Last night, mid–Memorial Day Weekend, Chris Hayes attempted to deconstruct the rhetorical and political use of the word "hero" in describing fallen U.S. soldiers, and ended up providing easy fodder for right-wing bloggers who pounced gleefully as soon as the soundbite hit the airwaves. Here's what the MSNBC host said that so riled up the web:
Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word 'hero'? I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.
His panelists — all a bunch of liberal-progressive stooges, to be sure — largely agreed with his sentiment that "hero" immediately introduces the sound of trumpets and conflates patriotic duty with policy preferences. The Nation's Iliana Segura noted that politicians often use the word "deliberately ... to cast these wars in a righteous way," referring to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While the Daily Beast's Michelle Goldberg wondered about the "implication that death makes you a hero as opposed to an act."
There's nothing wrong with remembering the fallen as heroes. I can't imagine the kind of courage it takes to voluntarily take a position with the understanding that you could die at any moment.
Writing for Breitbart.com, Kurt Schlichter opens with, "Memo to Chris: they are heroes, and you don’t get a vote." He then rightfully points out that Hayes's ability to even say what he did is protected by the very soldiers he is so "uncomfortable" praising. (Or as Ann Coulter tweeted last night: "'Uncomfortable' Calling Fallen Military 'Heroes' – Marines respond by protecting his right to menstruate.") Disregarding Coulter's classy riposte, it is true that protecting our constitutional rights is the single greatest service America's fighting men and women give us. A point Schlichter then immediately sidelines by calling Hayes a "parasite" and likening him to "one of my commie grad students trying to impress credulous freshman girls after a choom session in the quad."
Then there's the commentators who struggled to type out their screeds without having a total rage breakdown, like Wizbang's Warner Todd Huston. "This is typical of the hatred that liberals have for our troops," he argues, unaware that never once did Hayes actually argue that America's soldiers are bad people, or not doing their jobs to absolute perfection. Yet that is exactly what Huston sees motivating Hayes' discomfort.
But 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.Happy Memorial Day, Chris Hayes. I’d like to remind you that many of those Neanderthals that you despise so much died for your right to hate them.
If that was Hayes hating on the troops, then we totally missed something in translation. Granted, he may have been so focused on the rhetorical power of the word "hero" that he forgot it can sometimes be used solely in the context of respect, but one thing he is not totally without is, in fact, respect. Here is Hayes just a few minutes after his "uncomfortable" remark—as seen in the extended-cut clip provided by Mediaite.
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 … If the word hero is not right, there is something about that that is noble.
Semantic qualifications aside, Hayes's comments have upset more than just the right-wing blogosphere. The Veterans of Foreign Wars released a statement describing his remarks as "reprehensible and disgusting" and demanding a formal apology.
While not quite going that far, Hayes did take to Twitter where he wrote, "Sure this won't stop the twitter hate, but ask people to watch this and see if we were being insufficiently respectful," and posted a link to the show's opening segment. In it, Hayes commemorates Master Sergeant Evander Earl Andrews: "The first casualty of Operating Enduring Freedom, the first door knock at the home, the first flag-draped coffin in this long era of war." He asks that we reflect and "will ourselves to grieve for Evander Earl Andrews and to consider how broadly those sacrifices emanate," but also to remember the sacrifices of the innocents killed in the course of war. "The dead, the dead, the dead," he intones. "Ours all."
Update: Hayes has apologized in a written statement for failing to live up to "the standards of rigor, respect and empathy for those affected by the issues we discuss that I've set for myself." The host also issued a separate mea culpa for perpetuating a stereotype about people who shout in studios about soldiers who fight in deserts miles and miles away. Here it is in full:
On Sunday, in discussing the uses of the word "hero" to describe those members of the armed forces who have given their lives, I don't think I lived up to the standards of rigor, respect and empathy for those affected by the issues we discuss that I've set for myself. I am deeply sorry for that.
As many have rightly pointed out, it's very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots. Of course, that is true of the overwhelming majority of our nation's citizens as a whole. One of the points made during Sunday's show was just how removed most Americans are from the wars we fight, how small a percentage of our population is asked to shoulder the entire burden and how easy it becomes to never read the names of those who are wounded and fight and die, to not ask questions about the direction of our strategy in Afghanistan, and to assuage our own collective guilt about this disconnect with a pro-forma ritual that we observe briefly before returning to our barbecues.
But in seeking to discuss the civilian-military divide and the social distance between those who fight and those who don't, I ended up reinforcing it, conforming to a stereotype of a removed pundit whose views are not anchored in the very real and very wrenching experience of this long decade of war. And for that I am truly sorry.