Does MSNBC Hate America?
By Mike Phifer
Over the weekend, would-be public intellectual and MSNBC host Chris Hayes slipped his Gucci loafers neatly into his mouth. While discussing the language used to talk about wars, Hayes took issue with the word “hero” being used for fallen soldiers. In doing so, the horn-rimmed Hayes served himself to ideological foes on a silver platter (fair trade silver, naturally). He explained:
“I think it’s interesting because I think it is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the words “heroes.” Why do I feel so [uncomfortable] about the word “hero”? I feel comfortable — uncomfortable — about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, 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.”
Regardless of what you think about MSNBC’s politics generally or Chris Hayes specifically, it seems he wasn’t willfully trying to disrespect or denigrate those who’ve died for our country. In fact, he took special care to say just that. So why the fuss? Weren’t Hayes and his guests simply having a candid, honest conversation about the rhetoric of war we so often use (or misuse) in the back and forth that is American democracy?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that Hayes and his panelists fell victim to their own narrative caricatures; that is, they fulfilled the negative storyline their critics have written for them. In this case, their language perpetuated the stereotype of anti-war liberals who sneer at and criticize America from their posts of privilege. By having a conversation on live TV that smelled like questioning the heroism of American troops who died in battle, the panel reinforced the anti-America stereotypes their conservative antagonists have been developing for years.
Of course, people should be able to speak their minds and say what they think. But, words have consequences and are rarely taken at face value. People interpret your words through what they already think of you, flattering or not.
Those who hate MSNBC and President Obama, just like those who hate George W. Bush and Fox News, are always looking for an excuse to scream foul play. It’s not that Hayes’s critics can’t comprehend the conversation he was having: They don’t want to. In the modern Left vs. Right political cold war, comprehension gave way to petty point scoring long ago.
A wise man—Michael Maslanksy, in fact—once told me, “If you have to explain what you just said, then you’ve already lost.” With gotcha-politics gone wild and video cameras around every corner, how those in the public eye must talk about sensitive issues like race, gender, class, and even war has changed.
There is no more “news cycle.” There’s only the cycle—an endless churn of Drudge Report headlines linked to YouTube videos linked to Twitter wars linked to Facebook posts ad infinitum. So the minute you say something that reinforces your narrative caricature (think Romney on liking “to be able to fire people” or President Obama on “spreading the wealth around”), you can’t go back. Retractions and apologies don’t make headline news. That’s why thinking carefully about what you say and, more importantly, how you say it is paramount—especially when it’s being recorded.
A full century before the internet shrank the earth, Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” He may have been onto something.
To keep lies (and mischaracterizations) about you from racing around the world while the truth is still barefoot, know your narrative caricature before you speak. Ask yourself, what do people think of me? How do my most vocal detractors view me? And then ask, does what I’m saying feed that stereotype? If so, take a minute to choose your words and arguments more carefully.
Chris Hayes has since issued an apology for what he said on MSNBC, but the damage is done. Had he stopped to consider his own narrative caricature before publicly questioning whether fallen soldiers are actually “heroes,” he could have spared himself the humiliation altogether.
Tags: foot in mouth