Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 10, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 3

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Anthropologist Rex preparing for a field study

Anthropology studies primitive peoples: a mixed record

Even under the best of circumstances, the study of “primitive peoples” formalized in the academy as anthropology has had a troubled past. This is a function of the power relationships that existed between the conqueror and the conquered as well as the emergence of a social Darwinism in the 19th century that served as the intellectual backdrop for the new discipline.

Major John Wesley Powell, the subject of an admiring biography by radical environmentalist Donald Worster, was named director of a newly created Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 whose task it was to collect data on indigenous peoples. General Francis Walker, former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, supported the initiative wholeheartedly since it was essential for administering the tribes.

Another seminal figure was Frederick Ward Putnam who was the driving force behind Harvard’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology until his death in 1915. In 1891 he was asked to collaborate with experts from Powell’s Bureau of Ethnology and the Smithsonian Institution on displays for the Chicago World’s Fair. Indians would be recruited to live in a diorama-like village in the style of the Museum of Natural History in New York, where they would go about their daily lives while the paying customers would watch them like zoo animals.

Another mover and shaker was Daniel G. Brinton, a professor of Ethnology and Archaeology at the Academy of Social Sciences in Philadelphia. He lectured on American Indian linguistics and ethnology from the 1860s onward. Although he paid lip-service to the idea of racial equality, he still managed to claim in an 1895 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “the black, brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white…that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts.”

Against the social Darwinist prejudices of the most powerful figures in the anthropology establishment, Franz Boas rose to the challenge. Arriving in the United States in 1887, he wrote articles rejecting the idea of a linear process from savagery to civilization, a notion that existed unfortunately in cruder versions of Marxism, from Kautsky to Plekhanov. Two years after Brinton’s talk, Boas gave a speech to the same body that delinked racial type and cultural development. He was an outspoken opponent of immigration restriction laws based on racist conceptions of “inferior” peoples invading American society. He was also opposed to anti-Black racism, so much so that he attempted to establish a African-American Museum in Harlem. In 1915, he wrote a letter to a U.S. Senator arguing that woman should enjoy the same privileges as men.

Foreshadowing the way in which anthropologists are being “embedded” in the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan today, Sylvanus Morley, who researched early Mexican society for the Carnegie Institution, spied against the Germans during WWI using his work in Mexico as a cover. Boas, who had already denounced WWI as an imperialist war in the pages of the N.Y. Times, was outraged to discover what Morley and some of his colleagues were up to. He wrote an article in the December 20, 1919 Nation Magazine that did not mince words: “The point against which I wish to enter a vigorous protest is that a number of men who follow science as their profession, men whom I refuse to designate any longer as scientists, have prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.”

The American Anthropological Association voted for a motion of censure prepared by W.H. Holmes, a director of the Smithsonian Institution. It stated, among other things, that “To question the honor of the President of the United States is a disloyal act.”

Given Boas’s commitment to progressive values, it must be reported that he was capable of the same type of abuse of native peoples that his social Darwinist colleagues routinely engaged in. While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Apparently, even someone as enlightened as Franz Boas was capable of descending to the point of view exhibited by Napoleon Chagnon who described his research on the Yanomami as follows:

I don’t look at ‘first contact’ as a coup similar to raping a virgin. It’s a privileged opportunity to learn something precious about another people before they’re snuffed out. I would have given my left testicle to see the Plains Indians in the 15th century, to see what they did, to see what their society was like.

Needless to say, given the power relationships that exist between colonizers and colonized, it is never the Yanomami or the Inuit who come to study Connecticut venture capitalists on the golf course or at their Presbyterian Church. It is always the other way around.

Despite the fact that Jared Diamond’s article on blood feuds was titled “Annals of Anthropology”, there is very little evidence of professional anthropology in the article, a fact that has been alluded to repeatedly on the leftish Savage Minds group blog, a site owned by professionals in the field. To my dismay, the objection to Diamond has seemed more like an expression of professional proprietorship there than sensitivity to indigenous peoples. As Rex puts it (more about him below), “It is one thing to have Diamond’s book show up on the shelves of airport bookstores, but quite another for it to be described as ‘anthropology’ in the subheading of a story in the New Yorker.”

Savage Minds, as you might expect, has been devoting a lot of attention to the Jared Diamond/New Yorker scandal, most of it coming from Alex Golub, the “Rex” above who teaches anthropology at the University of Hawai’i. His dissertation was on mining and indigenous people in highlands Papua New Guinea.

Given his background, it was logical for him to be contacted by the New Yorker Magazine as a kind of outside consultant fact-checker for the Diamond piece. Since the Diamond article is such a mess, inquiring minds might want to know how Rex managed to give this article a clean bill of health. He explained it as a function of having spent only 10 minutes on the phone with the New Yorker.

Indeed, right after it was published, Rex blogged about the article taking issue mostly, as one might expect, with Diamond’s failure “to think anthropologically”. This was manifested by Diamond not having a proper appreciation of pigs in PNG culture, a failure to see that a state structure did exist at the time of the “wars”, etc. Having seen Diamond’s article, my own reaction to it right off the bat was that Diamond was spinning a tale, the biggest tip-off being the words that supposedly came out of Daniel Wemp’s mouth:

I admit that the New Guinea Highland way to solve the problem posed by a killing isn’t good. Our way disturbs our day-to-day life; we won’t be comfortable for the rest of our lives; we are always in effect living on the battlefield; and those feelings go on and on in us. The Western way, of letting the government settle disputes by means of the legal system, is a better way. But we could never have arrived at it by ourselves: we were trapped in our endless cycles of revenge killings.

Now I don’t have a PhD in anthropology, but I have an advanced degree in street smarts. If you believe that a native in the highlands of Papua New Guinea said anything to Jared Diamond that remotely resembles this, then I have a bridge spanning the East River that I can sell you at a cut rate.

Rex officially took note of the Jared Diamond scandal on April 22nd,  just after the news broke. He starts off by distinguishing himself from the view the affair is about “powerful white outsiders” and “(relatively) supine brown people”. Jeez, I don’t know, but that’s kind of the way it sounds to me. Instead, he feels that it is really about “the radical answerability that researchers increasingly have to the people they depict.” Well, I suppose I have no problems with that either but I can’t get that business about powerful white outsiders out of my mind, especially in light of the history I tried to cover in the beginning of this piece.

In the penultimate paragraph, Rex reveals his real interest in the controversy which strikes me as a bit postmodern. The question of right and wrong is almost secondary, when it comes to the far more interesting question of “reentextualization”, a neologism straight out of that wing of the academy drenched in Bakhtin studies:

Anthropologists understand that social life is a constant process of narration and renarration—and I’ve always felt this is particularly true of highlands PNG, somehow. I am not Melanesian (obviously) but looking at this case through a Melanesian lens it seems to me that there is something complex and fascinating about the way Shearer’s report has elicited a whole series of responses from people in PNG and is yet another step in the ongoing reentextualization of events that happened a decade ago in Southern Highlands as it twists and turns into various forms of compensation/litigation.

More recently, on May 8th, Rex came up with another way to understand the issues that once again elided the question of “powerful white outsiders”. He thought that the suit against the New Yorker was following a certain “Melanesian logic”:

In Papua New Guinea, sometimes you take people to court as part of the process of dispute resolution, and I suspect that Kuwimb’s statment that “Mr Mandingo and Mr Wemp were hoping for an apology and a cash settlement” indicates not opprtunism [sic] on their part, but a different sense of what counts as closure (or at least the next step in the ongoing relationship) than we in the states might have.

I don’t know whether there is anything particularly “Melanesian” about taking the New Yorker to court. Jeffrey Masson sued journalist Janet Malcolm for writing what he maintained were lies about him in the pages of the magazine some years ago. I think it is pretty universal to want to make a libelous publication pay for its sins.

Even more disconcerting was Rex’s willingness to take seriously a malignant troll who has been posting anonymously on Savage Minds and who has called Rhonda Shearer a “bag lady” for having the temerity to disagree with him. This character, who goes by the tag “JohnSo” and who represents himself as a journalist at a major magazine, stated in one of his comments that: “We don’t know what kind of quotes Diamond had: we only know what was printed. I often get all sorts of back up quotes that I give to my editor but leave out of the piece. The flow of the story tends to be more important to magazines than it is to newspapers.”

That prompted Rex to muse somewhat postmodernistically:

A lot of the substantive and important issues raised by JohnSo come from the fact that we have the history of these stories as the originated in Nipa, and ended up being told to Jared Diamond in a pickup truck. But what we do not have is the story of their reformulation, verification, and editing as Diamond retold them to The New Yorker. That is a black box that, ethnographically, I feel really needs to be opened up.

The idea that anything coming from this malignant troll is “substantive” and “important” is dismaying to say the least. But to throw a cloud over everything as if it were children playing Telephone is an invitation to treat all participants—Diamond, Wemp, Shearer—as equally culpable. If the truth is relative, then what is the big deal if you embellish it?

Rex’s comment prompted Rhonda Shearer to reply to Rex: “Your selective praise and silence on his clearly out-of-bounds troll behavior rings of—unfortunately for you and me and everyone who reads this blog—your acceptance of such behavior, if not, worse, an endorsement by omission.”

At the risk of being reductionist, I think that the issues are rather clear-cut in this case. There is no “black box” that needs to be opened. The key to understanding how and why Jared Diamond concocted a fiction is in his underlying sociobiological framework, something I am going to explain in my final post in this series.


  1. A strange and terrible saga indeed. I concur that giving “powerful white people” the benefit of the doubt in such affairs won’t cut it.

    No biggy but I think in the 4th paragraph about Daniel G. Brinton Lou meant to type “1860s onward” rather than “1960s onward”?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 11, 2009 @ 12:33 am

  2. As an anthropologist first, and web-geek second (depending upon how imminent the deadlines are), I became interested in Savage Minds when I first heard about it. I have to say that after a few months, I’ve stopped caring, because so much of the discussion is symbolic, overly-postmodern, and un-moored from anything approximating material conditions. Unfortunately, so is much of anthropology right now, so maybe they’re right in line with the discipline, and I’m not.

    Re: Diamond…I hope that every penny he made from writing his geographically deterministic, technology-loving diatribes gets taken away from him, and used to build and fund indigenous run cultural and social programs in PNG. It’d be a sweet piece of irony if the man who began his most famous book by quoting Yali, without mentioning Yali’s revolutionary role in PNG’s independence, had to give back all the money he made from badly answering Yali’s question.

    Comment by whenelvisdied — May 11, 2009 @ 12:54 am

  3. Concerning Diamond’s sociobiology, please forgive my pointing out that Fred Errington and I made this argument in our 2004 book, Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture and History (U. of Chicago Press). Here is a bit of it from the Introduction (p. 11 and p. 263):

    Diamond’s view of the relentless course of human history, driven by the operation of ultimate causes over its thirteen-thousand-year span, seems to rest on an implicit view of human nature as aggressive, acquisitive, and selfish. It is this nature that, in Diamond’s vision, keeps ultimate causes consequential throughout history. In short, human being necessarily lead their lives so as to extract maximum advantage over others: give a guy – any guy – half a chance and he will conquer the world; give a guy a piece of appropriate metal and he will inevitably fashion a sword to cut you down or a chain to enslave you within a hold of a ship bound for a New world sugar plantation. [8]

    [8] Many of our comments about Diamond might also be applied to the kinds of explanations sociobiologists offer (and E.O. Wilson, perhaps the most distinguished of the sociobiologists, writes a most laudatory blurb to Diamond’s book): these are explanations which account for the present and (although sociobiologists often deny this) the future in terms of fixed and still active — ultimate — causes.

    Comment by Deborah Gewertz — May 11, 2009 @ 2:37 am

  4. This piece is too much of a hatchet job for me to waste too much time replying to it. I would like to know, though, how you’ve decided when and where that picture of me was taken and what I was doing when it was taken?

    Comment by Rex — May 11, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

  5. Rex: I would like to know, though, how you’ve decided when and where that picture of me was taken and what I was doing when it was taken?

    I had no idea what you were doing but I doubt that it involved doing a field study. I guess there were other possibilities. Marching in a Mardi Gras parade? Being hazed by a fraternity of anthropology students? Modeling for an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog?

    Comment by louisproyect — May 11, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

  6. Of course, “I have an advanced degree in street smarts” is the sort of thing that no one who actually had any street smarts could say with a straight face.

    Comment by J.-P. Marat — May 11, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

  7. I never say anything with a straight face, including this.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 11, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

  8. “Modeling for an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog?”

    — That’d be plausible except since Habermas was critical of the War against Iraq the A&F corporation wouldn’t want their demographic targets to read anything other than their catalogs (& maybe the NY Times) lest they develope radical ideas about Malaysian sweatshops & mindless consumerism, nevermind the predation organic to US foreign policy which of course flows from its domestic policy.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 12, 2009 @ 1:25 am

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