It’s a trans-partisan habit to honor our preferred politicians as statesmen and patriots, even if they should arguably be tried for war crimes.
Ellen DeGeneres’ friendship with former President George W. Bush, and the backlash she got for it, may be a silly celebrity story, but if it prompts us to examine what we value, our time will not be wasted.
This story found a wide audience because it points to a struggle many ordinary people face. DeGeneres can keep whatever friends she wants. What some folks worry about beneath the surface are their own relationships.
To recap: The comedian and popular talk show host was seen this week with her spouse, Portia de Rossi, enjoying a football game with their friends, George and Laura Bush. You know, friends who just happen to be a former president and first lady of the United States. As one does.
That’s the first point: These people are not like you, unless you are in a position to be invited by the owner of the Dallas Cowboys to watch a game in a luxury box with an American president.
Friendship despite political differences
Tongues wagged and keyboards chattered that her friendship with Bush contradicted her political values. The fact that DeGeneres, a woman married to a woman, would hang around with a president who opposed marriage rights for LGBTQ citizens, seemed inconsistent if not a betrayal.
Others argued, that as a champion of refugees, she might be concerned that her buddy created a great many refugees himself while serving as commander-in-chief.
We are letting them down again: I fought alongside the Kurds. The United States can’t abandon our fierce allies to Turkey.
On Tuesday, DeGeneres addressed the matter during a taping of her show, telling her audience, “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.”
There was bipartisan praise for her message — “Be kind to everyone” — while some critics accused her of fence-sitting.
The sentiment has an enduring appeal and a seeming fairness: Surely mature adults can look past differences of opinion and treat one another with kindness and basic courtesy. It seems a bedrock democratic value; and yet, there are members of my family who no longer speak to each other over their feelings about the current president and the two dominant political parties.
Actions matter, not beliefs
Meanwhile, popular discourse shows no interest in policy or principle, favoring personal vilification instead. The poison seeps into marriages, workplaces and friendships. The sentiment Ellen expressed addresses a personal confusion many of us feel.
The problem, as columnist Mehdi Hasan put it, is the second point: “Bush’s beliefs are irrelevant here; his actions are what matters.”
Just as our celebrity culture deludes many into thinking they share a personal affinity with talk show celebrities, we also tend to cherish powerful figures no matter what destruction they wrought or what crimes they committed.
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In 2013, for instance, comedian Stephen Colbert danced in the office of Henry Kissinger for a video, while the architect of carpet-bombing in Cambodia and numerous crimes against humanity looked on in avuncular bemusement.
We do not hold trials for war crimes; we make charming videos with the perpetrators. We give them civilian medals and honor them as statesmen and patriots. We hug them. This is a trans-partisan habit.
Some regard it as kindness, yet true civility — while it may not police opinions or party affiliation — does require some moral clarity.
If actions matter, we might reconsider whether an administration that willingly killed hundreds of thousands, presented false evidence to justify war and occupation, and defended torture and domestic surveillance after covering them up is entitled to public esteem.
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