Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Impressions and Thoughts from Attending Talk by Rachel Maddow at Stanford University

I went to see Rachel Maddow speak at Standford, her Alma Mater, last night, Saturday, March 16th. She stated she had not been back to Standford since she graduated 19 years ago. Maddow turns 40 next week. She grew up in Castro Valley and graduated from Castro Valley High. During high school she stated she was a jock and an outcast. After Standford she went on to become a prestigious Rhode Scholar earning a PhD from Oxford University. She went on to do HIV activism work for several years until she started doing radio. She had her own show on AirAmerica for a couple of years and then started contributing to MSNBC, later scoring her own one hour show, The Rachel Maddow Show, which has won Emmy's and is critically acclaimed. She has quite a popular and passionate fan base, of which I include myself, but not without reservations.
Here is a link to the Standford article about the talk... A good read:

Overall, it was worth going to see her speak. Rachel Maddow is funny, intelligent, full of wit, is inspiring, knowledgeable, has a great personality, and is not bad on the eyes either. I have had a crush on her from the first moment I watched her on Tucker Carlson's show, back when he was on MSNBC. My Dad told me about her one day. He said, I think you might like this person. Well, he was right.

I think the reason I like Rachel Maddow, besides her being an out and proud butch lesbian and looking quite dapper, geeky, and boyish, (which is not only daring in breaking with social convention, is quite adorable), is she reminds me of myself. This talk at Stanford confirmed that more so. Although we also have stark differences.

I would be remiss to not state clearly that although I have to admit my affection for Miss Maddow, I have serious criticisms of her as well. I am not the type of fan that gushes at her mere presence and then lets her get away with bloody hell. I have major reservations about her political stances and I intend to lay those out here....

Her talk about her days of queer and HIV activism in college and her commitment to ethics and doing what is right, was touching. She stated when she figured out she was gay and part of he gay community she felt an obligation to help end the HIV crisis, which she described as a "genocide" of the gay community in the early 90's. So although she noted she felt, isolated from the Standford community, as she was "one of only two out gay people" in her freshmen class, she decided to take advantage of what Standford could offer her. Later she talked about how much society has changed on LGBT acceptance-- so much so that anti-gay ideas are now seen as our of fashion and a no-no among young people. She also talked about the importance of being out, which resonated with me personally. But I digress...

So she decided to use a university full of privilege to try and help those without it. She took public policy classes, classes in statistics, and did an honor's thesis in ethics and society, on the dehumanization of those living with HIV. Which has been read by every senior thesis student in ethics and society for the past ten years, among other papers.

Rachel spoke of the "bad activism" she did in college. One demonstration she participated in she described as holding up signs outside of a talk by William F. Buckley. She stated she later got internships doing HIV activist and policy work and became active in Act Up! Rachel noted she is the type to pick battles she thinks she can win-- choosing to concentrate on equal and just treatment for those with HIV living inside prisons. She used Standford to learn how to effectively debate, and win over those in power to her own positions in order to persuade people to come to the side of social justice. She encouraged everyone in the audience, no matter what discipline they are in, to learn how to make an effective argument. She also encouraged people to become good writers... as writing matters and can persuade. She inspired me more to continue to write!

Her start as a queer campus activist and learning the ropes on how to speak truth to power, really reminded me of myself. I would not be who I am today if it were not for my activism in college and what it taught me. That was the foundation upon which I created a deep understanding of the history of the struggles for civil, social, and human rights, social injustice, and developed a life-long commitment to the movement for liberation of all people. I got the feeling that Rachel was much more radical in her college days.. but moderated her positions as she hit the "real world."

Rachel Maddow describes herself as a "national security liberal." Whereas, I describe myself as a socialist. Although we started in similar enough places, our paths diverged. She went on to be a political commentator and de facto celebrity on TV, while I became a social worker.

I must confess a few things about Rachel Maddow irk me. One is she dresses in what I would call drag, for her show and MSNBC appearances. She wears make up, puts a bunch of goopy product in her hair, and wears women's business suits. But in all other aspects of her life she effectively a nerdy dykey masculine woman who wears men's clothes. She doesn't wear makeup or do anything special to her hair in "real life." She wears low key t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes. Not to mention her big nerdy glasses-- she must wear contacts on her show. I do not respect those who conform and change who they are to mold themselves to society's stupid standards-- in this case of beauty for women. I wish she were more authentically herself on TV.

It is very odd to me when she shows up on late night talk shows looking like herself, but on her show she looks like someone trying too hard to be feminine. The pressure on female news anchors is enormous.. and maybe she thinks this is just what you do to get this really cool job. But I think she has some bargaining power now and could start to integrate her own look. Chris Hayes wears glasses on his show. It just bothers me that someone who states they are out and proud about being gay would compromise who they are-- their gender expression etc. And I think this is a good example about how Rachel Maddow and I differ. I am very uncompromising and radical, whereas she is perfectly willing to moderate  her looks and positions if they are politically or otherwise expedient. That leads me to have less respect for her, but alas, no one is perfect.

Another large part of the night was her talking about her book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. She starts out with the premises that we need to go to war and we need a military. Right there she loses me. You can tell in her heart of hearts she wishes we could get rid of war, but doesn't think it's possible. So she accepts war as an unfortunate but necessary evil. Whereas, I believe war is a choice.

She also heaped lots of praise on the military, stating that Americans are not doing enough to support our troops. She stated they are fighting our wars for us and making all the sacrifices while not even our taxes have gone up to pay for the war. While I agree military personnel deserve good treatment when they return from war, I would go a step further. I say bring them home from war NOW, close up all military bases around the world, and do what is ultimately respecting our troop's humanity-- END WAR PERMANENTLY.

We need to put an indefinite moratorium on military conflict. War is not good for human beings-- it wrecks them physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Rachel highlighted the cost of war on the soldiers and their families, but failed to mention that it's war itself that creates this trauma. And the only way to stop it is to end all war. She did warn us that she picks battles she thinks she can win. She said those who work for world peace she wishes luck to because she essentially sees that as an unwinnable issue. Sadly, I believe when you write something off as impossible you never try to achieve it, and thus that is a self-fulfilling prophecy and it won't be achieved.

Rachel went on to speak of how alienated we are from soldiers and how alienated they are from us. Stating we treat soldiers with combination of pity, hero worship, and fear, which makes them the "other." That we don't understand them and they don't understand us. It's true that military and civilian culture differ starkly. But that makes sense given war is hell, the military culture is destructive, and combat is dehumanizing. It does a good job at systematically destroying the human soul. Many come back with PTSD, clinical depression, and chronic anxiety. This often leads to soldiers to killing others (often times their loved ones) and taking their own lives-- in fact more soldiers have died by suicide after they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan than in those wars themselves.

When people come back from war they are different people because they had very difference experiences-- experiences no one should have. It would be hard for anyone to relate to that. While we do need increased empathy for soldiers...I would argue we need to focus on a longer term root solution-- ending war so no one has to ever go through that ever again.

Rachel wants us to feel the collective pain of war and the social consequences-- in part so that the soldiers feel we are with them and in part because then maybe we will think twice before entering into wars. She stated we are not sacrificing as a nation for the war effort. I have to disagree with her about that. We have given tax dollars... which took away from lots of other things we could have funded-- more important things I would argue. In addition, I know personally I spent several years of life dedicated to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bringing the troops home. I marched in several large demonstrations, did campus peace organizing, wrote letters to the editor, and protested military recruiters who came to campus. I call that doing something. Something called trying to bring peace instead of war. In addition, many of my Masters in Social Work colleagues since graduation have been working with vets who are homeless and suffer mental illness. Lots of Americans support the military in a lot of ways that not many people are not aware of. But it's happening. My point is why should we be trying to repair broken human beings, when we can prevent it from happening to begin with??? Is that not the most ethical thing to do?
She stated she wrote the book to try to bring solidarity to soldiers and shine more of a light on how Americans are not feeling the true impact of war and not contributing to the war effort. Sorry Rachel, I will not contribute to wars I feel are unjust. There is a large difference between supporting human beings fighting in war and supporting the war they are in. I support troops in the best way I know how-- I call for their humane treatment while in the military (an end to sexism, racism, and homophobia-- including harassment and rape), for comprehensive medical, psychological, and all other services for all military personnel, and I demand their immediate draw down from all military conflicts. 

The truth is it is our foreign policy that gets us into this mess to begin with. We take a very aggressive foreign policy.. a scorch and burn.. shock and awe.. imperialist empire-building hegemony might makes right tactic. We act as if that is our only choice-- to "defend ourselves"-- not our lives in actuality (although the war propaganda machine tells us different-- that we should be scared of another 9/11 at any given moment) so much as America's "interests." Which translates into the interests of rich and powerful Americans. If war didn't make people money the wars would become meaningless. Rachel Maddow never uttered the words "military industrial complex." But I know that is what drives the madness. The truth is war is not in the best interest of Americans. War, torture, and drones make us less safe. They make people more angry with us, more fearful, and more likely to want to retaliate and seek revenge.

We have another choice. Which is an ironic choice given Maddow's original topic of discussion-- persuasion. She stated she took advantage of Stanford's education to learn how to be persuasive and win people over. That's exactly the type of work we should be doing around the world. It's called diplomacy. It's hard work but has a big pay off. Diplomacy takes time and it takes money. But the results would be so much greater than anything positive war could ever give us.

Everyone has an unmet need and if we helped others meet those needs we would see less animosity from others. For instance, with just a fraction of the money we spend on war we could eliminate hunger in the entire world. When people live in a society that is less stratified they feel more secure and less desperate. They are less likely to be depressed, anxious, and looking to survive by any means necessary. They are going to be less susceptible to being easily seduced into a fundamentalist belief systems. Research has proven that stress leads to violence and hierarchy leads to powerless people abusing others.

We could help free the world from this crap, but we choose not to. We have enough resources in the world at this point to give people what they need. But it would mean we would have to redistribute the resources that people in power have horded. That is the hitch. Our society cannot fundamentally change unless we take the power back from the owners-- the dictators of our lives. These are the exact same people who perpetuate wars to begin with for their own greedy ends. Rachel, when we do an ethical gut check, things like war, torture, and drones simply don't pass muster.

Rachel's argument is much more toned down than my own. She believes we just need to go back to the founding framers conceptions and make war very hard to get into. She believes in congressional oversight and the War Powers Act. She thinks that the country should decide to go to war realizing the full consequences and willing to make the sacrifices necessary. The problem is once the government decides to go to war, they convince the country to support it via propaganda in the media.

She also believes there are just wars. Whereas, I don't. Rachel is hoping we just have fewer wars. However, any war is wrong. Furthermore, we have gotten very far away from self-defense. We now start "pre-emptive" wars that no one knows about. We can't even be sure there is supposed "just cause" or actual reason to believe we are in "imminent danger." The president is doing lots of things behind our backs and there are no checks and balances, no oversight, no transparency, and no accountability. We are just supposed to trust that whatever they are doing it must be the right thing to do. I don't know about you, but I don't trust this government. And I wouldn't trust any government that I did not have a true say in.

Rachel said that we spend way too much money on defense and on that much I can agree. She asked how many nuclear weapons we really need and I held up my hand in a big fat ZERO. She stated that one is 10 times the strength of Hiroshima and we have 5,000. Overkill much? She said the same goes for all kinds of military technology and equipment we don't actually need. She said since it's lying around it sometimes gives people an excuse to use it.... which is a dangerous slippery slope. The government takes my tax dollars and uses it to kill people. That has got to end.

"And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is pre-existent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends."
~Martin Luther King, Jr., "A CHRISTMAS SERMON" 24 December 1967

In the end as eloquent and charming as Rachel Maddow is, in some ways she is an apologist for some of the exact policies she claims she is against. Which smacks of hypocrisy. That is what pragmatism and incrementalism does. It leeches into your soul and corrupts you. It whispers in your ear that mere reforms are good enough and the best you can get. You start to settle for it and accept that it's "just life" and "life is unfair." Well, I am sick of people making excuses for why we cannot become the country and the world I know we are capable of becoming. We have to have higher expectations for ourselves and our potential.

The name of Rachel's book is "Drift" but we did not drift into the military policy we have now. It was designed that way on purpose. The amping up of the military industrial complex is a deliberate phenomenon propelled by greed, arrogance, superiority, and hunger for power, control, and dominance. The rich are to blame, but not solely. All of us contribute in some way to this system's continual existence. Most of us are complicit in it because we do nothing to stop it.

Maddow was not forthcoming about the fact that her father is former military-- a former Air Force Captain. My feeling is Maddow has always wanted to follow in her family's legacy and secretly wanted to join the military herself. Only because of the don't ask, don't tell policy she couldn't because she was an out lesbian. So Drift is her way of somehow contributing to the war effort and helping national security.

She argues for more sane military policy. Which is ironic, because war is insane. And the idea that we are just doing what we have to do to protect ourselves, is insane. We don't have to do anything. It's a choice. An inhumane and unethical one. And Rachel Maddow of all people, given her intellectually rigorous philosophical and ethical education and background, should know this. Yet she has somehow talked herself out of that... because it seems an unwinnable pipe dream. We need more dreamers in this world who take risks and push for systematic change... and less folks who play it safe and resign themselves to accepting injustice.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
~Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963