Politics

05.29.12

In Defense of the Defense of Chris Hayes

As those of you plugged into the wingosphere undoubtedly know, MSNBC host Chris Hayes is hearing it because he supposedly thinks soldiers aren't "heroes" based on something he said on his show Sunday morning. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, a conservative himself but a thoughtful person (those two terms needn't contradict each other as often as they alas do these days!), rises nobly to Chris's defense, filling the context of the remark and the whole segment, and noting that Hayes also said the following, after a couple of guests had begun to agree with him:

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?

Friedersdorf goes on to make several excellent points, notably that Hayes presented a thoughtful segment, interviewing a mother of a fallen soldier among others, and that in general Hayes tries to do thoughtful television. I should say I guess that I've known Chris for years, we're friends, and he is a very smart and decent and empathetic person, adjectives all borne out by the segment as a whole.

I would add only that this entire little fracas isn't about the alleged substance of the complaint against him. It's just right-wing bloggers spotting an opportunity to pile on and bully a liberal. And sure, liberal bloggers sometimes do similar things on issues that push liberal hot buttons. But there's something different about this one.

I don't want to put any words in his mouth, but Hayes was, I believe, trying to talk about the way certain words are used as bludgeons against dissenters. "Freedom" being an obvious example from the Bush years. If you opposed Bush-Cheney policies, supposedly, at least in the minds of some, you were against freedom itself. That of course was contemptible and directly counter to every laudable value this country stands for.

But "freedom," in the above debate, is kind of an abstraction. With soldiers it's much more concrete because you're talking about actual human beings putting their actual lives at risk. I'm the first to say I couldn't do it (not that they'd want me anyway). But the objectionable thing here is not the idea that soldiers are heroes. The objectionable thing is that there is a kind of blackmail associated with words like these, the majority saying to the minority that if you don't agree with us about X, it's the stockade for you. It's always been an ugly impulse; see Ibsen's Enemy of the People for starters. And in this country, the home of the First Amendment, it's more than ugly. It's unpatriotic.

I think of most soldiers as extremely brave people, and I recognize full well that they are risking their lives for our country. But I want to applaud them on my terms, not breitbart.com's terms. Soldiers, I'm confident, are mature enough to have an intelligent conversation about all this. It's a shame that in this political culture, such a conversation is basically impossible. I hope Chris doesn't stop trying to have them as a result of this.