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.