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. 

Of course, Hayes wasn't actually expressing discomfort with granting the bravery or achievements or noble qualities of American troops. His fear was that in addition to its strict definition, hero had an unavoidable connotation attached to it -- that for some people, hearing that a warrior is a hero carries with it the implication that the war in which he bravely partook was a just one. It's a step farther to say that it's justified to feel uncomfortable bestowing a rightful title due to the wrongheaded way others might react to it. But why should pondering that question be verboten?

Personally, I'm comfortable calling the vast majority of Americans in the military today heroes, whether they're dead or alive, insofar as I think it shows courage to pledge a willingness to fight to the death defending one's country, even if you're never forced to do so or are subsequently ordered to engage in a needless conflict. And while I think it's legitimate to worry that valorizing the troops could be exploited or misunderstood in ways that might make unjust wars more likely, in practice I think the pressure to wage unjust wars is coming from elsewhere (though I could be wrong about that last part -- how does one assess the impact of such rhetoric?).

If Hayes' critics merely articulated why they didn't share his perspective, even forcefully, public discourse would've operated as it ought to -- one person makes an earnest, comprehensible, intellectually honest argument; other people respond with assents or counterarguments; the best ideas win. Instead, many of Hayes' critics puffed out their chests, emphasized how outraged they were, and proceeded to either elide or mischaracterize much of what Hayes said.

Said Doug Mataconis, an excellent blogger who is usually better than this (emphasis added):

I suppose the problem I have with Hayes's comments, and with the comments of those who have been defending him online today, is that the objection to describing those who have died in service to their country as heroes isn't based so much in a concern that it diminishes the true acts of heroism that have occurred, and will continue to occur in wartime as it is in the fear that acknowledging the sacrifices that these men, and women, have made would somehow be a political statement. That strikes me as a deeply myopic, politically-obsessed, view of the world. Disagreeing with the political decision to go to war should never, I would submit, be a reason to either denigrate or ignore the sacrifices that those who served in that war have made, which seems to be the clear implication of what Hayes and his fellow panelists were saying in this segment. Individual soldiers are not responsible for the decisions of those who sent them into battle, and it strikes me as incredibly callous to dismiss the sacrifices made by those who died in such endeavors.

I opposed the Iraq War. I think our continued mission in Afghanistan is a big mistake. But, holding those fighting the battle responsible for that would be a tragic mistake. They did not make the decision to go to war, and they have no control over when to end it. We have already dealt in our very recent history with an unpopular war and a group of veterans and war dead who, for far too long, were forgotten by their nation, we should not join the Chris Hayes's of the world in doing that again.

If the implication of Hayes' remarks was that we should denigrate or ignore the sacrifices of our troops, why did he say, as part of his short, controversial monologue, "I obviously don't want to desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that has fallen," call them "noble," and dramatize their sacrifice multiple times that same hour? When did he once dismiss, callously or otherwise, the sacrifices of the troops? And how absurdly inflammatory and illegitimate to conflate the suggestion that maybe everyone who dies in a war isn't a "hero," even though they've made a "noble" sacrifice, with the mass jeering and denunciations of those who came back from Vietnam.

Speaking of which, here's Kurt Schlichter of Breitbart.com, employing the ad hominem that is the stock and trade of outraged enforcers of right-wing political correctness, and then continuing the Vietnam comparison:

I greatly enjoy watching progressives seethe as they are forced, for the sake of appearances, to pretend to support our troops. You know it's killing them. But it's the progressives' own doing -- their sickening performance following the Vietnam War, when they figuratively and literally spit on our troops -- so disgusted decent Americans of all political stripes that to do anything but treat our troops with the utmost respect is to draw near-universal contempt and scorn from across the mainstream political spectrum.

So, the real problem for Chris Hayes is that he actually said what he thinks. He thinks our soldiers are suckers and fools at best, brutal sociopaths at worst. At a minimum, he feels that honoring those who died for this country might encourage people to see that actually defending our country is a good thing. He's not quite ready to make that leap; after all, most progressives are ambivalent about this whole "America" concept, if not actively opposed to it.

Taking his inaccuracies in order, Hayes was in fact completely forthright about his opinions -- he wasn't pretending, or being forced to pretend, anything at all; he's in his early thirties, which makes it rather weird to lump him in via plural pronoun with Vietnam-era protestors; he nowhere says, and does not think, that our soldiers are suckers, fools, or sociopaths, and actually says that they are "noble;" he doesn't worry about honoring those who died, and in fact honors them himself; he doesn't worry that the honorific "hero" will encourage people to see America's self-defense as a good thing, he worries they'll see invading countries that pose no threat to us is a good thing; and he is neither ambivalent nor actively opposed to the concept of America.

Said Richard DeNoyer, National Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars:

Chris Hayes' recent remarks on MSNBC regarding our fallen service members are reprehensible and disgusting. His words reflect his obvious disregard for the service and sacrifice of the men and women who have paid the ultimate price while defending our nation. His insipid statement is particularly callous because it comes at a time when our entire nation pauses to reflect and honor the memory of our nations' fallen heroes.

In fact, Hayes' explicitly articulated his regard for our troops and their sacrifice, and demonstrated the importance he assigns to those same qualities by including, in a program he runs, the aforementioned segments -- on the history of Memorial Day, the feelings of a mother grieving her fallen son, thoughts on the sacrifice of the troops from a man who reports to loved ones that they've been killed. To anyone paying attention, DeNoyer totally mischaracterizes Hayes. 

Here's Warner Todd Huston at Wizbang: "This weekend Hayes felt compelled to warn everyone that calling our troops 'heroes' is something that should make us all 'uncomfortable.'" No, he actually said some troops are heroes, but calling every American who dies in war a hero makes him uncomfortable, though he "might be wrong."

Huston continues:

...to a liberal, it cannot go without saying that some soldiers are bad people because liberals look at the troops from the opposite direction. They assume all members of the military are stupid, venal, and low. They assume that they are all knuckle dragging, murderous, bigots that just want to shoot someone.

Hence Hayes' "uncomfortable" feeling emerges over the idea of thinking of our soldiers as heroes. Hayes is just being a true liberal. They hate our troops and when they find one that is an upstanding hero they consider that person to be the one that is out of the ordinary.

This too is an egregious mischaracterization. Hayes neither says nor thinks any of that, and as we've seen, his "uncomfortable" feelings don't emerge from any judgment about the character of the troops at all.

It's worth noting that Hayes isn't the only victim of this absurd misrepresentation.

A lot of Hayes' critics have said that, no matter if he's right or wrong on the merits, he shouldn't have been so insensitive as to raise this subject on Memorial Day Weekend, when it might upset people who've lost loved ones and are trying to focus on honoring them as, yes, fallen heroes. Whatever you think of that argument, know this: With no disrespect to Hayes, he spoke on an obscure show that aired early in the morning during a holiday weekend on a liberal cable network. Had his musings been permitted to drift off into the ether, vanishingly few family members of deceased veterans would've heard them; even fewer would've been offended.

But thanks to the Schlichters and Hustons of the world, and the Fox News folks who put their segment on the controversy together, a lot of military families were told on Memorial Day weekend that some smug liberal elitist at MSNBC thinks the troops "are all knuckle dragging, murderous, bigots that just want to shoot someone," to quote one Hayes critic. There's no getting around it. The people who demagogued and egregiously misrepresented Hayes caused far more upset to military families than his actual remarks, especially in context, ever could.

Yet no one is outraged by their behavior, or calling on them to apologize.

Why is that?

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.


*And yes, exceptions do occur -- it's live cable TV, and norms change slowly.

**Here are a lot of questions. I don't have answers for most of them:

1) Are all American war dead heroic because, if nothing else, they had the courage to volunteer for service knowing they might ultimately give their life for their country? That seems heroic to me. But if they're all heroes, does it follow that everyone in the military is a hero? Why is dying necessary? And if everyone who volunteers is a hero, what about the guys who would go AWOL if sent to fight, or who assault their commanding officer, or who run away in combat? What about the ones who are dishonorably discharged? Was Bradley Manning a hero? Had Lynndie England died in Iraq, would she have been a hero? 

2) What about people who volunteer for foreign armed forces? Are they all heroic? Or does it depend upon their country? If an American helping to liberate Libya would've been a hero had he died in action, shouldn't the Germans from NATO engaged in the same conflict be heroes too? What about the Islamic fundamentalists fighting alongside NATO? Heroes?  

3) What about the morality of the cause? Does anyone think brave Nazi soldiers during the World War II era were heroes? How about the soldiers in Stalin's army? Does the nature of the mission matter, so that a Soviet soldier who died liberating a death camp was a hero, whereas another who died while ravaging German civilians he was ordered to take revenge upon isn't? There's this reality to confront: if bestowing the title hero has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the cause or mission, we'll have to grant the honorific to individuals who took part in deeply immoral acts... and yet, if the mission does matter, do we really want to deny the heroism of a GI who jumped on a grenade to save his platoon, even if we think the platoon's presence in country X was immoral? It's a confounding choice. 

4) Speaking of jumping on grenades, isn't "hero" often invoked in common parlance as if it means even more than serving and dying? For example, when we hear someone described as "a World War II hero," don't we expect that he did more than fall overboard and drown en route to the D-Day invasion? Don't we assume from that adjective that he undertook some dangerous mission, or distinguished himself in combat, like the younger Bailey brother in It's a Wonderful Life? Were the average American to watch From Here to Eternity, would he or she call Robert E. Lee Prewitt a hero?

5) And say, for the sake of argument, that all American war dead are heroes, strictly defined, but that the word and its emotional resonance is being manipulated by advocates of an imprudent war. Is it better to give soldiers an honorific they deserve, consequences be damned, or to withhold an honorific they deserve to prevent future soldiers from needlessly dying?

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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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