The son of successful immigrants from Taiwan, Eric Liu ’90 studied history at Yale College and has since then become a successful philanthropist and writer. After Yale, he went on to serve as a speechwriter for President Clinton, and later became Clinton’s deputy domestic policy advisor. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Liu has written several books, including “The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker.” He is a regular columnist for The Atlantic and CNN.com, and is the founder and CEO of Citizen University, a non-profit that promotes and teaches the art of positive citizenship. Liu was on campus last week to launch Citizen University’s new partnership with Yale College, and co-hosted a one-day summit on civic empowerment alongside Dean Holloway.
Q: You went to Harvard Law School, but you haven’t been a practicing lawyer. How come?
A: I went to law school explicitly with the intention of not practicing. I thought of it as a general graduate education, with a major in law. I took courses all around Harvard and came to know faculty and leaders in different disciplines around campus. Soon after I graduated from Yale in 1990, I realized there was so much more I could have explored intellectually. So when I went to law school, I was more aware of my interests and knew what I was passionate about. I wanted a second bite at the apple.
Q: How has your training in law helped you?
A: In a couple of ways. In between Yale and Harvard, I worked in D.C., first for David Boren, the U.S. senator for Oklahoma, and then for President Clinton. A lot of people I admired in Washington had trained in law but were not practicing. Problems and issues seemed to pop out in another dimension for them. Their ability to frame and understand problems and arguments was really compelling. And secondly, the training I received in law allows me to speak a certain language. The work I do now is all about teaching different aspects of citizenship, both at an ethical level and at a more legal, political and constitutional level. If we’re going to talk about the Fourteenth Amendment or the Citizenship Clause, for instance, having fluency in that language helps.
Q: You spent a few years working as an executive at a digital media company in Seattle. What was that like?
A: It was a really important part of my life, a pivotal period of failure and self-reckoning. I took that job for reasons that I had not followed prior to that, and have not followed since that. I listened to a voice that said, “You should get some business experience.” But it didn’t come from an intrinsic love of business or a desire to learn about it. It was an intellectually interesting time, but working there absolutely did not feed my sense of purpose. Particularly given the kind of hours I was putting in and the pressure I was under, I felt a kind of spirit-level emptiness.
Q: You’ve got an incredibly varied resume. You’ve been an author, a philanthropist, a policy-maker, a speechwriter and more. How do you know when it’s time to change tack?
A: I feel that there’s been a common thread for many of the different jobs and work environments I’ve been in. That common thread has been about civic empowerment. It’s been about exploring American identity and engaging in ways to activate the full promise of American life. That impulse was certainly there when I was working in politics. But it was also there while I was writing books about race or citizenship. And again, in the work I’m doing now, running Citizen University, it’s also key.
Q: Where do you get your drive from?
A: I’m a second-generation U.S. citizen; my parents are immigrants. If you translate it from Mandarin, my grandfather’s name means “Deliverance of the Nation.” [Laughs] High-pressure name, right? As I was growing up, there was this sense that you should be of service. Have you ever been to the base of the Harkness Tower in Branford?
A: Go into Branford, and at the base of Harkness Tower you’ll see this quote from Nathan Hale, class of 1773. It’s his second most famous quote. It says, “I wish to be useful.” That’s all. That is the essence of my sense of purpose — I wish to be civically useful. I wish to be part of delivering on the idea that is America. That is a second-generation, son-of-immigrants kind of thing, but still.
Q: How would you tell other people to be useful? Particularly to those who don’t have your hunger or drive, for instance? Sometimes, just practically speaking, it can be difficult to know.
A: It totally can be. No one is born knowing how to be of service. And even in an institution like Yale, which has a great long tradition of citizen service and leadership, it’s not explicitly reinforced. There are many other paths that quickly lead towards other kinds of works and measures of success.
Q: Is that why you decided that Citizen University should get involved at Yale?
A: Yes. That’s why I’m on campus this weekend. Citizen University has just launched this civic leadership initiative for Yale College undergraduates. We had a kick-off summit yesterday that Dean Holloway and I put together. Fifty or so undergraduates, from different colleges, backgrounds and ages, took part. We brought in six very diverse speakers to teach different aspects about what it means to be a capable and active citizen. We brought up questions like, How do you cultivate civic imagination? How do you use narrative to create a sense of community? How do you activate popular culture to change politics? How do you come up with cross-partisan political alliances that break apart tired frames of left-right, Democrat-Republican? Dean Holloway and I felt it was necessary for Yale to become more intentional and systematic in its attempts to cultivate a spirit and skillset of effective, engaged citizen leadership.
Q: On the Citizen University website, one of the quotes that jumps out is “Most people are fundamentally illiterate in power.” Could you unpack that?
A: Every association you can have with the word “power” is negative. Power-mad, power-trip, power-hungry… It’s a dirty word. And that is unfortunate. The heart of the work Citizen University does is to try to democratize the understanding of civic power. The reality is that in civic life, you are either literate in how power operates (and have agency in how it operates), or you are simply the object of other people’s operation of power. It seems to me that the most basic promise of a democratic republic is that everybody at least can have a shot at exercising power. If people are wasting that shot by willful or unwitting ignorance, then we are wasting the promise of democracy.
Q: Is leadership taught enough in high school?
A: There used to be robust civic education in the K-12 public schools system, but over the last several decades, that has winnowed away.
Q: How come?
A: It’s two things. Number one: Public education has gotten increasingly driven by standardized tests and increasingly geared towards things that are considered high priority, like math, science and reading. So civic education has been squeezed out. Number two: A lot of schools feel that to talk about civic issues is to court controversy. In our polarized political times, increasing numbers of educators are frankly just scared to go there. Schools fear that there will be a social media backlash, or that parents will get involved. So we’ve ended up with a systematic avoidance of the topic. That has to be remedied. Even just a little awareness about how power operates can help someone become that much more effective in civic life.
Q: Where do you stand on gun policy?
A: When Newtown happened, a friend and colleague of mine resolved to do something about it. We set up a kind of discussion posse that became the Washington [State] Alliance for Gun Responsibility. We ran a campaign to put a measure on our ballot that would create a statewide system of criminal background checks for gun purchasers. And it passed! The gun lobby fought it tooth and nail, but we organized people in every corner of our state. The name — “Gun Responsibility” — is important. It’s not gun restraint, it’s gun responsibility. We acknowledge that there are gun rights. But if you’re going to be a grown-up citizen, if you’re going to be a “non-toddler,” you have to recognize that every right comes with responsibilities. We have not had a grown-up conversation about guns. For us, it wasn’t just about securing a particular system of background checks, it was about opening up a wider conversation about the meaning of responsibility in civic life.
Q: You have expressed your support for a truth and reconciliation commission on extrajudicial violence against African-Americans. Do you stand by that?
A: I believe that the U.S. could use a truth and reconciliation process, not just around African-Americans, but around race generally. It would look at how race has distorted policy-making, social norms, opportunity and definitions of Americanness. These issues are not just in the news today — they have roots that precede the founding of the country. I’m not naive. Having a commission like that in the U.S. would look very different to the way similar things have been done in South Africa, Argentina, Australia and other nations. But forget about the mechanics for a moment — if we are going to grow up as a country, we need to have an honest, non-defensive reckoning with race.
Q: I totally agree, but I don’t think that everyone has your energy. Many people would balk at the size of the challenge. And others would fear that a large-scale commission would blow things up even more, disturb whatever fragile “equilibrium” is currently in existence.
A: I acknowledge that. A commission would be hard. But the equilibrium currently is only an appearance of an equilibrium. A lot of the old ways in which power is arranged in this country are breaking apart. Some of that is driven by technology and social media. Ten years ago there was no such thing as a “hashtag,” much less using a hashtag to generate and catalyze citizen protest and action around the country. There has also been a shift in demography. Statistically, we are fast approaching the day when we will be a majority people of color country. The reality of that, and the anticipation of that, creates turbulence and anxiety, but it also creates a certain amount of hope and expectation. This is by definition not an equilibrium period. This is a period of disruption, both welcome and unwelcome. My view is that, as members of the body politic, we shouldn’t just turn away and pretend change isn’t happening. We should run toward it.