Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Chris Hayes and Dead Heroes

One of the tacit rules within journalism is that the commentator should comment on the news but not become part of the story.  But Chris Hayes, pundit in residence at MSNBC, recently became the news itself after his stupendously tone-deaf rendering of his musings about what constitutes a hero, and this on Memorial Day weekend:
The interesting and difficult thing for me, with my own kind of pacifist sympathies, was to go back and think about Memorial Day in the context in which memorialization of the war dead was also a statement about the justice and rightness of the cause.  It is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the word hero?  Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word hero?  I feel uncomfortable with the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.  And I obviously don't want to desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that has fallen.  Obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is tremendous heroism.  You know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers, things like that.  But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that's problematic, but maybe I'm wrong about that. [emphasis mine]
But lest we linger exclusively on Hayes in this blithering insouciance, other members of his panel chimed in as well.  John McWhorter agreed that words like ‘hero’ can be unconsciously employed as value-laden terms, as “argumentation strategies in themselves, often without wanting to be.”  Michelle Goldberg said, “They're also a little bit empty, because there are people who are genuine heroes but the implication is that death is what makes you a hero, as opposed to any affirmative act or any moral act.”  Their comments demand that the public (at least those who count) maintain a sharp distinction between those who ‘support the troops’ and those who support the mission.

This clueless dithering about the nature of the sacrifices of fallen soldiers (I use here the generic term, referring to all members of the five combat services) is clearly a deliberate allusion that these self-professed gurus, like so many others of their ilk, drift above the common sentiment of a public that has not thought out these weighty ideas to the extent of these anointed interlocutors.  Surely Hayes does not expect us to believe that comments such as this are tossed out ad lib?

Ironically, Chris Hayes has received far more attention as a result of his remarks than he could ever expect on this backwater channel that persists in pretending that it has a viable viewership.

At a basic level, he is unaccountably confused about definitions in the specific and the general.  A hero, he muses, is only one who has performed a feat or feats beyond the call of duty under great risk and adversity.  Merely dying in the service of one’s country and his fellow soldiers seems to him and his cohort as insufficiently noteworthy.  The idea that the soldier places his life at risk by answering the call of his country (they are all volunteers after all, more to the point) is inescapably mundane, and just death or severe injury without a citation (accompanying a Bronze Star at the least) is just part of the game.  Skipping over the untold unsung heroes, Hayes holds that a social understanding of a hero in a general sense is simply not to be considered, that soldiers are of equal merit to civilians, like Hayes for example, whose greatest stress lay in worrying how to pay off that Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Brown on the salary of an adjunct ‘professor’ of English.

More importantly, if we grant the honorific title of hero to dead soldiers, that gets in the way of the Sophisticati holding forth on ideas about a justification for more war.  The dead and their families, and how society views their loss, should not be an element of that discussion.

Hayes soon realised, or someone told him, that he had stepped over the line.  By the next day, he issued an apology:
As many have rightly pointed out, it's very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots.  Of course, that is true of the overwhelming majority of our nation's citizens as a whole.  One of the points made during Sunday's show was just how removed most Americans are from the wars we fight, how small a percentage of our population is asked to shoulder the entire burden and how easy it becomes to never read the names of those who are wounded and fight and die, to not ask questions about the direction of our strategy in Afghanistan, and to assuage our own collective guilt about this disconnect with a pro-forma ritual that we observe briefly before returning to our barbecues.
But in seeking to discuss the civilian-military divide and the social distance between those who fight and those who don't, I ended up reinforcing it, conforming to a stereotype of a removed pundit whose views are not anchored in the very real and very wrenching experience of this long decade of war.  And for that I am truly sorry.
So:  It’s not just me, but the “overwhelming majority of our nation’s citizens as a whole”, who are removed from shouldering the burdens of the wars we (we?) fight.  We should feel guilty because we just don’t know, aren’t expected to know, about those who shoulder the burden.  I am “truly sorry” about “reinforcing” the “stereotype of the removed pundit”.

This is a more artfully crafted version of the Coward’s Apology: If you take offense, then I apologise, because if there are those of you who perceive an offense when obviously I didn’t mean one (‘those of you’ – a group separate from the others who understood what I was saying), then I acknowledge that perhaps I should have taken more pains to explain it to you, so that everyone, not just the anointed, could grasp my meaning.  Understand that I was right in the first place, and still am, but perhaps now you are sufficiently enlightened to know what I was saying.

Others step up in his defense.  Conor Friedersdorf, writing in the National Journal (and called out today by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal for another article), pens a long apologia that begs a thorough fisking, which at present I have neither the time nor space to do adequately.  But Friedersdorf is equally and probably deliberately clueless about the variety of heroic definitions, and he trots out the Merriam-Webster argument.  No, the dead soldiers are not mythic or god-like, yet he allows for the dead to be “arguably” heroes by the last definition, conceding that courage could have been involved (yet ignoring the definition of one who has “noble qualities”).  Throughout this succession of paragraphs, clutching at straws and trying to build a straw man, he continues the argument that assigning a sense of heroic sacrifice to our country’s war dead runs the danger of allowing for a just war.  Thus he holds that the people should not be confused by this potential conflation of the two – better to avoid a sense of honor to the fallen so as to ensure that the elites maintain their position of arbiter of what is just and unjust.  The people (those not among the anointed) should not have a say in the matter.

Friedersdorf also makes the inane argument that Hayes’ remarks should not have been publicized because they were delivered on “an obscure show that aired early in the morning during a holiday weekend on a liberal cable network”.

Friedersdorf then cherry-picks some of the harsher examples of Hayes’ critics to paint with a broad lumpen paintbrush, and emphasizes those pallid defensive phrases within Hayes’ original comments as exonerating his attitude (“But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that's problematic, but maybe I'm wrong about that.”) and points out his confliction in allowing other viewpoints.  Friedersdorf then ends his article with a cascade of ‘what if’ propositions.

No matter how much intellectual fluff one piles around the core doubt of Hayes’ issue with dead heroes, it does not excuse the arrogant, effete notion of a dilettante whistling past Arlington.

Update:  Bill Whittle at The Right Scoop has a candid response to Chris Hayes.  (Thanks to American Power blog)

1 comment:

  1. I was so pissed off by his comment that the only appropriate response, I could come up with, is a serious back room beat-down. Unfortunately, that response would only reinforce their belief that the military are mindless thugs. Personally, I wouldn't care if he was saying to my face, as long as I was too busy bloodying my knuckles. Whatever happened to calling people out for dishonorable behavior?


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