The Swaddling Thesis

Thomas Meaney

  • Return 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.

Stubborn, tireless and often oblivious to the political weather, Mead was the force behind American anthropology for half a century. The author of 34 books, and countless articles and pamphlets, she holds the civilian record for the largest collection of papers at the Library of Congress, though her popular reputation still hangs on the fieldwork she conducted as a 23-year-old on the sex lives of teenage Pacific Islanders. Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) established Mead’s characteristic blend of professional authority and liberal duty; it also made her a celebrity. At the height of her fame, she was an all-purpose national elder: a State Department consultant, a Columbia professor, a museum curator, a childcare guru, a documentary film-maker, a columnist for Redbook, a drafter of the revised Book of Common Prayer. Despite all this, she’s now remembered as a musty mid-century artefact, an image perhaps best represented by her most visible legacy, the Hall of the Pacific Peoples in New York, where her red cape and walking stick are preserved in a glass case, across from the display of dog and horse gear used by the Blackfoot Indians.

Since her death in 1978, Mead’s reputation has foundered. In the 1980s, Derek Freeman, a right-wing Australian anthropologist, set off a brief frenzy in the culture wars when he tried to argue that her Samoan fieldwork was botched. But the more damaging criticisms have come from anthropologists to Mead’s left. They blame her for initiating the long collaboration between anthropology and the national security state that began in earnest in the Second World War and continues to the present. Mead is seen as the forerunner of anthropologists involved in outfits such as the US African Command’s Social Science Research Center and the US Army’s Human Terrain System, which put their ‘local knowledge’ to work for counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Peter Mandler wants to rescue Mead. His book portrays her as one of the more sympathetic US internationalists. First, she got Americans interested in the far corners of the globe in the early 1940s when, in Mandler’s view, many were inclined to turn their backs. Second, she championed a postwar international order that would make the world ‘safe for differences’. Mandler credits Mead with trying to convince Americans that they too were ‘different’, with no exceptional place in that order. She was critical early on of what she called ‘the crusading enthusiasm for democracy everywhere in the world’. The pity isn’t that Mead was too influential in government circles, Mandler writes, but that she wasn’t influential enough. Her marginalisation in the course of the Cold War means she has no successor today: there is no one able to use anthropology as the basis for mass appeals to the public.

The post-Vietnam generation never forgave Mead for co-operating with the government; it refused to recognise that she was trying to change policies from within. Yet despite herself she exacerbated the frictions of Cold War. Like George Kennan, with whom she otherwise has little in common, she slipped ideas into the policy-making bloodstream, where they took on a life of their own. Her notions about the way Russian child development shaped Soviet politics only emboldened American anti-communists to dismiss cultural analysis altogether. Her Culture and Personality programme, which identified ideal personality types for different cultures, countered prejudice and parochialism at home, but proved crude in foreign policy, as entire nations were reduced to single stereotypes. Mandler’s book is supple enough to register these ironies, even if it occasionally skirts their implications. Return from the Natives provides a rich account of Mead’s ideas and the inner workings of her intellectual circle, many of whose members were also her lovers: Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Reo Fortune, Gregory Bateson, Geoffrey Gorer. In retracing the exploits of this scholarly ménage à plusieurs, and in recovering their ideas alongside their passions, Mandler has captured a defining moment in the history of American anthropology, when it refashioned itself under the pressures of the country’s rise to global power. He reminds us that anthropologists often tell us more about the culture they come from than the one they have in their sights. Or as Geertz once said, if you want to understand the Berbers of the 14th century, you read Ibn Khaldun; if you want to understand the Americans of the 20th, you read Margaret Mead.

Anthropology in the interwar years gave space to young intellectuals who felt penned in by society. ‘So you’re going into anthropology; sweet Jesus!’ Saul Bellow wrote to a friend who joined him in graduate school in the 1930s. ‘It’s a hell of a lot better than the English department. And if you’re not going to train yourself in a money-making technique you could choose no better field.’ For students feeling deviant in the face of national conformity, the study of other cultures seemed to yield clues to American dissatisfactions. For second-generation immigrants, it suggested the rituals and folkways of the old country were of universal value, not shamefully pre-modern. For the Protestant elite, social science appeared to offer a way to rehabilitate the nation’s exceptionalist destiny by revealing laws of liberal progress that operated beneath the ethnic chaos of American society.

Mead was born in Philadelphia in 1901. Her father was a progressive economics professor at the Wharton School, her mother a feminist sociologist who studied Italian immigrants. The family’s summer neighbour was the country’s best-known political scientist, Woodrow Wilson. When she arrived at Barnard as an undergraduate, it seemed only natural that young Margaret would gravitate toward the social sciences as a way to put herself to some do-gooding purpose. At the age of 21, she married an idealistic divinity student, Luther Cressman, and seemed poised to lead the life of a minister’s brainy wife in the tepid waters of the Episcopalian establishment.

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