Since the debut of his show on MSNBC eight months ago, The Nation’s editor at large, Christopher Hayes, has tackled some of the toughest issues in politics with his trademark mix of intelligence, rigor, fairness and empathy. There are no three-minute hits from hack pundits on Up With Chris Hayes, no canned interviews with politicians. Instead you might find a two-hour panel on Israel-Palestine, or a refreshingly lucid roundtable on financial regulation, or an entire show devoted to atheism (yes, atheism!). You’ll also find guests you won’t find anywhere else on television (except on Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show, which follows Hayes’s program), guests that look like America: the young, people of color, grassroots activists, citizen agitators. The show tilts left, of course, but perhaps its most notable quality is its ability to host serious, good-faith discussions with panelists across the spectrum on deeply polarizing subjects—abortion, religion, taxation, national security—while somehow remaining above the partisan fray.
After his May 27 Memorial Day program, the fray came to Hayes. In the lead-in to a panel discussion, he offered the following remarks:
It is I think very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the word “hero.” And why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word “hero”? I feel uncomfortable about the word “hero” because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. And I obviously don’t want to 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.
There is nothing about these words or the context in which they were said that ought to be particularly controversial. Hayes was not impugning the conduct of any soldier. He was thinking out loud about the ease with which our national rhetoric about “heroes” and patriotism is exploited by those attempting to justify yet another war—a question that has been debated for centuries in literature, philosophy, theater and cinema, and by veterans themselves and their families. Earlier in the program, Hayes had discussed his interview with the mother of the first casualty in the “war on terror,” and he interviewed a former “casualty assistance officer” whose job was to tell families that their son or daughter, husband or wife is never coming home. Later in the program, Hayes even made a counterargument to his own point, invoking the nobility of military service.
Nonetheless, it was all too candid and thoughtful for a medium and a political culture that has little tolerance for nuanced, challenging debate. Right-wing pundits pounced, truncating Hayes’s remarks to just “I’m ‘Uncomfortable’ Calling Fallen Military ‘Heroes.’” And, to be fair, some veterans and their family members also wrote anguished letters in response.
Hayes issued a gracious apology the next day, noting that while his show intended to discuss the civilian-military divide, he came off as “a stereotype of a removed pundit.” The next week, Hayes opened his program with a panel composed entirely of vets who debated, among other subjects, the ethics and effectiveness of an all-volunteer army. In the next hour, Hayes hosted a roiling discussion about President Obama’s “kill list,” which included The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, who made a scathing critique of Obama’s drone strike policy.
Undaunted, Hayes was once more unto the breach. There was heat, no doubt, but there was also more light.