On Tuesday this week, former President Obama called on Americans to behave more sensibly and compassionate — or at least, that’s how some have viewed his remarks. Others, however, might read his latest comments as yet another needless prescription of acquiescence to a bloc of Americans on the wrong side of history.
In an interview with actor and activist Yara Shahidi at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, the former president decried what he deemed “woke culture” for its purported unhelpful puritanism.
"Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn't do something right or used the wrong verb. Then, I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because, man, you see how woke I was?" he said. "You know, that's not activism. That's not bringing about change. If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far.”
Much like your average conservative or Fox News political analyst, Obama went on to say that he sees this culture disturbingly prevalent across college campuses: “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people — and this is accelerated by social media — there is this sense sometimes of 'the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,'" he continued.
Then came even more paternalistic observations.
"This idea of purity, and you're never compromised, and you're always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly.” In a call for more nuance, he added, "The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.
I suppose on the surface, you can understand Obama’s point. People are complicated. People can change. If a person is open to change, they should be given space to evolve.
But we need to be real about the actual context of these remarks. It is not as if a bunch of young folks and/or nonwhite people have started a purity test ring. Liberals are hardly perfect, but in talking about the dangers of being judgmental and bullheaded, I’d rather talk about the conservative media and political complex and its major players.
Someone being called out for their prejudices at any given moment in the mentions of their Twitter timeline is not as dangerous as a propaganda vehicle propping up the corrupt white supremacist who locks up babies in cages as he routinely attacks other nonwhite groups in terms of both rhetoric and policy.
Are we not in an era in which young Americans across the country are mobilizing to raise awareness about issues like gun violence, anti-racism, trans and queer acceptance, and climate change? Am I to believe that young people being vocal online is not an important first step in their path towards activism? Am I to pretend online activism isn’t a thing?
It’s quite curious to see where Obama continues to aim his ire.
As Buzzfeed News political reporter Clarissa-Jan Lim highlights, these latest comments are extremely similar to those Obama offered in a 2017 interview with Prince Harry and last year at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture last year.
At the latter event, the former president asserted: "Democracy demands that we're able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they'll change ours. And you can't do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start."
I am never quite sure if Obama really thinks this naively or if he’s trying to convince certain sects of the population — notably young black folks, whom he just loves to lecture— that it’s better to coddle white people about their prejudices with the hopes of growth rather than speak our minds as we see fit.
Recall his 2004 DNC speech that there being no red America or blue America, just the United States of America. I never believed that. I found it adorable and rhetorically impressive — but that doesn't mean it was true.
Another problematic moment occurred in 2008, when Obama publicly denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright while running for president. Wright, his former pastor, was marred in controversy over a sermon he had given in 2003 in the wake of the Iraq invasion. “No, no, no. Not God bless America,” Wright declared in the circulating clip. “God damn America!”
As Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate, Wright “was speaking in a black religious and political tradition that condemns America for its treatment of black and brown people, for the genocide of natives and the enslavement of Africans, for internment and displacement. In Wright’s eyes, America was sinful, and until it atoned for those sins, God would deny His blessings. Not God Bless America. God Damn America!”
Those remarks were grossly misinterpreted and used as a means to further other then-candidate Obama. In response, on March 18, 2008, Obama delivered an address in Philadelphia now known as his “A More Perfect Union” speech in which he acknowledged the root of Wright's anger but spoke dismissively of his personal views: “It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past,” he said.
As it turns out, Wright knew better about this country than some let on.
I supported President Obama throughout his term. I love what he and his family symbolize to so many black people. I respect him immensely as a writer and orator. That admiration and respect is why his continued instance to speak in these platitudes to his own and to young people to be so disheartening.
We the people do not have to cower to the powerful and their righteousness. Nor do we have to stand for their miscategorizations or generalizations — no matter how much we appreciate them and their contributions. You can like someone and still find what they have to say in a given moment utterly useless. There’s no better time than the present. Given the time in history we’re at, it’s right to wonder if a former US president as beloved as Barack Hussein Obama ought to be making better use of his time and platform.
Obama can believe what he wants, but the era of hope and change was succeeded by American carnage. There are lessons to be learned from that and one of them should be to call out wrong when spotted. Some people can stand to chill, but to act like this period we’re in isn’t more rewarding than it is detrimental is a tale I won’t fall for.
If you want solid proof that the big bad cancel culture theory is hokum, look no further than Obama’s recent endorsement of Justin Trudeau for re-election as Canada’s prime minister. Cancel culture is so dominant that the man couldn’t even remember the number of times he wore blackface gets rewarded with an endorsement by America’s first black president and eventual victory.
Any day now, hopefully our former leader will speak more about Donald Trump and the antics of the national political party and media organizations emboldening his white nationalist nightmare of an administration. Why hasn’t he accepted that speaking in niceties surely won’t stop any of them?
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies