Chris Hayes I Am Truly Sorry

Isaiah J. Poole

By the time you read this, we should be at the 25th hour of what is, even though it shouldn’t be, one of those 24-hour stories, namely Chris Hayes’ comment about our country’s casual use of the word “hero” for all of our military personnel and the knee-jerk right-wing blowback.

Hours after Hayes made his widely reported comment, he felt compelled to publish an apology. (This Huffington Post story contains the full original statement and the full apology.)

Allow me to offer an apology to Chris Hayes (who will be participating in our Take Back the American Dream conference June 18-20):

I’m sorry, Chris, that we live in a time when an intelligent person can’t engage in reasoned and nuanced questioning of the orthodoxies surrounding our military, which have been declared sacrosanct by conservatives.

I’m sorry that once again the very people who coined the phrase “political correctness” to push back against the efforts of progressives to purge the toxins of bigotry and ignorance out of the mainstream of public debate are imposing their own right-wing political correctness to protect their own herd of sacred cows. This is no surprise, of course, that your conservative critics blind themselves to the hypocrisy of their actions. That this continues to be routine does not make what happened to you Sunday any less tragic.

I’m sorry that many people outside the conservative spin machine who should know better have been apparently cowed into submission by our idolization of all things military. “I think it’s really inappropriate to try to define the word ‘hero,’” CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien said this morning during a roundtable discussion of the controversy. Inappropriate how? Based on whose determination? Why? (This comes, by the way, from a prominent anchor of a network that makes a big deal of defining who is a ‘hero.’)

Fortunately, there has been a lot of smart commentary about the Hayes “hero” controversy. Paul Waldman writes in The American Prospect that “it seems that what many conservatives want is for our public discussion of issues of war to be undertaken as though we were all speaking to the mother of a soldier who had just been killed.”

So if we don’t want to worsen the pain of those thousands of families [who lost a loved one in a war], it’s much easier to just say that their sons and daughters were all “heroes” no matter what they did or how they died, and the conflict to which they were sent was one in which they were defending our country and safeguarding freedom.

But what if that isn’t really true? What if the conflict in which they died was a gigantic, tragic mistake? And what if that conflict had nothing to do with defending the United States? What if no matter how well they did their job or how hard they tried, nothing they did in that conflict could have advanced the cause of “freedom” one bit? What if you believe those men and women did “die in vain,” that their deaths didn’t make their country or the world safer, but were just unadulterated tragedies, producing nothing but pain and loss? What do you say then?

I think the answer is that you have no choice but to be willing to separate how you talk about our wars from what you’d say if you were talking to the parent of a fallen soldier.

Lee Haven in Jack & Jill Politics writes that Hayes made a “valid point” about the way the word “hero” is bandied about to make the profane seem sacred.

They’re heroes because they fight for the country—period. Wow. Think of the out this gives the war-starters. You’re against my war, and the next one in the hopper–you’re against the heroes. This was the point Hayes was making. Another thing–so we can be against Bush invading Iraq to prove he’s a tough guy and to help Halliburton along, but those carrying out that mission—especially those who die doing so—are always worthy since hero is a good thing?

Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast says Hayes “forgot the script” for Memorial Day, which is to “honor the dead without talking about the reasons they died.” Beinart doesn’t begrudge Hayes for tossing aside that script:

My sister-in-law, an Army doctor, just returned from Afghanistan. When she shipped out, the Army gave her 3-year-old daughter a doll with a photograph of her mother’s face pasted on the front. What do we owe my sister-in-law—and her husband and two small girls—for having made a sacrifice that most Americans of my demographic can’t even contemplate? We owe them our reverence, absolutely. But more that, we owe them our citizenship. Our deepest duty is to ask ourselves, relentlessly, whether the cause for which my sister-in-law sacrificed justifies the pain it has caused her family and the many American and Afghan families that have suffered far more. And if the answer is no, we owe them more than our sympathy and admiration. We owe them our rage.

What this incident says to me is that for progressives “taking back the American dream” is not simply changing the economic direction of the country and reversing the damage done by conservative economic policy. It is also about taking back the ability to constructively question the deification of institutions—and yes, the people who participate in those institutions—that engage in actions that are often anything but noble and heroic. It’s about restoring the ability of Americans to have honest conversations about their government, without being shouted down by a multibillion-dollar right-wing noise machine.

I’m looking forward to the opportunity at our conference to discuss how progressives can give people like Chris Hayes the room to raise important questions about our institutions and our culture without having to apologize.

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