Grant and Lee at Appomatox Court House
To everyone’s surprise former President Barack Obama has taken a swipe at wokeness – political correctness on steroids — with its deplatforming, manufactured outrage, indignation, and cancel culture.
Speaking to a young audience at the third annual Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago this week, he said that the internet’s social justice warriors were looking for self-satisfaction, not social change:
“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 … The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. . .
One danger I see among young people particularly on college campuses (Malia and I talk about this) . . but I do get a sense sometimes among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes that the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people. And that’s enough.
I mean, 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. . . You see how woke I was? I called you out. . .. that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not gonna get that far.”
It was a good message, although whether it will have any impact is unlikely. After all, Obama was President so long ago – three, almost four years ago — that that “cancel culture” Delta Force may never have heard of him.
Obama’s common sense and willingness to engage with opponents links him to another American President, one who could not be more different, but who had to deal with rebellion, hatred and evil ideas – Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant was the ruthless Northern general who forced the South to its knees in the Civil War and subsequently became President (1869-1877). Like all people of the time, there were complications in his thinking, but he abhorred the institution of slavery. He believed that it had corrupted the morals of the Southern gentry whose power was based on cotton and the oppression of slavery. Its continuing existence required that Northern citizens be forced to collaborate with something they hated. This was achieved through an ever-expanding legal framework which protected slave-ownership in the North through the Fugitive Slave Law.
So Grant regarded the Confederate cause as morally and legally corrupt, undemocratic and oppressive. He had every reason to despise the Rebels.
But he didn’t. In a remarkable passage in his memoirs about the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, he wrote:
my own feelings … were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.
Grant’s generosity of spirit here is remarkable. The Confederates had been battling to protect the perpetuation of slavery, one of the worst and least justifiable of all ideologies. They had killed 360,000 of his soldiers. Yet he recognised the valour and sincerity of his foes.
It’s not as though Grant was a soft touch. His nickname in the North was “Unconditional Surrender Grant” because he demanded that defeated generals offer immediate surrender or risk obliteration. But once hostilities had ceased, he treated his foes with dignity. His aim, like President Lincoln, was to “to bind up the nation’s wounds”. He had no interest – as other Northerners did – in treating the Confederates as despicable traitors. After the first of his unconditional surrenders, he was asked whether the Confederates would be subjected to a humiliating surrender ceremony. He indignantly replied:
“There will be nothing of the kind. The surrender is now a fact. We have the fort, the men, the guns. Why should we go through vain forms and mortify and injure the spirit of brave men, who, after all, are our own countrymen?”
There can be no lasting social change without generosity of spirit. Petulance, rage, spite, vindictiveness get us nowhere. It’s a lesson that the woke warriors of the internet need to study. And perhaps Grant's incumbent successor.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.