Citizen University Sermons

Politics/Books

A review
Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy
Eric Liu
Sasquatch Books, 2019, 302 pages

Citizen University Sermons
By Wade Lee Hudson

Eric Liu’s latest book, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy, is eloquent and inspiring. His exhortations to be engaged in civic activism, beyond voting, are compelling. In the end, however, he comes up short. He neglects the need for new, holistic structures that nurture an energizing cultural environment. 

The book consists of “civic sermons” that Liu presented at various locations throughout the country as part of a series of “Civic Saturdays,” a project of the Seattle-based Citizen University, which is dedicated to “building a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship.” In the Preface to the book, Liu declares:

We are the counterculture now. In a culture of celebrity worship and consumerism, we stand for service and citizenship. And in the age of hyper-individualism, we practice collective action and common cause. In a time of sentimentalism and showy  sanctimony, we stand for discernment and humility. In the smog of hypocrisy and situational ethics, we still live and breathe the universal timeless values and ideals of the Golden Rule, the Tao, the Declaration, and the Preamble of the Constitution. That is radical.

In the “A Divided Heart” chapter, Liu reports that a friend, Mark, who was a founder of the Tea Party, in so many words said, “Millions of Americans have felt left out and put down, told that they’re deplorable racists and bigots and sexists if they challenge the elites and insiders who are tolerant of everyone but them. They're tired of it, and with Trump, they found a way to say so.” Become America and the Citizen University aim to speak to these people.

Liu has concluded “Americans today lack the coherence and moral clarity and civic self-possession to resist a real Hitler, and that's one thing we’d better work on.” In the section titled, “Why We As Citizens Must Change Our Habits of Mind,” after quoting Upton Sinclair—“It's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it!”—Liu writes:

But also, I would add, if his self-image depends on not understanding it. We are all ardent, often unconscious defenders of the images we've constructed of ourselves. That defense is a primary human reflex….

Self-image, more than salary, determines what most people think of as “their interests.”  And self-image is bound up with status—relative status—in ways that salary can't fully express and indeed often obscures. Self-image is more often about fears of decline than hopes for advancement, but in all cases it's more about emotion than rationality.

This actually makes me optimistic. Because it hints at a set of things we can do. The first is to be humble: to realize we hardly know ourselves…. In his deeply wise book Bonds That Make Us Free, C. Terry Warner  describes a universal human dynamic of self-justification. It goes like this: I accuse you in order to excuse me…. 

When we admit our piece of the problem we free ourselves from the burdens of constant self-serving justification. We influence others by letting them influence us, [which is] contagious. In fact, contagion, not persuasion, is what really ever changes minds and self images….

Once you see through the lens that Warner crafted, you begin to question yourself in other constructive ways…. How to ruthlessly prune away bad assumptions…. And also is this: how to build communities of practice to keep you honest. This is what we've got to do now as citizens. Make circles of friends and newcomers alike to talk about the news, to expand the number of sources you're getting information from…. Ask of yourself each day: which idea of mine must die?  Which way of thinking about other people...is holding me back? 

This section of Liu’s book highlights my frustration with it. He almost articulates the problem and almost proposes a solution. 

Indeed, our perception of our relative status is key. Being arrogant and judgmental are widespread difficulties. The power of example is a great source of peer learning. Constant self-examination is critical. “Communities of practice” can strengthen self-examination. 

But social pressures counter these efforts. Society, our social system, “the System,” encourages and teaches everyone to climb social ladders and look down on those below. 

To overcome those pressures, we need to be keenly aware of that conditioning. Our tendency to either dominate others or submit to them is not merely a “primary human reflex.” It’s also an impulse the System inflames. 

So we need “communities of practice” that do more than make circles to “talk about the news” and expand the number of our sources of information, as Liu proposes. We need circles that are grounded in a strong awareness of those pressures and are clearly committed to nurturing holistic, mutual support for self-improvement that promotes co-equal partnerships and a new understanding of collaborative leadership.

But Liu, as do so many others, places too much emphasis on personal change. “Every social change, welcome or unwelcome,” he wrongly writes, “begins with the individual.” So the primary thrust of his “sermons” is addressed to the individual and focuses on personal motivation. This individualistic perspective neglects that the most promising source of fundamental social change is mutually reinforcing personal, social, cultural, economic, and political changes all headed in the same direction. 

Liu does acknowledge the importance of “how to see each other and feel each other and recognize each other, deeply.... And then for all of us together, to change the story. Even if it costs us something.” For him, however, the first step is personal. He gives little attention to how to create new social structures that could nurture those personal changes. 

At one point, regarding one issue—our tendency toward binary thinking—he does propose a mutual dynamic.

I am telling you this to remind myself. Because I do not automatically love my neighbor or my enemy or stranger as myself…. Will we hold ourselves and each other to account, lovingly, when we are lapsing into absolutist binary ways of being? That takes commitment. It takes a social contract. We hope that you have come here today or will leave here today with someone who can enter into a pact with you: a pact to call each other out when you start acting like cable and Twitter provocateurs….

But that focus on binary thinking is narrow. It’s not open-ended. It includes no commitment to address any of the multiple other personal issues that call for attention. And it doesn’t suggest a reasonable method for forming those support teams.

However, at one other point, Liu does comment briefly on a broader need for self-improvement. He talks about the need to

take on the doubly against-the-odds task of fighting those who want to undermine democratic institutions while also checking our own tendencies to become that which we fight. That is why we are here. To do what may be impossible. To keep each other honest about our hypocrisies.

Those few brief comments leave me wanting more depth and more attention to these questions. What are “our own tendencies to become that which we fight”? In a 300-page book, that doesn’t seem to be too much to ask for.

The “Reading Group Guide” at the end of the book poses questions for readers to discuss with other readers. All of these questions call for self-examination. But none of them ask readers to consider how they want to be a better person. Only one asks about having made a mistake, and it deals with a largely intellectual issue: “What illusions about our country have you shed?” This guide reflects how the book fails to address the need for mutual support for deep, open-ended self-examination. No one needs to tell us how we need to change. We just need to be honest with ourselves, work on self-improvement consistently, and talk about our efforts with trusted allies.

Neither does Liu examine the need for deeper cultural change that maximizes co-equal partnerships and moves beyond the myth of upward mobility and the materialistic American Dream. Rather, he calls for an “awakening” that involves “a broad and diverse coalition of people united by their yearning to be somebody, to live the American promise of opportunity and reward for striving.” That sounds too much like the obsession with climbing social ladders. And as Firmin DeBrabander says in “Should Work Be Passion, or Duty?

In America, we fancy ourselves eminently free. We tell our children they can be anything they want, that they can achieve their grandest dreams. We mean this as encouragement, but Seneca would say it is secretly oppressive. In truth, we can’t be anything we want, nor should we try, because dreams are imprecise, and wants are insatiable. It is far better to focus on what we can do, where we can help. Our duties are a surer guide in life—and we are happier for embracing them. 

Precisely. The American Dream myth, echoed for example by both Michele Obama and Melania Trump at the 2016 national conventions, is oppressive. In fact, it’s deadly and pervasive, and Liu fails to fully challenge it.

At one point in the book, Liu skirts the deeply ingrained drive to dominate and its corollary, the willingness to submit. He talks about the need to “let go of a zero-sum way of thinking…that the only alternative to domination must be subjugation” and advocates a future whose “throughline” is “neither domination nor subjugation but is equality of dignity.” He then asks a series of questions:

Can we deal with that? To grow up civically means being candid about our own deep emotional drives.  Why do we act as we do? What are we afraid of? Are we trying to hide pain? To avoid responsibility? To hoard power and authority? To sabotage ourselves or others?

But those questions avoid a key issue: Are we too willing to submit? If that’s what Liu means by “sabotage ourselves,” he should make it clear. I don’t believe he does.

Nevertheless, Become America includes many valuable, insightful exhortations, such as:

  • We've got to show each other how to say what we are scared of and what we are ashamed of. To name our pain.

  • It means naming our fears and making it possible for others to name theirs...so that we might learn to see each other and love together.

  • When in my heart I know I've done something wrong, I avoid blame by casting blame on you for something else. You then return the favor.

  • I will feel lucky, though—lucky that I'm in a society where I can mobilize countervailing power—people power—to remedy the damage wrought by selfish, self-dealing plutocrats. 

  • We must give up the pride that masks our aloneness. We must make friends. 

  • Deploy history. Deploy decency. Deploy open-mindedness. Deploy the humility of the half blind. Deploy an appropriate measure of doubt. Deploy love. And deploy persistent and joyful faith that our cause is the cause that caused this country to be.

  • A religion provides a community and a set of rituals that root a rootless soul and that challenge the individual to be bigger than herself and her ego. 

  • The souls of American folk will be saved not by church or synagogue or mosque alone.  They will be saved also by simple civic habits of forbearance and friendship and openness and love. It's time to become humble. To become responsible.

  • Don't shirk responsibility and scapegoat others. Own your piece of it. 

However, the book also includes passages that rely on an old, top-down understanding of leadership:

  • I've got to do more than bring my lessons of civic leadership to places like Yale…. I need to bring more folks in, more new blood, more of a country. 

  • Are we who gather here and others like us who show up for Civic Saturdays, are we enough to undo the toxic effects of concentrated wealth and the culture of hoarding?... Let me tell you why I still have hope. 

  • We've launched a Civic Seminary to train dozens of people from small towns and large to lead their own Civic Saturdays.

As I discuss in Building a ”Full-Stack Society” with “New Power,” Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms present a much different understanding of leadership in New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You. They describe dynamics that are “open, participatory, and peer driven.” This model differs fundamentally from the more hierarchical one utilized by Citizen University, which relies on the top-down training of (apparently self-selected) leaders.

In response to an email inquiry, Citizen University Program Manager Taneum Fotheringill told me:

Civic Saturday meets every other month in Seattle, and in our gatherings here we typically see around 100 participants. We have trained over 50 civic leaders through our program, Civic Seminary. There are at least 25 cities that will see Civic Saturdays in the next few months. For these gatherings that are led by the Civic Seminarians, the frequency of the gathering and number of participants varies depending on where they are located and what is feasible organizationally. Typically, there are 30-50 participants at these gatherings.

I wish them luck. For three years’ effort, that seems like a good beginning, though it’s unclear how many cities are already holding Civic Saturdays. It’s unrealistic for Liu to hope that Civic Saturdays alone might be enough to “undo the toxic effects of concentrated wealth and the culture of hoarding. Still, this project can contribute to the cause. But I suspect their potential will be enhanced if they study New Power. 

Moreover, I’d prefer they examine more closely the social forces that afflict us. This conditioning leaves us in need of intentional mutual support for self-improvement (with goals being set by each individual). Liu’s heart is clearly in the right place and he’s a great writer. Become America contains many important insights that need attention. I hope he and his people continue along their path, and dig deeper.