The Chris Hayes Hero Non-Troversy: A Case Study in the Rightwing Hissy Fit

Last Sunday, on his TV show, Chris Hayes discussed whether we should be using the term hero so often, which led to much high dudgeon by conservatives, followed by the obligatory curling up in the fetal position by TV pseudo-liberals. Conor Friedersdorf provides a good summary of the episode (boldface mine):

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.”

…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.

Friedersdorf then defends Hayes against conservative jingosphere critics:

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.

…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.

…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.

The conservative hissy fit serves several purposes. First, it allows them to attack people they don’t like and tear them down. They probably can censor someone (or shock someone enough to self-censor), and might even be able to seriously weaken the target or even cause him to lose his job. Second, the act of tearing down their opponents allows them to justify their mistakes and feel righteous. Going after Hayes’ temperate comments allows them to ignore that the rightwing jingosphere was horribly wrong in the first place: we shouldn’t be celebrating our Iraq War veterans because we never should have started that war. Instead, the hissy fit allows them to ignore that uncomfortable fact and focus on the supposed outrage, thereby justifying the pseudovalidity of their cause. Finally, it serves the ‘practical’ purpose of deflecting others’ attention from their own mistakes.

The only thing Hayes did wrong was apologize to these idiots. Because if he had discussed the issue the following week, they would have responded, “How dare he only one week after Memorial Day.” If he had done so one month later, “How dare he only one month after…” As Friesdorf notes, any sane viewer would have realized Hayes bent over backwards to be respectful. But when you puncture these deeply held beliefs:

that we support the troops by sending them to die in wars that we should not fight, that we support the troops even as we inadequately fund their medical care, that we support the troops by not rigorously examining if we are laying the ground conditions for the next foolish ‘war of choice’

–then the hissy fit is all that’s left for those on the wrong side of history. And so hissy fit it is.

Related posts: Some good stuff here, here, here, and here.

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