The Politics of Apathy
Far-right rhetoric and legislation is slowly becoming more publicly palatable, whilst challenges are being shaped as an infringement on the expression of ideas. Ellen’s reasoning that her friendship with George W. Bush is nothing more than “being friends with someone that doesn’t share the same beliefs that she does” is evidence of how the gravity of political ideology is being undermined.
By now I am sure many of us have seen the photo of comedian Ellen DeGeneres sat beside former president George W. Bush laughing and joking at an American football match. Understandably the photo drew accusations of hypocrisy given Bush’s record on gay rights. He actually called for a constitutional amendment to make gay marriage illegal in 2004. Given DeGeneres status as a self proclaimed liberal and something of a pillar in the gay community, her affinity to Bush seemed odd. What was perhaps worse was her statement in response that came later on her show. The segment entitled This Photo of Ellen & George W. Bush Will Give You Faith in America Again set the tone before she even began to speak. She went on to give the classic spiel about the importance of kindness and tolerance of other people’s views. She peddled the ever vapid idea that if we could all just respect each other’s views, maybe things would get better. There was even a comedic flavour as she spoke of her friendships with the most reprehensible people of all, those who are already playing Christmas songs. As jovial as it may be to de-contextualise Bush’s actions, Christmas songs were not culpable for the death of around half a million people.
The rise of the far-right across the west has in part been facilitated by beliefs that would ordinarily be acknowledged as unacceptable, being given a platform under the guise of free speech. As stated by Afua Hirsch on series 3 episode 2 of Frankie Boyle’s New World Order: “I think we’ve got to a really dangerous position now where if someone like me whose anti-racist and anti-racism is in a debate there’s this need to put me on against a racist”. This statement is telling because it highlights the climate we are in. In which any opinion is deemed equal to the opposite by default in the name of objectiveness. This phenomena was recently compounded when the BBC chose to censor presenter Naga Munchetty irrefutable pronouncement that Donald Trump’s comments telling four U.S. congresswomen to “go back to where they were from” were embedded in racism. As pointing out that racist comments are racist apparently breaches their rules about impartiality. This centrist myth that all ideas deserve to have equal standing ignores the reality that as society moves forward we collectively decide that certain things are either right or wrong. We don’t look back at supporters of apartheid or segregation as people we had a “friendly disagreement” with and we don’t indulge such sentiments now.
Like Degeneres, another celebrity who has recently faced criticism for their alignments is Demi Lovato. Last month the singer and former Disney star was criticised by fans over a trip to Israel for which she was reportedly paid $150’000 in exchange for social media posts. When criticised by disappointed fans for venturing to Israel amidst their longstanding and world renowned conflict with Palestine, Lovato responded by venting her frustrations that her only intention was to embark on a spiritual experience as someone of Christian and Jewish heritage. In fairness this is probably true, and personally I think it unlikely that Demi Lovato specifically supports the Israeli regime. In the same way I doubt Ellen DeGeneres specifically supports the Iraq war. The danger lies in their flippancy when presented with concrete reasons their affinity is problematic. Whilst arguing with detractors in her Instagram comments Lovato posted “I don’t have an opinion on Middle Eastern conflicts nor is it my place to have one being an American singer and you’re asking me to choose a side?”. By which metric as a Cameroonian photographer, I would not be able to pick a side in the Holocaust, because I’m not Jewish.
Like Ellen, being personally removed from a conflict like the Iraq war or the Israeli regime allows Lovato to absolve herself of any ideological reflection. Some might argue that privately this is fine. The difference is that celebrity affords people a level of influence which when used to reduce global crises to a mere difference of opinion, de-contextualises the reality of fatal conflicts. In Lovato’s case the role of influence is ever more palpable, as without it she would surely not have been paid such a sum of money to go on the trip. We only have to look at the chronology of Donald Trump’s presidency to see the human cost of decontextualised rhetoric. In 2017 he assessed the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as having “fine people on both sides”. Attesting that white-nationalists had as much of an ideological standing as people who are against white nationalism. Then in 2019 a gun man in El Paso, Texas gunned down 22 people after posting a manifesto that citing Trump’s policies and rhetoric targeting non-white migrants.
Whilst going through school learning about some of history’s worst atrocities I wondered what I imagine most children and young people did: why didn’t anyone say or do anything? Whether it be the holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, apartheid, segregation or any of the political regimes that have been birthed by fascism, the end product always seemed something totally impermissible when looking back. As an adult the role of apathy bridges the gap in understanding why history repeats itself. We currently live in the age of information whereby social media and widespread education mean ignorance to social issues is a choice. This may seem like a chore but it is actually the privilege of having all the necessary information to decide to be on the right side of history. For those who want to occupy the public sphere, particularly in proximity to contentious regimes or figures, it is time to pick a side.
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