Mead is the Alger Hiss of anthropology: A woman so sacrosanct to
left-wing academics that they will
no criticism of her. That's because Mead's 1928 book Coming of
Age in Samoa one of the most influential books on anthropology
ever written portrayed an island paradise of adolescent free
love, and by implication suggested that Western culture was hopelessly
regressive when it came to sexual mores. Mead launched her career
on this observation, and went on to enjoy great celebrity.
Then along came Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman in the 1980s.
He had spent decades living in Samoa, compared to Mead's six months,
and he debunked her claims with force and vigor. In a pair of books,
he argued that Samoans were nothing like the sexual free spirits
Mead had described. He even tracked down an old lady named Fa'apua'a
Fa'amu, who had served as one of Mead's two primary informants during
Mead's field research. "Samoan girls are terrible liars when it
comes to joking. But Margaret accepted our trumped-up stories as
if they were true," said Fa'amu, as a camera rolled. "We just fibbed
and fibbed to her."
This stirred up an enormous controversy within the profession
one of its seminal texts, exposed as a fraud! and it earned
Freeman almost nothing but scorn from his colleagues. The American
Anthropological Association even condemned him in a formal vote
by its membership.
Now the Left apparently has "moved on" into denial. In the
May 21 issue of The Nation, Micaela
di Leonardo, a Mead partisan who "teaches anthropology and gender
studies at Northwestern University," simply dismisses all of Freeman's
criticisms as yesterday's hype: "Freeman's frisson in popular
culture is now long past, victim of the increasingly rapid biodegradation
of American popular consciousness.
Only American New Rightists
remember and believe in Freeman's attack on Mead: A Lexis/Nexis
search for all articles referring to the two since 1990 revealed
only a handful of sneering articles in rightist outlets."
Now that's an easy claim to double-check. I searched a combined
file of all newspaper and magazine stories written from January
1, 1990 through yesterday. The result: 97 hits considerably
more than "a handful." The citations included the New York Times,
Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chronicle of
Higher Education, and The New Republic. One of the entries,
from about five years ago, is an article by Micaela di Leonardo
herself in that famous "rightist outlet," The Nation.
I've spent a little bit of time over the years studying the Mead-Freeman
dispute, and I think it's fair to say that Freeman makes some critically
important claims against Mead, even though he's sometimes such an
overzealous prosecutor he needlessly opens himself to questions
But then I'm probably just one of those "American New Rightists."
Maybe I should start writing for The Nation.
For more on all this, The Nation's latest
defense of Mead may be read on the web.
Derek Freeman's most recent book, The
Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, may be purchased through
of Age in Samoa may be bought through Amazon.
And the Intercollegiate
Studies Institute's list of the 50 worst books of the 20th century,
topped by Coming of Age in Samoa, may be read on the web.