Background on the New Yorker and Jared Diamond
When news about the New Yorker Magazine being sued by a Papuan New Guinean for $10 million broke on April 22nd, I was ecstatic. A year earlier the magazine had published an article by Jared Diamond about blood feuds in PNG (Papua New Guinea) that had identified Daniel Wemp, his main interviewee and former driver, as a self-confessed rapist and murderer. Wemp was not informed in advance that the magazine would identify him by name. But, more to the point, the crimes he supposedly confessed to in the article never happened.
Rhonda Shearer, the widow of Stephen Jay Gould, was instrumental in setting the wheels in motion that would finally lead to the magazine and Jared Diamond being exposed. As reported in the New Zealand Herald on May 2nd, Shearer became suspicious over the reference to one of Wemp’s victims being restricted to a wheelchair as a result of Wemp’s arrow lodging in his neck:
Her initial response on reading Diamond’s piece was, “how do you keep someone with likely not the best medical care alive as a paraplegic in a wheelchair in that area? We can’t keep Superman [Christopher Reeve] alive in New Jersey with millions of dollars? … It just didn’t make sense.”
After she made an inquiry to the New Yorker about this and other glaring inconsistencies in the article, she was brushed off. After all, they were the New Yorker and she was just an ordinary mortal. Eventually she hired investigators, including a PNG scholar who lived in the area where the blood feud took place, and discovered that Daniel Wemp’s “victim” was getting about on two feet with no problem. The only victims in this case unfortunately were the libeled Daniel Wemp and journalistic standards.
A word or two about the New Yorker’s reputation is in order. Traditionally the magazine has prided itself on fact-checking and paid people in this department a higher salary than their counterparts at other magazines. Supposedly, higher standards for fact-checking would not only make their articles more credible; they would also protect the magazine against law suits. However, there was one occasion when the magazine’s standards were challenged.
In 1991, Janet Malcolm wrote a highly damaging profile of Jeffrey M. Masson, a Bay Area psychoanalyst. He sued The New Yorker and Malcolm for $10 million, the same amount ironically (or perhaps not!) sought by Daniel Wemp. The issues the jury had to decide on in the Masson/Malcolm case included whether or not Masson actually described himself as an “intellectual gigolo” and had slept with more than 1000 women as Malcolm claimed. The jury eventually decided on Malcolm’s behalf even though her reputation suffered to some degree because of some sloppiness not caught by the fact-checkers. In light of Wemp’s paraplegic victim being as sure-footed as Mr. Diamond himself, one can only assume that the magazine will be in need of the best attorneys money can buy.
It also must be recognized that the magazine has deteriorated politically as well. Once a bastion of principled liberalism (it published Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in the 1950s), the magazine became more centrist and superficial starting with Tina Brown’s tenure as editor from 1992 to 1998. Brown came to the New Yorker from Vanity Fair and sought to inject the magazine with the kind of celebrity-worshipping panache and glibness of her previous stint.
Brown was succeeded by David Remnick, the author of “Lenin’s Tomb”, a book with no connection to our friend and comrade Richard Seymour, to be sure. Remnick is a frequent guest on shows like Charlie Rose’s and can best be described as a purveyor of inside-the-beltway banalities. One of his most noteworthy hires was Jeffrey Goldberg, the Likud supporter who wrote a nearly 18,000 word article on Iraq in 2002 that was very close in spirit to what Judith Miller was cooking up at the N.Y. Times. Goldberg’s last paragraph read:
There is little doubt what Saddam might do with an atomic bomb or with his stocks of biological and chemical weapons. When I talked about Saddam’s past with the medical geneticist Christine Gosden, she said, “Please understand, the Kurds were for practice.”
Nowadays Goldberg writes his war propaganda at Atlantic Monthly, except it is directed at Iran.
For a truly penetrating analysis of how the magazine ended up embedded in George W. Bush’s crusade, read Daniel Lazare’s “The New Yorker’ Goes to War: How a Nice Magazine Talked Itself Into Backing Bush’s Jihad” in the May 15, 2003 Nation Magazine. Lazare observes:
How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown’s irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick’s 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile’s ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.
In a way, Jared Diamond is the perfect contributor to the New Yorker since he too is a frequent guest on Charlie Rose’s PBS talk show and has hosted a PBS series based on his best-selling “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. For middle-class households, a sustainer to PBS and a subscription to the New Yorker are signs that you are “enlightened”. And Jared Diamond is the perfect figure to help an anxious middle class deal with a resentful world. Unlike the late 1890s, when Anglo-American imperialism’s right to rule the world was explained in terms of racial superiority, Diamond is far more “multicultural”. He says that it is an accident of history that Wall Street ruins Latin America, for example. If the Incas had cattle and the English had llamas, then Lima might be ruling the world today. It is all a question of being “geographically blessed”, as the PBS documentary put it:
Diamond has already shown that crops and animals could spread easily east and west across Eurasia. Because places the same latitude automatically share the same day length and a similar climate and vegetation. But the American continents were the opposite of Eurasia. A journey from one end of the Americas to the other is a journey from north to south, a journey through different day lengths, different climate zones, and dramatically different vegetation. These basic differences hindered the spread of crops and animals as well as people, ideas and technologies. The people of the Andes were chronically isolated, without access to writing or almost any other innovation from elsewhere in the Americas. By contrast, Pizarro and his men were geographically blessed. As Spaniards, they enjoyed the benefit of technologies and ideas that had spread easily across Eurasia.
Some on the left have regarded Diamond as “one of us” because he takes exception to the old style colonialist ideology which saw European domination as a sign of innate superiority. For a point-by-point refutation of Diamond’s geographical/environmental determinism, Jim Blaut’s essay “Environmentalism and Eurocentrism: a Review Essay” is indispensable. He concludes by noting:
Guns, Germs, and Steel is influential in part because its Eurocentric arguments seem, to the general reader, to be so compellingly “scientific.” Diamond is a natural scientist (a bio-ecologist), and essentially all of the reasons he gives for the historical supremacy of Eurasia and, within Eurasia, of Europe, are taken from natural science. I suppose environmental determinism has always had this scientistic cachet. I dispute Diamond’s argument not because he tries to use scientific data and scientific reasoning to solve the problems of human history. That is laudable. But he claims to produce reliable, scientific answers to these problems when in fact he does not have such answers, and he resolutely ignores the findings of social science while advancing old and discredited theories of environmental determinism. That is bad science.