Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War

Thomas Meaney writes:

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.

(LRB 6 March 2014)