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  • I'm Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

  • At the time of our taping, today's guest was

  • nominated to be a new member of

  • Board of Directors of the Corporation for

  • National and Community Service.

  • So I first want to congratulate Eric Liu.

  • And in addition, the Aspen Institute has named him

  • Leader for a new Program on American Citizenship & Identity.

  • A former advisor and speech writer to

  • President Clinton and author of the recently published

  • A Chinaman's Chance, Eric Liu is CEO of Citizen University.

  • He founded the Seattle-based organization

  • to cultivate the values, knowledge,

  • and skills of effective citizenship.

  • Liu's Aspen project has a three prong mission ...

  • (1) to articulate an ethical framework for American civic identity,

  • (2) to propose public policy for societal cohesion, and

  • (3) to teach leaders to build coalitions that overcome divides.

  • While innovative programs have emerged,

  • like Liu's work and former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's iCivics program,

  • in our schools there's decreased emphasis on the

  • importance of good citizenship.

  • Liu embarks on his work with the Aspen Institute

  • to reinvigorate the civic core of America,

  • as the nation continues to be plagued by stunning

  • apathy and illiteracy.

  • But I do want to ask Eric Liu to explain,

  • how we avoid our civic demise?

  • Thank you for being here, Eric.

  • LIU: Alexander, thank you for having me.

  • HEFFNER: How do we avoid that?

  • LIU: (Laugh) You know we avoid it by not treating

  • it as a thing that's happening outside us.

  • One, one of my core precepts of citizenship,

  • of, of life really, is, is the idea that society

  • becomes how you behave. Right.

  • And in some ways this, you know,

  • on the one hand it seems sort of like a common

  • place, common sense thing to say,

  • but if you actually sit with it and think about it

  • for a moment ... it runs quite contrary to a lot of

  • the messages we get in American life.

  • The dominant messages we get in American life are essentially

  • a) every man for himself,

  • b) I, I should be able to do whatever the heck

  • I want as long as I'm not actively harming somebody else.

  • Don't, don't tread on me, right ... that,

  • that's the main message.

  • And "Don't tread on me" is,

  • of course, you know, part of the big bang

  • of American creation.

  • But it's not really a guide for how to live in community. Right.

  • It's not really a guide for how to be a grown up,

  • pro-social human in, in a society.

  • And so I think when you think about society

  • becomes how you behave ... if you choose to be

  • engaged or disengaged, if you choose to be civil or

  • uncivil, if you choose to be compassionate or not

  • compassionate, courteous or not courteous,

  • it's not just about you ... it's not just that,

  • you know, if ... okay I'm going to be selfish today.

  • And someone else's altruism will cancel out

  • my selfishness, it will all work out just fine. No.

  • If you choose to be selfish,

  • it is as contagious as a virus.

  • Your selfishness affects, gives permission to people

  • all around, it changes norms and mores around you

  • in ways that are completely viral, right?

  • And so when it comes to something like this,

  • about apathy and civic decline,

  • we can't treat this as kind of exogenous to us. Right?

  • It, it's part of us.

  • And so if we want to change that,

  • if we want a politics that is more responsive,

  • if we want a civic life where people show up more

  • for each other, guess what ... we got to do that,

  • each one of us. Right?

  • And I think that's the ... there's a great billboard

  • that I once saw that captures this,

  • this ethic, Alexander, it was on a,

  • the side of a really congested highway ...

  • it might have been I-5, you know,

  • out West where I'm from ... and you know,

  • traffic was basically a parking lot,

  • nothing was moving.

  • And this billboard said, "You're not stuck in

  • traffic ... you are traffic" ... right ... and,

  • and that to me encapsulates the spirit of ...

  • you're not separate from the problem if there is a

  • problem, you are part of the problem and either you

  • are actively working to solve it,

  • or to, to move it in the other direction ...

  • or you are contributing to it.

  • And so when it comes to civic decline or voting,

  • for instance, there is no such thing as not participating. Right?

  • Not participating is participating in a

  • noxious, harmful direction.

  • HEFFNER: But to what extent can this idea of

  • rugged individualism comport with crafting

  • a civic identity?

  • LIU: You know, I think the,

  • (coughs) the history of the United States is a

  • history of melding exactly those two things.

  • You know we aren't ...

  • HEFFNER: But they're in conflict right now.

  • LIU: They're, they're in tension ...

  • they're in tension.

  • You know America is a set of constant,

  • continuing tensions and arguments. Right?

  • A tension between one notion of liberty ...

  • which is "Don't tread on me" and the idea of equality. Right?

  • There's all ... there's an inherent tension there.

  • There's a tension between rugged individualism

  • and "we're all in it together." Right?

  • But these things I don't think of as mutually exclusive.

  • What American life is all about is trying to figure

  • out at different times the tug and the pull between

  • those things and whether we've gone too far in one

  • direction or another.

  • But when you think ... again,

  • about the Founding generation and,

  • and we, today, in the, you know,

  • in the 21st century like to think about the

  • founders and that whole cohort as these radical

  • individualists, as if each of them was just an

  • atomistic, you know, libertarian paragon.

  • No, that entire Colonial generation was steeped in

  • a deep sense of communitarianism,

  • in a deep sense of relationship and obligation,

  • in a deep sense that every right that you

  • might have or exercise or claim,

  • was bound up with a big set of responsibilities, too. Right?

  • And somehow, over ... particularly the last few

  • decades in American life, the responsibilities half

  • of that equation has, has fallen away and it's just

  • "rights, rights, rights".

  • HEFFNER: You identify an important word in our

  • political lexicon, communitarianism as

  • opposed to collectivism which has been demonized by the Right.

  • So how do you strife for that concept

  • in an apolitical way?

  • And how are you going to carry that forward in your

  • Aspen Institute work?

  • LIU: Well, again, this is, this not a word that

  • either I have coined or an idea that I have invented.

  • Communitarianism is how Plymouth Colony got built.

  • Communitarianism is how barns got raised

  • across the American West.

  • Communitarianism is how the,

  • the men who landed on Normandy Beach ... ah,

  • on Omaha Beach in Normandy ... managed to turn the tide

  • of history on D-Day.

  • Communitarianism is how people of all races and

  • classes and backgrounds came together during the

  • Civil Rights Movement to redeem the creed

  • of the United States. Right?

  • So, this is not some foreign Communistic,

  • you know, un-American Socialist thing.

  • This is how, essentially, every time this country

  • has made progress, it's because we've taken a big

  • old dose of a spirit of community.

  • And a big old dose of remembering that when we ...

  • that we're better together.

  • HEFFNER: Well, that's, that's a great campaign

  • mantra, but unfortunately in our politics

  • and in our schools, I might add, there is an absence

  • of that leadership, that direction

  • towards communitarianism.

  • LIU: This new program that,

  • that I've launched at the Aspen Institute on

  • Citizenship and American identity is really meant

  • to address that question on a few different levels.

  • So, it's not so much about classroom activity,

  • although I'm very interested in things like