Eric Liu: Why ordinary people need to understand power

Eric Liu: Why ordinary people need to understand power


I’m a teacher and a practitioner of civics in America. Now, I will kindly ask those of
you who have just fallen asleep to please wake up. (Laughter) Why is it that the very word “civics” has such a soporific,
even a narcoleptic effect on us? I think it’s because the very
word signifies something exceedingly virtuous,
exceedingly important, and exceedingly boring. Well, I think it’s the responsibility of people like us, people who show up for gatherings like this in person or online, in any way we can, to make civics sexy again, as sexy as it was during the American Revolution, as sexy as it was during the Civil Rights Movement. And I believe the way we make civics sexy again is to make explicitly about the teaching of power. The way we do that, I believe, is at the level of the city. This is what I want to talk about today, and I want to start by defining some terms and then I want to describe the scale of the problem I think we face and then suggest the ways that I believe cities can be the seat of the solution. So let me start with some definitions. By civics, I simply mean the art of being a pro-social, problem-solving contributor in a self-governing community. Civics is the art of citizenship, what Bill Gates Sr. calls simply showing up for life, and it encompasses three things: a foundation of values, an understanding of the systems
that make the world go round, and a set of skills that allow you to pursue goals and to have others join in that pursuit. And that brings me to my definition of power, which is simply this: the capacity to make others do what you would have them do. It sounds menacing, doesn’t it? We don’t like to talk about power. We find it scary. We find it somehow evil. We feel uncomfortable naming it. In the culture and mythology of democracy, power resides with the people. Period. End of story. Any further inquiry not necessary and not really that welcome. Power has a negative moral valence. It sounds Machiavellian inherently. It seems inherently evil. But in fact power is no more inherently good or evil than fire or physics. It just is. And power governs how any form of government operates, whether a democracy or a dictatorship. And the problem we face today,
here in America in particular, but all around the world, is that far too many people
are profoundly illiterate in power — what it is, who has it, how it operates, how it flows, what part of it is visible,
what part of it is not, why some people have it,
why that’s compounded. And as a result of this illiteracy, those few who do understand how power operates in civic life, those who understand how a bill becomes a law, yes, but also how a friendship
becomes a subsidy, or how a bias becomes a policy, or how a slogan becomes a movement, the people who understand those things wield disproportionate influence, and they’re perfectly happy to fill the vacuum created by the ignorance of the great majority. This is why it is so fundamental for us right now to grab hold of this idea of power and to democratize it. One of the things that is so profoundly exciting and challenging about this moment is that as a result of this power illiteracy that is so pervasive, there is a concentration of knowledge, of understanding, of clout. I mean, think about it: How does a friendship become a subsidy? Seamlessly, when a senior government official decides to leave government and become a lobbyist for a private interest and convert his or her relationships into capital for their new masters. How does a bias become a policy? Insidiously, just the way that stop-and-frisk, for instance, became over time a bureaucratic numbers game. How does a slogan become a movement? Virally, in the way that the Tea Party, for instance, was able to take the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag from the American Revolution, or how, on the other side, a band of activists could take a magazine headline, “Occupy Wall Street,” and turn that into a global meme and movement. The thing is, though, most people aren’t looking for and don’t
want to see these realities. So much of this ignorance, this civic illiteracy, is willful. There are some millennials, for instance, who think the whole business is just sordid. They don’t want to have anything to do with politics. They’d rather just opt out and engage in volunteerism. There are some techies out there who believe that the cure-all for any power imbalance or power abuse is simply more data, more transparency. There are some on the left who think power resides only with corporations, and some on the right who think power resides only with government, each side blinded by their selective outrage. There are the naive who believe that good things just happen and the cynical who believe
that bad things just happen, the fortunate and unfortunate alike who think that their lot is simply what they deserve rather than the eminently alterable result of a prior arrangement, an inherited allocation, of power. As a result of all of this
creeping fatalism in public life, we here, particularly in America today, have depressingly low levels of civic knowledge, civic engagement, participation, awareness. The whole business of politics has been effectively subcontracted out
to a band of professionals, money people, outreach people, message people, research people. The rest of us are meant to feel like amateurs in the sense of suckers. We become demotivated to learn more about how things work. We begin to opt out. Well, this problem, this challenge, is a thing that we must now confront, and I believe that when you have this kind of disengagement, this willful ignorance, it becomes both a cause and a consequence of this concentration of opportunity of wealth and clout that I was
describing a moment ago, this profound civic inequality. This is why it is so important in our time right now to reimagine civics as the teaching of power. Perhaps it’s never been more important at any time in our lifetimes. If people don’t learn power, people don’t wake up, and if they don’t wake up, they get left out. Now, part of the art of practicing power means being awake and having a voice, but it also is about having an arena where you can plausibly practice deciding. All of civics boils down to the simple question of who decides, and you have to play that out in a place, in an arena. And this brings me to the third
point that I want to make today, which is simply that there is no better arena in our time for the practicing of power than the city. Think about the city where you live, where you’re from. Think about a problem in
the common life of your city. It can be something small, like where a street lamp should go, or something medium like which library should have its hours extended or cut, or maybe something bigger, like whether a dilapidated waterfront should be turned into a highway or a greenway, or whether all the businesses in your town should be required to pay a living wage. Think about the change that you want in your city, and then think about how you would get it, how you would make it happen. Take an inventory of all the forms of power that are at play in your city’s situation: money, of course, people, yes, ideas, information, misinformation, the threat of force, the force of norms. All of these form of power are at play. Now think about how you would activate or perhaps neutralize these various forms of power. This is not some Game of Thrones empire-level set of questions. These are questions that play out in every single place on the planet. I’ll just tell you quickly about two stories drawn from recent headlines. In Boulder, Colorado, voters not too long ago approved a process to replace the private power company, literally the power company,
the electric company Xcel, with a publicly owned utility that would forego profits and attend far more to climate change. Well, Xcel fought back, and Xcel has now put in play a ballot measure that would undermine or undo this municipalization. And so the citizen activists in
Boulder who have been pushing this now literally have to fight the power in order to fight for power. In Tuscaloosa, at the University of Alabama, there’s an organization on campus called, kind of menacingly, the Machine, and it draws from largely white sororities and fraternities on campus, and for decades, the Machine has dominated student government elections. Well now, recently, the Machine has started to get involved in actual city politics, and they’ve engineered the election of a former Machine member, a young, pro-business recent graduate to the Tuscaloosa city school board. Now, as I say, these are just two examples drawn almost at random from the headlines. Every day, there are thousands more like them. And you may like or dislike the efforts I’m describing here in Boulder or in Tuscaloosa, but you cannot help but admire the power literacy of the players involved, their skill. You cannot help but reckon with and recognize the command they have of the elemental questions of civic power — what objective, what strategy, what tactics, what is the terrain, who are your enemies, who are your allies? Now I want you to return to thinking about that problem or that opportunity or that challenge in your city, and the thing it was that you want to fix or create in your city, and ask yourself, do you have command of these
elemental questions of power? Could you put into practice effectively what it is that you know? This is the challenge and the opportunity for us. We live in a time right now where in spite of globalization or perhaps because of globalization, all citizenship is ever more resonantly, powerfully local. Indeed, power in our time is flowing ever faster to the city. Here in the United States, the national government has tied itself up in partisan knots. Civic imagination and innovation and creativity are emerging from local ecosystems now and radiating outward, and this great innovation, this great wave of localism that’s now arriving, and you see it in how people eat and work and share and buy and move and live their everyday lives, this isn’t some precious parochialism, this isn’t some retreat into insularity, no. This is emergent. The localism of our time is networked powerfully. And so, for instance, consider the ways that strategies for making cities more bike-friendly have spread so rapidly from Copenhagen to New York to Austin to Boston to Seattle. Think about how experiments
in participatory budgeting, where everyday citizens get a chance to allocate and decide upon the allocation of city funds. Those experiments have
spread from Porto Alegre, Brazil to here in New York City,
to the wards of Chicago. Migrant workers from Rome to Los Angeles and many cities between are now organizing to stage strikes to remind the people who live in their cities what a day without immigrants would look like. In China, all across that country, members of the New Citizens’ Movement are beginning to activate and organize to fight official corruption and graft, and they’re drawing the ire of officials there, but they’re also drawing the attention of anti-corruption activists all around the world. In Seattle, where I’m from, we’ve become part of a great global array of cities that are now working together bypassing government altogether, national government altogether, in order to try to meet the carbon reduction goals of the Kyoto Protocol. All of these citizens, united, are forming a web, a great archipelago of power that allows us to bypass brokenness and monopolies of control. And our task now is to accelerate this work. Our task now is to bring more and more people into the fold of this work. That’s why my organization, Citizen University, has undertaken a project now to create an everyman’s curriculum in civic power. And this curriculum starts with this triad that I described earlier of values, systems and skills. And what I’d like to do is to invite all of you to help create this curriculum with the stories and the experiences and the challenges that each of you lives and faces, to create something powerfully collective. And I want to invite you in particular to try a simple exercise drawn from the early frameworks of this curriculum. I want you to write a narrative, a narrative from the future of your city, and you can date it, set it out one year from now, five years from now, a decade from now, a generation from now, and write it as a case study looking back, looking back at the change that you wanted in your city, looking back at the cause
that you were championing, and describing the ways that that change and that cause came, in fact, to succeed. Describe the values of your fellow citizens that you activated, and the sense of moral purpose
that you were able to stir. Recount all the different ways that you engaged the systems of government, of the marketplace, of social institutions, of faith organizations, of the media. Catalog all the skills you had to deploy, how to negotiate, how to advocate, how to frame issues, how to navigate diversity in conflict, all those skills that enabled you to bring folks on board and to overcome resistance. What you’ll be doing when you write that narrative is you’ll be discovering how to read power, and in the process, how to write power. So share what you write, do you what you write, and then share what you do. I invite you to literally share the narratives that you create on our Facebook page for Citizen University. But even beyond that, it’s in the conversations that we have today all around the world in the simultaneous gatherings that are happening on this topic at this moment, and to think about how we can become one another’s teachers and students in power. If we do that, then together we can make civics sexy again. Together, we can democratize democracy and make it safe again for amateurs. Together, we can create a great network of city that will be the most powerful collective laboratory for self-government this planet has ever seen. We have the power to do that. Thank you very much. (Applause)

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    Lisa Marie

    He wants to make civics "sexy" as if it's "exceedingly virtuous" or "boring", but doesn't get how it's just simply, INVASIVE, his first attempt at controlling others.  He thinks he can make it "sexy" by having it be "explicitly about the teaching of POWER", over-taking major "cities" first. 

    Joy!  As if we weren't surrounded by enough power hungry brainwashed tools already.  I'd hate to be this guy's girl friend or wife.  Major cities are pumping out people obsessed with power, likely not having developed a respect for life and the freedom it needs to live.  People that love freedom need to take, and keep, control of these cities!  It's our duty!

    He even tries to defuse me with the "it is what it is" defense, "power just is", whether it be for good or bad, hmmmmmmmm… Well then, if it be for good, I'll take my freewill and defuse your "power" over me, buddy, you have to say what "power is", and it is SHARED, for all to create, not just you, oh wait, I guess that's the point you made at the end, but still, not liking how it's presented.  Were we talking about dominatrix, controlling others, or respecting freedom?  I want my two brain cells back!  Why do you get to keep them?
     

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    NextTime KissMe

    You lost me with the global warming crap…I just can't take someone seriously or assign weight to their views when they push that hoax.

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    FlyingGrunt28

    "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." – Abraham Lincoln

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    Gerald Spezio

    Eric, as you correctly say; Civics is power.
    The Jewish Power configuration knows civics.
    The calculating evil bastards have so much power – they make the civics.

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    Werner van rossum

    Is this talk based on a particular book of Eric Liu's? I want to read more about this (the educational characteristics of local civic practice). If anyone can give me any recommendations, that would be great.. 😀 Thanks in advance!

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    Petter Nybråten

    Interesting take on cities as the arena for action. I'd argue that the actual arena of power is a the individual level. Most of the structural arrangements in the world can be totally changed or heavily influenced by individuals altering their behaviour. I grimace every time people point their fingers at rich white men while failing to recognize that most of them are ultimately funded by consumers. I propose not changing any laws, but rather using the freedoms we in fact do have to establish and support businesses that share their profits with their workers, their customers and/or their communities.

    The city/local arena is the place to focus on. I'm intrigued by the idea of the majority of power residing at the local level, while broader commitments and cooperation could take more the form of voluntary agreements as is often the case on the international stage. This feels intuitively natural, as decisions then will be made closer to the affected citizens. Governmental structures above the city/regional level should generally be limited to upholding fundamentals such as constitutional law and other structures about ensuring human rights.

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    gmw0583

    People who feel inadequate are good targets for the charlatans promising power.
    This man is a very persuasive public speaker… artful. He will seduce many.

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    cnrstn

    Do people who were polisci majors in college hold a disproportionate influence of me and my life? No. Do they have a disproportionate influence over the masses? No. They're all bureaucrats – meaningless cogs – the people that hold true influence over the masses is the media, and they don't care about civics, they're just interested in getting the larger viewership so they can have the most expensive ads. So ask again, who wields all the world's power? Those with the most money.

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    Roel Vink

    Needing material wealth and power is just a weakness in a person’s character, something that insecure people aspire too. Getting power does not make these people less insecure, because they are always worried about losing it. It is a castle made of sand. Wanting power just means you do not know the truth. Power is just a passing illusion/delusion. The truth of life is the only real power. Google TruthContest read the Present, it explains for the 1st time in history the Truth of Life (the big picture of life in every facet) it explains the nature of everything, it obtains your ultimate purpose and is the only key to true fulfillment.

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    L Kal

    I have some alliances to make first but I would love to participate in citizen university, I advise that any sentient being should do the same. to make this planet a place we will want our decedent's to grow up in. as of now the future looks frightening, but it also looks brighter than ever. never before has hummanity been so interconnected from such far reaches, these next few generations could hold the key for peace. never doubt the power of the will of the people there has never been room for such poor spirted strength, nor has there ever been.

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    Craig Soucy

    Awesome Video and he is right. Life is not a spectator sport unless you have decided that you are not worthy of playing the game. The power of participation and of networking is the keys to making a difference.

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    g w

    That's how Trump won. There is a force that has been waging a war against liberalism for a long time and took Trump as their proxy.

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    Amitava Manna

    He did not tell the secret of having power, or did I miss something? Talking about power does not generate power!

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    sn3192

    powerful speaker and important topic. those in power have an interest in keeping people oblivious to power so they can keep exerting it over them without any resistance. the more people understand power, the faster the powerful can be subdued and society can make progress.

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    Martin Shaw

    "Power to the people". Who EXACTLY is the people? When "the people" gets the power, it goes to one guy or a group of guys behind the scenes who without competition or oversight just abuses it. in the end these guys' actions don't serve the people, but serve themselves to remain in power.
    a power that doesn't belong to anybody from the outset is the worst kind.

    Perhaps the speaker is speaking to political trends in the US, but i don't really agree with it.

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    Douglas Moran

    This is a purely motivational speech for those who share his political beliefs on a laundry list of issues, that is, he tells the audience that they need to have power (somehow) to make changes for those issues.
    I realize that it is a TED talk and the primary goal is to be entertaining, but I was expecting some useful content.

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    Patrick McCormack

    What would Jacque Fresco have to say about the need to understand power? Thank you for posting the vid. It is entertaining.

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    Genius by Design

    The Elites have marginalized the slave completely !!! There is NO way to free yourself !!! U will either end up caged, suicided or UE !!!

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    Ryan Johnson

    I heard of a civics class, they cut that long ago.
    I wish I could've taken it, yet even graduating in 2002 it seems like they stripped it out of the lesson plans long ago.

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    Ed Tolliver

    Josef de Maistre wrote over 200 years ago, "Every nation has the government it deserves." The debacle of the 2016 election is a frightening example of the wielding of power by those who understand power corrupting its use by treason aided and abbetted by the uniformed. 2018 will determine what the government America deserves will look like — a fascist dystopia or a democracy that protects and supports the majority.

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    Patrick McCormack

    The title makes the 'renegade' cringe and the 'submissive' doe-eyed. I said to myself, Ted, think of another title like 'How to Begin a Wave of Networked Power' or 'How to Make Effective Your Constructs'. With that said, this video was initially unnerving.

    So I relaxed a bit, reflecting on the moment, beyond the urge to click elsewhere. Admittedly, listening to the content is a tough pill to swallow. Consider the exercise (i.e. work) that Eric asks each of us: Hope for a better tomorrow, pursue redemption and act responsibly.

    Eric Liu, with eloquence and sincerity, suggests who we can be.

    ͟͞͞ Ο͟͞

    Many thanks to Eric Liu.

    Yes – Hold On

    Justice to the left of you
    Justice to the right
    Speak when you are spoken to
    But don't pretend you're right

    This life's not for living
    It's for fighting and for wars
    No matter what the truth is
    Hold on to what is yours

    Jigsaw puzzle traitors
    Sent to spill the beans
    Constitution screw up
    Shattering the dreams

    Blood flows in the desert
    Dark citadels burning too
    Watch, look over your shoulder
    This one is strictly for you

    Hold on, hold on
    Wait, maybe the answer's looking for you
    Hold on, hold on
    Wait, take your time think it through
    Yes, I can make it through

    Hold on, hold on
    Sunshine, shine on through
    Hold on, hold on
    Sunshine, shine on you, see it through

    Talk the simple smile
    Such platonic eye, how they drown in incomplete capacity
    Strangest of them all
    When the feeling calls, how we drown in stylistic audacity
    Charge the common ground

    Round and round and round we living in gravity
    Shake, we shake so hard
    How we laugh so loud
    When we reach we believe in eternity
    I believe in eternity

    Hold on, hold on
    Sunshine, shine on, see it through
    Hold on, hold on
    Sunshine, shine on you

    Hold on, hold on
    Hold on, hold on

    Sunshine, shine on, shine on you
    Sunshine, shine on through
    Sunshine, shine on, shine on through
    Sunshine, shine on you

    Sunshine, shine on, shine on you
    Sunshine, shine on through
    Sunshine, shine on, shine on through
    Sunshine, shine on you

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    Prerieful

    This process of thinking has to be introduced into global education systems right from the primary standard… Only then can we expect a generation to have superactive adult individuals capable of independent critical thinking skills…. But wait…how can capitalism let this happen?

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    Danipulok

    It’s a really good speech. Especially how he makes pauses.

    After watching this speech I’ve decided to understand the situation in my country and not thinking that it doesn’t connect to me anymore.

    Thank you for this!
    And thanks Russian translations.

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    John Coffey

    This kind of thinking leads to totalitarianism. If I don't have the right to rob you at gunpoint, why does the government have that right? The government is just a collection of individuals like you and me who use coercion to achieve their aims.

    The simple answer is that if the government doesn't do it, someone else will, which is why anarchy doesn't work. However, it is not the role of government to steal from one person to give to another, which is a form of slavery. It is the role of government to protect people's rights, which is why we have government.

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    LoveAndPeaceOccurs

    Thank You for this information … may it help us to better understand power … our own personal power, as well as the power of others and how that changes when we come together in groups. Power is not a good or bad thing, as you say, it just is, the problem that many associate with power is the misuse of it and how some feel they have a right to assert their power over others … Remember … No one can take your power away or exploit your power without you allowing it … Be aware of your power and may we all use it only for the best of All. Love & Peace to All

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    chevalier de balibari

    Eric Liu is right, that control is best effected at the local level. When you live near the people who supposedly represent you, they are less likely, but not always, to engage in malfeasance and self-interest. The irony of this is that a lot of people in the audience are looking at their devices, deciding what to have for dinner, how many likes they have from people who could care less about them. Power has always been in the hands of a few. Once in a while, they get toppled, but they're not going to just roll over and give it to the polis. They need to be persuaded by force majeur.

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    kreanukreanu

    The low number (less than 400k after four years) of views of the video says exactly how un-sexy civics is currently. Long way to go. If we all, or even 1% of us, act today to change something for the better, imagine the world we'd be living in a year from now.

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    David Jaber

    How to best drive change toward a world that works for all: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGOOn_X8VQo&index=8&list=PLfvQ6khVmhPK_XM_IfcE2qKoHNvMMJJFM

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    portmanteauxsven

    As a high school teacher, this talk has changed my perspective and approach on teaching civics. It's always important to align concepts in school to relevant, chunked ideas that will enable students to see things more than just brushing the surface. To Eric Liu, thank you for this!

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    TaLorde Hornbro

    I hate to tell you this buddy, but you will not be any parts of making the concept of power sexy. I know that might be harsh, but you obviously I have no friends or you would already know this

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    Colleen Parsons

    Most countries have signed up to Agenda 21 and it's sequels. It is irrelevant who you vote for, the program remains . There is no 'great wave of localism' . People are being managed and indoctrinated to COMPLY. Irrespective of whether it is bicycles or vaccinations.

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