Earlier this week, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres gave a monologue justifying the time she spent with George W. Bush at a football game. In response to some outrage and annoyance over their friendly association, DeGeneres said a lot of very nice, very hollow words about disagreements not ruining friendships. All of this was fit for your hypothetical Republican or hawkish friend or neighbor, and none of it applied to a man who started two wars abroad, and built a strong foundation for spying and militarization at home.
You have to wonder what DeGeneres and Bush talked about. The answer is probably nothing. DeGeneres is obviously amusing, and Bush has that goofy, casual faux cowboy thing. Light banter, sports talk, being rich and comfortable. It is unlikely that they discussed Bush backing a constitutional amendment to prevent DeGeneres from being able to ever marry her now-wife. It’s even more unlikely that they discussed the 500,000 or so deaths for which Bush is responsible.
Republicans, fetishists for civility above all things, and anyone else obsessed with the idea of "cancel culture" run amok are suddenly DeGeneres’ biggest backers. Liberals and leftists were more inclined to cringe at DeGeneres’ words, and a social squabble is brewing. Perhaps a few right-wing-adjacent people will correctly notice that Ellen would not have faced a backlash if she had palled around with Barack Obama, the man who set exciting new precedent in the field of perpetual drone warfare and assassinations of Americans (and others) without trial or charge.
Going through life only speaking to people with whom you agree politically is a bad idea, and a more difficult one than people complaining about various bubbles remember. However, there is a categorical difference between a former US president and just about everyone else on the planet. DeGeneres saying, "We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK" sounds good. However, being a terrible, warmongering president is different than the average person, and it is not okay.
Speaking to Bush doesn’t doom you to hell – being in his vicinity could be irresistibly interesting. But DeGeneres’ lovely bullshit confirmed that some 22 years after wounding her own career by bravely coming out of the closet, she is now Middle America’s favorite nice woman.
Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair, to much liberal annoyance. Stephen Colbert, who savaged President Bush to his face at a legendary White House Press Correspondents Dinner, later palled around with Henry Kissinger on his Colbert Report. Talk Show hosts are an ancient breed of mainstream that in the face of screaming cable news and a tweeting president seems warm and fuzzy and safe. Perhaps it is safe, for those of us always free to marry, or not to be bombed.. It’s just easier to be like Ellen, Fallon, and Colbert – not better, not braver, not more enlightened. Just easier.
We’ve finally decided to pretend we understand that the war in Iraq was a monstrous thing. Rhetorically, sure, we’re almost all on team "oops." But nobody who backed the war has suffered the slightest consequences. What if a vote for the war meant you weren’t the Democratic nominee for president? What if the punishment for bloodshed was at the very least a cold shoulder and fewer party invitations?
President Trump’s exhausting pettiness as national policy isn’t the ideal. His authoritarianism is simply more naked and less wonkish than what we’re used to. Americans are understandably exhausted by the politicization of everything, but the solution is not to pretend that politics is something other than it is, or that the death and misery caused by a politician is just a difference of opinion.
Politicians have much more power than the average person, why act as if their
actions are nothing more than a wrongly cast ballot? Why grant them murderous
power, then act as if they just had some misguided views once? Why give them
everything that easily? Why are Americans unable to back the smallest
consequences for the deaths of hundreds of thousands?
People change. Talking to people you dislike or who are terribly mistaken, or have blood on their hands can be productive, fascinating, or infuriating. But George W. Bush is not the same as your Republican grandfather, unless he is your Republican grandfather. Talk to him, sure. Don’t pretend that he’s just another ingredient in America’s melting pot.
Only a handful of people ever grasp that the small, bureaucratic parts they play in war or surveillance count as a moral failing. Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg understood it, and risked his freedom for it. Chelsea Manning has sacrificed hers. Edward Snowden left his home, perhaps permanently, in order to try to save it from the war-fueled surveillance state. The late Congressman Walter Jones went from being the architect of the embarrassing "freedom fries" name change on the cusp of the invasion of Iraq to a man permanently guilty about his part in a terrible wrong – as he should have been.
This is not through a desire to see Jones (or anyone else) suffer. His guilt spoke to his character. He was a good enough man to realize that he couldn’t fix what he had helped break, but that it was an obligation to try to alleviate some of that subsequent suffering.
Republicans are the most likely to complain about a lack of accountability – a society that involves too much coddling. They also seem the most ready to be indignant that someone might be rude or insulting towards the formerly most powerful man in the world.
DeGeneres is right that the world needs more kindness, more conversation – that shunning will not solve every social ill. Let’s not start by pretending a warmongering president is the same as everyone else.
Lucy Steigerwald is an editor and journalist based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in the New Republic, Reason, the Daily Beast, and other publications. Follow her on twitter @lucystag.