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Margaret Mead Today

Some of Margaret Mead’s robust no-nonsense view of the tribal world would be welcome today. She did not regard a “culture” as more valuable than its people—let alone something of transcendent value to be perpetuated regardless of people’s needs. She understood that the intellectual features of tribalism cannot be defended; that its moral code leaves much to be desired; that its economic assumptions obstruct and stultify. All living cultures have to change, and primitive cultures have to change most of all.

Mead forcefully set out these views in the introduction to her 1956 book New Lives for Old. The “new lives” were those being embraced by the people of Manus Island off the coast of New Guinea in the wake of World War II, while the “old lives” were those she had seen when she first visited Manus in 1928. As she makes abundantly clear—and as the great majority of Manus Islanders recognized themselves—the old culture was inimical to modern life, and there was no way it either could or should have been preserved. The only question was how to handle the process of modernization in a humane and practical manner.

Her view of social change grew from her understanding of both western civilization as a whole and of its distinctive American offshoot. American civilization progressed by accepting change, learning to live with change, and welcoming it in the belief that “men have only to see a better way of life to reach out for it spontaneously.” They must first, however, be able to clearly grasp its manifest advantages; and the relevance of this philosophy to global developments in recent years is not hard to see. In what follows, passages from the first pages of New Lives for Old alternate with brief interpolated commentary.

The situation in 1928

Mead says that the story she brings from New Guinea is about a people who since 1928 ‘have traversed in the short space of twenty-five years a line of development which it took mankind many centuries to cover’:

It is a story of a particular tribe of the Admiralty Islands—the Manus—whom I saw in 1928, a mere two thousand nearly naked savages, living in pile dwellings in the sea, their earlobes weighed down with shells, their hands still ready to use spears, their anger implemented with magical curses, their morality dependent upon the ghosts of the recently dead. It is the story of a people without history, without any theory of how they came to be, without any belief in a permanent future life, without any knowledge of geography, without writing, without political forms sufficient to unite more than two or three hundred people.

The situation in 1953

It is also the story of a people who had become, when I returned to visit them in 1953, potential members of the modern world, with ideas of boundaries in time and space, responsibility to God, enthusiasm for law, and committed to trying to build a democratic community, educate their children, police and landscape their village, care for the old and the sick, and erase age-old hostilities between neighbouring tribes.

Optimism versus pessimism

The author places her argument for cultural change in the primitive world within the wider context of postwar pessimism regarding the value of modern life, and of pessimism about the American way of life in particular. Her argument challenges this entire negative cast of mind.

This book is set firmly against such pessimism. It is based on the belief that American civilization is not simply the last flower to bloom on the outmoded tree of European history, doomed to perish in a common totalitarian holocaust, but something new and different. American civilization is new because it has come to rest on a philosophy of production and plenty instead of saving and scarcity, and new because the men who built it have themselves incorporated the ability to change and change swiftly as the need arises. This book is based on the belief that Americans have something to contribute to a changing world which is precious, which can be used with responsibility, with dedication…

This precious quality which Americans have developed, through three and a half centuries of beginning life, over and over, in a virgin land, is a belief that men can learn and change—quickly, happily, without violence, without madness, without coercion, and of their own free will. For three centuries, men of vastly different ways of life have come to America, left behind their old language, their old attachments to land and river, their betters and subordinates, their kin and their icons, and have learned to speak and walk, to eat and trust, in a new fashion.

As we have learned to change ourselves, so we believe that others can change also, and we believe that they will want to change, that men have only to see a better way of life to reach out for it spontaneously. Our faith includes no forebodings about the effect of destroying old customs, and calls for no concentration camps or liquidation centres such as have been used in totalitarian states by those with the desire and the power to change others. We do not conceive of people being forcibly changed by other human beings. We conceive of them as seeing a light and following it freely.

Doubts about the US among refugees

Mead notes how recent immigrants from Europe, many of them displaced by war and oppression, have been uncomfortable with the plainness and uniformity of life in the US, and have contrasted American civilization unfavourably with ‘the dignity of living all one’s life in a distinctive setting, even though in mortal terror of the gibes and jeers which kept one firmly fixed and so secure in the position in which one was born.’ This attitude, she says:

has been fostered by the presence in America of refugees who did not come freely, but who were driven out from countries which they still prefer. It has been fostered by the moves and counter-moves inspired by Communism, which has incorporated the standard Russian myths about European civilization. It has been manipulated by the leaders of non-European countries who confuse the retention of various outmoded forms of feudal power with a defence of ancient civilizations against the ‘vulgarities’ of the American way of life, a vulgarisation which makes it possible for a simple laborer to buy articles of good design in Woolworth’s.

So today there is a great doubt in the land, a doubt of our distinctive heritage, a doubt as to whether we have anything to give to the rest of the world, even a fear that we may be—as our ready critics, especially the ready critics within our doors, are so quick to tell us—offering nothing to the world except the cheap and the destructive, or soft drinks seen not against a poverty which could afford neither bottled drinks nor shoes for their children, but only as beverages lacking in genuine intoxication, fit only for children…

Old world critics v. new world values

Between 1918 and 1950, in response to tumultuous events in central and eastern Europe, the US acquired a ready-made alienated intelligentsia hostile to many aspects of American life. The critical disdain of this new intellectual elite, many of them disgruntled and reluctant refugees voicing an essentially European critique, increasingly prevents Americans themselves from understanding their own ‘priceless inheritance of political innovation and flexibility.’

In accepting this negative image of America, we often feel we are getting closer to, reaching a better understanding with, our sophisticated and cultivated European and Asian friends. Actually we are depriving them of finding something here to value, something that they, who are searching rather more busily that we for ways of change, could use. And we deprive them either way, whether we slavishly agree that America is a dreadful country in which drugstores and conformity contrast in sorry fashion with the ubiquitous culture of the Old World, or whether, still reacting to their negative image, we insist that everything in the United States is better, brighter, and nearer perfect than anywhere else.

American complacency and bumptiousness was born of just such doubts two centuries ago. It is the voice of the immigrant assuring the relatives he left behind, and himself, that America is better than Europe. So, in every foreign capital today, the emissaries of American diplomacy, the Point Four men, the journalists, jostle one another in their laments and counter-laments, seeing America through this smoke screen of the feared judgement of other, older countries, in turn denying and truculently defending our institutions.

Meanwhile our genuine heritage, our personal knowledge of change is denied and forgotten, as false prophets seek to change our priceless inheritance of political innovation and flexibility into some untouchable fetish of unchangeableness.

Change and civilization: the relevance of New Lives for old

This book—the record of a people who have moved faster than any people of whom we have records… of men who have skipped over thousands of years of history in just the last twenty-five years—is offered as food for the imagination of Americans, whom the people of Manus so deeply admire. It is no accident that a people who represent a civilization built on change should catch the imagination of a primitive people intent on changing. Every mile of both my voyages to Manus is relevant to the whole problem of what American civilization—a civilization dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, created with a right of equal access to all that men have learned and made and won, a civilization made of men who changed after they were grown—has to give, to Americans and to the peoples of the world with whom we work. (End of quoted material.)

It is likely that Mead was rather too optimistic. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world,” she once said. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” But her small group of thoughtful, committed people need other thoughtful people around them to listen and understand. What if they won’t listen, or can’t understand? What if they stubbornly prefer their unenlightened ways? Like many reformers she had an underdeveloped sense of human perversity, and seemed blind to the fact that innumerable men and women, even when shown the light, do not follow it. But after thirty years with the ‘nabobs of negativism’ riding high, how refreshing her thought and writing is!

Posted in People, Tribalism, Notes.

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