By Aaron Sekhri
In her first visit to Stanford since she graduated in 1994, Rachel Maddow ’94 brought a mix of policy acumen, humor and sarcasm to a packed Memorial Auditorium on Saturday evening, arguing for a greater emphasis on rigorous humanities disciplines and advocating a more empathetic relationship between civilians in America and combat forces abroad.
Maddow, an MSNBC talk show host, had been invited to speak at Stanford by the Honors Program in Ethics and Society, of which she is an alumna, as part of its 25th anniversary celebrations. She was asked to address two distinct subjects: the impact of her honors thesis and her humanities education on her intellectual formation and advancement, and the content of her book, “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.”
“Drift” argues that American involvement in conflicts abroad has become more secretive and less transparent over time and that the burden of war on American society has become spread increasingly unequally over the last few decades. Maddow spoke at length about the need for civilians to engage the military in a more active and empathetic way.
The Stanford years
Introduced to extended applause and a standing ovation, Maddow began the talk with a discussion of her Stanford experience, her intellectual formation at the University and her work on HIV/AIDS advocacy.
“There were two things that I knew,” she reflected. “People were getting very sick, and people [were] fighting like hell to stop that from happening. And so, at age 17, I came out and decided that my role was to fight, but I really didn’t know what I had to offer.”
“My initial reaction [upon reaching Stanford] was the same one that everybody has, which was, ‘I hope that they don’t know that this was a mistake,'” she joked. “I never felt like I really fit in … so I sort of decided, as long as I’m here, I would like to use the incredible resources of this place to try to accrue some assets, to try to build something that I could use in this fight that I felt ethically and culturally to be part of.”
Reflecting on the link between her activism and her motivation, Maddow said that she concluded that her eventual career goal — one to which her time at Stanford contributed — was “to persuade.”
“I figured out pretty quickly, probably by the end of my sophomore year, that mostly what I needed to learn, what I most needed to accrue while I was here with all of these resources available to me, is to be persuasive,” she said. “I needed to learn how to win arguments.”
One of the steps towards realizing that goal was her enrollment in the Honors Program in Ethics and Society.
“It was the idea of taking the rigor and analytical discipline that you must develop in order to read philosophy well, let alone write philosophy — to use that matrix of morals and logic and thinking hard about responsibility and to apply that to the world, to real problems and real issues,” she recalled. “Make one big, sound argument, and subject to people who are very smart with arguments and who will rip it apart.”
“Apparently they’ll keep ripping it apart for 15 years,” she added, noting that her own thesis is regularly given to students to critically assess for themselves.
Having graduated from Stanford with a degree in public policy, Maddow continued her studies at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. While Maddow said that she recognized the intellectual value of her education during her time as an AIDS activist, incorporating fields as disparate as philosophy and statistics, she noted that she had never been enamored socially with her Stanford experience.
“While I was here, I was alienated and annoyed, and, honestly … I was out as a freshman, and there was one other person who was out,” she reflected.
“I didn’t quit,” she noted. “And that rigorous assessment of facts and construction of argument that, which I learned here on purpose, to try to make myself better at being the kind of human I wanted to be … that thing I learned here is absolutely still the alpha and omega of what I do everyday.”
Released last year, Maddow’s book argues that military expenditure has become detached from realistic needs and that America increasingly goes to war without a societal appreciation of war’s costs and consequences.
“We all have an interest in America having an outstanding military,” she said. “But that aim is not helped by exempting the military for competition for resources. With no check on its growth … the super-funded, super-empowered national security state has become a leviathan, with an artificial primacy of defense among our national priorities, and we are actually weaker for it and not stronger.”
Maddow framed her ideology as one that appreciates the need for a robust military but argued that a dysfunctional weapons procurement process has hindered and compromised America’s military readiness and strength.
“I am not a pacifist,” she emphasized. “I have a lot of respect for pacifism … and, although I have a lot of respect for it, I do not share the belief that war is always the single, worst option.”
She also argued that the means by which the United States prosecutes conflicts has also changed to become more secretive and more clandestine, in an occurrence that she stressed was strictly nonpartisan.
“I think the insulation that cossets and does no favors to what we spend in a military context is the same insulation that plagues the decisions of what we do with our military,” she said. “Over the past 30 or 40 years, in a nonpartisan, non-conspiratorial way … we ended up changing the way we go to war, so it’s not as much of a hassle right now.”
“We’ve come up with all of these ways to wage war to get around the constraints that were put there on purpose to make war a discomforting state for Americans,” Maddow asserted. “I think we were designed to be a deliberately peaceable country.”
Maddow then spent time discussing the burden of war as applied to society as a whole, arguing that only a small portion of American society truly feels the costs of war and that those that do not absorb those costs are additionally insulated from those that do.
“We as civilians are alienated from the people who have been fighting in our name,” she lamented. “Our lives and their lives have been very different for more than a decade now, and there is an inverse relationship between their sacrifice and our sacrifice …The worse things get for them, the more blasé we are about it.”
Noting the many ways in which media, sporting and corporate advertisements acknowledge the sacrifices of soldiers and their families, Maddow said that she does not disapprove of such pronouncements of military support. She argued, however, that they are far from sufficient in capturing the true extent of the debt owed those in uniform.
“I do not actually feel cynical about this guaranteed, marketable, even monetizable emotional payoff that we civilians dependably demonstrate in reaction to this narrated truth of how much soldiers and their families have given up while we have given nothing,” Maddow said. “But emotional payoff is close to pity, it’s close to hero worship and it’s close to fear — it’s not taking on those people’s lives as if they are our lives in concert with our own civilian lives … At a certain point, that emotional feeling that we have is something that we need to interrogate in terms of what our actual responsibility is to them.”
Maddow then took questions from Rob Reich M.A. ’98 Ph.D. ’98, professor of political science, and members of the audience on topics as diverse as the progress of gay rights — which Maddow attributed to the argument against gay rights having “gone out of intellectual fashion” — to her residential experiences at Stanford. Maddow lived in Paloma, Chi Theta Chi and Columbae over her three years at the University.
Maddow advocated the humanities in a vigorous defense of so-called “fuzzy” majors and, showing a disdain for interdisciplinary programs, stressed the need to study courses focused narrowly on one domain.
After Maddow left to a second standing ovation, Jacob Kovacs ’13 said that he was impressed not only at her humor and intelligence but by the depth and profundity of her talk.
“Rachel Maddow was an incredibly engaging speaker,” he said. “While she touched on deep issues related to Stanford … throughout the whole talk she painted a picture of how to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.”
While Maddow’s talk touched on a variety of subjects, she appealed regularly to the refrain that Stanford offers an experience that cultivates one’s faculties in a deep and targeted way and hones one’s abilities to persuade and to argue.
“This is not a graduation speech,” she joked, “but my Stanford advice is to get at good at that, get good at making good arguments … Whether it’s just to persuade somebody to go on a date with you or it’s to persuade somebody to stop laughing at you and start listening to you, there will be a role in your life for assessing facts well and putting them in a structure that makes sense … no matter what you’re majoring in.”