Others were less impressed. DeGeneres’s Sunday afternoon looked understandably icky to those who admire the comedian for her liberal activism and LGBTQ leadership, and who deplore the one-time commander in chief for marching the country into a couple of endless wars, and advancing anti-gay policies while he was at it.
The initial offense wasn’t really the gross part, though. The defense was.
“When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way I do. I mean be kind to everyone,” DeGeneres told America, which she had apparently decided was due for some sanctimony from a daytime-television personality. She went on to explain that she is also friends with people who wear fur, even though she doesn’t believe in wearing fur.
This argument, to many commentators, was either irksome or downright infuriating. Owning a mink, they protested, is different from orchestrating a historic foreign policy failure punctuated by a secret torture program and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. There exists a sliding scale of badness determining who deserves complete and total cancellation. You can probably hang out with fur person on one end and you absolutely can’t hang out with neo-Nazis at the other. George W. Bush falls somewhere in between.
But more relevant here might be the sliding scale of kindness, or niceness, or civility — three words that the combatants on each side of this fight seem intent on collapsing into one. Giggling with W in the skybox while the Cowboys play down below isn’t the same as exchanging pleasantries with him when you run into each other on the street, and shaking his hand isn’t the same as refraining from throwing a shoe at his head.
And really, none of these things is kindness. What is? Maybe helping him to cross the street when he’s struggling (or to properly put on a poncho) — or, perhaps, helping someone else do something that doesn’t involve sitting in a thousands-dollar suite.
DeGeneres cries “kindness” to explain herself because kindness is her brand. It’s also an awfully clever brand to have. It has the heft of virtue without any of the heaviness that comes with actually being virtuous. What is right, according to this particular code, will almost always align with what is convenient.
DeGeneres is “kind to everyone” because she wants everyone on her show. Little encounters, like the friend date in Texas, help her establish some cross-cultural appeal. Maybe next time a young yodeler goes viral in the heartland, his conservative mother will be more inclined to let him jet out to California to appear on TV. Maybe next time Bush himself goes viral for those creepy dog paintings he does, he’ll show his face, too.
So-called kindness is an excellent lodestar more generally when your goal is to be popular. The most powerful people have the most capacity to do very bad things on a very big scale — so you’re bound to encounter some real horror shows the moment you start moving in privileged circles. Start insulting them for it, and there goes your invitation. Cancel no one, lest someone cancel you.
This phenomenon has been attracting plenty of attention in Washington in recent years, and its apotheosis in Hollywood strips away the only plausible argument the Ellen-y side ever had: In politics, kindness, niceness and civility get things done. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) shouldn’t shout “impeach the motherf---er,” the logic goes, and anyone considering snubbing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over that whole Merrick Garland misunderstanding should shush up. Otherwise, we’ll never pass anything on opioids.
Politicians may sometimes be trading in a currency of politeness we plebeians can’t comprehend, thinking all the while about the benefit of the everyman — or they may be thinking only about recent openings in the Alfalfa Club. Who’s to say? Who’s to say what Ellen DeGeneres is doing? That one’s easier.
DeGeneres did something that makes her the same as the rest of us. She succumbed to the allure of self-benefit, when succumbing meant a higher chance of being liked. It might be harder to blame her, if only she hadn’t responded by saying that she’s better than us.