Sunday, May 27, 2012

moral support necessitates moral distinctions

Chris Hayes is in quite a bit of hot water online because he said that he was uncomfortable calling dead soldiers heroes. Since his show started, Hayes has done things that I frankly never thought possible on cable news, so I'm biased. And of course I've said more extreme things about our military myself, here in this space.

I will simply say what I have always said about soldiers and the police: there is no such thing as praise that does not recognize the individual character of the person being praised. What our post-9/11 national conformity insisted was that we heap praise on the police, firefighters, and the military without any discrimination between individuals or any judgment of their particular characters. This, in fact, is not praise. It's actually a profound assault on the possibility of real praise; it denies the existence of moral differences and squashes all actual praiseworthy conduct into a homogeneous, bland affirmation. Compliment without judgment isn't good enough for dogs or children. It shouldn't be good enough for those whom we claim to be honoring.

The ethic of unconditional praise, of course, dulls our ability to separate your average grunt from Robert Bales, those responsible for the massacre at Haditha, those responsible for Abu Ghraib. It's the same with police; when you simply call all police heroes, you hand out laurels to crooked cops and wife beating cops and drug dealing cops. Not only are not all cops heroes, not all cops are good people. Cops are humans, and as such there are good ones and bad ones and awful ones. Same with soldiers. And the extension of praise without judgment simply makes it more tempting to be bad; many cops are out of control, abusing people left and right and rebelling openly against accountability. That's the inevitable consequence of our blind regard.

Because Chris Hayes is willing to judge soldiers as individuals, he has the moral and intellectual preconditions for genuine respect. That our culture prefers the false flag of fawning, empty praise to actual human regard tells you just about everything.

I saw a guy I went to high school with a couple years ago; he had done a tour of duty in Iraq. He told me he never says "support our troops," because "some of those guys still owe me money." There's wisdom in that.


freeloader said...

Obviously nationalist mythology that is used to silence critics of wars and to create pride in those wars and the nation, no matter what the justifications and tactics of the wars are. But I guess because Obama and not Bush is in office this is no longer uncontroversial.

Anonymous said...

Did you see William Deresiewicz's essay a few months back on the cult of the uniform in the Sunday Times? He probes the psychology of our need for "heroes"; I think you'd enjoy the piece:

Son_et_lumiere said...

You're very right. Doug Stanhope has previously made much the same point :D

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