Part 3—A wide range of societal groups: In 1968, Napoleon Chagnon spoiled everything with his best-selling book, Yanomamo: The Fierce People.
Until that time, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa had been the best-selling work of anthropology in the history of the world. (Unless you count Peyton Place.) At the tender age of 23, Mead had sailed off to Samoa. Later, in her famous book, she described the goal of her research:
"I have tried to answer the question which sent me to Samoa: Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization? Under different conditions does adolescence present a different picture?”
We’ll admit it. During Mead’s second life on earth, we never tired of her tales about the sexual practices of Samoan teens during this untrammeled period. But Mead would insist that we attend her key point about the adolescence of those “primitive” youth (her term).
According to the foremost authority on Mead’s career, “she concluded that the passage from childhood to adulthood (adolescence) in Samoa was a smooth transition and not marked by the emotional or psychological distress, anxiety, or confusion seen in the United States.” Why did Samoan teens enjoy this untroubled passage? Incomparably, “Mead concluded that this was due to the Samoan girl's belonging to a stable, mono-cultural society…The Samoan girl was not pressured to choose from among a variety of conflicting values, as was the American girl.”
Samoan girls of the 1920s were getting off easy, Mead found. Brilliant tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mead described the conflicts confronting American teens of this period:
MEAD (1928): A girl's father may be a Presbyterian, an imperialist, a vegetarian, a teetotaler, with a strong literary preference for Edmund Burke, a believer in the open shop and a high tariff, who believes that women's place is in the home, that young girls should wear corsets, not roll their stockings, not smoke, nor go riding with young men in the evening. But her mother's father may be a Low Episcopalian, a believer in high living, a strong advocate of States' Rights and the Monroe Doctrine, who reads Rabelais, likes to go to musical shows and horse races. Her aunt is an agnostic, an ardent advocate of women's rights, an internationalist who rests all her hopes on Esperanto, is devoted to Bernard Shaw, and spends her spare time in campaigns of anti-vivisection. Her elder brother, whom she admires exceedingly, has just spent two years at Oxford. He is an Anglo-Catholic, an enthusiast concerning all things medieval, writes mystical poetry, reads Chesterton, and means to devote his life to seeking for the lost secret of medieval stained glass. Her mother's younger brother is an engineer, a strict materialist, who never recovered from reading Haeckel in his youth; he scorns art, believes that science will save the world, scoffs at everything that was said and thought before the nineteenth century, and ruins his health by experiments in the scientific elimination of sleep. Her mother is of a quietistic frame of mind, very much interested in Indian philosophy, a pacifist, a strict non-participator in life, who in spite of her daughter's devotion to her will not make any move to enlist her enthusiasms. And this may be within the girl's own household. Add to it the groups represented, defended, advocated by her friends, her teachers, and the books which she reads by accident, and the list of possible enthusiasms, of suggested allegiances, incompatible with one another, becomes appalling.During her recent return to the earth, Mead admitted that very few modern teens have aunts who “rest all their hopes on Esperanto” or uncles “who never recovered from reading Haeckel.” But she demanded that we attend her key point: Even in the 1920s, American children were being raised within a complex, varied culture.
During her recent return to earth, she despaired at the way we modern “liberals” seemed to be handling this key fact of life.
How can we put this? Mead tended to see her successor liberals as yahoos, yokels, hayseeds, rubes, bumpkins, chawbacons—even hayseeds! At occasional moments of high despair, she even wondered if our limbic brains were working correctly! She marveled at the tendency of her successor liberals to lord it over other groups within our varied society. In her final act before returning to the Elysian Fields, she pointed to the headline of this recent piece at Salon:
SALON HEADLINE: Can liberals cure stupidity?“Can liberals cure stupidity?” Professor Mead was so upset by that banner that her senses seemed to shut down. For at least the next hour, she listened to her 1959 debut album for Folkways (FW07354), seeming to have retreated into a rock-hard Samoan “conch” shell.
One of the greatest obstacles to progressive causes is how ignorant Americans are about them
“Can liberals cure stupidity!” The headline which incurred Mead’s wrath wasn’t the fault of our old semi-pal Tom Schaller, atop whose piece the banner was strung. Schaller had written a largely sensible piece about the misinformation which suffuses our political culture. Presumably, the headline came from a fiery liberal editor.
But in that headline, Mead saw the parochialism she often found among her successor liberals. And she challenged us about one claim by our semi-pal himself:
SCHALLER (6/5/12): [T]o President Obama’s great chagrin and partially resulting from his own communication failures, Americans remain very confused about the provisions of the Affordable Care Act: what it does and doesn’t do, when certain provisions kick in, what the law will cost, and so on. Again, it’s hard to square the circle of a public evenly divided on the legislation overall despite the fact a plurality if not majority of polled respondents support every major provision of ACA except the very unpopular individual mandate. Unless the mandate is so damning in the public’s mind that it ruins an otherwise acceptable bill, one of two things must be true: Either Americans oppose this law despite supporting all but one of its provisions, or they are just so completely in the dark about it they oppose it as a matter of reflex. (If the latter, the burden falls on the Obama administration and other proponents to explain and clarify what the legislation does and doesn’t do.)Without question, misinformation rules our discourse—and disinformation has flowed from the spin tanks and talk shows of the right over the past forty years. But Professor Mead rolled her eyes at Professor Schaller’s “earnest search,” unless we’re hiding behind the word “comparable.” In truth, we successor liberals drive our tribal tales through the use of all kinds of misinformation. In just the past few weeks, we ourselves have reported these groaners:
As for the 2003 Iraq invasion, the most significant security policy decision since Vietnam? Long after the publication of the 9/11 Commission Report and as late as 2007, more than 40 percent of Americans still believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, as did a startling 85 percent of military members fighting on the ground in Iraq. The consequences of that ignorance—5,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, and a long-term cost to the U.S. treasury in the trillions—will continue to be felt for decades.
Despite an earnest Google search, I failed to find any comparable examples of political or societal ignorance that favor the left.
Women are only paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same or equal work as men. This bogus claim helps us advocate for various proposals in Congress while insisting that the other tribe is conducting that war on women.Meanwhile, we liberals have swallowed all kinds of pseudo-scientific attempts to measure the racism of rival groups, including that gloriously bungled survey by Professor Parker at UW. In these and other ways, we drive the political or societal ignorance Schaller's earnest search couldn’t spot.
The Texas public schools have extremely bad test scores. This bogus claim lets us roll our eyes at the reddest red state—and at No Child Left Behind, and of course at President Bush. In the process, we uncaringly refuse to discuss the real state of low-income schools.
The Sanford police let George Zimmerman “walk away with his gun.” This bogus claim, along with a long list of others, helped us stage a modern mob action. It closely resembled the types of actions which used to be launched, and still sometimes are, against black people charged with crimes.
What explains Schaller’s ignorance of this bungling by his own tribe? “It’s Anthro 101,” Mead thundered, telling us that tribal groups routinely tend to overlook their own tribe’s bungles and foibles—and routinely tend to make other tribes into The Other! And this process of otherization can be remarkably sweeping. Just last month, Mead railed against this post in which Digby almosy seemed to turn “most Americans” into “them.” Digby linked to a very poorly reasoned post in which Amanda Marcotte concluded that “one in three Americans is so invested in an image of themselves as an uptight prig that they will misrepresent themselves to a pollster who they know isn't attaching their name to the answers.”
"Most people imagine a legal regime that will somehow allow abortion for themselves and their friends, but disallow it for those dirty sluts they hear about so much," Marcotte had informed fellow libs.
We learned not to ask about Janeane Garafola’s lectures on the limbic brains of those who don’t vote the way she does. Rachel Maddow’s “week and a half of dick jokes” was avoided at all costs.
“For this, I went to Samoa?” Mead roared. Tomorrow, the anthropologist’s brilliant thoughts concerning the kula ring.