Chris Hayes and American Heroism

MSNBC host Chris Hayes, easily one of the most thoughtful people on television, if hardly one of the better known, has found himself at the center of a controversy occasioned by his comments on conventional uses of the word “hero.” Responding to a barrage of criticism, he has now issued a statement of apology on his web site which seems honestly contrite, but which, if the comment thread is any indication, may be taken by his critics as a deepening of his error, not as actual acknowledgment of it.

In making his original remarks, Hayes seemed unsure of himself, though his manner may have had as much to do with his TV role as conversation-starter as with his actual uncertainty:

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. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect 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.

Rather than convince potential political adversaries of his openness to alternatives, Hayes’ diffidence may instead have reinforced suspicions about him – made him seem like someone fumbling around with matters that he does not understand.

Hayes ended up making two different arguments, one a fairly modest and familiar point that was arguably ill-timed, the other one much stronger, yet partly masked by awkward language and attempted self-corrections. The modest argument, which actually came second, is easy to parse: Hayes wonders if the word “hero” ought to be reserved for extraordinary valor only.  The thought amounts to a thoroughly conventional observation on valuation and devaluation in the semantic marketplace, but we can still wonder whether Memorial Day weekend was a good time to make it. Intentionally or not, Hayes was accusing a large number of people of indulging in flattery or false pride, stealing honors from those truly deserving of them, the “real” heroes. His words were divisive in the sense that they separated those who might agree with him from everyone else, and one well-meaning patriot from another, on a weekend set aside for solemn displays of unity in remembrance. Hayes’ other claim is objectively divisive in somewhat the same way, but goes much further in that it proposes a negation or inversion of heroism, and is thus tantamount, finally, to an accusation of treason in the highest and most politically explosive sense of the term. Answering his own question on discomfort, Hayes links the word “hero” by “rhetorical proxim[ity]” to “justifications for more war.”  The sentences that follow, with their stumbling “obviously”‘s and self-admonitory re-directions, and much more with their apologetic references to desecration and disrespected memory, suggest a panicky and hopeless retreat from self-ambush: Hayes seems to know that his words will be taken to mean exactly what he asserts he did not intend.

What Hayes could not say, either because he was not prepared to do so or because the ideas are in some sense not quite expressible in public discussion, is that the word “hero” in contemporary usage is an unambiguously affirmative, but anodyne, secular-sounding term for the conversion of the “fallen” from tragic victims into celebrated martyrs within a long tradition, indeed within a trans-generational chain of sacrifices all the way back to the founding of the nation in revolutionary war. To deny access to this form of transcendence, as Hayes and many like him seem to want to do – are in a sense ideologically compelled to do – is to reduce whatever act of war into killing and mayhem merely, the conduct of a state possibly unworthy of allegiance at all, much less of even one individual’s life, liberty, and happiness. It is to convert the martyr symbolically into the pitiful dupe at best, the murderer or war criminal at worst. ((I am attempting here to follow Paul W Kahn’s line of argument as expounded in his 2008 book Sacred Violence, though I am not at all confident he would approve of being “brought into this thing” in this way.))

In other words, Hayes’ statement has been taken by his critics as exactly what it was, and as Hayes himself immediately interpreted it: incipient (yet possibly justifiable) desecration and disrespect.

Though we are not obligated to share in the emotionalism and judgmentalism of Hayes’ critics, we can simply acknowledge what he obviously meant to say, and seems unlikely to withdraw: that significant political actors have been seeking to use a dubious and excessive validation of “fallen soldiers” as validation of bad causes, specifically of “more war,” implicitly of continued and intended future unjust and unnecessary wars. Furthermore, the logic necessarily works backward as well as forward, evoking painful past disagreements – Bitburg cemetery, Vietnam veteran, Confederate memorial, among many others. At the same time, Hayes is perhaps unwittingly, but not randomly, touching upon a central division within the American constitutional order, precisely the division that national holidays like Memorial Day, like memorialization generally, are intended to close, at least symbolically.

On my Memorial Day twitter timeline, Representative Keith Ellison encouraged his “pro-peace friends” to accept that “honoring America’s fallen is no endorsement of war,” but rather “an endorsement of courage, sacrifice, patriotism.” Amidst numerous statements offered directly in support of Hayes, David Roberts, a.k.a. @drgrist, asserted that that “the best way to pay tribute to America’s fallen soldiers is by not creating any more of them.” These typical statements may seem innocuous, at worst merely naive, but they are also decisively unsympathetic to what can be regarded as a principled patriotic rather than principled liberal-universalist sensibility. Like a parent who sides with his or her child unconditionally, a patriot operates on the principle of love, not judgment; sacrifice, not law. The patriot “asks not the reason why.” The patriot views the soldier’s sacrifice as drawing transcendent meaning from a national ideal – from “my country right or wrong,” not “my country as long as it’s OK with liberals.” Like Roberts and Ellison, Hayes at some point wants to invoke a universal or transnational rather than, or at least ahead of, a patriotic moral concept. It is what enables him to conceive of heroism as contingent on values, rather than inherent in sacrifice. It may even be what, in the end, identifies him as the left-liberal that he is.

Since Aristotle, the philosophical distinction has been between the virtue of a citizen and the virtue of a man, under the recognition that the two may not always, may in fact only rarely if ever, align perfectly. We cannot even begin to sort out all of the differences between patriotic and universal justice, but in recognizing that they may come to tragedy, we can also observe something possibly even more uncomfortable for Hayes and like-minded allies as they approach the public square:  Patriotism and “more war” imply each other. The perspective is not just a realistic perspective, but a foundational and un-dismissable one, that dying for or killing for America today helps to preserve an America to die for and to kill for tomorrow. A soldier sacrifices today, consciously in a tradition of sacrifice, and implicitly in preparation for future sacrifices. For the patriot, the act is the highest, noblest, and proudest honor – to die for one’s country and to be wrapped in its flag. Any offer of empathy is in this connection empty, where not demeaning, unless it honors the sacrifice on its own terms, and, as or more important, comes from someone qualified to provide it.

Hayes may be unwilling to satisfy the first condition, and is deemed unable to satisfy the second one, but to blame him for either deficiency is at least as presumptuous as anything Hayes has said or may believe. It instantly converts back into a betrayal of the American purpose, the preservation of the free society, while in the same breath preparing Hayes himself for his own symbolic sacrifice on its altar. In the meantime the questions of justice and at some point even of allegiance will and must be asked, but whoever puts them forward, on Memorial Day or any other day, should always be prepared for a fight, for a war, not just a discussion, with the highest political stakes at issue.

14 comments on “Chris Hayes and American Heroism

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  1. after reading this offering but quickly and not with the deliberate consideration that it deserves, I’m afraid that I can add nothing other than to say that this is first fucking rate.

    I shall study this when time permits in hope of unearthing something with which to quibble,

    I will I will.

  2. Well it’s splitting the difference, very finely, is Hayes only embarassed about Afghanistan ot Iraq, or does he find something wrong with World War 2, maybe the Civil War,

    • wouldn’t take an unreasonable man to find reason for embarrassment with the competence of the Federal generalship and their “strategic” profligate squandering of the lives of their soldiers. despite having vast superiority in force, equipment and medical supplies and medical personnel, they managed to kill off far more of their own men, both on the battlefield and off.

    • I think Hayes is quite thoughtful for a TV intellectual, but that’s not the same thing as having and taking the time to think one’s positions through. I’m not sure whether he’s more a fighting liberal or more an anti-imperialist or pacifist at bottom, or something else, or if he knows. It’s not necessarily in his professional interest to remove whatever ambiguity.

      One of the reasons that people started returning to Schmitt for inspiration was the sense that liberalism – in the form of the modern rule of law-state, not as contemporary social liberalism – was incapable of coping with issues of war and sovereignty consistently, within its own principle. Strauss, Kahn, and Agamben are all good on different aspects of this problem, which was anticipated by Schmitt, and worked out very well for his theory, not so well for his reputation or for the world.

  3. And authoritarian solutions like Schmitt, can., I don’t see how that follows, liberal democracy is the worse system, except for all the others, plus I don’t see how you can scapegoat bad command decisions on the likes of the regular infantrymen, airman, sailor.

    • The point isn’t that liberal democracy is better or worse than authoritarianism of whatever type, but that at the origins and the limits of any actual liberal democratic state there are questions, potentially the most important questions, bearing on the actual existence of the state, that the liberal democratic state can’t solve according to its own principles: the emergency, the state of siege, war, fundamental definitions of citizenship, even, especially in our day, when life begins and ends. At one point Schmitt differentiated between “constituting power” and “constituted power”: The liberal democratic state exists within the latter, and its theorists constantly seek to extend its reach – lawyers on the battlefield, for example – but in the emergency or in relation to “the exception” it sooner or later has to call upon the former, which lies beyond law. Schmitt’s famous formulation was “sovereign is he, who decides upon the exception.” So, for example, 9/11 forced the liberal democratic U.S. into a series of exceptional situations at the limits of existing international and constitutional law, and forced now two presidents to operate within the “gray area” where the law recedes or which the law fails to reach. That happens in all wars, but terrorism is aimed directly at the gray area conceptually. Its existential threat to the state is in that sense more a matter of perception and symbol than material threat.

      • The liberal democratic state is not really a liberal structure. It’s an authoritarian structure to begin with, so it always relied on the authoritarian principle. Anarchists are the real liberals and they are completely unrepresented, of course. Several of my professor friends consider themselves to be anarchists and trust me, they could hold their own here in respect to political rhetoric.

        • I partly agree with you, but there’s a difference between authority and authoritarianism, and between liberalism and its alternatives. “Liberal” has a particular genealogy and shifting meanings in different contexts. What is it that in your mind makes your anarchist professors “liberal”? My guess is that you’re referring to social liberal values and libertarian impulses, but that combination is not the same as “anarchist.”

          I’ll believe that they can hold their own in political rhetoric when I see them holding their own in political rhetoric – here or anywhere. Until then… well I could be a great yogi if I practiced enough. (Yesterday, I was really loving yoga, by the way – I think I’m getting it much more – though I would be embarrassed to be seen yoga-ing by a real yogel.)

        • That’s just silly Scott, with the fall of the regime, a vaccuum forms, the difference is sometimes consent results from the use of arms not the franchise, In an earlier thread, I mentioned the Roman Social Wars, a period of strife, a generation after the last big war
          in Numantia, the most powerful factions, Marius and his deputy Sulla, arose out of that conflict,

  4. Yes, those who did not abide by the guidelines of international protocols, like insurgents were not subject to them,

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  1. […] of a passage that I had expected to get to earlier from Sacred Violence, a work by Paul W Kahn that I was just mentioning in connection to the Chris Hayes “heroism” controversy.  Published […]

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