MSNBC host Rachel Maddow brings political (un)convention to SXSW

By Kate X Messer, 3:15PM, Mon. Mar. 11, 2013

Rachel Maddow at SXSW 2013
Rachel Maddow at SXSW 2013
photo by Jana Birchum

Rachel Maddow's appearance at SXSW, while billed as a "conversation with," was also scheduled as part of her book tour. What were we in for?

As I sat in the session that proceeded Rachel Maddow's ("The Future of Google Search in a Mobile World"), I kept having to poke my chin to keep my slack jaw shut. The "conversation" with Google search honcho Amit Singhal, a company man whose only purpose for being there seemed to be to punt the soft pitches tossed by host and perennial Apple acolyte Guy Kawasaki (just try to say his name out loud without sounding like a used car salesman). It was about an hour's worth of proprietary Googlespeak – a couple of innovative drones droning on about how their innovations got them where they are today and wow, isn't the world a beautiful place?

I shuddered that Maddow might be subjected to this same inane type of douchey nerdcore bro-hammery.

The minute she took the stage, however, all fears vanished, all bets were off. There she was, all oversized button-up, patented nerd frames, sneaks, and hair that hadn't seen the MSNBC touch-up crew for weeks. Her sideways grin was only apparent when she lifted her head, which, for the most part of the first half of the session, stayed down. Her large mitts wrapped around the sides of the podium (ladies: goddamn, she's got big hands) as she leaned into the mic and introduced herself …as Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

There was a healthy, if cautious, round of laughter as the crowd kinda hung on her every brilliant word. La Madd pretty much dispensed with pleasantries (aside from her segue about zodiac signs – both month and year, she's a ram and an ox – and that she was within weeks of turning 40) and launched into reading from her book, the bestselling, New York Times-chart topper Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.

Oh, this was not going to be your standard product pitch. Within paragraphs, she was deep into the morass of what the shambled state of modern American military has become. Her prose singed as she described our collective disconnect, as Americans, as humans, with the very soldiers that wage wars on our behalf. Waging war has become so easy, "it's not so much a hassle anymore."

"Only 1%" of our population, she continued, has to "feel the consequences of war." And how, ironically, we vaunt them into positions of worship, as heroes, yet still ultimately, alienate them as "others," excusing ourselves from the necessary feelings of empathy to be able to truly understand the sacrifice it takes to serve one's country. Between passages, she pointed out the irony of the insurance company (she herself, as an Air Force brat uses), USAA staging soldiers returning home in advertisements. She admitted crying over those ads, and Oprah's now legendary "Whole Again" Jeep ad that ran during the Super Bowl.

Maddow talked about the increasing lack of public oversight in Congress and its appropriation of billions to a military complex desperately in need of efficient methods of deployment of those resources instead of more piles of cash. She lamented the ineptitude of the VA, housed literally in "buildings crumbling under the weight" of the tons of files of backlogged claims and described the state of our rusting out infrastructure – a scarier proposition when the clearest example is our nuclear weapons program.

Despite this gravitas and despite what sometimes seems like Maddow's one-woman stand against anti-intellectualism and anti-engagement, there was much humor and light and more of that patented sideways grin. Once she wrapped the book reading, the floor was opened up to tweets, and Maddow got to do what she does best – air her fiery, off-the-cuff, and sometimes gut-funny takes on topics like:

• Social media: "What we need is journalistic standards and great editors."
• Career-advice for budding journalists: "Be awesome!"
• How now not only Rand Paul, but Ron Paul will no longer take her calls: "Are there other family members who won't talk to me, too?"
• Sierra Nevada's Celebration ale, which she wishes were available "year-round. I even wrote a letter to their president."
• The next frontier for LGBT rights: "Republicans"
• Least favorite buzzword: "'Impact' used as a verb… unless you're a proctologist."
• …and, my personal favorite, SXSW: "a cross between a political convention and Lollapalooza," which she also wishes were year-round: "Maybe I should write to its president."

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