In recent days Ellen DeGeneres has been making headlines due to sharp criticisms of her being seen with former President George Bush at a football game appearing to be friends. The Bush-Cheney administration 2001-2009 remains heavily controversial, defined by the Iraq War, the domestic war on drugs as well as the Great Recession. Ellen on the other hand is a widely loved media personality known for her generosity and strides in the push for representation and equality in mainstream society.
It has been widely proven that the Iraq War presented some of the most atrocious human rights violations in modern history, namely the torture and abuse from the Abu Ghraib Prison by U.S troops as well as the outright destruction of entire cities. Politicians and public sentiment today largely believe that the Iraq War was a mistake, but as Iraq still grapples with the instability and bloodshed following its destruction, I think we can all agree remorseful sentiment means nothing.
As for Ellen, in the U.S and abroad she has been a major proponent of the LGBQT+ movement, coming out publicly in April 1997 which was highly controversial at the time, but ultimately began shifting the discourse heavily on how members of the LGBQT+ community are accepted in society. In addition to her activism in this field, she has also advocated heavily for humanitarian, conservation and gender-equality causes.
Bush and Ellen are two unlikely figures you would consider as friends, especially considering the Bush administration’s track record as anti-LGBQT+, though Ellen on her show defended her friendship with the former President stating:
“Here’s the thing,” she said. “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 we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.
“But just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them,” she continued. “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone. Doesn’t matter [who].”
This response drew additional criticism, but there were also those who supported Ellen from across the political spectrum stating that not everything needs to be politically polarizing. And yet, several years after the Iraq war, a screaming of frustration and hopelessness persists in my head. The screaming and frustration about how quickly and enthusiastically society is willing to forget about war in the Middle East.
This screaming is not new however, it comes up a lot actually.
It comes up when I think back to fourth grade and my classmate was being praised by my teacher, my class and my friends for writing a letter to George Bush thanking him for his service, and getting a letter from the White House in response, and how everyone thought that was the coolest thing ever, while I silently sat there, confused, thinking everyone else thought what was happening in Iraq was terrible…I was wrong, I was the only brown kid in the room, the only Muslim, not wanting to seem out of place… I joined in the applause, but in my head, I was screaming “Why?!”.
It comes up when a group of acquaintances are talking about going on a mission trip to Israel, and I have to hold my tongue to not be disagreeable, even though an impassioned sea decrying apartheid, neocolonialism and the oppression of Palestinians flows in my veins. If I open my mouth, I will introduce something uncomfortable, and God-forbid we be uncomfortable, because nothing is worse than the violation of human rights than talking about the violation of human rights.
It comes up when I think back to a high school teacher of mine who half-jokingly declared to the class that “The Middle East hates us (Americans)”, and I sat there, perplexed by the notion that a transcontinental region of 411 million people, 26 countries, hundreds of cultures and dozens of religions can share one monolithic view. Clearly frustrated by this I spoke out, my teacher dismissed my frustration as “taking a joke too seriously”, I held my tongue, but years of capped up frustration and sadness drummed inside of me, I wanted to scream that it wasn’t funny.
It comes up when I was taught about the orientalist writer Rudyard Kipling and exposed to his quotes and was expected to believe he was some well-cultured explorer. The only Rudyard Kipling I knew was the one who viewed the brutal imperialism of Africa and Asia as the “White Man’s Burden”, how these societies including Islamic societies were barbaric, to be fetishized, to be viewed as inherently weird and exotic. I was taught this man was a reputable author, I wanted to scream “he is the barbarian, not me!”
It comes up when we witnessed overwhelming support for the Notre Dame Cathedral when it burned, so much public sentiment, so much solidarity for France. It felt like some sort of terrible dream, that a building will have more sympathy and support than the dying children of Iraq, Syria and Yemen ever will. How the only France that people will know is the romantic and luxurious France we see in the movies as the archetype of high-living and the arts, but never will people see the France that hung over the world as an imperial power, divided my ancestral home with arbitrary borders, violently put down dissent in the streets of occupied lands or poisoned the Middle East with a desire of Westernization. How in my ancestral homeland of Lebanon, the beautiful and ancient Arabian traditions are progressively being replaced with what France taught us to be more “proper”. I want to scream that a thobe and arms covered in henna will always be more beautiful than the western white wedding dress, for the white in white dress and whitewashing are actually the same.
The screaming in my head is from years of feeling that my frustrations as a Muslim American are inherently invalid, that I’m “lucky to be here, so don’t complain”, supplemented by a conservative culture that is highly work oriented and opposed to being seen as problematic. Yes, we don’t have to agree on everything, disagreeing on how much taxes Walmart should pay is not the same as disagreeing about whether or not the 460 thousand Iraqis killed during the Iraq War deserve remembrance as fellow human beings. But lately, even this is “too political”.
The Iraq war only officially ended 8 years ago, but to date Iraq is unstable from the turmoil following. So when people tell me, “don’t make everything political” and I see Ellen and Bush sitting together laughing, I am flooded with memories of repressed sadness of being invalidated, and of course deep on the inside a sense of hopelessness swells, and I want to scream.