Reviews > Culture

Mead's screed

Culture | Margaret Mead and Michael J. Fox fade into the sunset, but the Opry keeps pickin'

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

Worst book of the century
Lots of people picked the best book of the 20th century, but what was the worst? The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a think tank with the thankless mission of trying to turn college students into conservatives, picked Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead. Why? Mead was a 23-year-old college student who headed for American Samoa on a mission to study adolescence among the primitives. She wrote her book, considered a classic by sociologists, claiming that free love reigned on the island. "Samoans laugh at stories of romantic love, scoff at fidelity to a long absent wife or mistress, believe explicitly that one love will quickly cure another," Mead wrote. ISI calls the claim slop and nonsense. "So amusing did the natives find the white woman's prurient questions that they told her the wildest tales-and she believed them!" mocked the Wilmington, Del.-based foundation on its ISI.org website. Mead faced her greatest criticisms five years after her death in 1978 from Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman. He claimed the teenage Samoans hoaxed Mead, who dutifully ignored contradictions in order to please her mentor, Franz Boas. "Her account of the sexual behavior of Samoans is a mind-boggling contradiction," Mr. Freeman wrote in Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Some sociologists still defend Mead, and her book was used as one of the catalysts for the "sexual revolution." But even though the book is widely discredited now, the damage has been done. Conservative stereotypes
Michael J. Fox's sitcom career is being cut short because of his bout with Parkinson's disease, but what makes him interesting is how his fame started. He was the last to embody a great American stereotype: the conservative as elitist snob. In 1982, Family Ties launched on NBC and put Mr. Fox's Alex P. Keaton character into sitcom history. The overdressed business major was born to a couple of ex-hippies, and the original premise was a reverse generation gap. Constantly in a suit and tie, the character kept a picture of Richard Nixon as his most treasured possession. Alex's gimmick was ripped from the early Reagan era, when some people thought that conservatives were only in it for the money. To Family Ties creators, corporate and conservative were one and the same. By the 1990s, conservatives had dropped down the scale of stereotypes to the level of rednecks. Today, "country club" Republicans are moderates and the down-home religious right is conservative. Family Ties now comes off as horribly dated, and Mr. Fox later became known more as the kid from Back to the Future. In 1991, he discovered he had Parkinson's disease while making the movie Doc Hollywood. A doctor told Mr. Fox he could keep going for years, so he carried on. In Spin City, the show Mr. Fox is leaving due to illness, he played a political adviser with the personality of the old Alex character but without the GOP affiliation. Mr. Fox had surgery last March to help the worst of the tremors, and then announced he would leave after the 100th episode. Yet he won't retire from acting, so the typical Fox character is sure to reappear. Grand Ole Opry at 75
On Nov. 28, 1925, 80-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson performed on WSM radio and helped start a legend. He was the first featured performer on the WSM Barn Dance, which is now celebrating its 75th anniversary as the Grand Ole Opry. The Saturday night broadcast helped turn "hillbilly" music into country music, with a line of performers that stretches from Roy Acuff through Loretta Lynn to Trisha Yearwood. John Dunning, author of the indispensable radio reference On the Air, called the Opry "the closest thing to pure musical Americana ever heard on the air." With its strict rules about propriety-which made some stars tone down their material-the Grand Ole Opry became a nationwide staple of the Golden Age of Radio. Still heard on the radio, the show carries on as part of a corporate empire. Part of the program is televised on TNN and a webcast is now in the works at Grandoleopry.com. Current members of the ensemble include such heavyweights as Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, and Travis Tritt. Still, the Opry must fight today to bring in top talent. "In the early days of the Opry, the Opry was country music," general manager Pete Fisher said. "I acknowledge the fact that the Opry is not the center and magnet that it once used to be." While it isn't the main gatekeeper to the country-music world anymore, the Opry's survival is a great example of finding a niche unserved by mass culture and filling it successfully.

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