Mr. Obama’s Neighborhood

Last week, when the participants in the Digital Storytelling workshop began to share their stories, I could see that my plan for a distantly personal account of my own “digital footprint” was going to be badly out of place, as the other people were planning to create deeply personal and emotional works.

I was one of two men in the group; the rest were all women. To some extent, this raised for me some old questions about gender, voice, and emotional intimacy. This discussion comes up a lot around blogging for example: are women bloggers more comfortable with self-exploration, with self-revelation, and are they read and responded to differently as a result?

For myself, I know I feel what seems to me to be a masculine reluctance to get too personal or therapeutic when I blog or talk (or make digital stories). I think there are good things about that kind of male reticience, much as there are also good things about a stereotypically female kind of intimate openness. That these are stereotypes is important to remember: men and women can do both kinds of voices, prefer one to the other for themselves and the opposite in others, or blend the two selectively.

The hard thing is figuring out when it’s ok that a given occasion or venue or institution prefer one or the other kind of mode as a default or norm, and when it’s important instead to consciously make room at the table for multiple styles or modes of speech and representation. At a storytelling workshop, for example, it may be that to insist on the legitimacy of a much more reticient male voice is to suddenly make more emotional and personal stories feel like an exception rather than expectation, to put everyone on their guard. On the other hand, what if that is honestly the way that someone wants to approach the exercise?

One of the things I really dislike both about George Lakoff-style talk of “framing” and Deborah Tannen-style analysis of gendered discourse is that both approaches view the content of conversation or debate as inauthentic and irrelevant while also proposing that discourse is a zero-sum game of power, that one frame dominates any others, that you’re either at the margins or the center.

But sometimes, sometimes, they’re right. Some kinds of talk preclude other kinds of talk. Some discursive gambits dominate and silence. In more positive terms, sometimes only one kind of talk is productive or helpful or appropriate.


There were a lot of notes and gestures in President Obama’s inaugural speech that I loved, that spoke to my own frustrations with the last decade and pointed the way forward in ways that I really like.

I think by now it’s clear that he’s genuinely interested in building a big tent, to lead his “patchwork nation”, in crafting an inclusive vision for his Presidency. The invitation to Rick Warren has already suggested just how difficult it is to carry out that ambition in one direction. In another direction, the completely banal chatter of the punditry after the Inauguration suggests how hard it will be to simply surpass tired oppositions and hackwork political tropes to favor some kind of consensus pragmatism. Obama has shown a lot of personal and political discipline, but that will be tested even more strenuously in the weeks to come.

When Obama is functioning as a titular or symbolic leader, his patchwork can be at its most expansive, when he can be most like Mr. Rogers welcoming all the kids into his living room. All kinds of ways of talking are appropriate to those moments and contexts, and it’s important that the Presidency appears to acknowledge that range of talk, to know that it exists. If you programmatically exclude someone’s voice in this context, you’re excluding them from the national community itself, which is a gesture that ought to be used only in extremis.

When it comes to the business of governance, to its day-to-day functioning, Obama and the rest of the executive is entitled to a much more restrictive and filtered sensibility. But not too much so: it’s important to structurally build-in dissent, to formally review alternatives, to question the provenance and legitimacy of information, to subject everything to skepticism, and to puncture the Beltway bubble as much as possible. Day 1 of the Obama Presidency was promising on this score: making this kind of procedural culture work starts and ends with transparency, for example.

The hardest challenge, in many ways, falls in the space in between the titular, symbolic Presidency and its interior deliberative work, in the way that the President and his officers operate within the public sphere, in how they formulate and present and defend policy in front of and in dialogue with the public. This is hard because it requires a very fine distinction between the voices that authentically speak from a habitus or perspective that’s at odds with the worldview of the President and his advisors and much more calculated and cynical bids at “framing” that come from a well-oiled machine that approaches public dialogue as a pure instrument, as a zero-sum exercise which either advances or defeats narrow self-interests.

The distinction between the two is most easily glimpsed if you cultivate a taste for the unlike, force yourself to speak in unfamiliar and uncomfortable tongues, travel across ways of seeing and talking as one might travel across geographies. This commitment is not a safe, happy kind of venture of unity-in-difference, not a boat ride through “It’s a Small World”. Listening to the unlike, speaking the unfamiliar, can be draining, painful, frustrating. And at the end of any journey, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that you like your established ways of talking best, that there’s something wrong with a stranger’s world and voice. But I think the person with the taste for the unlike can hear better the difference between a public voice that comes from somewhere real and a cynical attempt at framing that comes from some rag-and-bone shop think tank. If there’s anyone in public life whose personal journey has given him an ear for unlikeness, it’s Obama, so I have high hopes that he’ll guide his Administration through the narrow divide that will allow him to ignore tired old constructions, to make real the promise that “the ground has shifted beneath” the cynics, while never losing sight of ways of speaking and thinking that are authentically different from his own.

It’s not just his job. The same discretionary challenge falls on all of us. For example, in the context of debates about the inclusiveness of academic culture, there’s a crucial distinction between participants who are actually doing the work of scholarship in a different or unlike vein and demanding that it be included or respected and those who merely constantly complain of groupthink or exclusion without ever putting into practice the scholarship and pedagogy that they proclaim as excluded. If you demand a wider, more inclusive approach to institutional discourse, whether in national politics or in university life, then you have to demonstrate that you yourself are committed to inclusion. Which means, in any context, practicing that same taste for the unlike. If all you can praise is work which conforms to your own particular tastes, ideologies, and preferences, you’re not trying to inaugurate the institutional or political future which you ardently demand. It isn’t just Obama that has to go beyond the “stale political arguments”. Anybody who demands or values that kind of commitment in others has to try to live it out in their own practices.

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8 Responses to Mr. Obama’s Neighborhood

  1. nord says:

    Thank you for that wonderfully easy distraction into the origins of “rag-and-bone shop” I’m attracted to your blog for some of those gems …:

    Wow, living history!

  2. moldbug says:

    I’m confident that anyone with a genuine taste for the unlike (a truly laudable phrase) will enjoy this essay by Dr. Dan Roodt.

    Who can’t help feeling sorry for Masganda? Although I suppose her assailants, too, had something of a taste for the unlike

  3. My impression is that this taste for the unlike is a pretty rare thing, and that it’s especially rare for it to stretch to peers from opposing political camps. And it’s closely related to free-ranging, non-judgmental curiosity, isn’t it? It seems to me that it’s more a function of personality than of ideology.

  4. moldbug says:


    One of Jonathan Haidt’s little discoveries is that American conservatives are good at thinking like American progressives, but the converse is not the case. Of course this makes sense, because it is impossible for a literate person to be unfamiliar with the progressive perspective (since intelligent, educated people are overwhelmingly progressive).

    Moreover, for progressives, feeding your taste for the unlike on contemporary American conservatism – while possible – is difficult and unrewarding, for two reasons. One, the product of most conservative writers tends to be aimed at people much less intelligent and educated than you. Of course there are exceptions (try reading Larry Auster for a month or two), but they are hard to find – and do you really want to find them? Two, these people are your enemies in real life; you can’t forget that; and it is rather difficult to indulge your intellectual curiosity when blood vessels keep popping in your forehead.

    This is why I feel it’s actually much easier, for progressives who are feeling a bit confined and want to broaden their minds, to start by engaging with safely-deceased writers from the past. Such as the Victorian high imperialists. If you can reconstruct what, say, Percy Arthur Baxter Silburn, would make of the world of 2009, not only will your free-ranging, non-judgmental curiosity be quite well-fed, but you’ll be permanently spared from subjecting yourself to Ann Coulter.

    Of course, if your only reason for reading old books is to mock them, a la Edward Said, you won’t gain anything. But this is true of interacting with any foreign culture. A taste for the unlike is indeed a pretty rare thing. A hatred for it, sadly, is quite common.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think it’s a skill, and as such can be learned. For the same reason, yes, there are people who are intuitively and emotionally inclined to it.

  6. If it can be learned, does that mean it can be taught? I used to think that I should try to teach my students to suspend judgment when they listened to unfamiliar music, hoping that they might generalize the habit. That may have been more for my own benefit than theirs, though–a way of making myself feel like “music appreciation” was a worthwhile thing to teach college students, because somehow that’s what I’d ended up teaching. But if there’s a way to cultivate an “ear for unlikeness” it seems like it should start with relatively unfiltered listening.

    Since his name has been floated, I wonder if Edward Said wouldn’t be a fairly good entry-level test of a conservative’s taste for the unlike. I have the impression that some (a few? many?) of the folks who like to talk up intellectual diversity/pluralism haven’t got a much deeper or more realistic idea of Said than Moldbug’s little caricature. It seems like anyone worth taking seriously in an academic context should be able to bring a good bit more tolerance and intelligence to bear on Said’s work and his legacy. Is there an equivalent iconic figure in living memory on the right who could serve as a test case for the hordes of academics on the left? Harold Bloom, maybe, or Allen?

    I have to say, Moldbug, that I appreciated the absence of offensive goads in your second comment.

  7. moldbug says:


    I’m not sure you are aware of the pervasiveness of the general postcolonialist perspective in the modern intellectual water supply. It is impossible for anything in that department to feel unusual or new. Yes, even to a conservative.

    (Of course, such stuff can still feel unusual to a specialist in the field, because a specialist sees everything under a microscope. If you are a specialist in Turkish rugs, you can still be surprised and delighted by an unusual kilim. If you are not a specialist in Turkish rugs, a kilim is a kilim.)

    Said is a difficult case because his work, at least the work for which he is best known, consists primarily of derisive (and often blatantly unfounded) impugnment of other scholars, who are dead and unable to defend themselves, whose lack of living defenders is most easily attributed to military history, and whose jockstrap Said is generally unfit to carry.

    If this deserves any response at all, surely the response should be in kind. I guess you’ve seen some of my experiments along that line. I don’t sense that you have an interest in seeing more.

  8. moldbug says:

    And apropos of nothing, here’s a wonderful text for modern progressives who care to engage with the past: C.B. Roylance Kent’s History of the English Radicals (1899).

    You are probably familiar with much of this material – but you have probably only seen it through the eyes of fellow liberals. Which, if you don’t mind me saying so, is a little like getting your understanding of Catholicism from the Catholic Encyclopedia (another great source of the strange, BTW).

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