I’ve been pretty snide towards Ellen DeGeneres whenever I’ve mentioned her in the near-two years I’ve been contributing to Craccum. She’s not an easy target – it’s very hard for paid commentators, from journalists to blue-checked Twitter talking heads, to get a bead on her. She’s just the right kind of snarky and oblivious, and her PR machine is considered one of the best in the industry because of that: just mocking enough to get a playful rise out of the viewer, and just insincere enough to let them know that it’s all just a game. She’s one of the best in the business, I’ll give her that.
But within the last week, even Ellen DeGeneres hasn’t been able to shake off the backlash to the revelation that she and Portia are besties with George W. Bush. You know – the guy who barred her from getting married, and on a more salient note, is a war criminal responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. You know, the guy who created Guantamo fucking Bay, and drone bombed hospitals. But he’s a painter now. Right? Like, what? It’s been a pretty fascinating story to watch unfold, as it is the first time within memory that she’s faced legitimate criticism for behind the scenes actions, and more to the point, legitimate criticism that hasn’t disappeared. This sort of stuff would have only been isolated to Twitter circles, or the gossip from Enty or Foxella. Typically, you’d see this stuff talked about with the same hushed tones in which all discussions of her documented abusive behaviour towards staff and crew is talked about. But not this time – she even had to dedicate a segment on the show to break it all down, which is what I’m really interested in talking about.
In this segment, Ellen dug in hard: you can have friends of all different creeds, and you are a hater if you don’t. She acknowledges that Bush has ‘different beliefs’, but that kindness should be the utmost goal of all our interactions, and we should be able to look past those beliefs and find the person underneath. She even cited a tweet saying that all this gave him ‘hope for humanity’. True to her brand of uncritical kindness, she championed acceptance above having morals. As if being nice to a war criminal is a radical statement, lol. And naturally, the media industry ate this up, with rare exceptions. Reese Witherspoon gushing on Instagram, CNN giving her praise, and even Fox News singing her name. When you have Fox News forgetting that they called you Ellen DeGenerate for 25 years, the rational person might have stepped back and considered things.
And that’s where the problem lies. Trying to encapsulate this problem within 1200 words is an enormous task, but I’ll try. (I mean, I can do it in two: class unity) The discussion being fostered by Ellen is one of complete and utter detachment, on a few levels. Most obviously, it is a problem of being so wealthy, that you only ever need to view things on a sliding scale of nice/not nice – if you can afford to remove yourself from any and all issues in the world, the problem of respectability becomes your only problem, and the metric by which you judge others. When you are concerned with kindness beyond any measure of critical thinking, you do the exact opposite of the plea to ‘find the person underneath’ – you strip them of the motivations and beliefs that make them who they are. You strip them of their fundamental characteristics in order to allow yourself to not make a choice, because it is simply convenient to do so. In the end, empathy becomes a gift to be doled out on the matters of politeness – decided by whether they invited you to prime seats at a football game, not whether the person proudly covered up soldiers raping Iraqi civillians at gunpoint.
What many people are doing, unfortunately, is drawing a line of equivalency between this scenario and far more mundane situations – rehabilitating the public image of a war criminal is not the same as you looking past someone for, say, eating meat when you are personally a vegan. Accepting differences in moral standards has a use-by date – it expires around the same time you become aware of the person gladly leaving New Orleans to die. It’s not the same as looking past someone for making The Office their personality, though I would agree that those people are only slightly less evil than George W. Bush.
Forgive the serious monologuing. I thought I’d be able to be a bit funnier with all this – if you want, conjure a mental image of her doing the Ellen dances at Guantanamo, with ‘I Gotta Feeling’ playing in the background. Maybe she’s grooving down the aisles of prisoners stripped naked and leashed to the wall, doing the hustle with one lucky Montana mum of four who will speak of this moment for the rest of her life. And I mean, this is not all about Ellen. Far from it. This sort of faux-empathy wasn’t born out of a vacuum – it’s a forgiveness of the past, rewriting themselves out of the events that led up to this bland dystopia we find ourselves in today. The televised brunches with Obama are no different, who extended most of the policies Bush put into place. All this betrays the handwringing towards Trump from those of her ilk – the problem with Trump is revealed to be a stylistic matter, an issue of personal aesthetics and how he presents his politics, not the politics themselves. She’s proud of the fact that she will never have him on her show, but it is a hollow claim. He’s an abhorrent stain on the Earth, but if you’re willing to share nachos with the other guy, one who authorised the torture behind the famous ‘Hooded Man’ photo – the one where the hooded detainee is being electrocuted with his arms outspread – then how are you really opposed to the messages presented by Trump? Are you really opposed to Building That Wall! if you’re texting ‘wyd?’ to the man who created ICE? Are you really an LGBT icon if you’re willing to eat with Bush after eating bush?
I’m undecided as to what extent this obliviousness is intentional, to what level it is complacency or callousness. But I think it is a meaningless discussion to have, because the end results are the same, when considering someone with as much media influence and cultural prestige as Ellen DeGeneres. In the end, Ellen’s attempted rehabilitation of George W. Bush presents a stark reality for her trademarked kindness; if you’re willing to Live, Laugh, Love with the worst of them, all in the name of kindness, then you’re probably not a kind person.
However, if you were to talk to former staff members, ones still bound by NDAs about Ellen’s notoriously abusive behaviour on set, they’d probably say they aren’t all that surprised by that.