I’ve Got Some Assignments for Rachel Maddow

Last week, the authorities here at the Prospect were calling me the substitute teacher. I got grumpy about that at first (all kinds of anti-woman and bad childhood associations). But I’ve decided to embrace it. Rachel Maddow, here’s your homework.

When Leon Wieseltier wrote a snarky review trashing the snarky tone of Rachel Maddow’s Drift—and more important, suggesting that the nation had yet more wars to fight and that Maddow was foolish not to understand this—I pledged over on Alternet to pay retail, read the whole book, and comment. I’m delighted to say that the book came onto The New York Times bestseller list at No. 1 this past weekend, even though I allowed her publicist to tempt me into a free copy.

So now I’ve read the book, and I’ve read half a dozen reviews of the book, from gushing to dismissive. I think I’ve now been through all the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross stages of reaction when a prominent person writes a book on a subject one knows well: Excitement, Pleasure at content and form of argument, Jealousy, Schadenfreude-y nitpicking, Compulsive Reading of Reviews, Acceptance, and Bandwagoning.

Now I’m wondering whether the book will fail, though, at what Maddow says is her aim: a public debate about how and why the nation goes to war that would lead to “a small ‘c’ conservative return to our constitutional roots, a course correction.”

I wonder that because of three things I have not seen in the reviews, promotion, and discussion of the book: a debate over the role of the media, an interest in the views of military personnel on the subject, and a discussion among policymakers—and failing that among the government reform-types, you might expect to have seized upon Maddow’s argument.

I’ll take the media piece first, because I’m hoping Maddow will make that the subject of her next book. It’s very well to document how various administrations detached the use of military force from established constitutional procedures, and how Congress grew more and more quiescent over time, and to note how “we’d got ourselves in the habit of being at war”—but it isn’t, actually, sufficient. Why was the media so quiescent? Why, to take the recent example of Libya, which falls outside the scope of the book, did congressional bickering over whether and what kind of authorization of military force was needed get so little coverage? Why has Mitch McConnell’s effort to authorize the use of force against Iran—which the White House says it doesn’t want, and which the public is not so keen on either—gotten vanishingly little coverage? Did you, dear reader, know that the GOP leadership of the Senate wants to declare war on Iran in advance, just in case?

When did the media—including MSNBC—decide that the public doesn’t care or can’t be made to care about arcane matters of war and peace? Why? Are they right? What is the right ratio of killings to Kardashians, drones to Dancing with the Stars, from an institution that is both capitalist and profit-driven and a key piece in the functioning of our democracy, an inheritor of our public trust?

Next, I would have loved to see a major publication invite a defense intellectual to review Drift.  As I wrote on Alternet, within military intellectual circles there is a significant minority that would support Maddow’s critique, maybe even push it further. (I refer you to Major General Charles Dunlap (now-retired), who back in 1992 wrote an article called “Origins of the Coup of 2012” about the American habit of deferring excessively to those in uniform.) I’d love to see some of those folks on television telling the American public how much people who are paid to think all day about the future of the military are worried about the future of our society writ large—about the future of the social safety net, economic dynamism, social cohesion. But—see above—I have an ugly feeling MSNBC’s corporate parents think that wouldn’t sell. And I have an even uglier suspicion they’re not wrong.

Finally, since I have worked for years now with defense intellectuals and progressive political leaders who echo Maddow’s concerns, I had naively hoped that the book’s publication would spark a broader discussion along these lines. Lots of people are clearly reading the book, but I don’t hear its concerns being discussed in my professional universe. Fast Company reviewed it but seemed to miss the point, by focusing the review around “4 Ways the Military Can Be More Innovative.” Sigh. The sole exception being Spencer Ackerman in Wired, who suggested—contra Maddow’s modesty—that she has put together “a program for rather radically reshaping the American security apparatus.”

What will it take, I wonder, for intellectuals—progressive and conservative—to be willing to tear down their narrow walls of specialization and take a look at what our security apparatus became in the post 9/11 decade and ask the hard, and sometimes morally unpleasant, questions about what we want it to be?

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