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September 07, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

The Political Mythology of Apartheid, Leonard Thompson (Yale: $10.95). Etymological considerations inevitably get short shrift when emotions come into play. A case in point is the word "revolution," which has become synonymous with "change" despite its literal meaning as "a complete cycle." The notion that we revert to square one once a revolution is over conflicts with our nature as hopeful creatures. In this urgent and unusual study--which only falls slightly short of its ambitious goals--Leonard Thompson doesn't go so far as to say that revolutionaries will become as shortsighted as their oppressors. However, in a concluding passage about South Africa, he suggests that they might : "The longer the white minority regime persists in its racist policies," Thompson writes, "the greater the likelihood that black South African mythology will become overwhelmingly anti-capitalist and anti-Western." Thompson, of course, is not the first to issue this warning; he is, however, one of the few to study the dynamics behind ethnocentric myths. Leaders make myths by associating their regimes with higher authorities--Aeneas becomes the instrument of providential purpose, for instance, while Stalin becomes Lenin's best pupil, truest helper and closest friend--and by overgeneralizing about others. In South Africa, this is accomplished through an elaborate network of myth-making "religious, communications and educational institutions" to convince Afrikaners that "separate development" is beneficial for all ethnic groups. The logical solution to the problem of apartheid--change the myth-making network--is not as easy as it sounds, however, for the myths build on themselves, ruling out compromise. And, indeed, those profiled here who tried to change perceptions met with little success: German-born anthropologist Franz Boas marshaled an impressive argument against scientific racism, for instance; the acceptance of his ideas into mainstream cultural anthropology did little, however, to slow the growth of the Third Reich.

Touching: The Human Significance of Skin, Ashley Montagu (Harper & Row: $9.95). "Most of us take our skin entirely for granted," the noted anthropologist and author asserts here. "And why shouldn't we?," amused readers--particularly American ones--are inclined to respond. Because, argues Ashley Montagu, "touching is the basis of (the) interconnection with others that we call sociality"; those deprived of this basic need, particularly in mother-child relationships, experience feelings of loneliness and estrangement. Deprivation is continued into adulthood, which is one reason, Montagu writes, that "the only time many married (American) couples will exhibit non-sexual physical closeness or genuine intimacy is when a serious illness befalls the one or the other." As Montagu sees it, tactile deprivation in childhood is especially damaging and prevalent in America, and so toward the book's end, he recommends the Eskimo tradition of carrying infants on the mother's back over our use of baby carriages, and the Japanese emphasis on physical contact over our stress on verbal interaction. Close contact with surrogates for mother is equally important--"pets help us develop a sense of reciprocal commitment," Montagu writes, while a security blanket (or a doll, or, in adulthood, music, a religious idea, a sailboat . . .) can function in the healthy individual as a "means or vehicle of solace." Commended most often in this book, however, are not the Eskimos or the Japanese, but gorilla and the chimp mothers, who caress their infants throughout the day.

The Career-Changer's Source-Book, Gene R. Hawes (Facts On File: $8.95). Aware that today's job market is daily becoming more specialized, the authors have attempted to steer clear of pat career categories, distinguishing, for instance, between the job of a rabbi (they "are the spiritual leaders of their congregations and teachers and interpreters of Jewish law and tradition") and that of a priest (they "lead worship services, administer the various rites, and provide help for the needy"). The attempt at detail is, however, only partially successful, for space limitations necessitate overly vague headings--computer programming, for instance, cannot be covered adequately in the few paragraphs it is given. Yet while readers looking for specific career strategies might be disappointed, those in need of a general overview of career options will be encouraged by the author's optimism--despite varying economic indicators, the job-hunter's cup is, as the author sees it, always "half-full."

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