Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 7, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 1

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Jared Diamond

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.

April 24, 2009

Savage Minds on the Jared Diamond affair

Filed under: anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 2:46 pm

Vengeance is Hers: Rhonda Shearer on Jared Diamond’s ‘Factual Collapse’

by Rex on April 22nd, 2009

Rhonda Shearer, a cofounder of the Arts Science Research Lab and widow of Stephen Jay Gould recently released a long report on ASRL’s website Stinky Journalism.org entitled Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: New Yorker Mag’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue… Tribal Members Angry, Want Justice. I have more than a passing interest in this case because I served as a fact-checker for the New Yorker on the piece, have written my own response to the piece, and have been in contact with Shearer as she has been working on her response. But this story is far more that just something I am personally interested in—it has already been reported on by the Huffington Post and Forbes shows. Most news coverage will focus on the more spectacular aspects of the case: Diamond publishes a piece in the New Yorker depicting a tribal fight in Papua New Guinea, Shearer produces documentation that his accounts are untrue, and the Papua New Guineans involve sue Diamond for US$10 million.

What I think is truly important about this case – beyond the obvious fact that Wemp deserves justice – is that it represents the fundamental ethical issue that anthropologists will have to face for decades to come. Anthropological collaboration with the army may directly impact more human lives, but collaboration is an old problem that we have talked about for a long time. The great ethical debate prior to HTS was the ‘Yanomami Scandal’ stirred up by Patrick Tierney, a debate that centered on anthropologists (and others) behaving badly in the field, and not being held to account by the powers that be in the metropole. Some people like Rob Borofsky want to fetishize this debate as the issue in anthropological ethics, since it involves what they imagine must be the paradigmatic anthropological situation: powerful white outsiders, (relatively) supine brown people.

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April 22, 2009

New Yorker Magazine sued by slandered New Guineans

Filed under: anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm


Rhonda Shearer

Henep Isum Mandingo, pictured far right, is angry with Jared Diamond, renowned UCLA scientist, Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author– for telling “lies” about him. Isum was named and falsely charged by Diamond for committing criminal acts without the magazine’s famed fact checkers–or Diamond himself–ever confirming the allegations were true, or even if Isum was a real person. (credit: Michael Kigl, StinkyJournalism.org)


Rhonda Shearer, the widow of Stephen Jay Gould, is a prime mover in this legal action. She contacted me for information on Jared Diamond about a year ago when she was first getting her ducks lined up in a row and after she found my go-for-the-jugular-vein attack on Diamond. Go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/my_ecology.htm and look for articles on “Collapse” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

After she referred me to the New Yorker article, I wrote this: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2008/11/03/jared-diamond-on-tribal-warfare-in-new-guinea/


New Guinea Tribe Sues The ‘New Yorker’ For $10 Million Dirk Smillie, 04.21.09, 9:18 PM ET

In an April 21, 2008, New Yorker story, “Vengeance Is Ours,” Pulitzer Prize-winning geography scholar Jared Diamond describes blood feuds that rage for decades among tribes in the Highlands of New Guinea. Diamond tells the story using a central protagonist: Daniel Wemp, member of the Handa clan, a blood-thirsty warrior bent on avenging his uncle’s death. That quest, writes Diamond, touched off six years of warfare leading to the slaughter of 47 people and the theft of 300 pigs.

Now Diamond’s protagonist is fighting Diamond. A two-page complaint filed in New York State Supreme Court on April 20 seeks $10 million from the New Yorker’s publisher, Advance Publications, claiming Diamond’s story falsely accused Wemp and fellow tribesman Isum Mandigo of “serious criminal activity” and “murder.”

Diamond is a best-selling author and winner of a National Science Medal and the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius award.” But Wemp has some academic backing of his own. Rhonda Roland Shearer, director of the New York City-based Art Science Research Lab, whose media ethics project, stinkyjournalism.org, will soon release a 40,000-word study on Diamond’s story.

Shearer dispatched researchers to New Guinea and interviewed 40 anthropologists to fact-check Diamond’s story with a fine-tooth comb. The result, as summed up by the report’s working title: “Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: The New Yorker’s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue.”

New Yorker spokeswoman Alexa Cassanos said she could not comment on Wemp’s suit or Shearer’s study because she has seen neither, saying only, “We stand by the story.” Diamond did not immediately return calls to Forbes.

Complicating Wemp’s case, perhaps, is an interview he gave to Shearer’s researchers, in which he stated that the stories he told Diamond were in fact true.

But a Wemp friend and legal adviser, Mako John Kuwimb, explains: “When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment. Daniel’s stories were not serious narrative, and Daniel had no idea he was being interviewed for publication. He has never killed anyone or raped a woman. He certainly has never stolen a pig.”


From Rhonda Shearer’s Stinky Journalism website:


  • Daniel Wemp and Henep Isum file a summons and sue for 10 million dollars in Supreme Court of The State of New York–charge famed UCLA scientist, and best-selling author, Jared Diamond and Advance Publications (aka The New Yorker magazine and Times-Picayune newspaper) with defamation, April 20, 2009.
  • REVEALED: The New Yorker removed Diamond’s article from the open Internet last year after demand by Daniel Wemp’s lawyers (Lexis Nexis, EBSCO, Gale Group data bases also complied with the take-down. Only abstracts remain).
  • The New Yorker fact checkers never contacted any of the indigenous Papua New Guinea people named in Jared Diamond’s article as unrepentant killers, rapists and thieves, before publication.
  • Henep Isum is not paralyzed in a wheelchair with spinal injury, as Diamond claimed. He and Daniel Wemp, Diamond’s World Wildlife Fund driver in 2001-2002, and only source for The New Yorker’s revenge story in Papua New Guinea, as well as dozens of tribal members, police officials, deny Diamond’s entire tale about the bloody Ombal and Handa war, calling it “untrue.”
  • Expert linguist analysis and The New Yorker’s own admissions indicate the quotations attributed to Daniel Wemp, as spoken in 2001-2002, are fabrications

UPDATE: 4/22/09, 7:16am: This article includes excerpts from a forthcoming 40,000-word report (Real Tribes / Fake History: Errors, Failures of Method and the Consequences for Indigenous People in Papua New Guinea) that will be released in coming weeks. All interviews were recorded and were in English, the national languages of Papua New Guinea, unless noted. Research methods are detailed at bottom of this article. *

EXCLUSIVE : If Jared Diamond would have changed the names of people and tribes and simply said that he was unsure if the stories he heard were true, Daniel Wemp, his single source for his tale of Papua New Guinea (PNG) tribal revenge, would not be in the danger that Diamond and his publisher, The New Yorker magazine, placed him. This crisis was set in motion a year ago today, on April 21, 2008, with the publication in The New Yorker of the Pulitzer Prize winning author and renowned UCLA scientist’s article, “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?”

When Papua New Guinea researcher, Michael Kigl, working with StinkyJournalism, went to Daniel Wemp’s Nipa home in the Southern Highlands, PNG, July 2008, to ask him about The New Yorker article, he was shocked. Daniel Wemp had no idea that he, or people he mentioned to Diamond in random stories about tribal warfare back in 2001-2002, would be publicly named, and worse, erroneously linked to heinous crimes.

Despite Diamond’s claims, Daniel was no Handa tribal leader, nor was Henep Isum a violent leader of the Ombals. Isum isn’t even an Ombal tribesman but is a Henep (hence, his full name: Henep Isum Mandingo [tribal name, first name, last name]).

In addition to tracking down Daniel Wemp, we also found Henep Isum. When our researcher, Michael Kigl, first saw him, Isum was carrying a large bag of dirt over his shoulder. It turned out that Isum never had a spinal cord injury resulting in his being a wheelchair-bound paralytic, the result—or so Jared Diamond claimed—of an arrow attack by Daniel Wemp’s hired assassins.

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