Rachel Maddow returns to Stanford: Activism, Arguments and the American Military

by Leslie Wu, PhD candidate

Rachel Maddow came to the Stanford campus today, almost twenty years after graduating with an undergraduate degree in public policy (BS ’94). At Memorial Auditorium, speaking to a sold out audience who invited her warmly with standing applause, Maddow told of growing up in Castro Valley. Jokingly, she reported that this was the first time she received applause for being from Castro Valley in the East Bay.

At high school’s end, Maddow was shocked when she found out she had been accepted to Stanford. Shortly before that, at the age of 16, she had been coming out to herself as a lesbian. A teenager at the tail end of the 1980’s, Rachel started to see her gay friends and community suffer from the AIDS crisis. She began her work on AIDS before coming to the Farm, volunteering and later believing that she would focus on health policy as a Stanford student.

Living first in Paloma as a Stanford undergraduate, Maddow moved to Chi Theta Chi and lived for a year in the Columbae house co-op, where she baked fresh bread (bad bread, she admits). Although Columbae residents still bake fresh bread today, a lot has changed in the twenty years since Maddow attended Stanford. At the time, Maddow was only one of two Stanford students out in her undergraduate class, which left Maddow feeling “alienated” from campus culture. Being a self-identified “depressed kid” at the time trying to figure out how to manage a social life on campus did not help.

Turning to her studies, Maddow focused on using the university’s resources to prepare herself to change people’s minds in the larger world beyond The Farm. She realized that her coursework could count towards a degree in public policy, and declared her major soon after. To end her Stanford career, Maddow wrote a senior thesis titled “Identifiable Lives: AIDS and the Response to Dehumanization,” as part of the Program in Ethics and Society.

Maddow noted that her academic studies and long-form thesis writing at Stanford led her to develop her skills at making arguments (with really long sentences). Commenting later on her role as an explanatory journalist, Maddow urged Stanford students to take statistics, philosophy, and to learn to make arguments that convince people. Somewhere in your life, proposed Maddow, you will have to be an advocate for something. In her role at as a television host at MSNBC, Maddow described her ability to speak reason to people in power, and stressed the importance of being able to write out and articulate one’s arguments.

After talking about her Stanford experience, Maddow’s came to her main argument, and primary reason for coming to Stanford: to narrate what Maddow calls “The Unmooring of American Military Power,” the subtitle of her March 2012 book Drift. While respecting pacifists and the argument for pacificism, she acknowledged a need for military strength, with the caveat that American war should not be something waged easily or without bound.

Maddow reminded the audience of America’s current and continuing wars, some of the longest in its history, noting that some have been fought without much in the way of congressional declaration or oversight. Maddow cited private outsourcing of armed forces and the seemingly expandable carte blanche of executive authority as movements that have made it easier for America to stay mired in what seems like perpetual war.

On the flipside, Maddow argued, civilians feel increasingly distanced from its military servicemen, women, and veterans. Asked about the return of ROTC to campus, Maddow expressed without much hesitation that she would support its presence on the Stanford campus. Interestingly, Maddow made no mention of split perspectives within the LGBT community about ROTC, and the recent Stanford Daily article made no mention of ROTC in its report, despite the very heated debates on ROTC’s return to Stanford over the last few years.

Stanford students grilled Maddow about what it means to write about war from a privileged perspective of not having been involved in one, except from afar, and sought her perspective as a former Stanford activist and openly gay media icon. “I wrote this [book] to a civilian audience for an America at war who doesn’t feel it,” said Maddow.

Noting that she speaks from a civilian’s perspective, Maddow said she wanted to explore this relationship between civilian and the military, feeling that there is a disconnect rooted in some triangle of pity, hero worship, and fear. As one mechanism of this alienation, Maddow suggested that we seek a “monetizable emotional payoff” as we watch narratives of military families as they reunite on screen. In contrast, this is done without acknowledging the lived experience of service members, as we let veterans’ claims for disability pile up in unwatched stacks.

As a student-activist at Stanford, Maddow spoke of her belief that activism is about changing things, and having concrete goals to achieve. “I’m not a person who joins things for the sake of joining things, I like to get stuff done,” said Maddow. Her stance on activism was that she is not a fan of consciousness raising by itself, and that explanatory journalism is not necessarily activism. She urged a member of SSQL (Stanford Students for Queer Liberation) — rhymes with equal not squirrel — that her position was to aim small, to shoot for things one could realistically achieve, feeling that this would avoid both burnout and allow smaller wins to encourage those that come after you.

Maddow admitted to being part of a fair number of “really dumb,” bad protests while still a Stanford student. In one demonstration, she held signs to protest William F. Buckley and his colleagues as they walked across the street from the Hoover Institute to Memorial Auditorium. But in a flash of wit, she flipped over her sign and wrote “Thank you for wearing a suit and tie in support of gay rights,” and described how attendees angrily took off their ties and said “nobody told me about this!”

After her activist period at Stanford, Maddow moved to SF and worked for eleven years as an AIDS activist. She focused on prisoners’ access to medical treatment, because “the policies were so obviously dumb and discriminatory… it was easy to win arguments.”

Asked about what she looks for in a hire at MSNBC, Maddow remarked that she found it very hard to find good writers. Praising history as “king”, Maddow described a preference in hiring writers for the show that went deep into a single field of study, rather for those whose majors were more interdisciplinary.

One Stanford sophomore asked Maddow about the fuzzy/techy divide, calling on Stanford faculty in the humanities to step up to the challenge of attracting and engaging students. Maddow passed the pressing question on to Rob Reich, professor of political science and moderator. In describing the impact of Stanford engineering, Maddow suggested that “Google didn’t create the world: they organized it.” If technology makes it easy to create vessels to share culture and “things”, we need those in the humanities to make and create those “things” that we care about. That is, argued Maddow, society still needs people skilled in humanities to create media and information worth organizing in the first place.

Responding to a question about what it means to be part of the gay community today for LGBT youth, Maddow noted that coming out does make it easier for those that come after you. While not demanding that we all come out now, she suggested that perhaps ethically, one should pay it forward as those who have come before you have made the path easier for you.

In response to Maddow’s talk, some LGBT-identified Stanford activists felt ill at ease with her support of ROTC’s return to campus, the American military, a pragmatic approach to activism, and a seeming distaste for interdisciplinary majors, at least in hiring for writing jobs at the Rachel Maddow show. But at least one can hope that by being out and elevating the level of political discourse as a whole, Maddow has paid it forward in some way to those of us who have come after her.

Thanks to Rob Reich for moderating, twitter user @joelaguero, and to the Stanford Honors Program in Ethics in Society for hosting the event.


Leslie Wu is a PhD candidate in Computer Science at Stanford, with a focus on medical checklists and healthcare technology. A member of the LGBT student community at The Farm, she is proud to have also lived in Columbae House and hopes to bake a good loaf of artisan bread for Rachel Maddow one day. Her ovenwork can be found at pinterest.com/lwu2/my-breads/.

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2 thoughts on “Rachel Maddow returns to Stanford: Activism, Arguments and the American Military

  1. Nathan says:

    Oh dear — what an incredibly uninspired piece of random promo. Writing a piece for STATIC you should allow yourself a bit of judiciousness and critical perspective (whatever your perspective might be). Duh!

  2. Janani says:

    Thank you for the summary!

    I still need to watch the video, but I’m going to disagree preliminarily with the idea that she’s elevated the level of political discourse on this campus. It sounds like she’s playing into the usual, fairly stagnant, neoliberal level of discourse that points to ‘difficulties’ or ‘problems’ in institutions like the military, without questioning their existence. I read her book ‘Drift’, and was frustrated it included little decentering of the US’s position as an imperial power even as it engaged the violent *consequences* of war.

    On the queer front, I’m frustrated also that she seems to be pushing coming out as a primary strategy…but I’d like to hear what her exact words were before making that call.

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