The occasions during the week when one can spend time in front of the television watching programming devoted to politics and current affairs without slapping oneself numerous times in the forehead in exasperation that so much money and camera time could be wasted on so many microwaved observational leftovers, so many No shit, Sherlock minutes presented as expert or insider commentary, in other words general lameness are few. One of those exceptions and surely a superlative one is Up with Chris Hayes Sunday mornings on MSNBC.
It’s a distinctive program, the closest antecedent perhaps William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, at least in the sense that the actual point is to delve into the complexity of the subjects it undertakes to discuss, moral, intellectual and otherwise, the principal difference being that Hayes’ show is not by design confrontational. And mercifully this show is not subject to Buckley’s obscure references to antiquity used to bamboozle or mystify sparring partners vulnerable to the tactic. Naturally complexity, in this age of defiant post-factuality, reactionary mythology, cowed journalism, electronic mayhem and juvenilia is fraught territory from the get-go. Yet so far, Hayes and his well above-average panels have continued to grace the airwaves.
One thing rare about Hayes, for television, is his unconcealed intellectual enthusiasm and curiosity. Besides being simply bright he is fresh enough to journalism and certainly to television journalism not to have become fossilized in lazy, skin-deep Washington faux sophistication and jaded mediocrity. The idea here is to follow a subject as far into the thicket of knowledge and accumulated wisdom as desirable for the enlightenment of panelists and viewers alike. And in fact, one will actually learn things watching this show. If one feels steeped or relatively expert in any given subject already, one won’t feel cheated or insulted by the discussion here.
So obviously, this intellectual adventurousness had to run up against the prevailing anti-intellectualism, demagogic zeitgeist and infantilizing of the public square eventually. The occasion was this past Sunday, when, during a timely Memorial Weekend discussion Hayes set fatted heads around the nation to popping their stuffing when he heaved this football out for the panel to toss around:
“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.”
Predictably this was followed by an epidemic outbreak, especially on the right of how dare he? Anyone lulled into believing one could delve into the semantics and nature of heroism or the politics of language that surrounds foreign policy and American military adventure without the reliable town lynch mob hearing about it was abruptly witness to bombs bursting in air. The reaction was reminiscent of the brain dead controversy that greeted Bill Maher when he made the entirely indisputable and plainly obvious point after 9-11 that the men who flew planes into the World Trade Center were not cowards, as they were roundly being called, flying a plane into the side of a building and physical cowardice all but mutually exclusive. There was Orwellian creepiness all over Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer’s response that, “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.” Then ABC gave Politically Incorrect the ax.
Eager to ensure no one perceive an unsightly sprouting of testicles at a corporate media outfit NBC trotted out some mouthpieces on the NBC payroll (Star Jones, Danny Deutsch and Nancy Synderman) to deplore Hayes as a disgrace to mom and apple pie and to declare that his comments were in no way a reflection on the abiding timorousness of liberal weinerdom. Personally, I would prefer to see an old fashioned rumble across the airwaves with these faux-patriotic, bullet-headed, phony declaimers of effrontery, but of course I happen to be of the Irish persuasion.
Frankly, this country is about is dumb as it can get already without bumping into walls and dribbling saliva. We’re the country where evolution and climate change are controversial, academe is a dirty word and intellectual pursuit and being a member in good standing of the salt of the earth somehow are incompatible. Bullshit. In any case, the last thing this country needs is to stifle intelligent discourse whenever it can be found, though it is an abiding truth by now that the more uninformed, low information voting Americans there are, the better for our radicalized Republican champions of ascendant medievalism.