The Swaddling Thesis
- BuyReturn from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War by Peter Mandler
Yale, 366 pp, £30.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 18785 4
In 1957, in a remote village on the south coast of Bali, the young anthropologist Clifford Geertz was watching a cremation ceremony spill down a hillside when the crowd suddenly parted, ‘as in a DeMille movie’, and there, propped up on her walking stick, stood Margaret Mead. She was on her way to India for ‘a World Conference on some sort of World Problem’, and had tracked down Geertz and his wife on her ‘notoriously bad ankles’. Would they care to join her and a Javanese art dealer for dinner? The Geertzes spent a ‘strange and beautiful’ evening with Mead and her friend on Sanur beach, while other Westerners evacuated Bali ahead of Sukarno’s nationalisation of the island. Geertz’s scholarship lent an aura of expertise to US imperial projects in the 1960s. Mead was a public moralist who advocated a save-the-world kind of anthropology that wanted to harmonise all cultures. Her message had once suited the needs of American power, but by the time she met Geertz on Bali, it had fallen out of favour. Though Mead and Geertz could have sensed it only faintly, the torch was being passed between two generations of American anthropologists, from a social scientist eager to put her stamp on the postwar peace to one better adapted for the Cold War.
Vol. 36 No. 7 · 3 April 2014
As Thomas Meaney says, Margaret Mead and her mid-century cohort of colleagues – notably Ruth Benedict and Gregory Bateson – eagerly lent their ethnographic expertise to both insurgency and counterinsurgency operations during the Second World War (LRB, 6 March). He is wrong, however, to accuse today’s anthropologists of indifference to and withdrawal from public debates over American military and political power. The vast majority of practising anthropologists are deeply involved in the very arguments Meaney accuses us of avoiding. For instance, the recent volume Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, which I coedited, gathered together anthropologists of widely varying perspectives – including several who work in the American military – to debate the politics of working on or for the security state. This debate is especially urgent now, since there has been a sinister appropriation of anthropological expertise for martial ends in the US army’s Human Terrain System programme, which aims to unravel ‘cultural’ dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Volumes such as ours may not reach a broad readership outside the academy, but that isn’t because anthropologists are unable or unwilling to formulate their arguments with a wider public in mind. By placing the blame for anthropology’s ‘withdrawal’ solely on anthropologists, Meaney ignores the way the American public sphere has become allergic to academic argument. It may be that the very powers that scholars struggle to comprehend are complicit in muting the political arguments they try to voice.
University of Göttingen
Thomas Meaney describes Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, published in 1946, as an ‘unlikely bestseller’. In fact between 1946 and 1971 it sold only 28,000 hardback copies, and a paperback edition wasn’t issued until 1967. This amounts to a sale of about a thousand copies a year, most of them no doubt going to professional anthropologists or college students taking courses on Japan.
The postwar bestsellers that shaped American attitudes towards Japan were John Hersey’s sympathetic Hiroshima (1946); Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), which was on the bestseller list for 62 weeks; John Gunther’s The Riddle of MacArthur (1951); Elizabeth Gray Vining’s Windows for the Crown Prince (1952); and James Michener’s Sayonara (1954). That American perceptions of Japan changed so rapidly after the war is a warning to those who persist in trying to characterise entire societies or cultures.
Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014
Thomas Meaney grossly distorts Clifford Geertz’s approach to development when he says that ‘Geertz’s scholarship lent an aura of expertise to US imperial projects in the 1960s’ (LRB, 6 March). Geertz did not argue that the ‘backward, obstructive values’ of the Javanese would ‘never allow them to produce the necessary surplus that would lead to industrialisation’: he was describing a historical period when the Javanese adapted to the brutal policies of the Dutch by subdividing jobs so everyone had at least some support – the resulting ‘shared poverty’ was anything but their preferred choice. In Peddlers and Princes Geertz makes clear his opposition to the ‘take-off’ theories of the 1960s and his reasons for attributing to colonialism, and not to some inherent failure of those affected, the policies that Meaney mistakenly assumes he supported.