Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 2, 2009

The latest developments in the Jared Diamond scandal

Filed under: Jared Diamond — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

Jared Diamond

There have been some important developments in the legal and political struggle to make Jared Diamond and New Yorker magazine pay for their defamation of Papua New Guinea highlander Daniel Wemp, whom Diamond falsely named as a killer in its pages.

For the latest, check Rhonda Shearer’s Stinky Journalism website where you can find one recent article dealing with the legal aspects and another on the politics. In the former article, titled Jared Diamond, The New Yorker Deny All: New Guinea Tribesmen Wemp and Mandingo File Amended Libel Lawsuit, Katie Rolnick brings us up to date on where the suit stands today:

Last Friday, New York attorneys Jack Litman and Richard Asche filed an amended complaint for their clients New Guinea Tribesmen Daniel Wemp and Isum Mandingo in the New York State Supreme Court.

Wemp was the main source and character in Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article, “Vengeance is Ours,” in which Diamond depicted Papua New Guinean Wemp and his co-plaintiff Isum Mandingo, as murderers. Previously, Wemp — who claims that because of Diamond’s story, he cannot return to his PNG highlands village — and Mandingo sought $10 million in damages from Diamond and Advance Publications Inc., The New Yorker’s publisher, both of whom were named as co-defendants on the suit.

In September, 2009, following their original suit filed in April, 2009, Wemp and Mandingo served Diamond and Advance Publications with an amended complaint (as opposed to filing through the court system). When attorneys for the defendants filed an answer with the New York State Supreme Court last Wednesday October 14, 2009, Litman (a highly acclaimed criminal trial lawyer whose clients have included Robert Chambers) proceeded by filing the amended compliant with the Court on Friday, October 16, 2009.

According to Forbes magazine, Wemp and Mandingo’s 30-page amended suit details what they claim to be false and inaccurate information in Diamond’s story. “The latest filing identifies 24 separate passages in the story Wemp and Mandingo say are bunk. For example: Diamond’s account says 30 people lost their lives during a three-year clan war that began after a pig ransacked someone’s garden. The complaint says only four people died, the war lasted three months and the conflict didn’t start over a pig in a garden, but an argument over a card game. The filing claims Wemp wasn’t even a participant in the clan war: “At the time of the fighting, Wemp was working some 200 miles away at the coast, in a city called Madang.”

For those who still might have some illusions in Jared Diamond’s scholarly credentials (at least on human beings; he is much more reliable when writing about birds), they would be shattered by Valerie Alia’s Jared Diamond in the Rough: Media, Misrepresentation, and Indigenous People.  Alia’s article does something I think is essential for putting this scandal into perspective. She shows that demonizing native peoples is a very old story:

In 1991, the national British newspaper, The Telegraph, sent a team of journalists to Holman Island in the Canadian Arctic to prepare a photo essay for its weekend magazine. Headlined “Dressed to Kill: Hunting with the Eskimos of Holman Island,” it told thousands of readers that an Inuit hunter has “no code of honour” and “is merciless and self-interested, gathering food only for himself and his family …” That was pure fabrication. The strong sense of community, interdependence, and centuries-old Inuit food-sharing system are well-documented in academic studies and Inuit oral histories.

The story mentions a “young white man who stepped off a train to stretch his legs,” whose “frozen body was discovered the following spring.” Perhaps someone had a joke at the journalist’s expense. Or maybe the journalist just made it up. Either way, he never checked the facts, and the editor never verified them. No one has ever stepped off a train at Holman – the nearest railhead is more than a thousand miles away

While the fight for native rights has advanced in recent years, largely due to the efforts of activists in groups like Survival International, there is still a large reservoir of hostility that can only be attributed to 5 centuries of colonialism. In seeking to marginalize indigenous peoples often to the point of genocide, the colonizers bent on wholesale extraction of minerals from native homelands, it was convenient to turn the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim. What better way to make the European or American invader look enlightened than to turn his victims into wanton killers. In Diamond’s New Yorker article, he compares people like Daniel Wemp to a Nazi storm-trooper and argues that Papua New Guinea was “rescued” from tribal warfare once the British came in and put the savages under their control. Of course this killed two birds with one stone since it made it all the more easy to extract minerals from the soil without interference.

If you click https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/category/jared-diamond/, you will find all my articles dealing with this latest violation of scholarship and progressive values by Jared Diamond but this does not exhaust my inventory of critiques of the UCLA superstar professor. And if you go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/my_ecology.htm, you will find a series of articles on “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs and Steel”, two of his best known books and a harbinger of the polluted nonsense that would make their appearance in the New Yorker Magazine. Despite his reputation as a fair-minded friend of stone age peoples, he is anything but.

For those who have been reading my series of posts on Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomami (I will be putting this on the front burner shortly), you will be aware that many of the same issues are involved. Like Diamond, Chagnon had a vested ideological interest in making these Amazon rainforest Indians look like something that walked out of a horror movie. Both Chagnon and Diamond adhere to a view within the dubious sociobiology discipline that amounts to an update of Hobbes. They argue that stone age peoples, unimpeded by courts and cops, have an unbridled appetite for mayhem in pursuit of the basest instinct, namely to control and own female bodies in order to spread their genes. This is a neo-Darwinian worldview that people such as the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin have eviscerated and one that refuses to go away because it satisfies an imperative of late capitalism, namely that white Europeans and Americans have the right to rule the world in the same way that dinosaurs became extinct: it was an act of nature.

Ironically, as long as the ruling class and its mouthpieces such as Jared Diamond have their way, humanity and nature will face the very extinction they supposedly want to prevent. Ultimately, the collapse that confronts us is one based on the private ownership of the means of production, a system that certainly deserves to become extinct.

16 Comments »

  1. Great post! The slander of native people never ends!! I love it when these jingos get exposed as the liars they are.

    Comment by sky — November 2, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

  2. I’m curious about whether you have more info about the clan war. Obviously I don’t know the details, but it makes me wonder if the two parties might simply be interpreting the same set of events through very different views of the world: different ways of defining the beginning and end of a conflict and different ways of understanding cause and effect. Is it possible that they’re both “right” given different sets of assumptions? If so, these are interesting things for a US court to consider, as it will be forced to make a ruling about which forms of rationality and causality should reign in this libel case, essentially, a choice among emic and etic perspectives. This is a decision that would have a significant effect on anthropology and all social sciences that attempt to represent, interpret, and analyze others’ view points and activities. And of course the emic/etic distinction gets especially blurred with the global circulation of information.

    Comment by brian — November 2, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

  3. There were clan wars in PNG, but Diamond’s account in the New Yorker was a melange of fact and fiction. Worst of all, it implicated Daniel Wemp in the fighting but he was totally uninvolved.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 2, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

  4. This is a neo-Darwinian worldview that people such as the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin have eviscerated and one that refuses to go away because it satisfies an imperative of late capitalism, namely that white Europeans and Americans have the right to rule the world in the same way that dinosaurs became extinct: it was an act of nature.

    ^^^^
    Yes thanks much to Gould and Lewontin. Of course, they are biologists. Progressive anthropologists ( anthropology being both biological and cultural)whose direct subject is humans, like Marshall Sahlins have brought evidence and argument to refute the Social Darwinist versions of human nature. See Sahlins’ _The Uses and Abuses of Biology_

    ^^^^^
    What better way to make the European or American invader look enlightened than to turn his victims into wanton killers.

    ^^^^^
    yes, the whole notion of “savages” must be interrogated under suspicion of this motive going way back to Columbus , of course.

    Comment by Charles — November 2, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

  5. This is part of the larger ruling class goal of rehabilitating the West (and capitalism) after World War 1 and 2.

    The continual subtext, one often stated overtly, is that – yes, a lot of people died in WW 1 and 2, but as percentage, those primitive societies killed so much more.

    Comment by purple — November 3, 2009 @ 7:16 am

  6. Back in the early nineteen nineties I recall the Australian government justified training/funding PNG’s mobile squads, a fairly infamous paramilitary unit, on the basis that the punitive force these units used against rural villages was appropriate in PNG’c cultural climate.

    For a more informed perspective on the Highlands (re Diamond) in PNG try:

    Donaldson, M. and Good, K. (1988) Articulated Agricultural Development: Traditional and Capitalist Agricultures in Papua New Guinea, London: Aldershot.

    Hawksley, C. (2006) ‘Papua New Guinea at Thirty: Late Decolonisation and the Political Economy of Nation-Building’, Third World Quarterly, 27(1), 161–173.

    Hawksley, C. (2007) ‘Constructing Hegemony: Colonial Rule and Colonial Legitimacy in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea’, Rethinking Marxism, 19(2), 195–207.

    Comment by Kris — November 3, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  7. have just read your review of the Public Television cliff notes version of Guns Germs and Steel. (will do your review of Collapse next) While you bring some good points, you have no major disputes with Diamond’s main thesis. which leaves you yet to explain a bold statement such as:

    “Despite his reputation as a fair-minded friend of stone age peoples, he is anything but.”

    ????

    Comment by zhao — December 15, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

  8. and none of the articles on your blog demonstrate any factual disagreement with Diamond’s work at all — all of them only deal with this recent New Yorker scandal, which i can not comment on.

    so why do you hate Jared Diamond?

    Comment by zhao — December 15, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

  9. reading part 2 of your critique of Collapse: conveniently not mentioning Diamond’s chapter on Greenland and the demise of the Vikings, which Diamond clearly states was caused by their (Vikings’) racism toward Inuits who had a sustainable relationship to nature, among other stupid beliefs and practices such as building European style churches which required cutting down too many trees.

    in that chapter Diamond clearly champions the superior ecological lifestyle of indigenous people — unlike the picture you paint of him, one in which he purposefully neglects people such the Blackfeet in Montana, in order to further his supposedly “Eurocentric” or “apologist” attitudes.

    Comment by zhao — December 17, 2009 @ 7:55 am

  10. I thought Guns, Germs and Steel was the best argument against racism I’ve ever heard. The criticism he’s getting here seems to be based on him simply repeating the soap opera-ish account he heard of a clan war. He may have been wrong about that but considering the basic idea of his book it’s bordering on comical to see him attacked as a racist.

    Comment by emp — January 4, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  11. Unfortunately, in googling for updates on Diamond and Wemp, this page is one of the more recent blogs and rises to the top of searches. I too find the hate for Diamond expressed on this site somewhat inexplicable.

    While I grant that revealing the actual name of Daniel Wemp was probably not advisable, I don’t think Diamond re-telling stories that were exaggerated or embellished by Wemp himself is really as scandalous as you and others seem to be implying.

    In any case, I sense the disagreement is more ideological in nature, but even on this level, I find myself surprised at the hostility here. Diamond’s central points from both GGS and Collapse are really quite compatible with progressive worldviews (like mine) that emphasize understanding and fighting injustice where they exist.

    As someone above wrote, I found GGS quite emphatically anti-racist. The simple act of drawing attention to the combination of historical and environmental factors that facilitated current societal dysfunctions, which is what I think GGS and Collapse seek to accomplish, should not be conflated with *justifying* or somehow try to absolve those dysfunctions. He actually makes this point explicitly in his introduction, and repeats this message throughout.

    Also, this guilt-by-association nonsense trying to connect Diamond with Chagnon or with the excesses of shady but unrelated branches of biology is also grating.

    I suspect we probably agree on many things, but this needless antagonism you express and which I encounter whenever I try to find commentary on this issue is really frustrating. Which is a shame.

    Comment by Dan — January 11, 2010 @ 3:22 am

  12. Having just read GGS, I checked out your posts on the PBS series and the Jim Blaut article you recommended as a guide at the beginning of your review of Collapse. Blaut’s account of GGS is insupportable and insignificant.
    My own view is that we see in Diamond’s work yet another example of modern science fleshing out the rough drafts laid out by Marx and Engels. Diamond refers repeatedly to the stratified societies that result from settled agriculture as ‘kleptocracies’ and provides an abundance of evidence for this from all over the world. It is remarkable that what was once an ideological contention of Marxists is now so firmly established by layer upon layer of scientific evidence.
    Diamond has two weaknesses though; one stems from a latent commitment to Hobbesian liberalism and the other from a lack of faith in revolutionary change.
    In the first case he goes to unwarranted lengths to emphasise all instances of violence in pre-class societies, drawing extensively on what was probably the most violent region in the world – the Papuan island. I would argue that three factors – low-yield agriculture, topographic barriers and a lack of trade routes – led over millenia to the establishment of geographically fixed, linguistically separate peoples with a disproportionately high level of warfare. Diamond, either because his extensive experience in PNG has made it a norm for him or because of ideological predilections, suggests that the PNG experience shows that the transition to stratified ‘kleptocracy’ brought with it an escape from the constant threat of homicide (cf Hobbes’ state of nature, where life was ‘nasty brutish and short’). So far as I understand, while primitive communism (as Marx and Engels referred to hunter/gatherer societies) was not paradise on earth, in most cases it offered living standards that surpassed agricultural class societies but was unable to resist these societies.
    Diamond’s second weakness is most obvious in the (very dreary) book ‘Collapse’, which is an appeal to the powers-that-be to learn from history and transcend private greed. What naivety! What a contrast from Marx and Engels!
    On the whole, it is astounding and worrying that an intelligent, well-educated scientist could be unaware that his work on the evolution of human societies follows so closely that of such well-known thinkers as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels but, on the positive side, it is testament to the continued vigour of the scientific community and the intellectual appetite of the reading public that works such as Guns Germs and Steel are produced.

    Comment by Andrew Tait — January 17, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  13. Andrew, the notion that there are stages in history going from lower to more advanced stages is not unique to Marx. Diamond is simply reverting to the historical analysis that preceded Marx’s that I discuss at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/indian/engels_stages.htm. Here’s an excerpt:

    The “4 stage” theory of history was widely accepted in 17th and 18th century Europe. I alluded to Lord Kames and William Robertson the other day, but these two are just the tip of the iceberg. For the whole story, I recommend Ronald L. Meek’s “Social Science and the Ignoble Savage” (Cambidge, 1976). Meek might be known to many of you for his book on the labor theory of value published by Monthly Review press. “Social Science and the Ignoble Savage” is essential reading for those who are trying to come to grips with the Eurocentric character of much of Marx and Engels’ writings.

    Meek makes a very important point. Central to the writings of 17th and 18th century social science was a belief that American Indians were the prime example of the ‘first’ or ‘earliest’ stage of human social development. Unlike those like Rousseau who made the case for a ‘noble savage,’ these historians and philosophers thought that American Indians represented the worst humanity had to offer. Since American Indian society was on the lowest stage of human development, its disappearance would represent progress. John Locke was one such thinker and his justifications for British colonialism are well-known.

    Just to refresh your memory on the 4-stages, Adam Smith gave lectures at the University of Glasgow that described them as 1) the Age of Hunters, 2) the Age of Shepherds, 3) the Age of Agriculture, 4) the Age of Commerce. He described stage one:

    “If we should suppose 10 or 12 persons of different sexes settled in an uninhabited island, the first method they would fall upon for their sustenance would be to support themselves by the wild fruits and wild animals which the country afforded. Their sole business would be hunting the wild beasts or catching the fishes. The pulling of a wild fruit can hardly be called an employment. The only thing among them which deserved the appellation of a business would be the chase. This is the age of hunters.”

    You can practically see the austere, pleasure-hating Scotsman spitting out the words “can hardly be called an employment.”

    Another stagist was the French philosopher Cornelius de Pauw who wrote something called “Recherches Philosphiques sur les Américains” in 1768. Meek comments that the book was filled with bizarre speculations about the habitants of the New World, which he thought included cannibals, albinos, giants and hermaphrodites. Perhaps de Pauw was anticipating 1998 Manhattan, who knows? Much more disturbing and outrageous was his claim that the inhospitable climate of the continent explained the ignobility of the indigenous peoples. He writes:

    “I return here to that great principle of which I have already made use, and say it is not only natural but also necessary that there should be, as between savages located in such similar climates, as many resemblances as there possibly are between the Tunguses [Siberians] and the Canadians. Equally barbarous, equally living by hunting and fishing in countries which are cold, infertile, and covered with forests, what disproportion would one expect? Where people feel the same needs, where the means of satisfying them are the same, where the atmospheric influences are so similar, can the manners be contradictory, and can the ideas vary?”

    This is called objectification and it was essential to the task of creating racial myths of superiority so as to allow Western Europe to dominate and exploit the rest of the globe.

    There were some attempts at critical thought during this depressingly Eurocentric period, even from men who operated within the general framework of the 4-stage theory. One was the German Johann Gottfried von Herder who wrote “Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit.” He tried to distance himself from the crude “progressivism” of people like Smith and de Pauw and even edged toward a version of “combined and uneven development.” Referring to the actors in the first stage of history, he wrote in 1791:

    “they vary with almost every region, and for the most part run into each other in such a manner, that this mode of classification is very difficult to apply with accuracy. The Greenlander, who strikes the whale, pursues the reindeer, and kills the seal, is occupied both in hunting and fishing; yet in a very different manner from that, in which the Negro fishes, or the Araucoan hunts on the deserts of the Andes, the Bedouin and the Mungal, the Laplander and the Peruvian, are shepherds: but how greatly do they differ from each another, whole one pastures his camels, another his horses, the third his reindeer, and the last his pacoes and llamas. The merchants of England differ not more from those of China, than the husbandmen of Whidah from the husbandmen of Japan.”

    And even more revealingly, he speculates whether the higher stage of agriculture is really any sort of advance at all:

    “Generally speaking, no mode of life has effected so much alteration in the minds of men, as agriculture, combined with the enclosure of land. While it produced arts and trades, villages and towns, and, in consequence, government and laws; it necessarily paved the way for that frightful despotism, which, from confining every man to his field, gradually proceeded to prescribe to him, what alone he should do on it, what alone it should be. The ground now ceased to belong to man, but man became the appertance of the ground.”

    It would take sustained field research to break down the racist views contained in de Pauw and dozens of other bourgeois ideologists. Instead of viewing the American Indian as an object, it would be necessary to view him or her as a subject. Lewis Morgan was a pioneer in this respect. What Morgan did not give up was the notion that the various stages of history represented upward progress. Commenting on Morgan’s contributions, Thomas Patterson states in “Western Civilization”, a new Monthly Review title:

    “Lewis Henry Morgan, who was mainly concerned with the development of human society, saw the evolutionary succession from savagery through barbarism to civilization as a generalization about human history. Not only did human society develop in this manner, but it could not have developed otherwise. Progress–the movement from one stage to the next–was the result of technological innovations that transformed the modes of subsistence and the social institutions that were inextricably linked to them. But while Morgan believed that progress was ultimately inevitable and beneficial, he also thought that the rise of civilization had destroyed something valuable: the values of those and present-day peoples who knew neither private property nor the profit motive.”

    Patterson characterizes Marx and Engels as critics of civilization and groups them with Freud and Nietzsche, while making his identification with socialism clear nonetheless. What he does not address, however, is the exact difference between the views of someone like Morgan and Engels _up until the consolidation of the modern capitalist system_. Where Engels differs from Morgan in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” is on the question of what comes after capitalism, namely socialism. That Morgan and Engels share the presuppositions of 17th and 18th century historians and philosophers on the question of progress is indisputable. What is open to question is whether this heritage should be accepted in an uncritical manner. In our critique of the postmodernists and Vandana Shiva, it is imperative that we not end up in the enemy camp. If the only yardstick of progress is advances in the mode of production, then Marxism will inevitably fail to distinguish itself from the bourgeoisie which has developed this to a science.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 17, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

  14. You’re beginning to sound like someone (warning – pdf):

    http://www.cnr.uidaho.edu/wlf520/pdf/diamond.pdf

    Comment by Dan — January 18, 2010 @ 1:33 am

  15. Thanks for the considerable reply. I will read it carefully.

    Comment by Andrew Tait — February 5, 2010 @ 11:33 am

  16. I’m currently reading GGS; this book has made me find out that I’m actually pretty racist.

    Comment by Louis — July 25, 2012 @ 5:05 pm


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