Volume XXXV, Issue 3, April 19, 2013
Wherever you hide, the news will find you. Supreme Court hearings on gay marriage consume your newsfeed on Facebook; the death of Hugo Chavez restructures your political science course; and a table-tent reference to North Korea leads you to Google Earth, whose photos depict frightening expansions of labor camps. And even if you missed one of these developments, each “species” of news reproduces every few hours, mutating in a Darwinian attempt to win your attention.
But no one ever dies of “the news.” In my life (and the lives of many Amherst students), these omnipresent updates have no teeth. After eating a few seconds of attention, they are streamlined to a sterile recess of memory, making way for the assignments, extracurriculars, and social activities that populate a typical Amherst schedule. Here’s why that happens: The news confronts me with mere shades of reality. The things I’m told did happen, but only in the way that material in a history book has happened: on paper or electronic screens, in remote worlds I can only access through imagination or distant parallels in my life.
By contrast, a friend going through a break-up or a French midterm will hit me much harder: These experiences form part of the world I inhabit. The Amherst Bubble, then, can be understood as the filter that waters down realities, breaking them into thinly sliced, easily processed bits of information.
This desensitized relationship to the news—produced only in part by the Bubble— presents dangers beyond the obvious. A series of foundational assumptions harden with years of internalizing (instead of reacting to) national and global developments. For example, I’ve come to suppose that news ebbs and flows as naturally as the tide. Politicians spew hot air, and pundits churn out talking points, but nothing interferes with the broader cycle of world happenings. Lives devoted to politics and media sink into the obscurity of a broader theme, the way lists of European kings fade into a vague notion of monarchy. That theme is this: The news happens, and in my life (almost) nothing changes.
Upon close inspection, these suppositions crumble. Of course politics affect the world, and of course national and international developments will affect my future. These rational voices, though, cannot quite unearth the dense notions that have solidified in my head. And while this almost fatalistic attitude toward the news might only take root in communities like Amherst, a variety of cultural markets trade on cynical humor toward lawmakers and the media. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, for example, have turned senators and cable-news hosts alike into punch lines. The words “pundit” and “cable news,” for some, now connote spoon-fed, sensationalist and reductionist news. In this sea of sarcasm and cynicism, lost is the idea that our media and lawmakers make the world tick.
I picked up tickets for Rachel Maddow largely because of her fame. When well-known figures come to campus, I can observe their mannerisms, bearing, and speaking style. I hope to identify some crucial difference between them and the people I encounter on a daily basis; I want to know how they rose from the pack. Presentation takes priority; actual content—since it enters the Bubble in filtered form—becomes secondary.
The evening of the talk, then, from my stage-left pew in Johnson Chapel, watching Amherst a capella groups as I waited for Maddow, I cracked wise with a few friends, expecting to analyze Maddow’s form and glean a few insights about effective presentation. As usual, I found myself gazing through the crowd to garner some sense of the audience she attracted. Who knew? Maybe I’d have an interesting conversation at dinner about the talk the next evening.
And for the first few minutes, I remained in this mindset. I listened carefully as President Tania Dias recited Maddow’s accomplishments, taking note of her graduation from a top university and her Rhodes Scholarship. I watched Maddow’s lips curl in a sheepish smile when the introduction finally ended. Maddow carried herself well; she seemed genuine on stage as she thanked the Zumbyes in an endearingly awkward way and goofily apologized for being so tall. At the same time, she maintained a gravitas; her relatively low voice carried a confident lilt, and her word choice and placement of pauses conveyed reflection. And, most important, she managed all of this without ever wafting high into pretension or sinking into arcane terminology.
Ten minutes into the speech, though, I no longer cared about style points. Maddow had smashed these walls of indifference with a deadly combination of three things I hadn’t anticipated: passion, intellect, and a sense of obligation. I owe you a better explanation. I need to provide examples of her calibration as she presented American military history and its nuances; I need you to recognize the extraordinary restraint she exhibited in drawing her conclusions from evidence and sound reasoning; I need you to understand how cleverly she encapsulated convoluted, systemic problems in witty anecdotes. Most of all, I need you to hear, in her occasionally strained voice, and to see, in her firm eye contact, the hours and hours of thought she’s invested in bringing better information to the world. I need to say more than just the following: She comes from a place like Amherst and she really cares. But this is a debt I can’t make good on.
I can say this: The qualities listed above gave Rachel Maddow’s visit to campus longevity far beyond a dinner conversation the next evening. Like much of the audience, I haven’t read her book, Drift: The Unmooring of the American Military, and I can’t imagine having the time to read much of anything outside of my schoolwork. But through her passion, intellect, and sense of obligation, Maddow reminded the audience that the consequences of political actions ripple throughout the globe. She served as a living example of a group of people in the media who spend their days and nights poring over documents and sifting for truth, not for corporate interests, but because they want us to know. Most of all, coming from the outside and bringing with her the world, fully intact, Maddow showed us that we can pop a hole in the Amherst Bubble and experience the news with the full weight of the reality it represents.