Americans are not always at ease with the idea of patriotism, Eric Liu told the crowd at Hendricks Chapel last night. “The very word patriotism makes people uncomfortable,” Lui said. In the second University Lecture of the year, the civic entrepreneur spoke on the topic of “The True Meaning of Patriotism.”
Coopted by one party and abandoned the other, the idea of patriotism has become, according to him, “just another football” in the game of partisan politics. True patriotism is about a spirit of citizenship, he said. Liu drove home his point with the words of author Bill Gates Sr., that, in more ways than one, citizenship is simply about “showing up.”
A former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, Liu has authored several books about citizenship and politics, including Guiding Lights, True Patriot, and Guardians of Democracy. The lecture lasted about an hour and was followed by a half hour of audience questions.
The first part of Liu’s speech focused on three components of citizenship: a shared set of values, an understanding of systems, and a command of skills.
Liu stressed that the first item was taking on a particular relevance in today’s increasingly connected world. “Society becomes what you behave,” he repeated several times, explaining that the choices and actions of individuals can become “virally contagious.” Liu touched on the importance of being able to hear and empathize with those who hold radically different political beliefs.
Liu encouraged the audience to become educated about all of the different systems influencing their lives, paying particular attention to the ebb and flow of power.
In regards to the third component of citizenship, Liu spoke to the students directly.
“You are living in the lap of luxury,” he said. “I don’t mean materially, though maybe you are, but civically and intellectually.” He urged students to take advantage of their time in school to learn and practice the skills associated with what he considers good citizenship.
Liu concluded the lecture by discussing the idea of a “civic religion” inherited from our forefathers. “Everyone in this room is the inheritor of a spirit, of an idea,” he said.
America can only last as long as “a critical mass” of people decide that it should, he argued.
Liu asked the audience to repeat an oath associated with Sworn Again America, an initiative of the Guiding Lights Network co-founded by Liu. Sworn Again ceremonies are intended to mimic the experience of a naturalization ceremony for longtime Americans recommitting to citizenship.
Liu said that attendees of the ceremonies sometimes become emotional saying the pledge.
“I pledge to serve and push my country,” the audience echoed, “when right to be kept right, when wrong to be set right.”
Audience questions covered a variety of topics including the global citizenship (and why Liu believes there is no such thing), the expanding power of global corporations, and the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth in the United States.
In response to that final topic Liu explained that Americans are living through a “slow hollowing out of the middle class” — the most extreme disparity of income since the Great Depression. He said that he believes that the people suffering the most from the system are speaking out and finally being heard, citing the examples of fast food strikes across the country as well as airport workers in his hometown of Seattle pushing for a livable wage.
Liu finished with a call to action. “I urge you not to leave this place without making some kind of commitment,” he said. “We will be the change we’ve been waiting for.
The talk was concluded to generous applause.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Sara Eckhardt, a sophomore broadcast and digital journalism major. She was struck by Lui’s thoughts on the dangers of the rugged-individualist mentality and “this idea that capitalism and putting yourself forward can be a hindrance to patriotism.”
Freshman nutrition major Aaliah Gatlin liked the message of bipartisanship. “He didn’t attack one side or the other,” she said. Gatlin said she had never been particularly into politics, but found the talk interesting. “It opened my mind to this kind of thinking,” she said. “It was insightful.”