Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Chris Hayes, military service, and the meaning of heroism

I've been meaning to way in on Chris Hayes's comments over the Memorial Day weekend on the nature of heroism -- and specifically this one:

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.

I don't think he is. In fact, I think he's absolutely right to question the ubiquity of the word "hero" as it is used with regards to military service.

But for one, the issue now isn't so much what Hayes said (and he has apologized for his remark, which he never should have done) but what his various right-wing critics are saying in response -- and, as you may know, it's gotten ugly. (Hayes made "a conscious effort to show respect to American troops, to highlight the depth of their sacrifice, and to convey as best he could how heavy a burden is carried by the parents, spouses, and children who are left behind (even as he remembered foreign innocents who have no day to commemorate their death in war." But the critics ignored both the context and the content of his comments, attacking him over a single line in a long discussion of military matters.)

And for two, Conor Friedersdorf has written a fantastic piece at The Atlantic not so much agreeing with what Hayes said, and on this I disagree with Friedersdorf (while I respect his open-minded, nuanced approach to the issue, I simply don't agree that "the vast majority of Americans in the military today" are heroes), but defending Hayes as a thoughtful, open-minded, self-critical commentator (of which there are far too few these days) and criticizing those knee-jerking right-wing critics who grossly misrepresented what he said and, as usual, used the occasion to make ad hominem attacks and denounce liberalism and pretty much everything else that isn't flag-waving jingoism.

I highly recommend that you read the whole thing, including the difficult questions he raises. Here's a key passage:

[I]t'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?

Nothing. And it's worth noting that you don't find anything like this on the right, where opinion is expressed as propaganda and thoughtfulness is an utterly alien concept.

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  • Chris might try volunteering for military service. He might have a different view if faced with combat.

    By Blogger Chris, at 2:55 PM  

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