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 being actually kind.
This is what an Ellen DeGeneres is really getting at when she brags about being friends with people 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.