by Steven Hale
"Bring me the head of Chris Hayes!"
That was the cry of conventional-wisdom merchants across the land through Memorial Day and into this week after the Sunday-morning MSNBC host devoted a segment to an honest discussion of what we talk about when we talk about The Troops.
The flashpoint can be seen at about the 6:40 point of the video above. Hayes introduces a segment by sharing his own feelings on the matter, which, by now, you've probably heard:
"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."
What you might not have heard about, though, is the ensuing panel discussion, during which Hayes' guests appear to sincerely wrestle with the idea, a process that included Hayes presenting a counter-argument to himself.
"The argument on the other side of that is, we don't have a draft. This is voluntary. This is someone making a decision to take on a certain risk of that. And they're taking it on because they're bound to all of us through this social contract, through this democratic process of self-governance in which we decide collectively that we're going to go to war. And how we're going to go to war, and why we're going to go to war. And they also give up their own agency in a certain way that, for a liberal caricature like myself, seems very difficult to comprehend — submitting so totally to what the electorate or people in power are going to decide about how to use your body, but they do that all of full volition. And if the word hero is not right, there's something about it that's noble, right?"
The Outrage came swiftly, as the Conservative Blogdom constructed a vicious, troop-hating strawman and went about flogging it for the next several days. But there have also been defenses of Hayes, the most thorough and thoughtful of which came from Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic. In the piece, Friedersdorf, who says he often disagrees with Hayes and that he doesn't necessarily agree with him in this case either, outlines the segment as I have above, before defending Hayes' approach:
We'll get into his comments and the retorts of his critics. Before we do, it's worth asking what we want in an opinion broadcaster. Someone with whom we never disagree? Someone whose arguments never provoke or even offend us? For a fragile sort, maybe those qualities would prove ideal. But mature adults keen on useful public discourse ought to value different things. Even if we were to say, for the sake of argument, that Hayes' monologue was wrongheaded and offensive, it would remain the case that he 1) made sure to explicitly note that he wasn't disrespecting any soldier who'd fallen — that is to say, he tried to anticipate which people might be needlessly offended, and to assure them that he meant something different than they thought; 2) he noted that he could be wrong; 3) he invited a panel of other intelligent people to disagree; 4) and when no one did disagree, the first thing he did was try to articulate the best counterargument that he could formulate. Unless you're a delicate flower looking for a broadcaster who never articulates any idea with which you're uncomfortable, what more can you ask from someone in Hayes' position?
He goes on to pick apart the elementary critiques of Hayes offered so far, most of which are heavy on ad hominem and patriotic cliche, and light on substantive critique. Reading them, you get the feeling that few people bothered to watch the whole segment, let alone the whole episode which was entirely dedicated to Memorial Day and filled with reverence for the fallen at every turn. What seems to have bothered the conservative blogosphere the most is that a thin MSNBC host, who wears glasses and writes for The Nation, used a Northeastern-sounding term like "rhetorically proximate."
Additionally, Friedersdorf argues, in the name of defending out soldiers and their families, these outraged patriots have actually spread a much worse, and indeed false, version of Hayes' views to many more military families than his actual words would have ever reached. But beyond that, he says, they've done something more:
Their larger transgression is contributing to a political culture where most participants shy away from certain subjects because they cannot be forthrightly addressed without ginned-up bursts of pointless outrage, much of it feigned. You can have a political culture where controversial subjects are discussed with maturity, or you can have one where nothing arguably offensive is ever said without paroxysms of upset. But you can't have both. Right or wrong, if the mere suggestion that only some American troops are "heroes" — while the rest are "merely" noble and courageous people making a profound sacrifice — has you demanding apologies, it's time to recalibrate what outrages you.
As a result of all this, we did not miss out on a cable news discussion of a nuanced and important issue. Surprisingly, thanks to Chris Hayes, that happened. But the Red, White and Blue outrage that followed assured that it did not continue as it might have and means it will continue to be a rare occurrence.
So as to head off the Anonymous Internet Horde that is surely amassing as I type, a couple of acknowledgements: 1) It is true that liberals are often the ones leading the mob when it comes to a perceived breach of political correctness. It is often just as obnoxious, but changes nothing about the case at hand. 2) If discussions about how we discuss The Troops seem like liberal cocktail-party talk to you, then a discussion about how we discuss how we discuss The Troops is likely nauseating. Be that as it may, if we can't manage the former, the latter seems necessary.
My own view is mostly aligned with Hayes'. That is to say, I am often uncomfortable with the way we talk about our soldiers, the way we talk about war and the apparently unquestionable consensus it seems to construct. I worry that as we ascribe near-deity to the troops, particularly to those who die, we will find less and less reason not to create more. However — as Hayes also said, let's not forget — I could be wrong. I am also in awe of the courage, devotion and sacrifice shown by those who volunteer for military service, and I am deeply saddened by the number of them we have lost.
I'm sure there are numerous, cogent arguments that can be made in opposition to Hayes' comments, which he has since apologized for in a similarly thoughtful manner. One could argue, as Friedersdorf does briefly, that how we choose to describe the troops is far down the list of things causing unjust wars. My supposition is not that such a retort is not possible — one might even be somewhere right now and I hope you'll link us to it — but rather that, so far, it is Chris Hayes' defenders who have been doing all the work when it comes to any attempt to have a rational discussion. In the absence of any thoughtful retort to Hayes' feelings, he, and in turn Friedersdorf, have engaged in a sincere attempt to have both sides of the discussion on their own.
Those expressing outrage over this episode are always reminding us that the freedom to have these discussions doesn't come free. I agree. And given that cost, refusing to engage in the discussion seems awfully wasteful.