The best books on the culture war

Many authors have picked their favorite books about the culture war and why they recommend each book.

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The Silk Roads

By Peter Frankopan,

Book cover of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

From Zimler I learned even in the 18th and 19th centuries Portuguese zipped around the world. From Frankopan I learned this was going on much longer than that! Frankopan´s comprehensive history book is not only about Portugal, but it is more robust and expansive than the short book often mentioned, The First Global Village: How Portugal Changed the World by Martin Page. Both show Portugal as a fulcrum. All helped explain why Portugal is weird. I also recommend Frankopan's short sequel, The New Silk Roads, which clarifies the global power shifts happening now.

The Silk Roads

By Peter Frankopan,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Silk Roads as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The No. 1 Sunday Times and international bestseller - a major reassessment of world history in light of the economic and political renaissance in the re-emerging east For centuries, fame and fortune was to be found in the west - in the New World of the Americas. Today, it is the east which calls out to those in search of adventure and riches. The region stretching from eastern Europe and sweeping right across Central Asia deep into China and India, is taking centre stage in international politics, commerce and culture - and is shaping the modern world. This region, the…

Who am I?

Wendy Lee Hermance was heard on National Public Radio (NPR) stations with her Missouri Folklore series in the 1980s. She earned a journalism degree from Stephens College, served as Editor and Features Writer for Midwestern and Southern university and regional publications, then settled into writing real estate contracts. In 2012 she attended University of Sydney, earning a master’s degree by research thesis. Her books include Where I’m Going with this Poem, a memoir in poetry and prose. Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat marks her return to feature writing as collections of narrative non-fiction stories.


I wrote...

Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

Book cover of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

What is my book about?

When I arrived in Porto knowing no one, I had to pinch myself to believe what was happening. Having a low threshold for pain, I decided to write about it instead.

"With her typically American intrepidness, her thirst for a good story and her power of observation, Hermance closes-in on the Portuguese she encounters along the way, bringing to us a psychological picture of the Portuguese individual and society that you won´t find on expat guides….” - David Peres Rebelo

Book cover of Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law Into Local Justice

The initial reaction of anthropologists to the UN’s proposal for a universal declaration of human rights was to question it on the ground that it might be no more than an expression of the cultures of the world’s dominant powers. Human rights universalism was opposed by cultural relativism, the idea that no or few values are universally valid as values derive from particular cultures. Anthropologists then discovered that the cultural groups that they typically studied – `indigenous’ peoples – often suffered the most serious human rights violations and that ignoring this was ethically and scientifically unacceptable.

Although many anthropologists are still attracted to cultural relativism, some have not only embraced human rights but have made an original and distinctive contribution to our understanding of the human rights world in at least two respects: 1) understanding the culture of this world, and 2) understanding the real-world interaction of human rights and…

Human Rights and Gender Violence

By Sally Engle Merry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Human Rights and Gender Violence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Human rights law and the legal protection of women from violence are still fairly new concepts. As a result, substantial discrepancies exist between what is decided in the halls of the United Nations and what women experience on a daily basis in their communities. "Human Rights and Gender Violence" is an ambitious study that investigates the tensions between global law and local justice. As an observer of UN diplomatic negotiations as well as the workings of grassroots feminist organizations in several countries, Sally Engle Merry offers an insider's perspective on how human rights law holds authorities accountable for the protection…

Who am I?

I am an emeritus professor in the Department of Government, University of Essex. I taught political theory for many years with a speciality in the theory and practice of human rights. I'm the author of Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism and Human Rights. I've published many articles in political theory, philosophy of social science, and human rights. I've directed academic programmes in political theory, The Enlightenment, and human rights. I've lectured on human rights in some 25 countries. I was a founder-member of my local branch of Amnesty International and served on the board of Amnesty’s British Section for five years, for two years as its Chairperson.


I wrote...

Human Rights

By Michael Freeman,

Book cover of Human Rights

What is my book about?

The United Nations committed itself to the promotion of human rights in its Charter of 1945 and elaborated these principles in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then a vast body of international, regional and national law has developed to clarify and protect human rights. Yet for a long time the social sciences largely ignored these developments.

Since the end of the last century, social science has woken up to the role human rights play in international and national law and politics. In this book, I describe and evaluate these contributions, and relate them to human rights law and `real-world’ politics. I consider the interaction of law and politics, claims of `universal’ rights and cultural diversity, human rights and global inequalities, and the supposed crisis of liberal democracy.

The Status Game

By Will Storr,

Book cover of The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It

Status is suddenly the hot topic in social psychology and the evolutionary study of human behaviour. Will Storr's new book both capitalizes on this trend and gives it new momentum. He places the drive for status at the centre of human social behaviour and shows how that drive has shaped all of human creativity, achievement, and violence. 

As a researcher on evolution and behaviour, familiar with the excellent work on status, I found in this book a fresh and dynamic new package. Reading Storr’s book revealed to me where the evolutionary researchers have been constrained by their own ways of thinking. Likewise, other fields’ obsessions with race, sex, gender, power, and identity – while important – are really a case of staring at the trees without acknowledging the all-encompassing forest.  

This is my new favourite popular book on human behaviour, and it is already reshaping my own research program.

The Status Game

By Will Storr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Status Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Will Storr is one of our best journalists of ideas ... The Status Game might be his best yet' James Marriott, Books of the Year, The Times

What drives our political and moral beliefs? What makes us like some things and dislike others? What shapes how we behave, and misbehave, in groups? What makes you, you?

For centuries, philosophers and scholars have described human behaviour in terms of sex, power and money. In The Status Game, bestselling author Will Storr radically turns this thinking on its head by arguing that it is our irrepressible craving for status that ultimately defines…


Who am I?

I’m a scientist who studies the evolutionary tussle between cooperation and conflict that makes sex so infernally complicated. I started out by studying small animals, but the last decade or so have seen an increasing focus on humans. At the same time I’ve been intent on sharing what I learn with curious audiences on television, radio, and in print. I lead a program at my university that introduced me to some amazing technology researchers, from engineers in AI and robotics to lawyers who work on privacy. That’s when I realized the value of evolutionary knowledge in understating the fast-paced technological revolution we are currently living through.


I wrote...

Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers

By Rob Brooks,

Book cover of Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers, and Algorithmic Matchmakers

What is my book about?

In Artificial Intimacy, evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks takes us from the origins of human behaviour to the latest in artificially intelligent technologies, providing a fresh and original view of the near future of human relationships.

Sex robots, social media, dating apps, and AI ‘friends’ are finding their way into our lives. Apps can sense when users are falling in love, when they are fighting, and when they are likely to break up. These machines, the ‘artificial intimacies,’ already learn how to exploit human social needs. And they are getting better and faster at what they do. This book isn’t just about the technology. It’s ultimately concerned with how humanity’s future will unfold as our ancient, evolved minds and old-fashioned cultures collide with twenty-first-century technology?

Disconnect

By Morris P. Fiorina,

Book cover of Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics

Based on a series of public lectures by a notable political scientist, this book documents the fact that the “political class” has grown increasingly disconnected from ordinary Americans. Written in an accessible way, it is full of simple tables and charts that build the case. In our hyper-partisan world, it offers an important antidote to the common belief that the problems with democracy can be solved simply by defeating the other party at the polls—the challenges are much deeper than that.

Disconnect

By Morris P. Fiorina,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Disconnect as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Red states, blue states . . . are we no longer the United States? Morris P. Fiorina here examines today's party system to reassess arguments about party polarization while offering a cogent overview of the American electorate.

Building on the arguments of Fiorina's acclaimed Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, this book explains how contemporary politics differs from that of previous eras and considers what might be done to overcome the unproductive politics of recent decades. Drawing on polling results and other data, Fiorina examines the disconnect between an unrepresentative ""political class"" and the citizenry it purports to…

Who am I?

I am an economist by training, who has researched and taught classes related to business, governance, and democracy for more than 30 years at the University of Southern California. My work is multidisciplinary, spanning economics, finance, law, and political science, with a grounding in empirical analysis. In addition to two books and numerous scholarly articles, I am a frequent op-ed contributor and media commentator on topics related to democracy. I also direct the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan education organization focused on direct democracy.


I wrote...

Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge

By John G. Matsusaka,

Book cover of Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge

What is my book about?

Many Americans of both parties feel that democracy is adrift, that government has become unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary people, and that “elites” have too much influence. My book, using an array of historical and empirical evidence, shows that this concern is not imaginary—popular control over government in fact has been declining over time. The book explains how this situation gradually came about over the last century, largely as an unanticipated byproduct of rational efforts to modernize government. There is no simple way to restore popular confidence in government, but the book shows how some pressure can be alleviated by using referendums to decide important policy issues such as abortion, immigration, and schooling.

Book cover of Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story

Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All portrays the contact between seeming opposites: the author who grew up in Boston and traveled to New Zealand when she was a graduate student in Australia and the Maori man she met there and married; the “colonizers” who were her direct ancestors and the “natives” her husband descended from; the history of the encounters between the two groups (including the story of Captain Cook).  At the heart of this complex, mesmerizing, and unflinching story is the couple’s devotion to their three sons—boys growing up in a Boston suburb and navigating their identities as “a little bit of the conqueror and the conquered, the colonizer and the colonized” as Ms. Thompson explains to them in a letter she tucks into the folder containing her life insurance policy.

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All

By Christina Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Come On Shore and We Will Kill And Eat You All is a sensitive and vibrant portrayal of the cultural collision between Westerners and Maoris, from Abel Tasman's discovery of New Zealand in 1642 to the author's unlikely romance with a Maori man. An intimate account of two centuries of friction and fascination, this intriguing and unpredictable book weaves a path through time and around the world in a rich exploration of the past and the future that it leads to.

Who am I?

Although two of my nonfiction books—The Dream of Water and Polite Lies—are about traveling from the American Midwest to my native country of Japan, I'm not a traveler by temperament. I long to stay put in one place. Chimney swifts cover the distance between North America and the Amazon basin every fall and spring. I love to stand in the driveway of my brownstone to watch them. That was the last thing Katherine Russell Rich and I did together in what turned out to be the last autumn of her life before the cancer she’d been fighting came back. Her book, Dreaming in Hindi, along with the four other books I’m recommending, expresses an indomitable spirit of adventure. 


I wrote...

The Dream of Water: A Memoir

By Kyoko Mori,

Book cover of The Dream of Water: A Memoir

What is my book about?

In 1990, at the age of 33, I traveled to Japan to revisit the landscape of my childhood. I had fled the country at 20 to attend an American college and never went back. My hometown of Kobe hadn’t felt like home after my mother’s suicide and my father’s remarriage. I had no intention of living there again. But when I received a travel grant from the small college in Wisconsin where I was a tenured professor, I decided to spend the summer in Japan to work on my second novel.

I wanted to reconnect and hear the family stories I hadn’t fully understood. The Dream of Water is the book I wrote instead after uncovering a handful of secrets from my own lifetime.

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

By Susan Moller Okin, Joshua Cohen (editor), Matthew Howard (editor), Martha C. Nussbaum (editor)

Book cover of Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

This is an excellent collection of essays. Susan Moller Okin and some other world's leading thinkers discuss the tensions between feminism and multiculturalism. This book served for me as a point of departure when I wrote my book. One of the major criticisms of multiculturalism is that it is bad for women. I examined whether this is necessarily the case, and whether it is possible to resolve the tensions between group rights and individual rights. Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? raises serious concerns as many cultural rites are, indeed, harmful to women. They include polygamy, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, punishing women for being raped, differential access for men and women to health care and education, unequal rights of ownership, assembly, as well as political participation, and unequal vulnerability to violence. While as liberals we want to respect the customs of minority cultures, we also do not wish to…

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

By Susan Moller Okin, Joshua Cohen (editor), Matthew Howard (editor), Martha C. Nussbaum (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Polygamy, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, punishing women for being raped, differential access for men and women to health care and education, unequal rights of ownership, assembly, and political participation, unequal vulnerability to violence. These practices and conditions are standard in some parts of the world. Do demands for multiculturalism--and certain minority group rights in particular--make them more likely to continue and to spread to liberal democracies? Are there fundamental conflicts between our commitment to gender equity and our increasing desire to respect the customs of minority cultures or religions? In this book, the eminent feminist Susan Moller Okin and…

Who am I?

I'm intrigued by boundaries and the relationships between different ideologies, or isms. In 1992, I joined the European Project at The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. This was a fascinating group of people from Israel, Palestine, and Germany who studied the connections between Europe and the Middle East. Then I opened a new field of studies that continues to engage me: multiculturalism. In my books and articles (most recent: The Republic, Secularism and Security: France versus the Burqa and the Niqab), I examine the extent to which democracy may interfere in the cultural affairs of minorities within democracy, how to find a balance between individual rights and group rights, and whether liberalism and multiculturalism are reconcilable. 


I wrote...

Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism: Liberalism, Culture and Coercion

By Raphael Cohen-Almagor,

Book cover of Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism: Liberalism, Culture and Coercion

What is my book about?

This is one of my major books, the product of ten years of research and thinking. Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism addresses three questions: whether multiculturalism is bad for democracy, whether multiculturalism is bad for women, and whether multiculturalism contributes to terrorism. The research was quite challenging, tackling issues such as female circumcision, male circumcision, denial of education to women and children, sanctioning community members who wish to opt out, and discrimination against minorities in France and Israel. The book aims to examine whether liberalism and multiculturalism are reconcilable, and what are the limits of liberal democratic interventions in illiberal affairs of minority cultures within democracy.  It is argued that liberalism and multiculturalism are reconcilable if a fair balance is struck between individual rights and group rights.

Postmodern Heretics

By Eleanor Heartney,

Book cover of Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art

I noticed when I was interviewing prominent contemporary artists for my book that many of them had a Catholic childhood. Eleanor Heartney noticed the same thing when she began to research the art and artists who became a focus in the culture wars of the 1990s. This is a dimension of the art history of the modern era that has not been told. Heartney explores the influence of an “Incarnational consciousness” in works that transgress boundaries. Beyond that, she frames artistic manifestations of the “Catholic imagination,” tracing the influence of “the beauty of religious art, music, and literature and the slippage in sacramental rituals between the carnal and the spiritual.” Her final chapter is on “Knowledge Through the Body: The Female Perspective.”

Postmodern Heretics

By Eleanor Heartney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Postmodern Heretics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEWLY EXPANDED AND REDESIGNED 2ND EDITION. This redesigned, re-edited, illustrated new edition of the classic study "Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art" explores the Catholic roots of controversial artists and the impact of Catholicism on the 1990s Culture Wars. In the 1990s the United States was embroiled in a deeply divisive Culture War. "Postmodern Heretics" offers a radically original interpretation of the extraordinary cultural and political battles that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Examining this period from the perspective of religion, Eleanor Heartney discovers that the most controversial artists of the time came, almost…

Who am I?

Having written several books on cultural history, I was puzzled in the late 1990s by the insistence of most American curators, art historians, and gallerists that there could not possibly be any spiritual content in modern art because the modern project (beginning, they assert, with the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874) was all about the rejection of tradition, religion, etc. This overarching narrative has dominated the professional art world since World War II. I knew it was false because I was aware that many prominent modern artists had spiritual interests, which were expressed in their art. So began a 17-year-long research quest focused on what the artists themselves had said.


I wrote...

The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present

By Charlene Spretnak,

Book cover of The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present

What is my book about?

A great underground river flows through the history of modern art, since its beginnings with William Blake around 1800: spirituality, far from being inconsequential to the supposedly strictly secular art of the modern period, was, and is, generative. To make this case, I tracked down direct statements by 250 prominent modern artists—culled from little-known historical documentation and from interviews I conducted with many well-known contemporary artists. I then constructed, for the first time, a chronological survey of the major art movements of the modern period that weaves together spiritual profiles of leading artists and situates their work within the cultural context of their time, including the spiritual orientations that intrigued artists in particular decades. The result is a significantly expanded understanding of the cultural history of modern art.

Season of the Witch

By David Talbot,

Book cover of Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love

David Talbot, another New York Times bestseller, wrote this book about the 70’s, and the dark times in San Francisco, including the story of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. It reads like a noir mystery novel even though it’s nonfiction. His book is the best for getting the context of the times, the hopeful 60’s melding into the dark 70’s. Peoples Temple and Jim Jones were a large and tragic part of that story.

Season of the Witch

By David Talbot,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Season of the Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The critically acclaimed, San Francisco Chronicle bestseller—a gripping story of the strife and tragedy that led to San Francisco’s ultimate rebirth and triumph.

Salon founder David Talbot chronicles the cultural history of San Francisco and from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when figures such as Harvey Milk, Janis Joplin, Jim Jones, and Bill Walsh helped usher from backwater city to thriving metropolis.

Who am I?

I taught English and creative writing for 37 years in San Francisco, California. In 2018, Ron Cabral and I published And Then They Were Gone, which tells the story of the People’s Temple teenagers we taught. Many of them never returned after the Jonestown massacre and died there. We hope this story about our young students—their hopes, their poetry, their efforts to help make a better world—will bring some light to the dark story of Jonestown.


I wrote...

And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

By Ron Cabral, Judy Bebelaar,

Book cover of And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown

What is my book about?

Of the 918 Americans who died in the shocking murder-suicides of November 18, 1978, in the tiny South American country of Guyana, a third were under eighteen. More than half were in their twenties or younger. And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown begins in San Francisco at the small school where Reverend Jim Jones enrolled the teens of his Peoples Temple church in 1976. Within a year, most had been sent to join Jones and other congregants in what Jones promised was a tropical paradise based on egalitarian values, but which turned out to be a deadly prison camp. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the late 1970s, And Then They Were Gone draws from interviews, books, and articles. Many of these powerful stories are told here for the first time.

The Rise of Victimhood Culture

By Bradley Campbell, Jason Manning,

Book cover of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars

Campbell and Manning are sociologists who trace how a new moral culture of victimhood has given rise to political correctness. The new moral culture combines the properties of the old culture of honor and the old culture of dignity in a uniquely toxic way. The new victimhood culture borrows from honor culture its extreme sensitivity to insult, but borrows from the culture of dignity the tendency to call upon authorities and institutions to resolve disputes, rather than deal with them on a personal level. The victimhood culture is what has spawned the repressive campus environment of micro-aggressions, deplatforming, and bias response teams.

The Rise of Victimhood Culture

By Bradley Campbell, Jason Manning,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rise of Victimhood Culture as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Rise of Victimhood Culture offers a framework for understanding recent moral conflicts at U.S. universities, which have bled into society at large. These are not the familiar clashes between liberals and conservatives or the religious and the secular: instead, they are clashes between a new moral culture-victimhood culture-and a more traditional culture of dignity. Even as students increasingly demand trigger warnings and "safe spaces," many young people are quick to police the words and deeds of others, who in turn claim that political correctness has run amok. Interestingly, members of both camps often consider themselves victims of the other.…

Who am I?

I’m an emeritus professor living in Portland, Oregon, officially retired, but still writing articles and books. Although I am a lifelong US citizen, I spent the heart of my career as the Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto. Most of my books are about aspects of rationality, especially cognitive biases. I have also worked on tools for measuring individual differences in rationality. Lately, I have focused on ways to reduce political polarization by taming the myside bias that plagues all human thought, and by reforming institutions (especially universities) that are currently failing in their role as knowledge adjudicators. 


I wrote...

Book cover of The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

What is my book about?

Myside bias is the tendency to evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward our own beliefs. When studying the cognitive biases that indicate poor thinking, my research group discovered that myside bias was the strangest of all the cognitive biases. Unlike virtually all the other biases, the avoidance of myside bias is not correlated with high intelligence, education, or knowledge. It is just as prevalent among the cognitive elites of society as it is among nonelites.

Faculty in universities don’t recognize their own biases, and this has contributed to declining public trust in university research. It is also a factor in fueling our current ideologically polarized politics. 

Bookshelves related to the culture war