A little over a year ago, I wrote an article for this publication called, “The Liberal Rehabilitation of George W. Bush Is Complete,” and so it’s my regrettable duty to inform Ellen DeGeneres that her palling around with George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game Sunday—and her subsequent sanctimonious defense of such as a gesture of benevolent friendship meant to heal our fractured, angry nation—is too late. Michelle Obama’s Werther’s Original has melted away, and there’s nothing left but dry mouths and hacks.

It would be easy to get angry at Ellen’s hollow gesture of comity, the post-relevant liberal trailblazer sharing her nachos with America’s most prominent living homophobe, warmonger and torturer, the man who presided over what remains the greatest orgy of murderous violence in this not-as-young-as-it-used-to-be century, the heckuva-job glad-hander who sleepwalked through the deaths of perhaps 1,800 people—many of them, horrifically, by drowning—in one of the most terrible natural disasters in American history, a virulent racist who defeated another sainted American cretin, John McCain, in a South Carolina primary by accusing him of miscegenation.

But what is American public life, and especially American political liberalism, if not a perpetual Operation Paperclip—the post-war intelligence operation to smuggle useful Nazis into America so they could build us weapons against the next, bigger threat? The periods of moral convalescence vary, but the next looming national catastrophe always appears on the horizon, and the former persona non grata, who has bided his or her time by doing something respectable like sucking salaries out of think tanks or semi-retiring in laconic politeness to a family compound, slink back at the first sign the new vulgarities are even more outré and intolerable than his or her own vulgar outrages.

People will tell you—in the case of Ellen and George—that it is primarily an element of ruling class solidarity, that the millionaires and billionaires will always have more in common with each other than with you. There is certainly some truth there, but how then to explain the you-go-girl cheering of so many fans of Michelle Obama, or Ellen? It cannot be simply a matter of that old American pathology, personally misidentifying with people vastly richer than oneself through a form of aspirational Stockholm syndrome.

Nor is it a symptom of America’s evangelical morality, with its fundamental belief in the power and ubiquity of personal redemption. We all know that there is no one meaner and more unforgiving than someone who believes they’ve been forgiven for their trespasses and redeemed for their sins, including the ones they haven’t gotten around to committing just yet.

But the more fundamental problem is that Americans are too nice. That may seem like a paradox, since we are a country that blithely bombs the world and then weeps with self-pity and affronted dignity when the little people we just stomped on fail to forgive us for tearing out their fingernails. In fact, our niceness is itself a symptom of the moral obliviousness that permits us to enact atrocities in the first place. Niceness is not friendliness, not hospitality, not charity and not goodness. Niceness is the blank grin on the face of the psychopath: it is the public enactment of all the forms of love and kindness without the troublesome burden of loving anyone or treating people with kindness.

This is what an Ellen DeGeneres is really getting at when she brags about being friends with those who have “different beliefs.” It is not a matter of actual emotional attachment to any system of values, and it’s certainly not a matter of transcending minor political squabbles to form some approximation of a community. We are all friends with people who have different beliefs. It is quite literally nothing to brag about. For all the now-clichéd talk of America sorting itself ever more by affect and affinity group, pretty much every social person has friends with beliefs that differ—in ways large and small—radically from their own.

Rather, she is saying that it is more personally and professionally convenient just to be nice to whatever person happens to be in the same grandstand for the same spectacle of large men grievously injuring each other. It is not that there are disparate values to be bridged in order to form a diverse and tolerant society. Instead, it is hankering after the ease of a society in which there is no necessity to form a core of values beyond the practical calculation of personal and social advantage.

In 2003, not long after George W. Bush declared “major combat operations” to be over in Iraq, American soldiers kidnapped and detained an Iraqi woman not much older than Ellen DeGeneres. They took her from Samarra to Tikrit, where they forced her to stir human shit, which they set on fire with lighter fluid. When she told them she could stir no longer, a “sergeant came up to [her] and whispered in [her] ear, ‘If you don’t, I will tell one of the soldiers to fuck you.’”

Well, that is indeed a regrettable episode, but I’m sure everyone learned a valuable lesson, and it is certainly not—16 years later—a reason to be rude to the guy responsible.

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