The Agincourt Award for the Longest Bow, entrant two

Though not quite in the same league as my Ernie, my friend Simon Caterson is the first entrant in Lavartus Prodeo’s Agincourt Award for the Longest Bow. The idea is to highlight arguments built on tenuous links, and Simon is entered for managing to jump from a discussion of factual errors in Ishmael Beah‘s book about his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone to the overwillingness of baby boomers to believe the Samoan research of Margaret Mead.

It is quite a leap, with the thread tying it together being that there are some stories people just want to believe. But the examples of fictional non-fiction given in Simon’s article are too varied to give the article the focus on readers it needed for the Mead case not to appear, at least to a certain kind of vigilant mind, as being there for some other reason. Most of the article is about authors, who range from outright frauds like Norma Khouri, to people like Ishmael Beah who get some details wrong but still have a compelling story, to Margaret Mead who it seems was more the victim of a hoax than a perpetrator.

But none of this is what really caused upset at LP. It was the suspicion that Simon thinks ‘sexual freedom is unnatural and wrong, and you should all stop it now’. And that required a leap in the argument worthy of making LP the second entrant in the Agincourt Award for the Longest Bow. So we go from these remarks by Simon:

A key question throughout the course of intellectual history is whether, or to what extent, humans are formed by nature or nurture. In the late 1920s Mead claimed to have found in traditional Samoan society a place where the normal rules of sexual conduct did not apply, thus proving that the otherwise universal taboos that restrict the ways males and females interact with one another physically were artificial and not an expression of our true biology.
… Mead relied on the evidence she gathered from conversations with adolescent Samoan girls who spoke to her of a paradise of unfettered, guilt-free sex. Mead’s claim had a huge impact in the postwar age of sexual liberation in the West, a legacy of permissiveness embraced by an entire generation of baby boomers and their children.

To LP’s inference:

A common trope for the conservative sophist is to claim that all the miseries of modern life were absent in the Edenic golden past, and therefore a return to living in the manner of our ancestors (eg. women barefoot and pregnant, poofs and dykes silent and invisible, lesser cultures kept down in their place) will bring instant happiness since, as we all know, our ancestors were always happy.

And so on for several paragraphs.

Of course Simon’s article says none of these things, and in countless conversations since our 1980s undergraduate years I have never heard him express any views along these lines. But as I was reminded when I won my Ernie, what you write and what people read can be quite different things.

26 thoughts on “The Agincourt Award for the Longest Bow, entrant two

  1. Oh FFS LP is turning into a politically correct parody of itself. Margaret Mead was an incompetent and lots of eminent scientists now believe that, many of them evolutionary scientists none of whom could remotely be classified as sexually puritanical.


  2. Maybe this is a really silly point. If simon suggests these older times were better and people were happier isn’t he allowed to round up a few fellow travelers and go lead the life of a noble savage? I mean you can pick up stumps and go foraging around for food etc in the wilderness wearing a ball cloth while the gals are topless?


  3. forgot to add;

    I’m really sincere in asking this. It also applies to people like Hive Hamilton who is always telling us how unhappy we should be by our affluence but seems to lead the life in a metropolitan city with all the trappings that go with it. These people are free to drop out aren’t they?


  4. JC – But Simon isn’t suggesting that older times were better. That’s just somebody else’s highly imaginative reading between the lines.


  5. from Martin Orans review of “The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead” Science 283.5408 (March 12, 1999): p1649.

    “Casting himself as the Kenneth Starr of anthropology, Derek Freeman claims to have found “the smoking gun” in a crime of misrepresentation committed by Margaret Mead. He identifies a letter written by Mead to her mentor Franz Boas as the smoking gun. Freeman says this letter corroborates his interpretation that Mead was hoaxed by two Samoan women into believing Samoa was a promiscuous society that “did not attempt to curb the sexual activity of adolescents.” The alleged crime is that Mead made such an assertion in her book Coming of Age in Samoa (1) and elsewhere.

    “The alleged crime never took place. Mead’s generalizations and evocative descriptions certainly leave one with an impression of more permissive female adolescent sexuality than actually existed or is consistent with her detailed statements (2, chapter 4). But offering this impression is the extent of her misdoing. In Coming of Age, Mead specifically excludes from sexual freedom the taupou (holders of a title given to virgins), those of “noble birth,” young adolescent girls, and those living with a pastor’s family or in a church school. Because every Samoan girl is genealogically linked to titled people, all might be regarded as “noble,” though clearly some are more “noble” than others. The effect of the age restriction is a median age of 18 years for females at the time of their first heterosexual experience (2, pp. 78-79). Nowhere has Freeman acknowledged the limitations on sexual freedom reported by Mead, and his current work compounds this misrepresentation.

    “In Freeman’s first publication of evidence for a hoax (3), he claimed that two women in their mid-20s, Fa’apua’a Fa’amu and Fofoa, jokingly misinformed Mead regarding Samoan sexuality. This evidence had surfaced when Fa’apua’a Fa’amu was interviewed by Galea’i Poumele (then secretary for Samoan Affairs of American Samoa, and the son of the deceased Fofoa). The 1987 conversation was filmed, and parts were included in Frank Heimans’ documentary Margaret Mead and Samoa (1988).

    “The sum and substance of Fa’apua’a’s testimony was that she and Fofoa jokingly told Mead that they spent their “nights with boys, yes, with boys!” Freeman has never made clear how this scanty tidbit regarding the behavior of grown women could have anything to do with Mead’s claims about female adolescents. Further interviews of Fa’pua’a were conducted by Unasa Leulu Felise Va’a, then a doctoral candidate at Australian National University. Freeman notes that Va’a interviewed Fa’apua’a for six hours in 1989 and “put to her over 250 questions.” Surprisingly, Freeman does not provide any of these questions, nor any of Fa’apua’a’s answers. All one is offered is her remark to the effect that scientists should be careful and not taken in by jokes, and some phrases meant to indicate that her memory was still quite sharp.

    “Freeman contends that Fa’apua’a also joked about the sex lives of female adolescents, although he offers no evidence for this claim. If, however, such joking about Fa’apua’a’s sex life did occur, Mead certainly did not believe it; for Fa’apua’a was a taupou, and Mead noted that the taupou’s virtue is carefully protected and excluded from “free and easy experimentation” (1). Furthermore, the alleged fibs are completely inconsistent with the nuanced restrictions described by Mead in Coming of Age. And though Mead’s field research materials identify many of her informants, never are Fa’apua’a or Fofoa so cited, nor does anything in these materials correspond with their alleged untruths.

    “Many Samoans believe Mead portrayed their society as sexually loose, and they take strong exception to this characterization. Surely the claim of hoaxing Mead must be evaluated with this motive for discrediting her in mind, but Freeman never mentions it.

    “In separate articles in a recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Paul Shankman and James C6te indicate that Freeman’s characterization of Mead’s views on behavior and biology is also biased (7). Though I sympathize with Freeman’s effort to encourage greater concern for the complex interaction between biology and behavior, it is a shame that his vehicle, Fateful Hoaxing, rides roughshod over the evidence. As for his misunderstanding of my work, I leave it to readers to judge that for themselves.


    (1.) Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa (Morrow, New York, 1928).

    (2.) Martin Orans, Not Even Wrong: Margaret Mead, Derek Freeman, and the Samoans (Chandler and Sharp, Novato, CA, 1996).

    (3.) Derek Freeman, Am. Anthropol. 91, 1017 (1989).

    (7.) P. Shankman, Skeptical Inquirer 22(6), 35 (1998); J. E. Cote, ibid., p. 29. “


  6. From James E Cote “The Implausibility of Freeman’s Hoaxing Theory: An Update.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 29.5 (Oct 2000): p575.

    “Based on my careful review of the evidence, interpretations of Mead’s book such as those published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute are possible only through the filter of misinformation about this evidence that Freeman has constructed over the past 10 years and foisted on an unsuspecting public (e.g., Gardner, 1993). It seems that some political conservatives who favor attacks on targets like the “liberal” Margaret Mead may be particularly vulnerable to being hoodwinked by messages of the type that Freeman has devised. Indeed, I have been told by a conservative source, who wishes to remain anonymous, that many conservatives believe that those who criticize Freeman are “shooting the messenger” as part of a liberal partisanship with Mead, and that Freeman’s work has come through “bloodied but unbowed.” On the basis of this logic, some conservatives are then able to make the black-and-white conclusion that Freeman’s work is “true,” while Mead’s is “false.”

    “There is no doubt that in some places Mead capitalized on Western stereo-types about Polynesian sexuality, and in other places overly romanticized the sexual experiences of the “average” Samoan female adolescent (Cote, 1992, 1994). Although she appears to have drawn some misleading conclusions about how free all of her informants were to experiment with sex, anyone who has read her book in good faith will know that she did not describe a free-love society, and her book is not some sort of free-love manual. The type of first-hand knowledge gained from actually reading Mead is lost on those who rely only on Freeman’s account. This simple factual test dispels Freeman’s notion that Mead’s book portrayed Samoa as a “sexual utopia.”

    “There are contradictions in CA that have allowed Freeman to present a 1-sided interpretation that has been accepted among the general public (see Shankman, 2000). But, academics should know how to read books written for the general public, and expect to have to resolve for themselves certain contradictions (and Mead did provide more information for academics in her Appendices). For example, in the span of 2 paragraphs, she wrote that the girls who lived in the pastor’s house “differed from those of their less restricted sisters and cousins only in the fact that they had no love affairs and lived a more regular and ordered existence”; but in the next paragraph she wrote that having “many lovers as long as possible… [was a] uniform and satisfying ambition” (Mead, 1973, 156, 157). Although the resolution to this apparent contradiction is implicit in the way she presented this information, it is explicitly resolved in her Appendix II, where she wrote that the girls from the pastor’s household were her “control group,” and were, therefore, excluded from those generalizations where she was attempting to provide a “unified picture” of Samoan society (this account was related to Boas in her November 29 letter, Appendix, this issue). Yet, it is easy for those giving the book a casual reading to miss these important qualifications, and Mead is accountable for the difficulties that have resulted from the style of presentation she adopted. At the same time, Freeman’s illogical characterization of Mead’s study and book does not help matters. ”

    “Finally, Mead is not here to account for herself, but Freeman is hardly the person to speak for her; indeed, his claims about her work have become more immoderate over the last 15 years, with his latest offering (Freeman, 1999) constituting a caricature of her Samoa research. In short, Mead’s first book was not the catastrophe that Freeman claims it was (Feinberg, 1988; Shankman, 1996); however, Freeman’s theory does not have much to offer when his rhetoric, hyperbole, and outright misrepresentations are discounted. Mead’s book was not reviewed as an academic text, and with the exception of the opening and closing chapters and minor copy-editing, it was printed as she submitted it to her publisher (Boas apparently read it, but required no revisions). In this respect, some of the book’s faults can be traced to inducements by her publisher to make a show for the general public, not to a hoaxing by a “ceremonial virgin,” as Freeman would have it. In my view, the resolution to the hoaxing aspect of the controver sy is that simple. “


  7. And we should believe this excerpt you nicely posted here, Tim, because……………..?

    Why should take your excerpt as gospel and not what was written about her? How do we know yours is the more honest account?

    Note… Your excerpt says her book was mostly not peer reviewed. No explanation is given why only the first and last chapters were. Any reason?


    Mead’s book was not reviewed as an academic text, and with the exception of the opening and closing chapters and minor copy-editing, it was printed as she submitted it to her publisher (Boas apparently read it, but required no revisions).


  8. Good response Andrew. It’s a particularly strange argument that Mercurius seems to be making, that Simon Caterson is longing for a return to an Edenic past, when he appears to be criticising Margaret Mead for just that sort of thing! I can’t quite understand why the LPers lauded this as a particularly well-written post, and I’m not even sure if Caterson is, as they so neatly label him, a ‘conservative’.

    What’s a conservative on LP? Anybody who, for the purposes of argument or slight disagreement, they happen to want to label as a conservative, it seems…


  9. Tim – I think conservatives are to Mercurius what monsters are to small children: frightening but figments of the imagination.


  10. what’s with this leftist defence of Mead? Lambert makes it sound as if the only thing wrong with Mead can be found in this book by Freeman. But while Freeman is the most well known critic of Mead, anthropologists know now that she got a lot of Samoa wrong – not just the sexual customs but the punishments for adultery, social sanctions, etc. And more importantly her premises were wrong – the idea that sexual jelousy is eradicable by an appropriate environment, etc. Leftists believe that evolution for some reason doesn’t apply above the neck of humans, that we are somehow half-divine and can recreate ourselves with the appropriate society. They are closet creationists. This is the gist of the criiticisms of Mead – Steve Pinker has more on this in his Blank Slate book.


  11. Oh dear, what a pity Andrew couldn’t enter into the spirit of fun and find a real nomination for an Agincourt Award in the MSM. Heaven knows there’s plenty of candidates.

    Andrew, anybody who casually throws about phrases such as ‘normal rules of sexual conduct’ and ‘our true biology’, and does so in an unexamined fashion as did Caterson, well they are employing widely-used code terms of the reactionary ultra-conservative, moral-guardian, god-hates-fags crowd, and they know it.

    It hardly takes much ‘highly imaginative reading between the lines’ to construe what the author is getting at when they start using such terms or claiming, in effect, that Margaret Mead started the sexual revolution. There is a well-trammelled literature in recent decades which is using such ideas in an attempt to unwind our sexual freedoms and, sorry to say, it’s coming from the conservative camp. To suggest that such references turned up in Caterson’s writing as a complete random coincidence is to draw an even longer bow than that of which you accuse me.

    After all, if Caterson didn’t mean to reference that debate, why on earth did he even include such irrelevancies in a piece that was ostensibly about Ishmael Beah? Hence the Agincourt Award nomination.

    I hardly think I’m guilty of overreach for suggesting that it *is* a common trope of conservatives to hail the past and encourage us to try and draw on the wisdom of the past, which begins to assume rather an Edenic mantle in much of conservative writing. Anybody even vaguely acquainted with conservative writing would know this. And check out Caterson’s opinions in his area of expertise, art criticism, if you want to read some truly Edenic portrayals.

    OK, so I took those phrases and constructed an over-the-top parodic caricature of a conservative for the purpose of ridiculing what is a rather lightweight piece of op-ed. If you couldn’t apply a little ‘imaginative reading between the lines’ of your own to discern the general tone of levity in my writing, then I will try to write slower next time. Your po-faced response and overly literal takedown seems more than a little obtuse.


  12. Quotes from an article by Simon Caterson that Mercurius used to justify his claim that Caterson was a conservative:

    “Makin is, of course, perfectly entitled to draw attention to lapses in technique among contemporary painters, but there is another way of looking at the Dutch Masters… Even if today’s artists cannot emulate the achievements of the Dutch Masters on their terms, is it fair or reasonable to expect them even to want to try? Is painting of the kind produced by Dutch Masters a lost art, as is suggested by Makin, or could it be in fact a dead art whose brief, brilliant flourish has passed and is gone forever? Isn’t one of the features of a masterpiece that it is unique?”

    “One of the characteristic features of cultural pessimism down the ages is the constant harking back to a golden age in which standards were supposedly higher and life was happier and less complicated. No doubt there were art lovers in the time of the Dutch Masters who felt the same way about previous generations of artists… It might be tempting to view the Dutch Masters as somehow superior to artists today, as embodying aesthetic values and skills that our age has discarded. But no matter what has gone before and how individual artists or critics may feel at times, like all creative acts, art remains a wondrous expression of humanity’s basic optimism.”

    Um, you were saying, Mercurius? Your argument that Caterson is a conservative longing for an Edenic past don’t seem to hold up against the evidence.


  13. Mercurius – But I was having fun; it is at least ironic that in attacking Simon you did the same thing you were accusing him of (if not hypocritical), and I enjoy irony.

    While as I said in my post Simon was opening himself to critictism in the article, when I originally read it I took that passage as just explaining why the Mead hoax was significant; without knowing the pre-sexual revolution context it is hard to understand why the sexual activities of Samoan teenagers are of any interest at all except to those directly involved.

    I still think that is the most reasonable reading of the passage. And of course I have known Simon for 20+ years, so I think I have a rather better idea of what he thinks than you or the LP commenters.


  14. Leon – You are at least partly to blame:). But I am not advocating conservatism, just seeking a more accurate and nuanced understanding of it than is sometimes seen (eg in Mercurius’s post at LP).


  15. Oh right, Jason, besides Freeman you cite Pinker. Who does confidently assert that Mead was wrong. Trouble is, he cites Freeman for this. Pinker:

    “Margaret Mead’s descriptions of peace-loving New Guineans and sexually nonchalant Samoans were based on perfunctory research and turned out to be almost perversely wrong. As the anthropologist Derek Freeman later documented, Samoans may beat or kill their daughters if they are not virgins on their wedding night, a young man who cannot woo a virgin may rape one to extort her into eloping, and the family of a cuckolded husband may attack and kill the adulterer.”

    But here is what Mead wrote:

    “Deviations from chastity were formerly punished in the case of girls by a very severe beating and a stigmatising shaving of the head. Missionaries
    have discouraged the beating and head shaving, but failed to substitute as forceful an inducement to circumspect conduct. The girl whose sex activities are frowned upon by her family is in a far better position than that of her great-grandmother. The navy has prohibited, the church has interdicted the defloration ceremony, formerly an inseparable part of the marriages of girls of rank; and thus the most potent inducement to virginity has been abolished. If for these cruel and primitive methods of enforcing a stricter regime there had been substituted a religious system which seriously branded the sex offender, or a legal system which prosecuted and punished her, then the new hybrid civilisation might have been as heavily fraught with possibilities of conflict as the old civilisation undoubtedly was.”

    So was right? According to Paul Shankman “Virginity and Veracity: Rereading Historical Sources in the Mead-Freeman Controversy”
    Ethnohistory 2006 53(3):479-505;

    “Freeman’s misrepresentation of Krämer and Rowe is part of a larger, well documented pattern of misrepresentation of historical sources in his work. Instead of providing a more complete discussion of Krämer and Rowe, Freeman took their words and phrases out of context to create the appearance of historical authority and to enhance the idea that there is controversy about Samoan sexual conduct and marriage.”

    “Freeman read into historical sources an interpretation congruent with his criticism of Mead. In addition, he neglected his own previous work on Samoa that often supported Mead. In his 1948 thesis, Freeman wrote that the taupou system was ‘‘virtually defunct’’ by the 1940s. He also reported on the importance of missionaries in its decline, the rarity of taupou marriages in the early twentieth century, the prevalence of avaga marriages even among chiefs, and the fact that avaga marriages were often facilitated by the consensual nature of moetotolo relationships. In his unpublished thesis, Freeman’s arguments are quite similar to Mead’s on most of these subjects. Yet incorporating this information into his published critique of Mead could have substantially modified Freeman’s depiction of Samoan sexual conduct and marriage customs over time, reduced its dramatic contrast with Mead’s portrayal, and lessened the impact of his argument. While Mead’s work on the taupou system and the taupou is brief and problematic in some respects, her overall argument is sound.”


  16. Tim:

    You’re up to your old tricks again in fabricating a strawman to make it appear that’s what the other guy is defending.

    Soon was very clear about his reference to Pinker. Pinker’s book discusses basically what Soon said about the leftists idea that genetics stop at the neck.

    But nice reference you bring up that has absolutely noting to do with what Jason said. Useless really.

    Good try.


  17. My main beef with Caterson is that the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s (as distinct from various kinds of sexual freedom in earlier times) was about freely-available, highly-reliable, non-infuriating contraception, namely the Pill, and had little or nothing to do with Margaret Mead. I find it extremely interesting that men on this thread as on the LP one are haring off after a fight about reliability and ignoring the small, pragmatic detail that women felt a lot happier about having sex if they’d made sure they wouldn’t get accidentally pregnant.

    That being so, why ever did Caterson drag ANY reference to sexual freedom into a piece that was supposed to be about hoaxes? If it wasn’t to shore up a tut-tut position, what WAS it for?


  18. Pavlov’s Cat – I think you are right that the Mead point would only have been of concern to intellectuals. While not wanting to completely discount intellectual/cultural shifts as forces in their own right, contraception and earlier development of more effective treatment of STDs were surely more important. Conservative morality once made a lot of functional sense, given the risks involved in sex (for men too; syphilis was a big killer up to the 1940s). Once the risks were lowered conservatives began to look like killjoys.

    As I said above, I think the point about Mead and sexual freedom was necessary to explain why this hoax was relevant, rather than just a long-ago academic bungle. But the article had lost the focus it needed on the reaction of readers to certain stories, and so while Mercurius over-reacted enormously it was understandable that people would think there was some agenda in adding the Mead point.


  19. Possibly Caterson intended his mention of Margaret Mead as evidence for the argument that sometimes hoaxes (such as the one Mead was involved in) can be appropriated as a kind of justification for social and cultural causes. (Another example of this could be the way Max Harris and supporters appropriated the Ern Malley hoax for their own ends.)

    His reasoning (Mead was a *cause* for the ‘permissive’ culture) is clearly dodgy, maybe simply the result of laziness, or maybe he really meant to ‘tut-tut’ modern day sexual culture. But as Mark pointed out on LP, it’s not clear what Caterson does mean by ‘permissiveness’.

    I’m inclined to think that Caterson was being a little lazy, as it’s certainly not clear to me from the other Caterson article linked by Mercurius

    (See HERE:

    that he *is*, in fact, really conservative at all. Mercurius is obviously inclined to think otherwise.


  20. In response to Pavlov’s Dog:

    ‘That being so, why ever did Caterson drag ANY reference to sexual freedom into a piece that was supposed to be about hoaxes? If it wasn’t to shore up a tut-tut position, what WAS it for?’

    Perhaps Caterson has issues about his own sexual freedom that he either consciously or subconsciously expresses in his articles. It’s certainly not the first time that sex has come into his writing and one can almost hear the titillation in his tone when he does write about sex. Alternatively, perhaps as Tim T suggests he’s lazy. From reading his usually banal articles over the years, one has to wonder how much effort he really goes to.


  21. lol — apparently the reference to sexual norms indicates that you hate gays! I don’t think the left are even trying to argue anymore with logic. Perhaps they just have a random word generator.


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