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A Hero on Any Other Day: Memorial Day and the Chris Hayes Controversy

Much has already been said and written about Chris Hayes and his question about the word hero on MSNBC on Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend. He said he was not sure about the word, because it was proximate to justifications for war.

Today New York Magazine published a report by Andre Tartar that summarized what happened and who said what, both before and after Hayes spoke about the word hero. As reported by Tartar, the Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a statement that called the comments by Hayes disgusting and demanded an apology. Hayes did apologize.

The main points for Tartar were simple: all liberals hate soldiers and all soldiers died to give people, including Hayes, the right to speak freely. Holidays tend to bring out all-or-nothing logic.

Dying for one’s country is courageous. It is heroic. Those truths are self-evident. The reason for the outrage around Hayes and hero-gate is not what Hayes asked, but when he asked it, Memorial Day weekend. This is the time, set aside from ordinary time, to commemorate the extraordinary sacrifices of soldiers. Memorial Day weekend is not the time to ask whether soldiers die for a variety of reasons.

Memorial Day weekend is not the time to ask questions. Nuanced questions, such as whether it is possible to honor the soldier and to dislike the justifications offered for the war.

Not the time to ask about justifications for the war, this war, all wars, or any particular war.

But what if Hayes had wondered aloud about the justifications for war on any other day?  What if no one was ever allowed to wonder aloud about the justifications for war, on any day? Who would be outraged? What would outrage sound like, in a totalitarian context, where wondering out loud is outlawed?

Memorial Day is part of the sequence of holidays in which we commemorate not only soldiers, but nationhood. According to theories of “civil religion” advanced by Jean Jacque Rousseau a long time ago, and by Robert N. Bellah more recently, civil religion is the religion of the nation.

Memorial Day is a national holiday; a holy day set aside to venerate nation. It is not the day to deconstruct nations, wars, justifications for war, or any related topic.

On any other day, it might be possible realize that people can honor the soldier, but not the war. On any other day, it might be possible to recognize that soldiers die for reasons other than constitutional freedom. Delinking the individual sacrifice from the purposes of the collective effort is a first step toward peacemaking. Because the quality of the means does not justify the ends.

Iraq Veterans Against the War and Vietnam Veterans Against the War are two groups of soldiers who honor soldiers, but not wars. Some of the vets who question the current war threw their medals on the ground, in a street protest outside the NATO summit in Chicago last week. But they earned the right to do so.

When and how does a person having another occupation, such as journalist or a public intellectual — or perhaps even politician or world leader — earn the right to question the war?

On any other day, questioning the reasons for wars make the journalist a hero. Asking questions and seeking truth is what journalists do. But on the holidays celebrating nation, the job is more limited.

On Memorial Day weekend, the job is not to cover the story from all angles. It is not a day for journalism at all. It is not a day for questions, but instead for ritual. In his work on the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim famously defined religion as the separation of sacred and profane. He explained that the cultural boundary between sacred and profane is created and clarified through ritual.

Memorial Day Weekend is a sacred time because it is separated from the ordinary.  On ordinary days, journalists can be journalists. On any other day, being a curious journalist is heroic. On any other day, being someone willing to say what comes to mind, to think through difficult problems, and to face the criticisms of those not on the same node of the political spectrum, is the journalist’s role and profession.

But for one day a year, at least, practicing that profession is not allowed. How many days are there in which the nation and its wars can be or must be commemorated? And truly, what right to speak does a journalist have? What right does a person, who has not served in the military, have to honor the warrior, but not the war?

According to the vets against the war on terrorism, honoring the warrior, but not the war, is a possibility. It is also heroic, for soldiers and civilians alike. For journalists and politicians as well. But not today. Today is not that day.

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