What Ellen Should Learn from Oscar
Comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was recently captured sitting with former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game. This was, understandably, seen by many on social media as either tacit approval of the Commander in Chief under whose Presidency the homophobic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule in the military was maintained, or as ignorance of that and Bush’s many other abuses of power and repressive policies. As an openly gay woman in a very public position, many, including her supporters, wanted answers. Ellen’s response was that we should all be able to be “friends with people we don’t agree with” and that we should “be kind to everybody”. On the face of it these seem like noble answers to the pernicious divisions that plague global society today. Unfortunately, as many pointed out, shaking hands with Pontius Pilate doesn’t wash your hands as well. George W. Bush is a man who supported the nomination of accused sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (to name another of his questionable choices around sexual politics) so as someone who has made a show — in a literal sense — out of hearing the stories of marginalised people, Ellen’s chummyness with the former President without at least taking him to task on this issue seems hypocritical. The trouble is, this is not the first time.
Ellen has, depending on how you view it, either ‘shown her cards’ or revealed a staggering ignorance of people’s actions and intentions before, like when she donated a gold plated baby carriage, complete with chandelier, to Donald and Melania Trump when Barron was born. Many critics have viewed this as her inhabiting the Celebrity Bubble that, despite her regular interactions with people unable to pay for basic living costs on her show, has rendered her clueless as to the real issues facing many Americans today. This inconsistency of character came as a surprise to many, “a gay woman supporting a President with a poor track record of supporting LGBQT rights?”, but the function of her show and her many acts of charity is in itself a form of maintaining the current conditions that punish women, minorities and the LGBQT community. To understand why, she could learn from another gay comic, Oscar Wilde.
In his 1891 essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ Wilde writes that when people “find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty … it is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this … and with admirable though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.” Wilde’s argument is that though charity is undoubtedly a good thing it makes no effort to change the conditions that make it necessary. As Wilde says: “The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” When Ellen presents her guest with an oversized cheque she is undoubtedly changing, and in some cases even saving, that person’s life but there will always be more people in need. There will be another hurricane that will require a relief fund, there will be more sick children whose families can’t afford their healthcare, there will always be another person who doesn’t have enough. A cynic might say that this is ideal for Ellen, as this sort of emotional shampoo is a clear ratings winner or even that what she is doing is the best thing as this is just life, these material conditions cannot be changed. Yet there is clearly a genuine desire to help from Ellen and her team but, again, as Wilde points out “The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it … [in this situation] the people who do the most harm are the people who try to do the most good”. Far from championing the emancipation of people from whatever cultural or societal ills keep them stuck in poverty, or subject to descriminatory business practices, or marginalised by racist, homophobic and sexist rhetoric and policy, Wilde notes that Ellen’s brand of largesse “degrades and demoralizes”. Instead of using her wealth, privilege and platform to fight for and fund systemic change, especially regarding gay rights, by campaigning for constitutional recognition and legal rights for the LGBTQ community, calling for a raise of the minimum wage, or supporting nationalised healthcare (a policy that overwhelmingly benefits the gay community), Ellen chooses to treat the symptoms not cure the disease.
This is why it should be no surprise that Ellen sits so comfortably alongside Bush. I have no doubt that the man who sanctioned Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib has done his fair share of charity work but as the man most well placed to enact positive social change that should nullify the need for it, he did nothing. In this way, Ellen has always belonged alongside him. Ellen’s charity is proof she does not wish for actual change, as that may result in her not receiving the charity of good tickets to a Cowboy’s game.