Ellen DeGeneres sitting and yucking it up with George W. Bush in the owner’s suite of an NFL game—including the Dallas Cowboys, owned by Jerry Jones—may be the perfect metaphor for the U.S. in 2019.
While DeGeneres as a gay woman has become a key public figure in the broader fight for equity, she ultimately has attained something, like Oprah, that keeps her well above the consequences of inequity in the U.S.—enormous wealth and celebrity.
Laughing in the rarified air of the owner’s suite, DeGeneres and Bush are literally well above the actual game in which grown men bash each other senseless for the entertainment and enormous profit of others.
In this contemporary colosseum, we should be reminded that DeGeneres and Bush are merely two actors in an exclusive club of wealth and fame.
DeGeneres has doubled-down after some have criticized her being very publicly chummy with the former president, who is also good pals with Michelle Obama. Fans of DeGeneres have praised her for her message of love and her argument that we can and should love each other even if—and maybe especially if—we have different beliefs.
But here is the problem. If this were about beliefs—if DeGeneres were Muslim and Bush, Christian, and they were showing how people of different faiths can and should love each other—then DeGeneres would be entirely justified.
This, however, is not about beliefs.
W. Bush for decades was a key leader of the Republican Party, which enacted policy and laws as well as advocated for policy and laws that are anti-gay, anti-woman, pro-mass incarceration, pro-gun, etc.
And here is the crucial point: These laws are inherently inequitable; they deny life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Additionally, these laws and policies negatively impact marginalized and impoverished Americans disproportionately.
Yes, Ellen has faced inequity as a women and for being gay, but on balance, her wealth and celebrity have greatly mollified those consequences; she—and W. Bush—is but a far-removed observer of this world that is quite real for the rest of us.
For example, as Republicans move the U.S. toward greatly restricting and even banning abortion, we must recognize that wealthy women will never be denied excellent health care, excellent birth control, and access to safe abortions.
These restrictive and harmful laws will mostly negatively impact marginalized and impoverished American women.
DeGeneres and Bush see politics and belief, then, as just a game—not really all that different than the NFL contest where they sat as far as possible away from the violence.
Republican or Democrat? Cowboy or Packer? What’s the diff, eh?
Ultimately, DeGeneres has no obligations, however, to live her life any other way than the way she wants, including keeping and fostering her connectedness to the world of enormous wealth and celebrity. She has reminded us over and over that she is friends with Aaron Rogers (quarterback of the Packers, who were playing the Cowboys as she lounged with W.)—and of course, with Justin Bieber.
Using her enormous bully pulpit, DeGeneres goes beyond living her life, often, and advocates for the rest of us to live our lives a certain way; in this case, she is preaching a sort of universal and unconditional love.
How, then, can DeGeneres be wrong?
At one level, DeGeneres’s message approaches respectability politics, at least to the point that many people supporting her seem to think she is calling for civility among political rivals. Respectability politics is often used to deflect from the central issue, as was the case with Colin Kaepernick.
Calls for civility also work as a shield for those with power and privilege. Just as the rich and famous often live above the consequences of laws and social norms, people with power and wealth have expectations for others that they themselves never follow.
Respect authority. Watch your tone.
There is nothing civil about declaring homosexuality a sin; there is nothing civil about calling abortion murder.
On another level, DeGeneres simply misunderstands or at least oversimplifies love. Instead, I recommend James Baldwin’s admonitions about love:
In order to achieve freedom of this sort, Baldwin contended, we must love one another. His understanding of love was deep and complex, and the love he prescribed was difficult and often unsettling. To love someone, he explained, is to deny them “spiritual and social ease,” which “hard as if may sound,” is “the most important thing that one human being can do for another.” Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives. “Love takes off the masks,” Baldwin declared, “that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” (From The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola, p. 163, quoting from Baldwin’s “Down at the Cross,” pp. 335, 341)
I am not saying DeGeneres should be uncivil to W. Bush, but I am saying that what someone of her stature and influence could do is to love Bush in such a way that he feels spiritual and social discomfort, that is he is forced to take off the masks of his corrupt political ideologies.
That Bush accepts responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
As Baldwin implored throughout his career, it is a terrible delusion that the rich and famous believe they are above it all because there is simply nothing that doesn’t impact each and everyone one of us even as some seem to be having a great time while, you know, Rome is burning.