Is Chris Hayes Too Thoughtful for the Mediated Public Square?

by A. Jay Adler on May 30, 2012
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You don’t have to think of Chris Hayes as the anti-Limbaugh. (That’s most of us.) Consider him the anti Chris Matthews, his stable mate at MSNBC. Matthews drew a lot of attention the other day for his interview of Newt Gingrich, during which he did play, yes, a form of hardball, asking tough questions and scoffing at nonsensical answers, but he also played Tip O’Neill to the Newt’s Reagan. “Mr. Speakaah,” Matthews intoned in verbal backslappery in introducing his guest. For Matthews, as everyone knows, loves the game, and Gingrich as full of shit as he is, and vile when he needs to be, is a player in the game, and you gotta – that is, Matthews has gotta – love his moves.

Chris Hayes only analyzes the game. He neither plays it nor fanaticizes it, memorializing scraps or seeking entrance to the backroom bar after play has ended. He is a thinker, not a thinking man’s pol or pol handicapper, and if you watch the entire segment of his Sunday show, in which he and his guests discussed the meaning of military heroism, what you see is not a jingoist or a simple-minded despoiler of patriotism, but a thoughtful, serious man discussing ideas with genuine sensitivity to the meaning of his words and his own relation to his words. If that sounds, already, a little too refined for the mental horseplay of our cable, our internet, and our social mediated public discourse, that is the point. Even Hayes’s unnecessary apology, rather than pro forma evasion and cant, was genuine, extended, and thoughtful.

Against the locker room ridicule of Hayes’s critics has come some good defense, but even so, like Page Six actually arguing with the Editorial Board on an issue of substance, another televised pretence of thoughtful commentary, on the Today show, offered us Star Jones and Donny Deutsch, swine squealing with incomprehension at the pearls, defecating on the oyster. Deutsch thought the discussion essentially over in declaring that Hayes looks like “a weenie.”

They are heroes: beginning, middle, end of story. I don’t know what the other side of this argument is.

Of course not. That would require the swine, type boar, to think.

By far the best, most comprehensive defense of Hayes has come tellingly from conservative Conor Friedersdorf.

Of course, Hayes wasnt 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.

This is the kind of linguistic, intellectual and moral discrimination that a Deutsch and the general Roman circus of political punditry are incapable, and against which Hayes’s discussion was an argument. While Hayes and his guests considered, within the very limiting confines of even a twelve-minute television segment, the distinctions among “hero,” “sacrifice,” “valor,” and “courage,” the effort was two-fold: to contend against the automatic, thus indiscriminate, valorization of war just by virtue of the vocabulary we use, and to resist the chauvinistic gravity exhibited by normalizing all displays of patriotism. Rather, now, for displays of a flag, or a flag lapel pin, demonstrating an exceptional experience of national pride and solidarity, they are a conformist requirement. For a presidential candidate not to wear a lapel pin, as Obama, for a time did not, in 2008, is leveled an unpatriotic display. If all soldiers are the valorized hero (rather than, say, “merely” brave, for going to war), then what word do we use for the act of exceptional courage and valor? These critical lovers of heartland values have obviously never visited Lake Woebegone, where “all the children are above average.” Its ironic charms would escape them even if they did stop by for a spell.

In instructive contrast, a bad liberal defense of Hayes came from Peter Beinart, who repeated the momentary misstep of only one of Hayes’s guests, in using the discussion to inveigh against the Iraq and Afghan wars and, in Beinart’s case, the “9/11 fearmongers” too. This is precisely what Hayes did not do. He did not use his discussion of language and the politicizing pull on it that public discourse exerts, as merely a pretext to for specific policy criticism. The usual gang of political locker room dunderheads cannot grasp this and neither, apparently, can Beinart. Hayes was self-conscious and self-critical enough even while he explored his ideational instincts, to question the inclinations of the, in his phrase, “liberal caricature” that he might be seen to represent. This reflexivity is leagues beyond his critics, and some of his defenders. Beinart wrote,

 I don’t share Hayes’s queasiness about the using the word “hero” to describe those Americans who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. In America today, where self-gratification is practically a national religion, there is something heroic about voluntarily placing your fate at your country’s service. But Hayes’s larger point—that in honoring the dead we should not surrender our critical faculties about war—is not only correct, it’s crucial. For more than 10 years now, the Coulters and Dick Cheneys of American politics have used the pain and pride of a nation at war to cow those who might have questioned our post-9/11 wars.

Beinart actually has it exactly backwards. The larger point is in the challenge to language, not in the specific challenges to policy, because it is only in the questioning of language and the greater ideas it even implicitly conveys that one can develop the critical tools with which to question policy and all the other rudiments of life. This is what Hayes was doing. Most of the other media performers are still splashing around in the mud.

Friedersdorf closed his very fine defense of Hayes by offering five extended sets of questions all on the subject of “heroism” and what it might mean to use language the way we habitually do or may feel compelled to do by the force of public censure and common stupidity. In these questions, devoid of politics, we see the necessary critical thinking mind at work, representative of the minds we want a truly democratic and (mentally) free citizenry to possess – the very opposite of “They are heroes: beginning, middle, end of story.”

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?

AJA

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