Tempo, Horizons, Patterns: Eric Liu on three ways we can shape time to serve our citizenship

We have profiled Eric Liu’s Citizen University already in this blog - and it was a delight to see Eric’s tweet (below right), with pictures showing the conviviality and discussion at one of their #CivicSaturday events, this time in Seattle’s Impact Hub.

Like A/UK, Citizen U is using cultural forms - arts and performance, conviviality and ritual - to open up a new emotional commitment to citizenship (see their Sworn-Again America, or the experiments (1, 2) in their “Joy of Voting” programme).

Here we wanted to profile Eric’s “civic sermon” from the Seattle event, which highlights an aspect of a new politics which has concerned us for a while - the requirement for more time for citizenship, or at least to be conscious of how you devote your time to it.

Eric explores three dimensions of it: tempo, horizons and patterns.


Our first responsibility in civic life, then, is to move at our own tempos. To be intentional.That doesn’t mean simply slowing down. Always moving slowly is as stupid as always moving quickly. Stupidest of all, though, is moving to a cadence you have no hand in setting. In classical music, concertos and symphonies have three or four movements, usually alternating between fast and slow. If they were only one or the other, no one would listen all the way through. But when we perceive a design, a deliberate alternation of tempos, we give not just our attention but our respect: here is someone who can play with time. A composer, a conductor. Not just an audience member.

And we remember that we too have this power. To conduct and compose our selves….

…Outside of the enforced and societally accepted blocs of time when we get to step off the treadmill and reset our pace for a day, we as citizens must remind each other how to perceive and use time in democracy. How to listen, how to learn, when to respond at once and when to respond not at all. How to know when speed saves and when speed kills. Most of all, how to take control of how you spend your time and your attention, which are currencies of your civic power.


The farmer, the scientist, the teacher, and the pastor all know other conceptions of time: seasonal, genomic, geologic, epochal, and scriptural time.

They have horizons that vary in length but that are all longer than the perpetual now.This is a matter not just of patience, and it’s certainly not a matter of saying thatpatience is always a virtue. It’s simply an acknowledgment that these people in theirprofessional lives must be able to take a long view backward and forward even as they are doing what is before them in the moment.

So must we all in our civic lives.

Having a sense of the horizon is a matter of both knowing history and imagining future history. The horizon encircles you from Christmases past to Christmases yet to come. Our second responsibility in managing civic time, then, is to be able to locate ourselves in relation to past and future. If tempo was about regulating pace, then horizons is about understanding place: where we stand in time.

…The only way that we can in fact live forever and that is to pass on our knowledge to, and circulate our capital with, the younger generations behind us. That’s it. Full stop. It is the only path to immortality: immortality of character and wisdom.

The dominant culture in our country [the US] – what we are all pushing back against – has no time horizon. It reduces history and the future to a single point. We in the counterculture are stretching that point out into a line, into a circle, into a weave of chords that binds generation to generation and each of us to one another. That’s the only way to make time real – to make it not about now. And to see, over time, that the great American weave tells its own stories that are truer than yours or mine alone.


..A true baseball player has got to be able to focus on the now, the instant a pitch is released, and at the same time be able to zoom out and be guided by what happened before and at the same time recognize that what happened before may no longer be relevant and in fact may be misleading.

A true citizen must do each of those things as well. See patterns, make judgments, adjust. See patterns, make judgments, adjust.

In American civic life today the word “judgment” is usually associated with righteous put- downs of someone deemed morally subpar. That, again, is a result of our too-fast tempo and our too-short horizons. Every offence is a volume-ten outrage. But citizenship cannot sustain that pace or that intensity. Citizenship requires discernment and modulation. It requires judgment in the other, deeper sense: an ability to make distinctions and to weigh evidence past and present and make the best calls we can.

Eric concludes:

Let me close with a nod to the great theater artist Anne Bogart. She has developed a system of directing actors that focuses on what she calls “viewpoints” – dimensions of time and space that a performer must be aware of as she moves across a stage. Bogart talks about tempo and duration in a way that lines up with the dimensions of tempo, horizon, and pattern that I talked about today.

But the main point of her teachings is that there is never any single tempo or duration, no single form of repetition or response,that is inherently and inalterably correct. The point of developing one’s craft onstage isto have a full repertoire of moves and viewpoints on time – and then full command of that repertoire to use as the situation demands and inspires.

As it is in theatre so it is in citizenship.

How do we as members of civic life develop that repertoire and that command? In the first place, by naming the phenomenon. Time matters. In the second place, by practicing. Think about the tempo, the horizons, and the patterns of time as they play out in your neighborhood, in our city, and in our country. Consider how to adjust your viewpoints of time and space so that someone who does not share them can see you.

Each of us as citizens is both director and actor, responding kinesthetically, as Bogart would say, to each others’ moves and motives and sense of time. No president, even after this one is gone, can save us from our own inattention or indifference.

More here.

Nowhere mentioned here, but we think structurally vital, is the possibility of a shorter working week (made possible and necessary by labour-replacing automation of work) that can open up new and extra hours for citizenship. The most stirring and complete version of this is NEF’s “21 Hours” publication. Rutger Bregman is also fluent on this.