Politics of Heroism

By John Buell

Chris Hayes’s comments on his MSNBC program regarding heroism provided another opportunity for the hard right to engage in its favorite pastime. Over Memorial Day weekend, Hayes paid tribute to the bravery and the sacrifices of the men and women who serve our country, but then had the temerity to wonder whether the word “hero” wasn’t often deployed in a way to prevent debate as to the morality or efficacy of the war effort itself.

As several commentators have pointed out, Hayes raised these questions in a thoughtful and exploratory way, went out of his way to commend the efforts of our soldiers, and invited critical responses.

Since no good deed goes unpunished, Hayes’s reflective questions were greeted with a barrage of distortions and ad hominem attacks. The intensity and palpable distortions in the attack on Hayes lend plausibility to his concerns about the repressive uses of current heroism discourse.  They also suggest just how fragile so much of the hard right is. Its refusal to countenance even the most open and respectful dialogue speaks volumes.

These comments are typical of right wing efforts to use such controversies as an opportunity to question the patriotism and morality of those who oppose the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. They are also part of an effort to rewrite history, as in reiteration of the long discredited notion that anti-Vietnam war groups “spat on” returning vets. More broadly, the organized right seeks to police the use of terms such as heroism and patriotism over which it seems to assume it has monopoly control.

Heroism is a politically laden concept, and like all central political concepts is subject to debate. Conor Friedersdorf points out at TheAtlantic.com: “For starters, there isn’t even broad agreement about what the word hero means. Merriam Webster says a hero is a) a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; b) an illustrious warrior; c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d) one who shows great courage.”

In the US context, definition a is hardly applicable, though religious inspiration does sometimes slip into many discussions of heroism. C and D are often cited, but one key distinction lies with regard to the question of courage on behalf of what. In the eyes of the major media, hero is confined to those who sacrifice on behalf of the government’s national security agenda.

That requires not only sacrifice and willingness to die in such ventures as our current occupations but also an unquestioning commitment to these goals. Thus Arizona Cardinal safety Pat Tillman was regularly cited as a hero until such time as it became clear that he had died at the hands of friendly fire and his family made clear that he had become increasingly disillusioned about the US war effort. Heroism discourse serves economic objectives as well. Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, July Fourth are all occasions when we are besieged with public service ads during sporting events on behalf of the military. They “protect our freedoms.” We are told that these are the real heroes, the real superstars, Yet we are never informed just what those freedoms are.

It seems clear that the freedoms that really matter to those who make the ads and control the airwaves are those that lie in the center of the neo liberal project. Corporations have the right to monopoly profits either at home or abroad. Thus the past college basketball season opened with a game on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of those instruments to deploy US power around the world.

But what happens to those who seek to exercise a vital freedom, that of speech? Julian Assange is treated as dangerous criminals merely for publishing — not stealing — classified information, much of which is treated in a loose manner by the government agencies charged with its maintenance. He faces threats and risks at least as dire as those encountered by most US service men and women.

Finally, many of the protesters today, from those opposed to the XL pipeline to the Occupy Wall Street movements are doing more to advance our political freedoms than most US citizens. And given the brutal police response they have faced, they are clearly in as much danger or more danger than most TV viewers recognize. I recently had occasion to talk with a college classmate, a Unitarian minister active in social causes. He had recently returned from a pipeline demonstration in D.C. He pointed out that handcuffs are hardly benign, especially when police tighten them to inflict pain. He had ended in an emergency room with a $1,200 bill.

My friend’s story reminded — and challenged — me with a tale, perhaps apocryphal, from the life of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau had been jailed for refusal to pay a racially discriminatory poll tax.  Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and posed the question what are you doing in there, to which Thoreau responded why aren’t you in here? Heroes challenge and inspire. Progressives need their heroes.

For me one of our most impressive contemporary heroes is Scott Olsen, who after receiving many combat medals based became disillusioned with the war. He then joined the Occupy movement and suffered almost fatal head injuries when stuck by a police fired beanbag during participation in an Occupy Oakland rally. I am waiting for Fox et al. to recognize and acknowledge this vet’s heroism.

John Buell is the author of Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age. Email jbuell@acadia.net.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2012


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