[First published on skepolitical.com on 6/5/12]

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes recently apologized for how he handled a discussion of the use of the word “hero” in describing our fallen military men and women. In the controversial segment, Hayes says he feels “uncomfortable about the word hero” being used to describe America’s soldiers killed in battle. He says he views it as “rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war,” and suggests we should reserve the term for particularly heroic soldiers. This set off quite the brouhaha.

A clip from the most recent “Best of the Left” episode featured Cenk Uygur defending Hayes and bemoaning his decision to apologize. I agree with Uygur. If you watch the clip of Hayes explaining his view, you can tell he is acutely aware that he is walking on eggshells. He speaks very carefully, takes great pains to emphasize his respect for those who have fallen, monitors his guests’ faces for any negative reactions, and even finishes by saying “but maybe I’m wrong about that.” That the term “hero” is being used manipulatively to justify more war is an interesting thesis worthy of discussion, and it would have been hard for Hayes to have approached it more delicately or with more humility than he did.

The one thing I think he should have done was to have on a veteran and a parent of a fallen soldier in order to provide an important perspective on the question of how this topic can be broached with sufficient delicacy. These are perspectives that clearly needed to be given a voice in this discussion. However, regardless of how tactfully the subject can best be introduced, it is patently unacceptable to suggest that this discussion is fundamentally off-limits. Discussions of this nature should not be shut down on the basis of hurt feelings or even Hayes’ lack of military service. All members of the electorate, military or civilian, should be encouraged to engage in such discussions. Whether the term “hero” is being used as a rhetorical tool to glorify war is not something that affects only the loved ones of our fallen soldiers. It also directly affects our national discussion of our foreign policy and our military, and the health of our Democracy relies on such topics being openly, honestly, and skeptically discussed. That should be the primary concern of our country’s electorate and especially our media class.

Unfortunately, our electorate is still drawn in by drama more than honest discussion. Until that changes, media figures who want to shut this discussion down by accusing Hayes of impropriety will win the day. The mainstream media has some sway over the direction of the national discourse, but the mainstream media only stays mainstream as long as they deliver the stories that people want to consume. Less popular sources like Democracy Now! will remain unpopular and will continue to lack mainstream influence as long as they resist giving a platform to the Ann Coulters of the world. It’s not that the media is generally bad. It’s that the “good” media is unpopular. The media consumers are the problem.

The solution to this problem, like so many others, is widespread education in critical thinking and skepticism. This may seem like a hopelessly long-term project, but all other suggested approaches will be tripped up by their shared premise that we can influence each other by using logic and reason. The prerequisite for that is a skeptical society trained in critical thinking… “but maybe I’m wrong about that.”

*****

I’ve argued for the value and validity of this discussion, so it seems only right that I should try to add to it. Here’s my take.

I agree with Hayes that there is something wrong with the way the term “hero” is used in describing our fallen soldiers, but his stab at the reason is a bit off the mark. Hayes is right when he suggests that the “hero” rhetoric serves the purpose of feeding the war machine, and in the segment you can tell that he is still trying to understand the problem. The problem isn’t that the soldiers are not heroes. The problem is that many of the people calling them heroes are disingenuous and often have only contempt for those they are praising.

The tendency for conservatives to use the term “hero” is a discussion that has already been broached on the left, but only in a form that’s safe and doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere: satire. Stephen Colbert assigns the term “hero” liberally. In particular, he assigns it to anyone who donates to his Super PAC. Why is this funny? I suppose it’s mostly because of the contrast between the scale of the sacrifice that the donors made compared to that made by the soldiers. Viewers of The Colbert Report (if they’re anything like me) tend to be aware that they could be doing more in the service of our country. To call those of us who donate to a Super PAC “heroes” is to acknowledge the gross inadequacy of making such a donation when compared to serving in the armed forces.

More pertinently, Colbert’s use of the term “hero” also highlights the manipulative nature of using such a term. That Colbert is baldly using the most outrageously glowing praise for his donors has a deeper significance. He’s skewering the manipulative way the term has come to be used in American punditry: to encourage more compliance (in the form of future volunteer CobertPAC donors on the one hand and future volunteer soldiers on the other) in the cheapest way possible. Rather than paying our soldiers more, we rely on the value of our praise to stem any feelings of under-appreciation. This applies most readily to our soldiers, but sometimes policemen, firefighters, or teachers are also called “heroes.” The common thread among all these professions is that their salaries are puny compared to their value to society. My suspicion is that those who lavish the most praise tend to have the least genuine respect for these professions. Most pro-war pundits have never served in the military, and my guess is they would encourage their friends and family to avoid service as well. Similarly, it tends to be a surprise to learn that any of our elites have children who become firemen, policemen, or teachers. Most telling is that they usually support sending them back into war while opposing expanded support for veterans. Pro-war pundits’ words convey admiration for these professions but their behavior betrays contempt.

Just as Colbert’s donors get very little for their money beyond Colbert’s appreciation and feeling of self-worth, soldiers get very little for their efforts beyond the appreciation of American citizens. By not only lavishing soldiers with the highest possible praise but also demanding that others do the same, pro-war pundits are ensuring that nothing stems the tide of young people willing to be exploited. Colbert mocks this by trying the same tactic on his donors.

It should be clear that I’m not saying that I do not appreciate the sacrifice of our soldiers. My point is just the opposite. They deserve far more for their efforts than a moderate salary and the disingenuous praise of callous and manipulative war-hawks. (449)

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