Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Fall 2008: Long Tail #1


Although we posted our omnibus summary of responses last week, we will continue to highlight individual choices through the end of this month. To kick off the Long Tail series, we have suggestions from NBCC nominee Steven Pinker and Thomas Sugrue, who teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven Pinker: Culture of Honor by the social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen shows how the United States is really two countries. The South and West, which was originally settled by Scots-Irish herders and lived in a state of semi-anarchy for its early history, retained a “culture of honor” that is lacking from the North, originally settled by English farmers. Virtues such as toughness, patriotism, violent responses to provocation, and masculine defense of honor continue to be far stronger in the South and West, and are measurable even in the emotional responses of Southern college students to trivial insults.

Thomas Sugrue: Over the last few months, opponents of Barack Obama have branded him a crypto-Muslim, a terrorist pal, and a Socialist. Conspiracy fears swirl around his candidacy, all pointing to him as somehow fundamentally un-American. In his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), Bernard Bailyn offers an extended meditation of the deep roots of conspiracy theories in Anglo-American politics. Once the belief in “a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty” was assumed, Bailyn writes, “it could not be easily dispelled: denial only confirmed it, since what conspirators profess is not what they believe; the ostensible is not the real; and the real is the deliberately malign.” Latter-day conspiracy theories are the distorted legacy of those that fueled the American Revolution.