In Defense of Chris Hayes

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The MSNBC host is getting beat up for remarks he made about the heroism of American soldiers. Really, his critics are the ones who should be apologizing.

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Very few Americans wake up early on weekend mornings to watch public intellectuals chat. For the tiny number who do, Up With Chris Hayes, a show hosted by Chris Hayes of The Nation, has distinguished itself for its unusual success bringing thoughtful, intellectually honest conversation to cable news. The show's producers try to cover what they judge to be important, even when more trivial topics would result in higher ratings. During the panel portion of the show, the host and most guests actually grapple with fraught issues rather than shying away from them. Straw men, ad hominem attacks, and cheap point-scoring are exceptions* rather than the rule. Partisan hackery is discouraged. And Hayes tends to highlight rather than elide complicating facts and arguments that cut against his ideological instincts, preferring to interrogate his own views and to treat positions with which he disagrees fairly (something I'm attuned to because my politics are different enough from his that we're often at odds).

Despite all this, Hayes is suddenly under fire for weekend remarks he made about heroism, war, and politics. Our public discourse is such that anyone can find him or herself viciously denounced by complete strangers based on a single sound-byte from which everyone extrapolates wildly. This controversy is worth highlighting because Hayes' words and the reaction to them helps explain why so few broadcasters forthrightly discuss complicated, controversial subjects. Hayes subsequently issued an apology, but it's his critics who've behaved badly.

It all started Sunday. Hayes dedicated an hour to Memorial Day, focusing on the ease with which Americans live their daily lives without an awareness of the people sacrificing on their behalf. Reflecting on the history of the holiday, which began to honor the dead in the conflict that freed the slaves, Hayes noted that "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 was a characteristic effort to confront a new fact that complicated his preexisting opinions.

The show continued. Hayes talked about his interview with the mother of a soldier killed in the War on Terror, highlighted a speech that Joe Biden gave at a charity event for fallen military personnel, and interviewed an eloquent "casualty assistance officer" about his experience telling military families that their loved ones would never be coming home. Everyone watching the show to that point couldn't help but conclude that Hayes had 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).

That brings us to the controversial segment. Hayes kicked it off with a short monologue. "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?" he said. "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."

John McWhorter spoke next. "Hero" and words like it can wind up unconsciously employed as loaded terms, he agreed, as "argumentation strategies in themselves, often without wanting to be."

Said Michelle Goldberg, "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."

Finally, someone offered a contrary perspective:

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 speaker of those words?

Chris Hayes.

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?

Onward to the substance of his views. Were Hayes' remarks in fact wrongheaded and offensive? Though I understand why they upset some people, given the sensitivity of the subject, I can't say that they were. Are all American troops who die in wars heroes? If so, is their heroism co-opted in a way that should make us feel uncomfortable about using the honorific? As I see it, those are both very complicated questions** for a whole host of different reasons.

For starters, there isn't even broad agreement about what the word hero means. Merriam Webster says a hero is a) a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; b) an illustrious warrior; c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d) one who shows great courage. By definition a and b, all Americans who die in wars are not heroes -- none are divine, and very few are famous. Whereas by definition d, all war dead are arguably heroes, for the reasons that Hayes articulates in his devil's advocate followup. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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