Heroics And Noise

One of the reasons I’ve resisted Twitter for so long has exploded into reality less than a week since I opened an account. That reason is my dislike of noise. Worse, the noise is arising between parties I have regard for on both sides of the windy dispute. I refer to this morning’s Twitter war between Kurt Schlichter and Conor Friedersdorf.

I see no reason to endorse or defend Chris Hayes’ now-apologized-for and walked-back remark over Memorial Day weekend  that not all active duty military servicemembers are heroes.

Nor do I see any reason to use Hayes as a whipping boy once he did actually walk back his remarks when it was pointed out that he went a bridge too far.

Nor do I see any reason to think that the dispute that arose in the wake of these remarks is about much more than Team Red versus Team Blue chest-thumping. Friedersdorf in essence calls Schlichter a liar; Schlichter responds by in essence calling Friedersdorf unpatriotic. Both are name calls by association with the left and the right.

The underlying issue is what is a “hero” and how to properly acknowledge and appreciate heroism. One the one side it’s true that not every soldier distinguishes himself or herself by conspicuously displaying bravery in the face of immediate danger. On the other hand it’s also true that the act of signing up to serve at all, even if one winds up in the rear with the gear, is a personal sacrifice and a value given to the nation deserving of recognition. And maybe it’s the case that parades and praise and other effusive displays of affection are not the only way to show respect for the troops — while also being true that such displays are an integral part of having an honored military in a free society.

So the discussion that could take place about what heroism and military service means isn’t really taking place. Nor is the discussion about how best to honor our deserving troops is not taking place. Instead we get accusations of dishonesty, stupidity, elitism, and cynicism flying back and forth with each side simply presuming the worst of the other.

It reminds me not so much of anything resembling dialogue or argument. Instead it is fans on two sides of the arena chanting “tastes great!” and “less filling!” at one another for nothing more than the exuberant fun of pursuing a vapid rivalry.

In sobriety it’s ridiculous to think that anyone actually dislikes the troops and it’s at least equally ridiculous to think that people are dumb or dishonest  because they are also patriotic. But sobriety would defeat the point of the exercise, wouldn’t it? The point of the exercise is to render one’s adversary unworthy of participating in the discussion at all, at least in the eyes of one’s own supporters. Since both sides are working towards the goal of winning the dispute by stripping the other of standing to argue, and both are succeeding (at least in their own eyes) the possibility of getting somewhere is foreclosed. No, the goal of the exercise is to attract eyeballs and inspire intense emotion, and to that end Friedersdorfand Schlichter have found convenient enemies in one another and have collaborated to manufacture a mutually advantageous dispute. But in pushing the issue the way they have, they have left whatever value could have emerged from this issue behind and rendered the dispute no longer even potentially productive.

I like both of them. Schlichter is a personal friend; Friedersdorf is a friend of a friend and an often interesting and thoughtful voice. Both have good things to contribute to a discussion. But I see precious little evidence of that discussion taking place.

This is why I try not to dwell in the world of noise and narrative. I can’t claim to be a flagbearer for either team and will probably never attain the popularity of those who are willing to do those things. But you know what? I can live with that.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. This is an almost spectacular misreading of almost every single thing Friedersdorf has actually said.

    • Also, this is one of those moments of vapid centrism that makes me want to bash in my own brains. One group of people (made up of liberals, libertarians, and conservatives, I might add) wants to have a discussion about heroism and how our use of it may or may not encourage unjust military action, one group of people wants to bash in their brains because they hate the troops. The notion that this is two sides trying to score points is the epitome of false equivalence.

    • I’m not so sure that’s right. Maybe when you defend Friedersdorf, you’re looking at this, which was substantive and contributed to the discussion. But I was looking at this, which looks to me to be as I characterized it — Friedersdorf calling Schlichter dishonest. Whether the rest of it is Friedersdorf concern trolling for Schlichter’s supporters or honestly explaining why Schlichter’s dishonesty is bad (as if dishonesty were not actually inherently bad). To me, the whole thing looks like the periodic and tedious Hanley-versus-Van-Dyke conflict we see so often here at the League, writ upon a larger canvas.

      It’s difficult for me to include links when I post from my phone; I’ve added the link to the Friedersdorf post where he goes after Schlichter above. Also, when I wrote the post originally, I misspelled Friedersdorf’s name and I’ve edited to correct that and I regret that mistake. But as for his counter-attack — if Schlichter was actually offering nothing of substance, Friedersdorf should not have engaged at all. But he did, and I continue to believe that the quality of the discussion has suffered as a result.

      • Well, it seems to me that, given the record of things people have actually said, it’s pretty clearly false that Chris Hayes “thinks our soldiers are suckers and fools at best, brutal sociopaths at worst”. So either Schlichter was mistaken or dishonest. We can perhaps disagree about which one.

        As for the rest, we’ve already sparred over Hanley vs. Van Dyke, so I’m not going to argue with you about the correct way to handle people who lie for the purpose of scoring political points. We’ll just agree to disagree there as well.

  2. There is a fair amount of chest-beating involved, as their almost always is when this sort of thing happens, but I think if you look at the full context of the conversation, there is very little balance. Once side clearly went on the attack. The other side, to the extent that they have participated, has mostly done so in a defensive manner and in a manner still considerably more mild than the other.

  3. Burt,

    I am curious. When Schlichter says that Hayes “thinks our soldiers are suckers and fools at best, brutal sociopaths at worst,” and says that I think the troops are stupid, do you agree that he is misrepresenting our positions?

    As I see it, he is spreading untruths about us, I am calling him out on it, and you’re saying that we’re both to blame – but without actually pointing to the specific thing I wrote with which you disagree.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Conor. Don’t take my criticism here as a rejection of you, I remain a big fan. I also think the issue is pretty much dead by now. But since you asked for it…

      Hayes’ original remarks spoke to soldiers giving up a significant degree of their agency and autonomy and moves from there to suggest that the soldiers lack the capacity to properly receive moral praise for their good deeds. This in conjunction with expressing reluctance to use the word “hero” to describe at least some members of the military; many servicemembers who are actually heros will tell you that they aren’t, but it should be obvious that it’s something entirely different when they’re told they aren’t heroes. The social protocol is for the civilian call the servicemember a hero, and then she offers a flattered demurrer like, “I’m not a hero, I just stood with my friends like anyone would have done.” Hayes deviated from that protocol and so risks being seen as rude and as an extension of that rudeness, insulting.

      Hayes also indicated that some things done by the military as a whole are morally questionable — by way of raising a question about the moral appropriateness of going to war in the first place, and by way of questioning the (impliedly false) moral justifications offered for war offered by national leaders. Those leaders might be politicians, but they might also be military leaders, and there is sometimes a degree of overlap between the two. I know the concept is that the anti-war politician has no particular beef with the soldiers even if they object to the war in which the solider fights, but this rings as hollow to the actual soldier and those who identify with her as does an evangelical Christian preacher’s claim to simultaneously love a gay person while condemning homosexuality under the rubric of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

      By defending Hayes, Schlichter sees you jumping into the same pot and endorsing these contentions and, worse, the emotional tone of insult achieved by way of deviating from the social protocol of deference.

      The phrase “suckers and fools” could be reasonably be used describe people who buy into lies others tell them, particularly when they are disadvantaged thereby. So one interpretation of Hayes’ remarks could be that they buy into the lies told them by their leaders and then they go to war and get killed. And that politically liberal civilians possess the ability to hear those same lies and identify them for what they are, thus distinguishing them as intellectually superior from the military people who apparently lack that same ability.

      The phrase “sociopath” indicates someone who has disregard for the moral consequence of their own actions — perhaps by abdicating their own moral authority. So one interpretation of Hayes’ remarks could be that military servicemembers act as though they can abdicate the moral responsibility for atrocities committed in war because, after all, they were just following orders.

      Schlichter is guilty of cherry-picking remarks from Hayes’ broader context. Frankly, I think your taking of his bait gets into the same error. It was obvious to you — as you wrote in your attack on Schlichter — that he’s got a chip on his shoulder and Tweeted about to loudly demonstrate how outraged he was that after listening to Hayes the chip became imbalanced.

      You fault Schlichter for making an inference about Hayes’ politics from the fact that he writes for the Nation. The reputation of that publication is such that this Schlichter’s is not an entirely unreasonable inference. Who are the Nation‘s conservative or libertarian writers? Who is it on the Nation‘s editorial board who advocates for positions enjoying broad endorsement by the political right or prominent Republican officeholders? Now, the inference of a political slant to the left could be overcome with a showing of evidence, but when Hayes calls himself a “liberal caricature” even in an attempt to poke fun at himself, the inference that he is politically liberal gains rather than loses evidentiary support. I don’t think you really engaged on this point in your dialogue with Schlichter, and I think he raised a reasonable inference. (By pointing out that Schlichter writes for a Brietbart site, aren’t you impliedly stating that he has an ideological agenda, too? Which of course he does, and which he would not deny.) But you still pointed to this inference as evidence of Schlichter’s illogic and dishonesty; while he was not particularly sober in making his point, the point was made and I don’t find that particular point either illogical or dishonest.

      You fisked his Twitters and subjected them to logic and analysis. Which is great when logic and analysis and truth are the goals of the discussion. Schilchter wasn’t going for that and more logic and analysis — he was mocking, as is his wont. And you did it with the purpose of calling him a liar, and a pernicious one at that — the whole point of your column was that Schlichter is spreading untruths and doing so, like the race studies professor you also criticized at the end of your column, to gin up outrage for a short-lived rhetorical advantage.

      One of Schlichter’s twitters that you posted contains his argument “…you seem to think the Left is a hotbed of support & respect for our troops.” Inflammatory language, to be sure, but within it is a point that deserves a response. The American political right appropriates patriotic symbols and effusive displays of affection and appreciation for those engaged in military service. There is a whole lot less of that going on over on the other side of the aisle. And maybe that should change; liberals and progressives need not be as sappy and maudlin as conservatives are in showing appreication for the troops, but the only Democrats I can think of who routinely make significant time in their public profiles to offer sincere-seeming gestures of appreciation for the military get characterized as “blue dogs,” “moderates,” or “centrists,” officeholders like Jim Webb and Dianne Feinstein. It’s a more rhetorically tricky thing for someone like John Conyers or Dennis Kucinich to “love the military but hate the mission,” particularly when members of the military draw their identities from their missions. (I emphasize that last phrase to offer you food for thought about how to tackle the conundrum of sincerely praising the soldier while condemning the war in which the soldier fights, because I think it’s imperative that those who do oppose the war find a way to straddle that chasm and I think you’re probably smarter than I am in that respect.)

      You characterize Schlichter as having called the troops dumb. That’s not an accurate way of describing one of his cruelly sarcastic ploys. What he was actually doing was twisting your claim that he was fooling the troops and their families into fodder for his emotional schtick — the troops don’t feel fooled; therefore they are not food and since they want to agree with Schlichter, they do. This isn’t a logical appeal, of course, it’s an emotional one. Emotion, not logic, is what fuels outrage and it is what fuels humor, which is precisely the gambit you’re trying to call on the carpet.

      You wrote, “Calling the troops “dumb” is especially offensive because it trades on an inaccurate stereotype ignorant people harbor about men and women in uniform.” which is right as far as it goes, but even after identifying this as a “rhetorical trick,” you seem to persist in your belief that Schlichter is sincere when he calls the troops that; I think his sarcasm is transparently obvious. I know you weren’t trying to be dishonest by going down the rabbit hole of a sarcastic remark’s true intent, but having gone there you nevertheless failed to engage and left me wondering if you were twisting his words in a way similar to the way in which he had twisted Hayes’.

      So having chosen to wrestle with the pig in the first place, you did some cherry-picking of Schlichter’s remarks (the same thing you correctly accuse him of doing to Hayes), and didn’t really engage with the substance that was offered. You devoted a whole column to elevating throwaway remarks into something greater than the cheap shots they originally were.

      Now, my colleagues here at LoOG have suggested that even if there is any meat on those bones of criticism, Schlichter still comes out way worse than you in this engagement. A day’s perspective from my original remarks leads me to conclude that it is certainly right from a rhetorical and logical perspective, and maybe even also right from the emotional one on which Schlichter was operating. I have to do surgery on his arguments to extract valid points from them, and if he were making points in a sober sort of way, I ought not to have to do that. But he never wanted sober and thoughtful argument which is why I’ve never asked him to offer a guest post here despite the fact that I know very well that he’s actually a damn smart guy capable of putting together a thoughtful and sober argument, should he so choose. But it just isn’t going to happen so I’m not going to try.

      No, his goal was and probably will always be to elicit laughs and applause from an audience that does not include you; by offering yourself as a sparring partner, you gave him what he needed to get even more of what he had gone searching for in the first place. That you either didn’t understand or didn’t engage the factual substance upon which his particular brand of cruel humor was based added additional fuel to the fire.

      And hey, I’m guilty of making the mistake of wrestling with the pig from time to time myself. It’s much easier for one to point out when someone else has made that mistake than to stop oneself from doing it in the first place. Like I said, I’m still a big fan of yours. Cheers.

      • Hmmm. You seem to be saying that Conor was justified in defending himself, but stepped over the noisy line in the sand when he pushed back. Personally, I don’t know how a person is supposed to defend himself from what he believes to be a deliberate mischaracterization of his views in a public forum without pushing back. I mean, what’s the alternative? To just politely keep repeating “you’re mischaracterizing my views” and hope for the best?

        • In a word, no. Pushing back was not the issue for me. The issues I had with Conor are as I articulated above in laborious detail. Pointing those out should not be interpreted as a defense or domestication of Kurt’s statements in the affair.

  4. Burt, you are probably right that so much of this debate is Team Red vs. Team Blue stuff, but your critique of Friedersdorf seems off. His original article about the affair and Schlichter’s article was pretty bang-on. The Schlichter article to which he was responding was an over-the-top, intellectually dishonest attack on Hayes (in this comment thread, Ryan and Conor have already pointed out an unsupported, outlandish claim by Schlichter). You can’t equate that with Friedersdorf’s response – which was far more measured.

  5. To the extent that I am know what Hayes actually said and to the extent that my knowledge thereof is accurate–and I admit I got the rundown from the Friedersdorf article you cite approvingly and not from viewing the actual show–then it seems clear that Schlichter indeed lied or so misrepresented what Hayes said as to amount to the same thing as lying.

  6. If I may jump to Burt’s defense here, I think a lot of the criticism he’s getting is missing the point, which I don’t take as having anything to do with who is more at blame for the Twitter fight, nor whose tweets are worse, nor even with declaring a pox on both houses. Instead, his point is about the effects of Twitter on useful discourse. As I take it, his point here is that regardless of blameworthiness, the exchange cannot be said to have generated any light, only heat, and Twitter’s format inherently assures that result.

    Assuming Schlichter’s original piece was utter garbage, the usual response absent Twitter would more likely have involved a post by Conor thoroughly and in detail fisking what Schlichter wrote. But as people turn more and more to Twitter for things like this, with Twitter’s built-in limitations, it becomes very easy to misinterpret what people are actually trying to say, especially because interpreting a Tweet requires the reader to project all sorts of motives upon it based on the reader’s own prejudices about the person sending the Tweet. The result is a lot of noise where the participants are talking about entirely different things.

    Longer-form writing, by contrast, allows the writer to provide their reasoning in a way that allows the reader to avoid automatically relying on all of the reader’s own prejudices and assumptions about the other team (and their own team, for that matter).

    • Thanks, Mark. This was indeed my original point; “Twitter — damn, it’s loud in here!”

      I don’t have a problem with an exploration of the substance underlying the spat between Conor and Kurt, though. Those who wish to participate in it can and will benefit. And it’s a pleasant enough way to pass time waiting for the court to call my case.

  7. The top search term for the sub-blog today is “kurt schlichter is an idiot.” I don’t know if that would amuse Conor, but I’m confident that it would amuse Kurt.

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