BY MARY WOLFSKILL
The events of Sept. 11 served as a point of departure for a recent Library symposium celebrating the centennial of Margaret Mead's birth (1901-1978). The Library exhibition "Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture" is on view in the Jefferson Building through May 31. A preview of the exhibition can also be viewed online at www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead.
Sponsored by the Institute for Intercultural Studies of New York, in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress, the Dec. 3-4 symposium explored contributions of history and the behavioral sciences to the understanding of cultures. The symposium was modeled on the interdisciplinary approach used by Mead and fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict during the 1940s, when teams of scholars were assembled to analyze the national character of the enemies and friends of the United States. The research was accomplished by viewing films, reading literature, interviewing immigrants, scanning foreign newspapers and listening to radio broadcasts from abroad, since it was often difficult to travel to foreign countries. Focusing on Sept. 11, scholars from various disciplines provided analysis of the events in relation to the methods used by Mead in her national character studies.
Prosser Gifford, director of Scholarly Programs at the Library of Congress, welcomed the participants and guests, along with Wilton S. Dillon, senior scholar emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and convener of the symposium, and Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead, who served as symposium chair. Ms. Bateson, the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Anthropology and English at George Mason University, is also president of the Institute for Intercultural Studies, an organization founded by Mead to, in her words, advance "knowledge of the various peoples and nations of the world, with special attention to those peoples and those aspects of their life which are likely to affect intercultural and international relations."
The significance of a centennial honoring her mother became more apparent when Ms. Bateson realized that there were key themes in her mother's life and work that are important in a post-Sept. 11 world. Margaret Mead was one of the first to point out that ethnographic or ethnological knowledge–the description of people's profoundly different levels of development–could be a source for self-examination of contemporary culture.
Wilton Dillon reflected on the legacy of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institution, who wished to increase the diffusion of knowledge among humankind. Mr. Dillon read a message to the participants from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who noted that today there is a "wide-ranging interaction between cultures." Messages of support for Margaret Mead and the symposium were also received from Kichiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Tim White, the evening NBC News anchor for WKYC in Cleveland, introduced his 1975 film about Margaret Mead, "Reflections," which was screened for the participants. The film was part of a series aimed at explaining American culture to people of other countries through interviews with such notables as George Meany, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Eliot Morrison, John Hope Franklin, Buckminister Fuller and Mead. Mr. White told the audience that Margaret Mead was a good subject for this approach, as she had a long history of interpreting U.S. culture to people of other countries. National Character in Peace and War Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, led the first session by focusing on understanding the character of other nations and regimes, with particular attention to the people of Afghanistan, Muslims, the Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist organization. He pointed out that Margaret Mead believed that scholars had a responsibility to use their knowledge to increase understanding among different cultures. However, he questioned whether studies of national character were still relevant in the age of globalization.
The first panelist, William Beeman, professor of cultural anthropology, linguistics and theater at Brown University, discussed Mead's deep interest in assuring that nations took advantage of the opportunity to learn from each others' cultures. Mead's book And Keep Your Powder Dry (New York: W. Morrow and Co., 1942) was one of the first written about American culture. Mr. Beeman asserted that Mead felt that Americans went to war to build a better world and, during World War II, she began to make preparations for a postwar in which Americans could better understand their friends and foes alike. For Mead, war was a cultural invention and, for Americans, she saw aggression as a response that must be met with force. Her message is as true today as it was 50 years ago, he said.
Mary Catherine Bateson followed with a review of the criticism of the "study of cultures at a distance" approach practiced by some anthropologists. First, some felt the approach was invalid when the research was a collaborative effort between the government and academic researchers. However, Ms. Bateson pointed out that, during World War II, Americans were not as cynical about government as they became during the McCarthy and Vietnam War eras. She noted that national character studies are as important in peace as in war.
Second, anthropologists criticized the method because the research was not from firsthand experience. But Ms. Bateson commented that the study of any large-scale society will always be at a distance, because, unlike Mead's research in Samoa and Papua New Guinea, it is impossible to know most of the individuals.
Third, statistical surveys should be viewed only as an alternative research method because they do not provide the diversity that helps frame issues.
A fourth criticism was that anthropologists considered the focus on child rearing practices to be trivial. But Ms. Bateson said that the only way to understand fully how choices are made is to understand a person's upbringing.
Alan Henrikson, director of the Fletcher Roundtable on a New World Order at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University, emphasized the need for the "one-world culture" of which Mead spoke. Looking at Japanese-American relations in World War II, Mr. Henrikson said that Americans thought the Japanese were incapable of attacking Pearl Harbor and the Japanese thought Americans were incapable of fighting back.
Similarly, Mr. Henrikson remarked that Americans could not imagine the mentality of the suicide attackers nor the intensity of the hatred against the United States. He said that the study of culture at a distance and the practice of diplomacy are one and the same.
Michale Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor and director of American foreign policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, looked at the relationship between war and culture. All wars have motives and methods, he said, that are culturally determined and must be described in cultural terms. In the present war, he pointed to the great cultural differences between the wealthy, high-tech United States and the poor, low-tech Taliban government and al Qaeda network. The war is considered just by American standards because it is in response to an attack and injuries to noncombatants have been limited, as opposed to the enemy, which has killed innocent people intentionally.
Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and moderator of the weekly PBS television program "Think Tank," chaired the second panel. The first speaker, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of a number of books including The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (New York: Random House, 1998) and You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (New York: Morrow, 1990), talked about the tendency in American and Western culture to approach many issues using the war metaphor as an explanation. She pointed to three major areas where this is evident.
First, there is the academic or intellectual tradition, in which the "debate " is encouraged as the best way to explore something–two people on opposing sides argue to make their point while ignoring evidence that supports the other viewpoint.
Second, Ms. Tannen looked at the adversarial nature of the American legal system, pointing out that the "fact finding" is done by a lawyer rather than by someone trying to determine the truth.
And third, the nature of public discourse in America is adversarial, according to Ms. Tannen. She used TV and radio talk shows as an example, noting that guests, including herself, are encouraged to adopt the most extreme views.
Amitai Etzioni, director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University and founder of a developing communitarian movement, talked about his association with Margaret Mead and the organization he founded, the Gradualist Way to Peace, which grew out of conversations with her. Referring to the events of Sept. 11, Mr. Etzioni reflected on the makeup of religious groups. He believes religions often have two branches, one loving and one violent. Panelist HervŽ Varenne, professor of education and chairman of the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College of Columbia University, pointed out that what happens in Washington affects the world, but only a very small subgroup of the whole has a say on what happens in Washington. Therefore, Washington has a responsibility to the rest of the world.
Case Presentation: Russia
James W. Symington, attorney with O'Connor and Hannon and chairman of the Russian Leadership Program at the Library of Congress, chaired the third session. The first speaker, Sergei Alexandrovich Arutiunov, who heads the Department of Caucasian Studies at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, reflected on the ideas of Geoffrey Gorer, a close friend and collaborator of Margaret Mead, who theorized that Russian people were driven by duty, fear, guilt and shame.
Mr. Arutiunov recently wrote an introduction to the latest edition of Mead's book on Soviet Attitudes Toward Authority (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000), which was first published in 1951. He noted that some of what Mead wrote remains true today and can be seen in the strong support of the Russian people (60 percent) for President Vladimir Putin. Although many Russians are nostalgic for authoritarian rule, the rising Russian middle class is more liberal and democratic in its views.
Blair Ruble, director of the George Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, talked about coming to terms with the new Russia. According to Mr. Ruble, its culture places more value on great literature than a great economy. But the changes place Putin on a slippery slope, because he wants Russia to be a European power without being a European society.
Case Presentation: Japan Since the Chrysanthemum and the
Session chair Bernard K. Gordon, professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Hampshire, began the presentations by introducing Takami Kuwayama, professor of anthropology at Soka University in Tokyo. Mr. Kuwayama noted that Margaret Mead was not a prominent figure in Japan, where academics are not concerned with child rearing and personality; however, Ruth Benedict was well known because of her popular book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946).
The second speaker, Shinji Yamashita of the department of anthropology at the University of Tokyo, added that there has been so much change in post-World War II Japan that Benedict would not recognize the nation she described in 1946. Daniel Metraux, chair of the department of Asian studies at Mary Baldwin College, spoke next, after sharing some of his memories of Mead, who was his godmother and lived with him and his mother, Rhoda Metraux, for many years. He observed that most of his academic work had been studying "culture at a distance," particularly his recent research on two Japanese religions, the Soka Gakkai and the Aum Shinrikyo, both of which have built up large followings outside of Japan. Mr. Metraux said there are now 2 million members of the Soka Gakkai living abroad including 1 million in Korea, and 30,000 members of the Aum Shinrikyo live in Russia alone, while there are only 10,000 living in Japan. Mr. Arutiunov, who also participated in this panel discussion, commented that there was no extensive cultural study of Japan before The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, and observed that it played an important role in preparing and educating American officers for their jobs as part of an occupational force in Japan after World War II.
New Opportunities for Cultural Analysis
This last session of the day focused on Mexico, Iran and China. In introducing the panel, Chair William Beeman pointed out that the largest body of unpublished information from the Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures project was on China, where there are more than 1,000 interviews in the Mead Collection in the Manuscript Division. The panelists began with a discussion of Mexico with Georgette Dorn, chief of the Hispanic Division at the Library of Congress, and Ignacio Duran-Loera, director-general of the Mexican Cultural Institute and minister for cultural affairs at the Embassy of Mexico. Ms. Dorn talked about Mexico as a land of enormous diversity, with 80 languages and a combination of very old and modern cultures. Mr. Duran-Loera also stressed the diversity in Mexico and talked about various stereotypes, using as an example the perception that the people in the North work, the people in the Central region think, and the people in the South dream.
He also talked about typical American images of Mexicans drawn from films, which include the picture of the beautiful and dignified se–orita, the treacherous bambinos and characters like the Cisco Kid. Mexicans, on the other hand, see Americans as naive tourists in flowery shirts holding cameras, as blond bombshells that fall into the arms of Latin lovers or as robber barons who are interested in stealing their land. Both cultures see much more homogeneity in each other than actually exists. Ali A. Bulookbashi, director of Social Anthropology at the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran, commented that the U.S. and Iranian cultures are at odds with each other and that more scholars such as Mead, who worked to bring cultures together, are needed. Charles W. Freeman Jr., sinologist and chairman of Projects International Inc. talked about China's view that the United States is a hegemonic power, while the U.S. perception of China is that it is a monolithic nation.
Summary from the First Day
Mary Catherine Bateson and William Beeman provided a summary of the first day of the symposium. Ms. Bateson observed that virtually every speaker had referred to nations as actors with attitudes, styles and trends. While the concepts of national character are problematic, she said they are nonetheless employed when discussing globalization. However, concepts of nations have changed. They are no longer almost universally described as internally harmonious, as Mead depicted Samoa.
Mr. Beeman looked at the themes that were discussed, such as stereotypes and uniformity vs. diversity. He said Mead opposed the kind of folk psychology that resulted in gross generalizations. She instead depended on professionals who knew how to find true regularities in a situation. Mead was looking at what causes change as a natural extension of cultural patterns such as alterations in demographics. It is possible to have change and stability at the same time, he asserted. He proclaimed that national character is not quite dead, and we are all groping with a world culture by looking at causes of conflict and the human desire for protection of one's own group.
Ms. Wolfskill is head of the Library's Manuscript Reading Room and a curator of the exhibition "Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture." On Dec. 3, Ms. Wolfskill received a Spirit of Margaret Mead award from the Institute for Intercultural Studies of New York for "her skill and caring sensitivity in preserving and animating the Mead legacy for future generations."