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.1
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.