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The Buzz

An Evening With Rachel Maddow: Confronting American Military Power and the Significance of the Humanities

By Alesandra Najera on March 6, 2013


The moment that Rachel Maddow walked on stage, audience members lurched to their feet, clapping and cheering for the returning Stanford ’93 alumna.

“Wow,” she quipped. “I haven’t even said anything!”

This interaction set the tone for the night. Maddow was invited to speak as part of the Undergraduate Honors Program in Ethics in Society, which Maddow participated during her time at Stanford. Now host of her own television commentary show on MSNBC, Maddow spoke to a crowd at Memorial Auditorium on a wide range of topics, from AIDS activism to the import of a nationwide military draft.

“What I most needed to accrue while I was here, with all of these resources available to me (was) persuasion,” she said. “I needed to learn how to win arguments. And so I did two things: I took a ton of statistics classes…and the other thing I did was I enrolled in the Ethics in Society honors program.”

The audience, composed of a mix of students as well as local community members, enjoyed a friendly exchange with Maddow throughout the evening, beginning with the Ethics in Society Program Director Rob Reich’s introduction. He presented Maddow with her senior honors thesis, “Identifiable Lives: AIDS and the Response to Dehumanization,” prompting amusement and anxiety from both Maddow and the attending students battling finals week and approaching honors theses deadlines.

Following a student introduction by Jessica Asperger, a senior in Philosophy writing her honors thesis with the Program in Ethics in Society, Maddow recounted how a background in the humanities prepared her for a career in activism at Stanford and beyond.

Reflections on her time at Stanford

“What I most needed to accrue while I was here, with all of these resources available to me (was) persuasion,” she said. “I needed to learn how to win arguments. And so I did two things: I took a ton of statistics classes…and the other thing I did was I enrolled in the Ethics in Society honors program.”

Maddow went on to emphasize the “in society” application as a key factor in her decision to complete an honors thesis, as it allowed her to apply the organized theoretical framework of philosophy to the real-world issues she intended to confront. Her interest in the practical nature of Ethics in Society carried over to career in activism, where she focuses on real political change, instead of merely raising awareness.

“I like to win — I like to win arguments,” she joked. “And if I’m working on changing a policy, I want to get it changed. So it would never occur to me to work on, like, world peace.”

Don't worry about "fitting in"

Indeed, Maddow valued rigorous academic preparation during her time as an undergraduate at Stanford, but the talk took a brief turn towards the personal as she recounted the alienation of being one of only two openly gay students on campus in the midst of the emergence of AIDS in the 1990s. Later, she returned to this issue by exhorting gay students to come out, in order to show support for other LGBTQ students struggling with their sexuality. However, she concluded her examination of her Stanford experience by encouraging students to worry less about fitting in socially and to focus on developing their writing and analysis skills in preparation for their chosen career.

“I will say that the only other advice I can give is to not worry about fitting in or not while you are here,” she said. “I did not. And I don’t have any regret about that…Get good at something. I think that is a better foundation for long-term happiness.”

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Maddow transitioned from the value of writing a long-form thesis to a discussion of her recent book “Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.” Maddow selected excerpts that detailed the bloating of our modern military. She spoke about the massive manpower required to maintain five thousand nuclear missiles across America, as well as the “immortality” of Pentagon programs championed by Congressional members anxious to maintain jobs and contracts in their districts.

Maddow also examined the military’s unrestrained independence by considering the concurrence of tax cuts and military expansion, the military’s ability to begin a war without Congress’ knowledge, and attribution of responsibility for drone strikes.

“I realize it’s boring to talk about who is operating the drone strikes, but I think it matters if it’s the CIA versus the military,” she said. “We understand the concept of civilian control of the military and civilian leaders’ accountability for military actions, since the commander-in-chief is a civilian official.”


Finally, Maddow considered civilians’ relationship with veterans who fight in our wars. She argued that the gulf of experience separating these two groups has furthered the separation from the American public and its military. Due to the increased privatization of the military and the limited impact that war has on civilians, our country has been able to enter a state of almost perpetual war. An Iraq veteran shared the following impressions with Maddow: “It’s like AIDS was thirty years ago. It is a huge crisis for us, but no one else in the country thinks they are us. No one even thinks they are like us.”

In this way, Maddow connected her AIDS activism and experiences with alienation on Stanford’s campus with the growing alienation from veterans and the military that has developed without our attention. Maddow aimed to engage a healthy bipartisan dialogue regarding the expansion of the military. She recommended more awareness and debate in place of the current lack of dialogue American civilians experienced in recent wars.

The techie/fuzzy divide

Much of the discussion following the talk, however, focused on her meditation regarding campus life and the importance of the humanities. Students focused on her foundation in activism, while Rob Reich investigated her perspectives regarding majors and the “techie”/”fuzzy” divide.

“My experience about what we need, in terms of human capital, is that, yeah, we need techies to be delivering vessels through which people can communicate and present content,” she said. “And we need content!...Google changed the world, absolutely. But Google didn’t make the world. Google changed the world by organizing it,” she said, to much appreciation from the “fuzzies” in the audience used to playing second fiddle to “techies” in Silicon Valley culture.

Ultimately, Maddow’s visit to campus spoke to a variety of experiences: that of the Stanford student and that of the world beyond the limits of our perspective, from the AIDS crisis in the 1990s to the implementation and execution of foreign wars. While Drift intended to prompt critical analysis of the modern military complex, Maddow’s talk certainly encouraged students to take a critical eye to their careers at Stanford and beyond.


View photos from the event or watch the talk:


"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's student-driven news portal. We review events and speakers and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. Undergraduate Stanford students write the articles and the Center for Ethics in Society edits and produces the content so that the student writers learn to translate academic subject matter into accessible terms and strengthen the clarity and precision of their writing.