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In 1978, after 50 years at the pinnacle of American opinion, the
anthropologist Margaret Mead died with a secure reputation and a lustrous
legacy. Her ascent seemed to mirror the societal ascent of American women.
In some two dozen books and countless articles, she gave a forceful voice
to a sturdy if cautious liberalism: resolutely antiracist, pro-choice; open
to ‘new ways of thinking’ yet wary of premarital sex and hesitant about the
Pill. The tensions in public opinion were hers, too. In her obituary,
*The* *New
York* *Times* called her ‘a national oracle’.

But posthumous reputation is a brittle thing. It’s difficult to defend
oneself after death, and the years wear away a name, eventually reducing it
to dust or mere ‘influence’. Issues change, standards shift, new thinkers
rise: few names last forever. Within anthropology, Mead is still revered,
but mostly as a way to understand the discipline’s origins. In the popular
mind, Mead’s name has all but vanished, her reputation whittled down to an
apocryphal quote found on coffee mugs and dorm-room posters: ‘Never doubt
that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

What’s more, Mead has become a target of vitriolic dislike for a particular
kind of cultural conservatism. In 1999, the Intercollegiate Studies
Institute, a group that promotes conservatism in colleges, ranked
Mead’s *Coming
of Age in Samoa* (1928) as the single worst nonfiction book of the 20th
century. In his *Letters to a Young Conservative* (2002), the splenetic
pseudo-thinker Dinesh D’Souza accused Mead, as many others have done, of
wounding ‘Western culture’ by introducing some kind of noxious,
destabilising relativism. And in *The Closing of the American Mind* (1987),
the philosopher Allan Bloom trashed Mead as a ‘sexual adventurer’.

What happened? More than the passage of time dispatching her name into the
history books, Mead had an enemy who attacked with uncommon hatred: Derek
Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist who made it his life’s work to
expunge Mead after her death. His criticisms have stuck. Like a parasite,
his own name has lived on as ‘Mead’s critic’ (he died in 2001), leading to
a strange alchemy: to the extent that Mead is remembered now, it is most
often as one who was proven wrong. Freeman gave her opponents a readymade
cudgel to bludgeon not only her anthropological work but everything she
represented beyond that. And what, indeed, was that?

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