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Eric Liu's Convocation speech on 9/4/08

Eric Liu

President Gearan, trustees, members of the Hobart and William Smith communities: I am truly moved by the privilege and the honor of being in your company today, and only secondarily of the honor of receiving the President's Medal.

This is the second time that I have had the chance to come to this campus, and the first time was about three years ago and I think in total I think I've spent about 22 or 26 hours on this campus. And I didn't need all 22 or 26 of those hours to recognize - not only at the level of the head, but more importantly at the level of the heart - that something special is going on here.

This is a remarkable campus and a remarkable group of people. I stand here today looking not only at these flags arrayed here, representing all the nations of the world that Hobart and William Smith can draw a line to. Not only looking at the distance at the flag of this country, but more importantly looking at the people gathered here and thinking about the people gathered on the stage around me.

Mark Gearan, the President of the Colleges, is to me not only the embodiment of all the values at Hobart and William Smith, not only a remarkable citizen, but to me, just a personal role model, friend, mentor, and, dare I say it, a hero.

Mark Gearan and I met something like 15 years ago, when I was a wide-eyed rookie speechwriter for President Clinton, barely knowing the direction of the oval office and to the restrooms. Mark Gearan was already at that point, though he was a young man, a really savvy and wise veteran of campaigns and governing and, in spite of being a really savvy and wise veteran, still somebody who had a deep, abiding measure of idealism and purpose in why he was there.

I remember in those early months, as I was trying to navigate my way around Washington and the White House, that there was always somebody looking out for me; there was always somebody in the midst of that cut-throat, dog-eat-dog, if-you-can't-hack-it move-out-of-the-way kind of environment who took an interest, and that person was Mark Gearan.

Mark Gearan, to me, embodied the four words that President Clinton said to me when I finally left the White House and went on with my studies and the rest of my career. President Clinton, on my last day in service there, looked at me, and he looked at me straight in the eye and he said to me, "Go forth, and do good." And as corny as that sounded, it just reverberated in me. Those four words shook me to the core. When I thought about what it meant to go forth and do good, to leave the halls of power like that and go into the world and do good, there is nobody I have as a greater exemplar and guiding light as Mark Gearan.

After he left the White House he, as you know, he went and led the Peace Corps through some of its most interesting and promising times of revival and renewal. Now, of course, over this past decade he has made this campus and this institution not only a great center of learning, not only a place of incredible community, but truly, down to every fiber of every student, every engagement, every passing conversation as you walk around with Mark across these greens, from dorm to dorm, from house to house, a place in which people have a sense of spirit and a sense of purpose - a place in which nobody is marking time and nobody is just waiting to collect a degree. That to me is a measure of not only of Mark Gearan's personality and culture, but it is a measure of what this institution is.

This is a remarkable place, and as I said to you, it took me less than 26 hours to feel that in a deep way. The love that Mark Gearan has for this community, this campus, and this country is something that I relate to deeply. When he was reading words, like the words he just read in bestowing this honor upon me, just as in the same way Bill Clinton got to me, I got chocked up because words matter, because statements of belief and conviction matter, and because there is something exceptional about the ability and the willingness to say what we believe. Something exceptional not only about this campus and this community, and the beauty and the colors and the diversity of thought and background that we have convened and gathered here today, but there is something exceptional and powerful about this country that makes it possible for all of us here.

Me, today, the son of emigrants from China, standing on this campus where 100 years ago, as we heard earlier, we lived in such a different time and such a different world. I want to speak to you today in part about this lofty, vague, abstract notion of patriotism.

As Professor Rimmerman said, I am the author of a book called "The True Patriot," and thanks to Mark Gearan's leadership, I think everybody here is going to be getting a copy of this little red book in a little while. I often start out these speeches by warning folks in the audience, "beware of earnest young Chinese men bearing little, red books." But I promise you we don't have a long march ahead of us. (laughter)

We're here to really engage in an idea and to recognize that if we can't come together at a place like this to engage in an idea and ask ourselves what an idea means, then when on earth are we going to do that? At an institution like this, for most of the young people gathered here today in their first days of higher education, to interrogate and explore what this simple word "patriotism" means. What is Patriotism, what does it mean to be, as in the title of my book, a "true patriot?"

We've been hearing a lot this campaign season, and I guarantee you we will be hearing a whole lot more down the home stretch about what a patriot is and what it means to be a patriot-and there's good and there's bad to that. The good is that it is going to force us to reckon with the word and the idea and to peel beneath all the accreted layers of cliché that accumulated around this simple idea of patriotism. But the bad of it is what we're likely to see over the course of these next 60 days, is what we have seen over the last three, four decades of American politics - and that is the cynical, narrow ways in which patriotism has been used and abused in our politics.

If there is one storyline that marks our politics over the course of these decades, it is the way in which the far-right has grabbed and appropriated the language, etymology, and the idea of patriotism. While the far-left has surrendered it, ceded it, and run from it to the detriment of both, and to the detriment of our country. I co-wrote this book, "The True Patriot," to argue that it is time for all of us - Republican, Democrat, Independent - to reclaim and reframe this idea of patriotism.

Patriotism is not simply chest-thumping, flag waving, saying we're No. 1. Patriotism is not looking around and pointing out all the ways in which other countries and other peoples are inferior to us. It is not that at all, nor is patriotism a blind obedience to the country or to the leaders of our country. Patriotism does not mean in the age old phrase, "My country right or wrong," but rather it means - to paraphrase the United States Senator from Illinois about 100 years ago-"My country, when kept to be kept right, when wrong to be set right." That is the meaning and the measure of true patriotism, and in the book "True Patriot" what we argue is simply this: If you want to take this idea seriously, if you want to unpack this notion of country first, of country before self, what you have to get to is not simple professions of love, not simple declarations of pride. You have to be able to earn it and show it.

The way you have to earn it and show it is by beginning with a raw framework, a framework of values, ideals, and principles that guide the way that you operate as a citizen in public life, and as a human being in private life. You have to No. 1, have that raw framework and moral code; and No. 2, you have to live up to it.

To me, the essence of American patriotism, as distinct from the kinds of patriotisms that you might find in the nations represented by all these flags here - there is only one country on earth dedicated to a proposition, and that is a country we live in right now. We have failed over and over again in this nation's history to live up to those propositions, to live up to those ideals. But the measure and the meaning of patriotism is how do we push ourselves, nudge ourselves inch-by-inch, decade-by-decade, and generation-by-generation to a little closer fidelity to our stated, announced founding ideals?

That notion of true, American patriotism means that if we're going to have a moral framework and unpack this idea of country before self, we come to a set of values and principles like mutual obligation, sharing a sacrifice, responsibility for the common good, service to others and last, but not least, stewardship. You can not get, in good faith, from country before self to every man for himself, or let the market sort things out, or might makes right. These principles of shared sacrifice, mutual obligation, service to others, stewardship are not Democratic, not Republican, not Conservative, nor even Progressive. But they do call on us to be something greater than simply agents of mere rational self-interest. They call on us to remind ourselves that we are woven into a web of relationships and obligation.

You may not agree with every principle that I enumerate in my moral code, and in the pages of "The Patriot," there are more principles that I spell out. That's fine; you can disagree in part or in whole. But what you must have is your own moral code. Those of you who are freshmen, first-year students today: this is not an abstraction, some far off thing. You are going to make choices; you have already begun to make choices in your first days on this campus that will begin to form your moral identity as a member of this community, as a member of this country. You can go on for the rest of these four years and the rest of your lives haphazardly, unwittingly, sometimes in alignment with stated ideals, sometimes not - sometimes aware of those ideals and sometimes not.

But then the question simply arises, "What are you doing here?" Why did you make the effort to come to this institution? And why did you make the pledge symbolized by your presence at this convocation to open your minds and your hearts in pursuit of a kind of self awareness and other awareness that our speakers earlier today have spoken about?

So you don't have to agree with my code, but you have to have one. That is No. 1, but the second thing that is core to this notion of true patriotism is the tough part - and that's living up to the code, living up to your stated ideals and your principles.

Let's pick one from the list I enumerated earlier - stewardship. What does stewardship mean? We often hear stewardship today in the context of climate crisis and global warming and the need impressed upon all of us, whatever our backgrounds, our party affiliations, to be more mindful and better stewards of our environment and of our planet.

But that is only the most visible and most pressing notion of stewardship. I challenge you today to think about this notion of what it means to be a steward. Simply put to me, stewardship is this idea that you're going to leave the joint in better shape than you found it. How you want to define the joint is up to you. That principle applies to the level of your dormitory and house, it applies to the level of your department, it applies to the level of this institution, it applies to the level of this city by a lake, it applies to the level of this great state, and it applies to the level of these great United States. This question of "What am I doing?" What are these changes that I'm making to leave this joint in better shape than I found it?

Environmentally, yes, but fiscally, artistically, culturally, intellectually, in all the ways in that not only a nation, but let's bring it down in all the ways a human being can be strong. What are we doing to leave this place stronger? That simple idea plays out in level after level in this beautiful, fractal way. What your college experience is going to be is a discovery of these powers of 10 from the next to the next to the next. Realizing that changes you, makes that in what seems to be the smallest, most inconsequential and unseen actions - play out over and over again and ripple out to not only change this campus, but our country.

That's what it means to live up to a code. It's not rocket science; it's a lot harder than rocket science because it requires a moment-by-moment mindfulness of where we stand in relation to the people we promised ourselves to be. That is not easy - there is no exam, there is no paper, there is no distribution requirement, and there is no proof of completion of that course of study. All that is, is being a citizen; all that is, is being a full human being. And in the end, all that is, is moving in our lives-civic, public, private not only as corks bobbing along the river in the current but rather with a sense of purpose. We come together today in order to document, articulate and honor the spirit of purpose.

This is a campus where service and stewardship are woven into every aspect and every detail of campus life. Whether you choose to express that yearning through purpose in political activity like I have, or whether you choose to express it through the arts or theater, or through relentless scientific discovery, or through travel abroad, or through the teaching and the mentoring of people who need help and need a guiding light - whatever path you might choose, this notion of purpose is fundamental.

What I've been talking about here, in this simple idea of true patriotism, is not religious exactly, but it is, in a sense, a civic religion. It does bring to mind a recent book that is religious - a book that is out there right now that many of you may have read, a book called "The Purpose-Driven Life" by this fellow named Rick Warren.

Rick Warren and I couldn't be more unlike. Rick Warren is the pastor of an Evangelical mega-church in Orange County, California. This book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," uses, in his case, the vocabulary and language of scripture, and his particular notion and interpretation of scripture, to answer what is a universal question that those of us, whether or not we subscribe to his notions of scripture, can ask ourselves and must answer for ourselves, which is simply: "What on earth are we doing here?" How were we meant to spend our days so that we don't simply bobble on that current? So that we feel like we are a part of a story greater than our own and part of a cause and part of a legacy that will live beyond our mere, brief days on this campus and on this planet?

Does anybody here know what the first line of "The Purpose Driven Life" is? Nobody? I'll tell you what it is: "It's not about you." That's the first line, and you know what? For all the ways in which, politically and otherwise, I will disagree with Rick Warren, I couldn't agree more with the idea that purpose and a purpose-driven life and a purpose-driven politics that is truly patriotic begins with the simple notion that "it's not about you."

So friends, colleagues, and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2012, we're gathered here today in this convocation, we're called today and we call one another today together to remember those words, "It's not about you." And to remember that the full measure of your education is not going to be the courses that you take, the travel abroad experiences that you get, the awards that you win, the great jobs that you get after you leave this place, but that the full and only lasting measure of the power, and the value of your education is whether you contributed to the world in proportion to all that you are about to receive starting today.

Members of the Class of 2012 and members of the community of Geneva and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, I say to you today in all earnest, let us now go forth and do good. Thank you very much.