The politics of celebrity absolutions

Comedian and daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was recently seated next to former president George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game in the special luxury box owned by wealthy owner of the team Jerry Jones. She was clearly pleased to be with Bush and was shown laughing and generally having a good time with him. When she was criticized for this, she gave the following apologia on her show as an example of how we should all get along with people with whom we might disagree.

“I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different, and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different. … 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.”

Sarah Jones says that the kind of kindness that DeGeneres is describing is misplaced here and that there s a world of difference between being kind to someone who is ‘different’ and being kind to a person who deliberately caused such a huge amount of suffering and seems utterly callous about it.

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.

Jones says Bush is someone who should be shunned, not welcomed back into the civilized fold.

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.

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.

Of course, DeGeneres can’t be blamed if her seat just happened to be next to Bush. She should not be expected to dump a drink on him or punch him on the nose. But one can signal one’s disapproval of someone that one is thrust into the company of without being belligerent. What she is being criticized for is her assumption that her kind of kindness means overlooking someone’s truly appalling crimes, just because those crimes happen to be the kind that is protected by the ruling class because th perpetrator is one of them. As Jones says, it is the grossest form of class solidarity.

The blogger Mieka emphasized how this episode displays the instinct of the wealthy class is to stick together and protect each other.

On Sunday, Ellen Degeneres had box tickets to a Dallas Cowboys game where she was photographed having a laugh with her friend George W. Bush. It raised a few eyebrows, so yesterday, Ellen did a segment of her show explaining how she and Dubya’s friendship is a beautiful thing that has the power to unite a divided nation. You see, we just don’t know George like Ellen does. To many Americans, George is an unprosecuted (alleged) war criminal who used his position as president of the United States to start wars based lies, worked to restrict the rights of the LGBTQ community, “doesn’t care about black people” (RIP 2006 Kanye West), funneled government funds to faith-based organizations, and is a really shitty painter. But to Ellen he’s just a harmless old dude with a folksy accent who’s in the same tax bracket and loves wearing sneakers as much as she does. No wonder they’re friends!

When celebrities with huge media platforms boast about their friendship with other public figures and give them this kind of public absolution for their awful deeds, it is no longer a private act. It becomes a political statement and it is wholly appropriate to criticize them for it.


  1. says

    There’s a huge difference between being “not rude” and “friendly.” When I consider some person a piece of trash, I usually try to be not rude and at least reasonably polite towards them (unless they provoke me). But I won’t be friendly towards them.

  2. says

    She should change her name to Molly Coddle, considering her history with Kevin Hart and now Bush.

    She and other white gays and lesbians are why I mistrust them all. Too many see themselves as “part of the system” and turn their backs on people and values they used to embrace. I completely reject the rainbow flag now because of people like her. They say “don’t be divisive” to others while they actively choose segregation.

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