity after all: “I think many people of all classes don’t give a shit about the awful things their friends do and believe, as long as they can have a nice time together.” I agree. And every time someone beloved as a moral crusader and role model — not “just” as a celebrity — advocates for ignoring the damage inflicted by other people’s actions and beliefs for the sake of friendship, that makes it easier for the rest of us to do it too. ●