Tuesday night, Barack Obama’s tweet responding to the Charlottesville attack became the most-liked tweet of all time. As of this writing, people have tapped the heart on it 2.938 million times and counting. The message itself is actually a series of three tweets laying out a single Nelson Mandela quote (Mandela was of course notoriously averse to 140-character limits). In full, it reads, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion..." pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAm— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017
It’s a fine quote—appropriate in message, source and eloquence. It soars above the petty televised arguments about who was carrying what in Virginia or hair-splitting about what percentage of the crowd was made up of well meaning historical preservationists, and gets to the heart of what all that noise adds up to in a simple, instinctive way.
But it’s not original. It’s nothing an idealistic international relations student couldn’t have recalled and tweeted to much less fanfare. Obama may not even have posted it himself. So why is it the most-liked tweet ever; more liked many times over than anything the current president, whose entire political career and legions of support were forged on the medium, has ever typed out?
We look to our leaders when things like Charlottesville happen. That’s why we call them our leaders. And though they so often fail us, particularly in the realm of politics, there’s seemingly no amount of cynicism in the public discourse that can keep us from expecting them to soothe our fears, to calm our tensions in times of great cultural strife, however platitudinous their rhetoric, however rote their calls for unity and optimism. We just need them to say, solemnly, that tragedies are tragic, but that every day is another chance to be better. And so we set off in better’s general direction.
But we haven’t been granted that with Charlottesville. We’ve had to pry and pull to the point where our minimum moral requirement of the leader is an unequivocal condemnation of avowed hate groups. A good president is nebulous and aspirational in their public-facing hours, and thoughtful and nuanced behind closed doors. In other words, spending a post-tragedy press conference arguing that at least some left-leaning protestors were wearing helmets and looking for trouble too, after someone was killed by a terrorist, is nowhere in the ballpark of the point of either the issue, or the job.
So while our highest-elected leader tilts at windmills at the expense of our hard-earned sense of what’s right and wrong in America, we’re left helpless, looking around for someone greater than us to articulate our fears, to give us some reassurance that Heather Heyer’s death wasn’t meaningless, and that all is not lost. Someone to tell us with a straight face that we’re better than this.
Therein lies the answer to our Twitter mystery. Why is Obama’s tweet the most-liked ever? Because people sought it out. I did. Never before had I purposefully navigated to the former president’s Twitter feed. I didn’t even know I was already following him until his profile told me so. But on Saturday, despairing and finding nothing but disquiet in Trump’s remarks, I knew Obama would have some words of wisdom and comfort. The measured reaction of a man who understood the great weight and infinite complexity of the task a president is charged with. Someone better than I who, nevertheless, I’d like to think, represents who I am and what America is, in my most optimistic times. It occurred to me that I’d fallen into a nostalgia for a time that’s barely passed, wasn’t all that good in and of itself, and yet feels like another epoch. And that, sometimes, symbols matter. So reading the tweet (a tweet! And not even in his own words!), I felt, yes, we’re better than this.
I wish I wasn’t placated so simply, but I don’t believe I was alone. Nothing was going to undo what happened in Charlottesville, and all I could hope for was for someone to lend the whole mess a little dignity and integrity. It didn’t seem like too much to ask.