It's Time to Condemn Point-Scoring Fabrications About People Hating the Troops

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It's a pernicious rhetorical tactic that makes military personnel and their families feel more disrespected than they should.troops.png

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After publishing my defense of Chris Hayes yesterday, I sparred a bit on Twitter with Breitbart.com's Kurt Schlichter, who wrote that Hayes "thinks our soldiers are suckers and fools at best, brutal sociopaths at worst," even though the MSNBC host neither said nor thinks anything of the sort, as anyone who has followed his writing for several years, as I have, can attest.

As you'll soon see, I called Schlichter out on the point -- and his response is an acknowledgement that he based his characterization on the "evidence" that Hayes works at The Nation magazine.

Here's the exchange:

Schlichter convo.png

As I proceeded to note, this is very shabby behavior, not just because it isn't fair to Hayes when his views are misrepresented, but also because Schlichter, a veteran who has more than 13,000 Twitter followers and a sizable right-leaning audience at Breitbart.com, surely has a lot of military folks and their loves ones consuming his output. It would be perfectly understandable for those readers to see an accusation as strong as "Chris Hayes thinks our soldiers are suckers and fools," and to presume that the accused actually said something like that. "You lead your military readers to think they are more hated than reality justifies," I told Schlichter. "Good work. I guess it's all worth it if you have a handy cudgel to use against the dread left."

And as if to provide me with an even better example of this cynical rhetorical tactic, he responded with this:

schlichter again.png

This is actually sort of funny. Schlichter is arguing that his military readers are far too smart to trust him as an honest purveyor of information. Maybe he's right! Of course, even if he's wrong, and his readers don't click through to fact check his characterizations, that wouldn't make them dumb or credulous, just understandably unprepared for the level of deceit and cynicism they encountered. In any case, it's abundantly clear that I wasn't asserting or implying military people are dumb.  

That's just a rhetorical ploy that Schlichter used to win a Twitter argument.

Think about that for a minute. The American military has built up tremendous esteem through various valiant acts, profound sacrifices, and the fact that their presence makes our way of life possible. That's why there is such a powerful taboo against insulting soliders. Calling the troops "dumb" is especially offensive because it trades on an inaccurate stereotype ignorant people harbor about men and women in uniform.

And Schlichter has no problem leading people to believe that a professional journalist at a national magazine is insulting the troops by calling them dumb, even though he knows it's not the case. It reminds me of nothing so much as a professor at the collection of colleges I attended who faked a hate crime, cynically trading on everyone's abhorrence of racism for her personal ends. Of course, her act was far worse than Schlichter's comparatively inconsequential Tweet, but their actions, though not morally equivalent, both had the effect of making a class of people feel more put upon than reality justified, all so they could gain a fleeting advantage in public discourse. I actually don't think Schlichter thought that through and acted with premeditation, or that he's a bad guy. But like so many people who've gone through Breitbart.com, he started out determined to battle the very tactics that he now reflexively exploits.

And despite the fact that he's spent two days now publishing rhetoric likely to make military readers and their families feel more disrespected than is justified by reality, no one on the right will call for him to apologize. For that, you'll have to read Jonathan Bernstein, who tackles the phenomenon generally:

...a set of partisans are deliberately and falsely attempting to convince those who have served and returned home, many of them bearing the scars of battle, and the families of the heroes who lost their lives in the service of their nation that a large group of Americans -- perhaps a majority or close to it, given that their candidates win about half of all elections -- have nothing but contempt and scorn for them. To begin with, it's a lie. A clear, no question about it, lie. That folks engaged in this sort of thing lie is par for the partisan course, although, yes, it's a particularly ugly lie. But in this case, it's even worse. Friedersdorf is correct: this is a lie that is particularly targeted in such a way as to harm those who serve and their families by falsely convincing them that the nation is not, in fact, united on their behalf.

It was, to be sure, once the case that (some) opponents of the Vietnam War blamed those who were willing to fight there. Those days are long gone. One of the things that people really got right after Vietnam finally ended was to decide to never again blame people at the bottom of the chain of command for the decisions made in Washington, and for over thirty years mainstream liberals (and as far as I know even the fringe left, although I wouldn't be shocked if there are exceptions) have lived up to that, even in cases in which they strongly opposed subsequent wars. In my view, the nation has been better off as a result. Those who really support the troops should be praising that consensus, not trying to undermine it -- and certainly not falsely pretending that it does not exist.

Exactly.

Defenders of the troops are perfectly justified in speaking up when they're actually disrespected. But this reflexive exaggeration, this fabrication of disrespect to conjure up outrage, has gone on too long, and it's time to start pointing out the completely needless harm that it does.

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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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