Rachel Maddow talks about Ethics, Stanford, and Her New Book

Posted by at 8:01PM

Yesterday, Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” spoke to the Stanford community about her time as an undergraduate and about her new book “Drift.” Memorial Auditorium was packed, filled with students drawn by the chance to see one

Rob Reich and Rachel Maddow, answering questions during the Q&A.
Photo credit: Charles Russo

of Stanford’s most famous alumna.

You could almost miss the fact that the talked was sponsored in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Program in Ethics in Society. But Maddow and the people that introduced her, Professor Rob Reich and senior Jessica Asperger,  gave us reminders that the focus of the talk was about ethics, about how the choices we make have consequences.

Maddow first introduced us to this subject by talking about her time at Stanford. Although she didn’t have any prior plans to complete a Public Policy major or honors thesis, they became steps towards completing her personal goals. After coming out and deciding to become an active member of a gay community she believed was being terminated by AIDS, Maddow said,”At age 17, I came out and thought my role was to fight.” She didn’t know what exactly she was going to do or how she was going to accomplish it but the program was one of her first steps down the long road that has allowed her to become one of America’s most thoughtful political commentators.

Stanford Life

As an undergraduate, Maddow wrote an honors thesis about the AIDS epidemic. From there, she continued her AIDS advocacy work for 11 years. In all the time that she was an activist, she used a skill she started to hone as an undergraduate: the ability to persuade. Maddow did not feel like she fit perfectly with the Stanford community, being one of two gay students out in her Stanford class year. But she gained an education that still drives her to this day. Maddow said, “What I learned here is still the alpha and omega of what I do everyday.” She may have been “alienated and annoyed and self-centered” but she made a decision to take advantage of Stanford’s resources to make a difference for in a topic she was passionate about. Maddow gave the following advice to students:

“Make one big argument. And [then] subject yourself to people who will rip it apart. ”

“Make good arguments. You will want to at some point. Get good at that. ”

“Don’t worry about fitting in here…everyone who had an awesome social life in college has a crappy one now.”

To activists specifically, she said “Pick a fight that has an outcome…[it] keeps people motivated. ” During her years as an activist, she narrowed her focus to AIDS in prison because she cared about prisoner’s rights and because it was a situation where she could have a direct impact. As she blithely stately, “It never occurred to me to work on world peace.”

Her main piece of advice? “Become the best thing you can be about the thing you are most passionate about.”

Although ethics has a broader application, it pushes you to question what you are doing, whether it’s right or wrong or somewhere in between. While these questions impacts crises like our national battle with AIDS, it has meaning for an undergraduate’s life as well. In speaking about how she spent her time outside her dorms  – Paloma, Chi Theta Chi and Columbae – Maddow reminded listeners that we as students are making important choices right now.

A Country Adrift

Maddow also spoke extensively about her recently published book, “Drift.” In her book, written for civilians by a civilian, Maddow discusses the issues inherent in our nation’s state of perpetual war and the increasing distance between the military and the citizens that they fight to protect.

Initially, Maddow spoke of the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal – of over 5000 warheads, each with the power to cause an explosion 10 times the size of Hiroshima. In her book and in her talk she asked an ethics question – to what end? She explained how America has a $20 billion  stock of weapons, with a Pentagon full of defunct programs, that they no longer want. Maddow said it was time for a change in both how we conduct wars and how it will be funded in the future.

She said, “I am not pacifist…I respect the decision of a country to maintain a robust military. [But] we are not doing [the military] any favors by insulating them from the  competition of resources.” Maddow hopes that competition will allow us to prioritize our defense programs and that it will bring national attention to an area that is getting more and more secretive as administrations change – America’s way of having war. From Reagen’s secret war in Granada and onwards, Congress has been less and less vocal about the conflicts that America is participating in. Maddow explained that 40 years ago, America changed its way of going to war. American officials, not wanting to convince the public that a cause is worth spilling American blood, have taken to carrying out operations in secret, sometimes through the CIA. Ultimately, Maddow explained that “we are designed to be a peaceable country.”Our constitution states that Congress, a representative body of every state of every person in the nations, is the only one that has the power to declare way.  It is not supposed to be easy.

And it’s not supposed to be easy for the American public to distance themselves from the conflict.In the final part of her talk, Maddow discussed the primary focus of her book: the growing distance between civilians and military personnel. Not only are Americans distancing themselves intellectually, but are distancing themselves emotionally.  Only 1% of American are active in the military and thus only 1% of families are directly impacted by these lengthy conflicts. Although we may be emotional in the face of commercial reminders of our soldiers struggles, and clap for them when they are in uniform on planes, Maddow stated that civilians now look on soldiers with a mix of pity, hero-worship and fear. “Civilians are alienated from the people who are fighting in our name,” said Maddow.

Maddow believes that this lack of debate about war and feeling that someone else is fighting our wars, are all fixable. It’s not the way its supposed to be and her book calls for a change.

Maddow provides a quick introduction to her book on her website here.

Lingering Questions

The night was capped off with a question and answer session. Students and community members came to pick her mind about what it means to be an activist, the changing role of humanities in academia, and her thoughts about both external and internal conflicts in America. Her final words,  in response to a question about the changing gay community, were tinged with the ethical lessons she learned at Stanford. She explained that in coming out  you don’t know who’s heart you’re helping or breaking, but that by taking this action you are changing things and paving the ways for others. It’s a thought we can all take away and apply to our daily lives.

Update: Clarification made in third paragraph.



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