Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War 
by Peter Mandler.
Yale, 366 pp., £30, March 2013, 978 0 300 18785 4
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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.

An encounter in her senior year changed her course. Franz Boas, ‘the father of American anthropology’, was a German émigré steeped in the Herderian tradition, who preached a unified programme of pacifism, anti-racism and cultural relativism. He was also a scrupulously egalitarian professor, who supervised more women for anthropology doctorates at Columbia in the interwar years than the rest of the universities in the US could manage between them. Mead admired his commitment and thoroughness. Boas had done his fieldwork on the Indian cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Now he was determined to collect the materials of all indigenous peoples around the world before they disappeared. Mead, as she later recalled, responded to the ‘urgency of this salvage task’. ‘Papa Franz’ would be a guiding presence throughout her career, but closer still was his teaching assistant, Ruth Benedict. A shy, courtly woman with thwarted passions (‘Why didn’t I transvestite when I was young?’), Benedict was attracted to Mead’s intensity. It was Benedict who would introduce her to the Culture and Personality programme, which grew out of Benedict’s fieldwork among indigenous peoples in the American southwest, western Canada and Melanesia. The idea was to catalogue the various personality types and temperaments favoured by different societies. Once enough of these ‘patterns of culture’ were grasped, you could explain why mid-century American society, which tolerated a range of personality types but differentiated strongly between gender roles, might interpret ‘deviant’ personality types in a sexualised way.

Mead followed Benedict into graduate school at Columbia, where she wrote an armchair dissertation on the tattooing and canoe-making of five Polynesian tribes. Her first trip to Samoa came as a foot-soldier for Boas, who was trying to deal a deathblow to the evolutionist school of anthropology, headed by the racist psychologist Stanley Hall. The question Boas gave Mead to answer was simple: was the turbulence of American adolescence a universal condition, or was it the product of a distinct cultural pattern? In 1926, she arrived on the Manu’a island chain to study girls not much younger than herself. In her nine months on Samoa, Mead immersed herself in village life – the photographs from the trip show a mixture of ease and determination in her poses – and mapped out the habits of her subjects in lively detail. Despite the best efforts of Christian missionaries, Mead found American norms inverted in Samoa: there was no such thing as romantic love, adolescence was a smooth passage, virginity was not prized, premarital sex prevailed, there was something approaching no-fault divorce, and everybody masturbated.

Mead seems not to have anticipated the sensation her research would generate. Her publisher, William Morrow, knew better. He asked Mead to add a more explicit chapter on the way her study related to Americans, and printed Coming of Age in Samoa with an image on the cover of a young island couple making for the bushes. But the thrust of the book was lost on most readers. Mead was less interested in showing Americans how prudish they were than in persuading them that in modern society, with so many traditions to choose among, they would need to be ‘educated for choice’. If they didn’t make the necessary self-adjustments, Americans would continue to suffer from their cultural contradictions. How otherwise could wild college life be reconciled with the humdrum career that followed? The answer, Mead believed, was for people to design a personal culture. Twenty years later, David Riesman would credit Mead with having inspired him when he made a similar point in The Lonely Crowd: personal ‘autonomy’ was the solution to the conflict between tradition-based ‘inner-directedness’ and self-diffusing ‘other-directedness’.

On her return voyage from Samoa, Mead made some personal adjustments of her own. Aboard the SS Chitral, she met Reo Fortune, a 24-year-old New Zealander on his way to study psychology at Cambridge. She married him the minute she divorced Cressman, and in 1928 the two sailed off to the Manus Island of New Guinea for a joint expedition. The Manus people were everything the Samoans were not: rigid sexual standards were supervised by ancestor ‘Sir Ghosts’, whose skulls hung in the rafters of the village houses and kept people on their guard. Mead published her fieldwork in Growing Up in New Guinea (1930), then in 1932 returned for another extensive tour of Manus. Travelling in the New Guinea interior, Fortune and Mead met the Cambridge anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who was doing fieldwork among the Iatmul people of the Sepik River basin. Bateson was a determined researcher with intellectual stamina on a par with Mead’s. He had his marked-up copy of Growing Up in New Guinea on hand and interrogated her about it. Mead quickly fell for him, and wearied of Fortune’s jealousy. ‘I do feel that I’ve given monogamy – in an absolute sense – a pretty fair trial,’ she wrote to Benedict. ‘Now it’s fair for [Reo] to try my culture for a change.’ Fortune was not prepared to try; Mead divorced him and married Bateson in Singapore.

Mead’s run of Cambridge-educated lovers was not over. Back in New York, after the New Guinea trip, she was introduced by Benedict to Geoffrey Gorer, a wealthy friend of Orwell and Auden, who had come to America to try his hand at some amateur anthropology. Gorer’s idea of fieldwork was going to burlesque bars in Harlem and writing up his impressions for readers in London (Hot Strip Tease, 1937). Mead was unimpressed, but she and Benedict instructed him in anthropological theory and soon he undertook an expedition among the Lepchas of the Indian Himalayas, which severely tested his playboy regimen. Having earned a few feathers as a semi-fledged professional with Himalayan Village (1938), Gorer grew closer to Mead and would become her principal lover by the end of the war.

American​ anthropologists, unlike their British counterparts, had time to consider what should be the proper professional response to the Second World War. No academic discipline was more closely linked to imperial power than anthropology, and nowhere was this tie closer than in England. When war broke out, English anthropologists snapped into action. Evans-Pritchard, stuck in a ‘reserved occupation’ as a lecturer at Oxford, made an excuse of continuing his research in the Sudan, where he recruited Anuak tribesmen to fight Italians on the Ethiopian frontier. Edmund Leach, while researching his classic Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954), rounded up his Katchin subjects for a counter-insurgency campaign against the Japanese: he perfected the native art of planting shit-encrusted bamboo stakes in the jungle to infect the enemy’s feet. Bateson tried to match these heroics, passing himself off as a ‘black propaganda’ expert conducting psychological warfare against the Germans. His plan was to make use of psychoanalysis to create the impression that Hitler was a bad father for the German people. The Foreign Office wasn’t interested.

Mead rescued Bateson with a job in Washington, where he wrote reports for the newly formed Committee on National Morale, founded by the Persia hand Arthur Upham Pope. There Bateson and Mead turned from studying tribes to nation-states, and gave up ‘patterns’ and ‘ethos’, for ‘national character’, with its neo-Freudian emphasis on the ‘ego’ of infancy and childhood. By 1944, Bateson, still burning for action, was on his way to Ceylon, where he teamed up with the American anthropologist and OSS station chief Weston La Barre, ‘a red-hot Freudian’, who was keen to apply Culture and Personality concepts to counter-insurgency operations. This meant exploiting weak spots in the enemy’s culture. Convinced the Japanese suffered acute oral anxieties, they spread rumours of rampant tooth decay behind enemy lines in Burma, and planted elaborate dinner menus for Japanese commanders to suggest the ‘decadence and unworthiness of the officers’. Bateson also tried dyeing the Irrawaddy River yellow: he thought the colour was associated with liberation in Burmese folklore and that it would inspire local tribes to rebel against the Japanese. But the dye he selected only worked in saltwater; in fresh water it sank without a trace. (We owe this story to Julia Child, who was Bateson’s colleague in Ceylon.) By the war’s end, Bateson and his marriage to Mead, whom he hadn’t seen for more than two years, were both shattered. When news of the destruction of Hiroshima came to the OSS office, Bateson’s colleagues found him pounding on a typewriter. Asked what he was doing, he replied: ‘I’m writing about the future of life insurance in the atomic age.’

Back in Washington, Benedict and Mead were more concerned with organising the postwar peace than winning the war. Benedict found work in the Office of War Information. On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, she appointed Mead head of the Committee on Food Habits in the National Research Council; Mead drew up plans for feeding millions of refugees around the world. But her main contribution to the war was And Keep Your Powder Dry (1942), a popular book aimed at getting Americans interested in coming to Britain’s aid. ‘An essential ingredient in the achievements of Americans,’ she wrote, ‘has always been that their parents believed in them, believed in their brains, and their strength, and their energy, believed in their inherent superiority to any generation that had ever trod the earth before.’ Yet the cynicism of the Depression generation, she believed, threatened to hamper the war effort. Young Americans were culturally wired for praise and encouragement, and now was the time for their parents to switch on the current.

After the war, Mead outlined an international order in which every culture, including the cultures of the vanquished powers, would have something to contribute. But this Epcot Center vision of the post-1945 world was never a real possibility. In Mandler’s account Benedict and Mead were providing an alternative to the ‘democratic universalism’ of the early Cold Warriors, who saw America standing in for ‘humanity’ at large. When Mandler says Mead ‘won’ the Second World War, this is what he means: for a brief period (1942-48) she and Benedict tried to persuade the American public they were just one culture among many and needed to tread carefully as they set out to repair the world. Mandler cites Benedict’s unlikely bestseller about Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), as an instance of an anthropologist showing her countrymen the way to interpret a foreign culture sympathetically. But however much Mead and Benedict may have desired to ‘make the world safe for differences’, their ideas also contributed to the consolidation of US hegemony in the postwar years.

To see how​ this happened, it’s helpful to return to some of the assumptions behind the Culture and Personality project. In the 1920s, Boas and his students had effectively dismantled the evolutionist theories of cultural development: the old paradigm of a ‘ladder’ of cultures, arranged hierarchically, came to be seen as empirically flawed as well as unacceptably ethnocentric. Cultures were different in the way that personalities were different: hierarchy didn’t come into it. The task was to see each unique society in its own terms as one of many possible ‘patterns of culture’. But the break with evolutionist theory was not as complete as it seemed. In the 1940s, Mead and Benedict still understood cultures as modelled on the individual, as in the evolutionist paradigm, which they reinforced with Freudian concepts about personality development. They also retained the all-important distinction between ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ societies. Mead and Benedict were concerned that if the culture of the West spread over the earth, it would be a tragedy because the presence of proven cultural options was essential for the sort of cultural bricolage that complex societies like the US would need to draw on in response to the quickly changing conditions they faced. But Mead and Benedict also believed native peoples around the world would ‘choose’ modernisation and be able to reconcile their cultures with it. This sanguine view was vulnerable to all sorts of vulgarisation once it reached Washington.

The Culture and Personality project became a parody of itself in the postwar years. Already during the war, Mead, Benedict and Gorer had collaborated on a series of ‘rapid diagnostic studies’ of various national characters. Gorer, the crudest Freudian in the group, had continually churned out these reports for the Office of War Information, basing his sketches on information about infant training techniques: the Greeks were rebellious because their mothers threatened to castrate their infant boys; the Japanese were insecure because their mothers coupled affection with severe toilet-training; Burmese men struck dominant attitudes in positions of weakness because as boys they were told they were spiritually perfect, while their mothers enslaved them. Most of Gorer’s memoranda were treated by the State Department as the musings of a dilettante. But things got more serious in 1947, when Mead secured funding from the Air Force’s new think tank, the Rand Corporation, to set up a Studies in Soviet Culture project, recruiting Gorer to run it. Gorer had never been to Russia and didn’t speak the language, but ignorance only made his work easier. He quickly discovered the key that would unlock the Russian psyche: swaddling. Russian children, bound and swaddled in infancy, would naturally turn into paranoid and authoritarian adults, with repressed longings for warm-water harbours. After interviewing dozens of Russians, he could ‘tell at a glance, and with practically no errors, if a Russian has been swaddled as a child’. Mead tempered his claims in the study she prepared for the Rand Corporation, Soviet Attitudes towards Authority (1951), but both their reputations and the entire Culture and Personality project were damaged. The Soviets mocked the swaddling thesis in their propaganda, and US social scientists of all political stripes ran from its conclusions.

With some plausibility, Mandler suggests that Mead defended Gorer’s work on swaddling in part because she loved him and needed his support. But his main claim is that Mead and Gorer’s ‘diaperology’, though an embarrassing departure from the grounded fieldwork Mead had done at the start of her career, was decidedly sane compared to the other social scientific fare on offer. Mead’s colleague Nathan Leites, for instance, wrote a pamphlet for Rand called The Operational Code of the Politburo (1950), which was a great success as a policy document. It was based entirely on the writings of Lenin and Stalin, and outlined the psychology of the Soviet elite that portrayed Party ideology as a reaction to Russian spontaneity and moodiness. Leites was convinced that a highly rationalistic, long-term-oriented Soviet elite would not require the ‘firm’ pressure advocated by Mead, but ‘extreme’ pressure. On the basis of comparisons like this, Mandler sees Mead as one of the few voices in Washington counselling restraint. ‘Lessening the fear of the top leadership of the imminence of a capitalist attack,’ she wrote in Soviet Attitudes, would make the Kremlin less paranoid and erratic. But, as Mandler shows, Mead ended up tying herself in knots, contracting herself out for a Navy project exploring the ‘military vulnerability inherent to the Russian culture’, which she hoped in turn would fund her proposed simulations in US-Soviet communications. The important point isn’t that Mead was dovish towards the Soviets – and thus ‘lost out’ to her more hawkish colleagues – but simply that the whole spectrum of US Sovietology was shot through with the sort of off-the-cuff psychologising that Mead did much to encourage.

The case of George Kennan is instructive. In the Long Telegram of 1946, written from his sickbed in Moscow, Kennan portrayed the Soviets in the same sort of light as Mead. Marxism, he wrote, was only a ‘fig leaf’ for the Russians. What might at first seem like Bolshevik traits – ‘secretiveness’ and ‘disrespect for objective truth’ – were rooted in the Russian national character. It followed that the Kremlin was ‘impervious to the logic of reason’ but ‘highly sensitive to the logic of force’. Against their explicit intentions, Kennan and Mead both contributed to the mentalities that nurtured the Cold War, but Kennan at least came close to acknowledging the risks inherent in the doctrine of ‘containment’. Mead spent her later years convinced international tensions could have been relaxed if only Washington had listened to her.

In the 1950s, a coalition of American social scientists gathered to devise a new set of blueprints for the Third World. According to modernisation theory all ‘modern’ societies were converging around a set of behaviours and forms of social organisation dictated by the needs of industrial society. If the needs could be met, peasant cultures would experience ‘take-off’ and blossom into modern societies. Walt Rostow, the head salesman of modernisation theory, presented it as the US response to Bolshevik theories of development, with ‘the age of high mass consumption’ replacing communism as the happy outcome of history. For Rostow and his colleagues, the point was to translate America’s peculiar path to modernity into normative theory: they were to be the vanguard of technocratic social planners for young states in the Third World.

Mead​ was initially sympathetic to parts of the programme. Having lived through the Depression, she thought the people of the world needed higher minimum standards of health, nutrition, education and economic growth if they were to participate as anything like equals in the postwar economic order. In 1953, she returned to Manus in New Guinea. The islands had experienced Japanese and US occupations, followed by a series of cargo cults, with the villagers fetishising the detritus left behind from the war. But the Manus people seemed to have made a historical jump of a thousand years since Mead’s last visit thirty years before. The ‘Sir Ghosts’ had been banished from the villages and a nationalist movement called the ‘New Way’, led by a local leader called Paliau, was underway. Mead’s old informant, Pokanau, once a boy in a loincloth, now a grand man in a suit, explained the difference:

Before we had many of our old things and you took them with you. You did not take them without payment, you paid well for them. Now we no longer have the old things. It is now you who have the things that we want. You have brought them, and we, too, have not got them for nothing. We have paid for them. Now, like an old turtle, you are going out into the sea to die and we will never see you again.

When Mead wrote her account of her trip, New Lives for Old (1956), she still had faith that US-led modernisation would allow for considerable cultural variation. Her chief worry was that development would be undertaken in a piecemeal rather than holistic fashion. ‘Attempts to deal with some drastic alteration in a culture,’ she warned, ‘may well work best if they are accompanied by as many other congruent changes as possible.’ You cannot simply substitute wage labour for subsistence farming, or democratic voting procedures for feudal rule, she argued, without making fine adjustments elsewhere in the culture. But Rostow and his followers adopted a much more rigid form of modernisation in which American cultural and social conditions were taken as vital for development. In the late 1950s, Mead declared herself against modernisation theory, which she now claimed threatened her cherished principles of anthropological relativism and cultural integrity. By then it was too late. It was the moment, Mandler explains, when Mead turned away from government work and settled into the role at which she had always excelled: ‘an all-purpose cultural commentator, a moral muse, an advice columnist to the nation and the world’.

It was around this time that Clifford Geertz was finishing his training as an anthropologist in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, a hotbed of modernisation theory. Geertz revolutionised the social sciences by discarding the determinative language of ‘structure’ and ‘development’ in favour of an approach that ‘read’ cultures instead of explaining them. Whereas Mead wrote with magnificent assurance, Geertz was allergic to assertions, his scholarship characterised by a level of self-reflexivity that should have made it anathema to policy-makers. But in the early 1960s, Geertz was still a dutiful modernisation theorist, addressing questions such as how to increase economic growth in village and peasant societies. In 1963, he published Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia, in which he argued that a place like Java had not become a modernised nation like Japan because of the backward, obstructive values of its peasantry. Javanese peasants, he wrote, tended to ‘share’ the burdens of poverty rather than look for modernising solutions. Their stagnant, communal pattern of ‘agricultural involution’ would never allow them to produce the necessary surplus that would lead to industrialisation. Geertz’s thesis neatly fit the conditions of Vietnam, where the US government’s official line was that the insurrections in South Vietnam resulted from an insurgency led by disciplined North Vietnamese cadres bent on stirring up the primordial feelings of an otherwise passive peasantry to resist modernising reforms.

Since Vietnam, anthropologists have worried about wars waged by ‘their’ government against ‘their’ peoples. Mead and Geertz, in their different ways, have been seen as intellectual stepping-stones towards counter-insurgencies the world over. But for all the professional outrage that co-operation between anthropology and government still summons, there is a greater problem for anthropologists today who wish to effect political change: their aloofness. The colonial administrators and imperial agents anthropologists once worked alongside have been replaced with humanitarian aid workers and human rights activists. Anthropologists keep their distance: they have long prided themselves on grasping the hypocrisy of the human rights industry, which they see as salving the conscience of its backers, while surreptitiously reinforcing the status quo. In their determination not to be tainted by anything related to Western power, anthropologists retreat from the public sphere. With a few rare exceptions, they have lost the art of formulating their critiques in ways that touch the wider public or might profitably contribute to any political realignment.

Margaret Mead hardly seems a model for anthropologists who want to change the world. But, as Mandler’s book shows, she was right about two things. First, she insisted on focusing her anthropological attention on the West. She did not believe US society was peculiarly bad, but she did think it was the one culture from which Americans had a duty to free themselves – and to spare others. It says something for Mead’s instincts that many of today’s finest anthropologists concentrate on Western institutions and undertakings: James Ferguson on development organisations; Karen Ho on Wall Street investment banks; Didier Fassin on NGOs; Noah Coburn and Anila Daulatzai on the aftermath of humanitarian interventions. The second lesson from Mead is that she was willing to take on the world as it was. She recognised that modernisation was inevitably a global phenomenon, but rather than railing at it, sought ways to make it more culturally sensitive. Mead’s heirs, however, don’t seem interested in thinking about how to reconfigure the constellation of neoliberal economics, development and human rights discourse that currently holds sway. If they continue to be content merely to flatter their private consciences, the price may be greater than Mead’s ‘loss’ of the Cold War.

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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.

Jeremy Walton
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.

Sheila Johnson
Cardiff, California

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.

Lawrence Rosen
Princeton University

Thomas Meaney writes: Jeremy Walton writes that I accuse today’s anthropologists of indifference to and withdrawal from public debates over American military power (Letters, 17 April). My claim was limited to their withdrawal from public debate. Anthropologists endlessly discuss among themselves how to keep their hands clean of US counterinsurgency operations and humanitarian interventions. But one wonders if this defensive posturing hasn’t become too much of a full-time job, distracting some anthropologists from other types of questions, including economic questions, they could be addressing in more public formats. Lawrence Rosen’s letter is doubly mistaken. In Peddlers and Princes (1963), Clifford Geertz set out to refine, not to jettison, modernisation theory: ‘It is clear that a really effective theory of economic growth will appear only when the social process and take-off approaches are joined in a single framework of analysis.’ Both that book and Agricultural Involution (1963) pay fealty to Walt Rostow’s concepts. As for the Javanese peasantry’s ‘shared poverty’, Geertz says the practice predated the arrival of the Dutch, and was not simply a tactical response to it. He claims it was owed in part to the extreme fertility of the Javanese landscape, which discouraged agricultural innovation. By the early 1960s, Geertz believed the colonial problem had been swept away; only Javanese cultural resistance to modernisation remained.

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