Rhetoric, Rites and Repentance: Some Thoughts on the Chris Hayes Affair

By Matt Sheedy

On the Memorial Day Weekend edition of his show, Up with Chris Hayes, the MSNBC host posed a question that is rarely asked on mainstream television: when speaking of war and remembrance, what does the word “hero” accomplish for those who deploy it? The conversation that followed was a critical yet cautious exploration of this question
guided by Hayes’ concern with how the word functions rhetorically to support the righteousness of war and sacrifice. Despite several qualifying statements and even arguing to the contrary, that there is perhaps something “noble” about voluntarily joining the military that could be seen as heroic, within a few hours the blogosphere had exploded with condemnation, leading Hayes to apologize the very next day and to host a segment on his June 2 program with four retired military personnel on “bridging the civilian-military divide.” Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

For many on the political right this was seen as a classic example of “liberal elitism.” From this perspective, since the very right to free speech that Hayes was exercising is seen to have been won and maintained through military service, to not valorize the troops as
heroes is to either misrecognize the source of one’s freedom or, what is worse, to consciously profane their sacrifice. While some “liberal” commentators came to Hayes’ defense, most were quick to give him the proverbial pants-down spanking, such as David Mercer, who offered the rather tepid argument that Hayes was merely “thinking out loud” and not necessarily considering what “roll[ed] off his lips,” while going on to note that it was a “stupid comment” that he was right to apologize for. That Hayes was not trying to “desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that has fallen,” as he stated on his May 27th program, but rather raising the issue of how we “do things with words,” to invoke J. L. Austin, was clearly lost on most and, in the end, the doxa of sacralizing the war dead as “heroes,”a term that, as Elisabeth Anker points out on Al Jazeera’s Listening Post, comes from the Greek use meaning “superhuman,” “God-like,” and “morally pure in character,” seemed to trump that other sacred right of free speech. And herein lies a strange pathology, where the right to speech is seen as both sacrosanct and limited, both upheld and denied at the same time. How to account for this contradiction? One possible explanation can be found in Lévi-Strauss’ theory of ritual and place. As he writes in Savage Minds, “being in their place is what makes [sacred things] sacred, for if they were taken out of their place, even in thought, the entire order of the universe would be destroyed.” (17)

Conservative pundit Bill Whittle performed this contradiction exquisitely in an editorial defending Hayes’s right to speak on the premise that such a right is “derived from natural law,” while noting that although such a right “may have come from above, it’s paid for by the blood of those soldiers he disparaged.” At the same time, and in the same breath, Whittle concluded his remarks by stating that, “in the end, it is pampered elitist, clueless opinion shapers like Chris Hayes that can’t tell the difference between good and evil or our side and theirs and undermine civilization by [opening] the gates of the city to the barbarians.” While few were as explicit and partisan as Whittle in explaining the reasoning behind their condemnation, the shared sense of sanctity in relation to the war dead amongst many of the liberal intelligentsia suggests that Hayes was onto something bigger than he imaged when he attempted to shake-up this sacred cow.

Here I’d like to suggest a different tact that Hayes might have used to navigate this “semantic minefield,” as the above-mentioned Al Jazeera segment called the affair. Drawing on Durkheim’s notion of “moral community,” we might consider how the term hero serves as a symbol to maintain and renew solidarity amongst the American public and functions not only as a justification for more war, but also as a synecdoche linking up with other narratives of courage and sacrifice that are particularly resonant in a post 9-11 and economically unstable world. Perhaps taking this more circuitous route would be a better way to ask how we do things with words than tackling the beast head-on? Personally, I hope Hayes returns to this question at a later date, though he would be well advised to avoid the hallowed Memorial Day Weekend. Might I suggest Christmas?

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