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Posted at 03:00 PM ET, 05/29/2012

Chris Hayes and heroes


A vintage hero. (Credit: The Frick Collection, New York, Gift of Miss Helen Clay Frick) (Michael Bodycomb)

I could be writing about the zombie, face-eating, drug-addled, naked man in Miami. But I decided it would be less soul-destroying to comment on the doings of cable news commenters  

Who knows whether in the long term I am right.

But in the meantime, Chris Hayes.

His remarks Sunday night about the justification for Memorial Day and the use of the word “heroes” have been causing quite a stir.

Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word hero?” Hayes asked, rhetorically. “I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the 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.”

Bad enough that he used the phrase “rhetorically proximate” — unacceptable in any circumstances, unless you have, say, just awakened in the middle of a sociology seminar and want to avoid attracting attention to yourself. And never mind the flippant argument that it is never wise to bite the hand that gives you a three-day weekend. His comments seem to illustrate my First Law of Talking, which is that anyone given a microphone and enough time will make a potentially career-ending gaffe.

Hayes has already apologized — at least for playing into the stereotype of the clueless pundit of whom, as Iago quipped, “mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership.” But his comments raise a larger question.

We keep tossing the word “hero” around. It’s not just for Hercules, Achilles, and certain sandwiches any more.

It’s suffering from the same sort of inflation that first bedeviled “awesome,” which used to be reserved for occasions when your actual deity showed up in person and shook you warmly by the hand. Now we bandy it around for everything. I think I called someone an “awesome hero” the other day for bringing me coffee. Admittedly, I badly needed coffee.

But we need to save the word “hero” for really important cases, like when Ryan Gosling rescues someone from traffic.

Hero used to be a profession. You couldn’t qualify unless you successfully quelled a Hydra or fetched some golden fleece or kidnapped someone’s three-headed hell-hound, and even then sometimes the union kicked up a stink and forced you to do a few bonus labors. Now you provide verbal encouragement to a cat stuck in a tree, and you get the title.

Even on “The Avengers,” bastions of superheroes, the definition of what exactly makes a hero seems to vary widely. Is it a suit? Do you have to be able to fly around in a metal ensemble and shoot things? Do you have to be able to destroy entire planets with your rage? Do you have to, er, jump long distances and carry a big shield? (I am not saying that Captain America is, by any means, lame or underrepresenting, but if your superpower is “evacuating civilians very efficiently from buildings,” I am not sure why anyone else on the team is listening to you.)

It’s not a problem that we’re calling soldiers heroes. It might be a problem that we’re calling absolutely everyone heroes.

We are doing to heroes what the Greeks did to their currency. Aquaman is a hero, for crying out loud. Justin Bieber is. You read to schoolchildren, and someone tries to pin a medal on you.

Maybe this started with our music.

According to Enrique Iglesias, being a hero is a simple process. All you have to do is kiss away the pain and stand by someone forever, allowing him or her to take your breath away.

Alternatively, just sit there and provide the wind beneath someone’s wings, and suddenly you’re a hero — and everything she’d like to be. Hold out for one to the end of the night, and you’re bound to run into somebody sure, soon, and larger than life.

Still, some professions are now heroic almost by default. Firefighters and schoolteachers and policemen are all heroes.

Perhaps this is as it should be. There are so few Hydras about, and very few three-headed dogs to capture. We face other challenges, and those who bear up admirably in the face of less improbable adversity deserve some sort of title. Maybe we should deflate the term to a more human scale.

Still, we can’t all be heroes, goes one of my favorite Will Rogers quotes, because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.

These days, the bar is so low that we’re running short on curb-clappers. And that’s a shame when the real heroes come to town, rhetorically proximate or not.

By  |  03:00 PM ET, 05/29/2012

 
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