The mediasphere’s key Memorial Day weekend moment yielded some common wisdom: Use simple, plain English if you want to mount a challenge to how Americans view fallen military service members. Instead, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes deployed the term “rhetorically proximate.”
Now for some context. The Sunday edition of “Up with Chris Hayes” included a great deal of discussion on the meaning of Memorial Day. The host used this foothold to pronounce concerns with the wide use of the term “hero” in connection with the fallen.
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 memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism — 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.
That fit of wishy-washy liberal conspiracy-mongering resulted in a prompt write-up on the NewsBusters site, which dinged Hayes for being “effete.” The Veterans of Foreign Wars took note of the comments as well, calling on Hayes to deliver an “immediate and unequivocal apology.”
The MSNBC host followed orders. On his blog Monday, Hayes wrote a ”statement” on the episode. The three paragraphs wind through high considerations and deep thoughts, ending with this: “And for that I am truly sorry.” It qualifies as a heartfelt apology. Comments underneath that apology reflect a country of disappearing middle ground: Posters either congratulate Hayes for speaking the truth or wish upon him the loss of his show and pennilessness.
After watching the entirety of Hayes’s Memorial Day segments, however, you wonder just what he was apologizing for. His mumblings about heroes gave way to an interesting panel discussion about war and bravery and just causes. He devoted a long segment to the history of Memorial Day, moved into a discussion with a former Marine casualty officer and even included some heartbreaking stuff on military suicides. Respect for our military comes from every direction on this broadcast. And the more of it that you watch, the less central or representative does the “rhetorically proximate” moment appear.
Yet it’s there, and when you say something that’s near, on or over the line on cable TV, you get it. Hayes fell short in failing to draw a line between this culture of valor and its relationship to warmongering. Without digging too deeply into the history books, I am recalling that the justification for the Afghanistan war was that Afghanistan had served as a safe haven for al-Qaeda; for the Iraq war, it was all about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction — mushroom clouds, evil trailers, missiles. Perhaps the cult of the military hero was “rhetorically proximate” to those justifications. Perhaps it was in the next room or the next paragraph. But at least in the case of the Iraq war, lies or huge mistakes — not heroes — were in the vicinity of the official justifications.
Here’s the lesson that Hayes supplies for Senior Seminar on Broadcasting: Memorial Day doesn’t sneak up on us. It’s essentially the same time every year. If you’re going to use this key holiday to open a new front in the discussion of military heroism and politics — certainly a worthy idea! — use those other 364 days to prepare all of your thoughts and marshal some facts to back them up.