This weekend saw Amherst host its most famous presenter for the semester. (Spring Concert doesn’t count). Rachel Maddow, as everybody knows as the host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, gave a book talk about “Drift”, some non-fiction piece about something military, something blah. Or at least, that’s what everybody was expecting right? It turns out, her critique of our country’s recent approach to war was quite fascinating, and, for the average student, revelatory.
Maddow started off the talk by saying that she was a little intimidated: “Your reputation precedes you and I’m sure you will tear apart everything that I say.”
I, for one, was so shocked to be in such close proximity to a celebrity that every snarky, eloquent word out of her mouth seemed like the one and holy truth. And I’m not sure others faired much better.
Did you know that Maddow won a Grammy nomination? Yeah, in the category of spoken word, for her 2012 book Drift. And after witnessing her excellent public speaking skills, I’m not surprised.
For example, look at this joke she used to transition from birthday talk to 20th century history:
“If you are a civics-minded American, you should probably also know who your birth president is,” she said, as we nodded, wondering what was going on. She went on: “I have never felt so old as when I realized that my birth president is Nixon.” Thank god for those of us born in 1992 that our birth president is Papa Bush.
But the actual talk was sobering. I imagine the average Amherst student doesn’t think much about the military aside of how it is used on a policy level. And staying true to her audience, Maddow started with the academics of the issue. She trashed the excess of military funding, our supersized nuclear program, and the intricacies of bureaucracy that make such programs difficult to pare down. It was funny and engaging, but very standard, until she mentioned that the military did not actually want all that funding. Surprise! It turns out that both the $4 billion increase in the missile defense program in Alaska, lovingly referred to as the “blunda in the tundra” and “disasta in Alaska” for it’s 40 percent success rate, as well as recent upgrades in tank equipment, were both unwelcomed by the Pentagon. In other words, Congress threw money at the Pentagon and told them to take it, whether or not they wanted it — money that could have seen far better use outside of military needs.
In her words, the “superfunded and superempowered national security state has become leviathan, and we are weaker for it.”
However, the main point of Maddow’s talk—“the thrust of this book” (get it? Get it? Thrust? Missile defense?)—was that “we as a country changed our way of going to war so it is not so much of a hassle anymore.” There were a couple of ways that the country was doing this, mainly by making many military interventions secret. The president would either send troops without consulting the Congress, as did Reagan in Granada; refrain from placing war costs in the budget, in the manner of George W. Bush; or give tax costs to the public, as if war were free—another Bush strategy. Surprisingly, however, Maddow’s point was not the overuse of the executive branch or the economy. It was that “war feels free,” while it certainly should not. Maddow acknowledged that the average citizen feels distanced from the wars we are waging, as if they weren’t tragic or hard, sometimes even forgetting that we are in our longest war in U.S. history. This creates an emotionally fraught relationship between veterans and citizens, where we simply don’t understand what they have been through—to the point that they fear alienation.
Maddow also drew from two patriotic symbols stronger than any liberal angst: the founding fathers and the homecoming veteran. She made the argument that the constitution—who doesn’t love the constitution? — gave Congress the power to wage war so that going to war would be difficult and a last resort and more importantly, a decision that the country agrees with.
She concisely explains the predicament: “I may have respect for you, I may be interested in you, but I don’t understand you.”
Maddow took a while to get there, but I think this final and main point about changing our culture, to treat war with more respect, struck a chord. Rethinking our culture has been something our campus has been focusing a lot about, and there seems to be an almost universal respect for veterans — a respect she acknowledged and used to make her argument that much more powerful. Everything else she said before could be completely and totally wrong, but she’s right about this. The average citizen is not engaged in our country’s wars and we definitely isolate ourselves from the military community. In the end, it wasn’t about missile defense or Congress or policy on the national level, but about us. These policies don’t just affect the veterans, but affect how we as a nation relate to the military. This in turn affects our culture, and according to Maddow, this effect is not a positive one.
What was the most refreshing about the entire talk, however, was her solution. How many times on our campus have we been asked to give money or raise awareness and then do nothing else? We’d like to do more, but we feel so disengaged from the issue that those two solutions seem like the only viable ones. Maddow challenged that frankly lazy stance to activism: volunteer at a veteran’s organization. Or, if that’s too much: let the veteran’s speak for themselves and then listen to what they have to say.