Ellen DeGeneres is an inspiring figure.
There are few people as successful as she is who deserve success as much as she does. Her talent and charm are perhaps only matched by the bravery she demonstrated in coming out as a gay woman at a time when that seemed likely to tank her career—and did, in fact, derailed it considerably. Her popularity as a public figure is both a testament to how far our culture has progressed in a relatively short time and undoubtedly a contributing factor in that progress.
Is it any wonder then that, when Ellen came under attack for just being pleasant to a fellow human being, people practically fell over each other to defend and support her? Since issuing her response on Tuesday, she's been hailed as an icon of civility and a too-rare source of hope for the future of our divided nation. Maybe she is those things, and as a general rule, she deserves our support—but she is also absolutely wrong about George W. Bush. Namely, she's ignoring the man's true legacy.
"I'm friends with George Bush. In fact, 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 that we've forgotten that that's okay that we're all different."
Who could argue with that? Differences of belief and opinion are not just a part of friendship; for some people they're the whole basis. And as a morning talk show host, Ellen's job is pretty much to be friends with everyone. While she makes no secret about being generally progressive, she treads lightly when it comes to politics—which is not just smart, but probably necessary for national sanity. Instead of diving into that mess, she thrives in all things cute, silly, and inoffensive.
Her show specializes in harmless pranks, surprises, adorable animals, and child prodigies who make us all feel stupid. It's a world of low-stakes fun, and it's not hard to see how the 2019 version of George W. Bush fits into that world. He's a goofy old man who hasn't been culturally relevant in a decade, and he spends his retirement creating charmingly amateurish paintings of pets, world leaders, and himself bathing. He isn't abrasive and belligerent like Trump. He actually seems pretty humble and sweet, socially.
If I were to meet him without context, I'm sure I would want to be his friend, too, regardless of his personal beliefs. Personal beliefs are a personal matter, and if it were only a matter of beliefs—or even of the social agenda Bush promoted when he was president: pushing for a federal amendment to outlaw gay marriage—then it would be up to each individual to forgive and accept him or not.
This seems to be the frame that Ellen was working from when she paired herself with Bush as "a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president." And in that respect, she no doubt has a lot of practice with forgiveness. After all, 15 years ago, 60% of the country opposed gay marriage, and today more than 60% approve. Should we hold a grudge against that 30% that have changed their minds?
More importantly, should we bother to rehash old issues when a supreme court ruling has rendered them moot? Gay marriage is legal in all 50 states! Portia and Ellen are as married as anyone else. If they don't want to hold onto old resentments over the fight to get there, who are we to tell them otherwise? The problem is: George W. Bush's legacy extends much further than domestic policy. He was once the most powerful man on earth, and the way he wielded that power continues to shape the world for the worse.
George W. Bush is a war criminal.
I'll leave aside waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, and Abu Ghraib, because there is far too much to talk about in one article, and none of those topics are as cut and dry as the Iraq War.
George W. Bush wanted to go to war with Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was an evil man, and Bush had inherited a grudge from his father—along with an oil lust from his Vice President. But the world has no shortage of evil men, so he needed a stronger justification to send the country into a massive war.
In that respect, 9/11 justified the inevitable. It got the whole country so fired up for a fight that there was enough energy for more than one. So George W. Bush and his administration lied. They drew vague, imaginary connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, then they manufactured evidence of a weapons program that was even more of a fantasy. They manipulated the media, coerced false testimony, ignored voices of reason, and lied, and lied.
They got the country on board through any means necessary, and thrust us into a multi-trillion-dollar war without a plan for the fallout. As a result of that war, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have died, millions have been driven from their homes, the entire region has been destabilized, and ISIS formed and flourished in the vacuum of power. We are living in the world that George W. Bush's war created, and we are far worse for it, regardless of his "beliefs."
Is it even possible for someone with such a toxic legacy to earn our forgiveness? Someone who has caused so much misery and turmoil? We may never know… because George W. Bush has never apologized. Maybe all that pain he caused was the result of some mistaken beliefs on his part. Maybe his beliefs have evolved, and he regrets what he did. As of yet, he's given us no reason to suspect that he sees anything in his legacy that would require an apology. It seems unlikely that he will ever give the world that opportunity to forgive him, yet so many of us are already eager to forget what he's done. Will we do the same for Trump and his child concentration camps in another decade?
In a just world, we would leave aside any question of beliefs and put George W. Bush on trial for his crimes. But we don't live in a just world. We live in a world where powerful men rarely face real consequences for their crimes.
Luckily, there is a model for responding to this kind of injustice. if there's one lesson we can draw from the #metoo movement (apart from the basic reality of pervasive sexual assault…), it's that we don't have to wait around for a justice system that isn't on our side. The court of public opinion is fickle and dangerous, but sometimes it's the only tool we have to punish people who are otherwise untouchable. George W. Bush will never be tried at the Hague. The least we can do is shun and shame him. The least we can do is remember.
In her response, Ellen admonishes us to "be kind to everyone'' and accuses the world of forgetting that difference is okay. Has she truly forgotten that war crimes are not?