Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 8, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 2

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

More violent than the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge?

Violence and indigenous peoples

While nobody but the unfortunate Professor Diamond could possibly explain the origins of the monumental work of fiction in the pages of the New Yorker Magazine under his byline, an article supposedly in pursuit of The Truth, one might surmise that he was driven to tailor the facts to a conclusion that he had worked out in advance, namely that under duress “modern state systems” devolve into bloody killing sprees such as the kind that Daniel Wemp supposedly took part in.

Even when modern state societies wage war, they are not nearly as bloodthirsty as indigenous peoples such as the ones that feuded in Papua New Guinea. Diamond states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.

So brutal and inhumane were the Papuan tribesmen to each other that when the European colonizers arrived, they submitted to their own “pacification” happily. Finally, the blood feuds would be eliminated by the more civilized representatives of modern state societies. Despite Diamond’s carefully crafted image of himself as an enlightened “multiculturalist”, this analysis is not that different from the ones put forward during the Victorian era. The bloody natives had to be rescued from themselves.

The problem with Diamond’s case is that it rests on bogus history. He deploys Daniel Wemp as an expert witness in describing a savage tribal war that went on for years, when in fact the only fighting that took place in recent years was a rather tame affair described by Mako J. Kuwimb, one of Rhonda Shearer’s PNG consultants and a model of restraint in his debunking of Diamond’s version.

The “war” in question did not take three years and cost 29 lives, as Diamond asserts. It was instead a fight between two youths over a couple of dollars that went missing during a card game that got out of hand after one had his jaw broken. Fighting lasted for three months and only four men died. Daniel Wemp, who Diamond described as a warlord seeking revenge for his tribe, was not involved in this affair at all. Apparently, Diamond wove together some actual incidents and others that were cooked up, all the while exaggerating the severity of the conflict so as to turn the PNG highlands into something on a par with contemporary Congo. Meanwhile, Daniel Wemp and the other participants are described as having almost as much fun killing each other as if it were a sport.

You can read Mako J. Kuwimb’s entire rebuttal of Jared Diamond on the Savage Minds blog, but this one brief excerpt demonstrates that the indigenous person is every bit as civilized as the famous UCLA professor, if not more so:

The comparison between international European war and tribal fights is too farfetched. Killing of enemies are never paraded; some old men who speared their enemies told me of nightmares. Killing is not fun at all as the article seems to suggest.

Jared Diamond is not the first white man in a pith helmet who has descended into the rain forest in search of a savage that only existed in his mind. In 1998, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon published “Yanomami: The Fierce People”, a book that described the beleaguered denizens of the Amazon rainforest as being almost as bloodthirsty as Jared Diamond’s representation of the PNG’ers. Some anthropologists would believe that Chagnon is as trustworthy as Diamond’s New Yorker article.

The fierce people?

Not surprisingly, Changon’s version of Yanomami reality is shared by those in the profession who line up with him ideologically, while his detractors uphold a less bellicose version of the indigenous people. In a December 10, 2000 Washington Post review by Marshall Sahlins of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, a book that is highly critical of Chagnon and that has polarized scholars in the field, we see anthropology of the sort that gives the profession a bad name:

Needing blood and information quickly, Chagnon would announce his visits to a village in the guise of a Yanomami warrior: dressed only in loincloth, body painted red, feathered–and carrying a shotgun. His field kits have been known to contain chemical mace and an electric stun gun. He tried to cultivate a reputation for dangerous magical power by engaging in narcotic shamanistic séances. When someone stole from him, he got children to inform on the thief; then he returned the favor by carrying off the latter’s hammock until he got his stuff back. But when it came to the reciprocity of food sharing, he protested that he could not feed the whole village. On the contrary, he disgusted curious Yanomami by telling them the canned frankfurters he was eating were animal penises, and peanut butter likewise was just what it looked like. Unselfconsciously, he acknowledges that his unwillingness to share food generously or widely made him “despicable in their eyes.”

After Chagnon retired, he relocated to the North Woods of Michigan, a region seemingly in sync with his personality and prejudices. He told Scott Wallace, a producer from the National Geographic Channel who was preparing a documentary on the Yanomami:

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.

I guess that’s what native peoples ultimately get reduced to in the world of a Jared Diamond or a Napoleon Chagnon, a kind of opportunity to see an exotic species before it dies off. It also helps when the species under examination are a bunch of savages. It makes their domination by more “civilized” species more tolerable.

When news of Daniel Wemp’s suit against the New Yorker broke, I was in the midst of my own debunking project about the purported savagery of indigenous peoples. In November 2007, I wrote a review of the movie “No Country for Old Men” that was based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the second coming of Herman Melville in the eyes of some more credulous critics.

Curious to find out more about the author, I went to the Cormac McCarthy Society website and discovered that his 1985 “Blood Meridian”, a work described as his masterpiece by Yale’s Harold Bloom, amounted to a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

While a fictional work, “Blood Meridian” purportedly describes native peoples of the Southwest during the 1840s as no better than the white men who were trying to exterminate them. Like Napoleon Chagnon, Cormac McCarthy would reject the notion that such peoples were “noble savages”. One of three epigraphs that open the book is from a 1982 Yuma Sun new clipping about a 300,000-year-old human skull being found in Ethiopia that showed the first evidence of a scalping. The moral, of course, is that evil is inherent in the human species.

“Blood Meridian” is focused on the predations of a group of scalp-hunters led by John Joel Glanton, a historical figure but the Apache and Comanche play key secondary roles. The Indians and the mercenaries take turns killing each other in the most unimaginably vicious manner, described by McCarthy in a manner that amounts to a more elevated version of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons on “The Simpsons” television show.

In many respects, McCarthy’s version of 1840s reality is a throwback to the movies of the 1940s and 50s when the Apache and the Comanche were depicted as cold-blooded killers. Like Jared Diamond’s “modern state societies”, the cavalry led by John Wayne was just the ticket for “pacifying” a savage people involved with killing whites and fellow Indians alike.

A selective reading of American history might reinforce this interpretation since it is a fact that the Comanche drove the Apache from Texas, while both tribes raided Mexico to capture horses and slaves—events that led Mexican authorities to hire scalpers like John Joel Glanton.

But I wanted to know the background to the violence. What led Indians to steal horses and attack Mexican villagers? Are we simply dealing with the case of people doing it out of blood lust of the kind that supposedly led Daniel Wemp to shoot an arrow into an enemy’s spine (at least according to the fiction set down by Jared Diamond)? Is the subduing of native peoples, even by the predatory capitalist colonizers of the British Empire or their rivals in the New World, a necessary step toward progress?

Over and over I have seen attempts by anthropologists and historians to put the worst possible face on native peoples in what amounts to an attempt to legitimize existing power relationships. In response to the evidence of white hunters wantonly killing bison, some historians feel it their duty to remind us that the Indians drove the same animals over cliffs, killing many more animals than they can possibly eat.

Such questions led to a deeper examination of the nature of progress. Are there lessons to be drawn from the “savages” of the world that will help us resolve the deeper problems humanity faces as “civilization” sweeps the world, threatening to destroy all living things in its pursuit of profits?

When considering these questions, I always find it useful to keep anthropologist Jack Weatherford’s books close at hand since they have a way of reminding us of our debt to those we have vanquished. Read this to appreciate the perspective that is missing entirely in Diamond and Chagnon’s accounts.


  1. […] Read more ; Jared Diamond,the NewYorker Magazine,and blood feuds in PNG; Part II […]

    Pingback by Another white guy has it all figured out… | Mediabuzzard.com — May 9, 2009 @ 1:50 am

  2. I have some personal experience with clan relationships (in the ‘developing world’ for lack of a better word) through an in-law.

    They are really complex, and there is no way they can be understood except after many years of living it. As for stories told to outsiders, they are just that.

    Comment by purple — May 9, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  3. So you can distinguish ‘fierce people’ on account of physiognomy? Now where have I heard this before… You should have really omitted that caption.

    Comment by n2 — May 9, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

  4. The caption “fierce people” was meant ironically.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 9, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

  5. Amazing to see the influence of American Indian social organization on European political thought. Though one small quibble:

    “In 1907 Thoreau’s essay helped Gandhi to select the appropriate means of struggle for Indian independence from Britain. Rather than launch a war of liberation, he launched a peaceful movement of civil disobedience. This movement eventually liberated Pakistan and India, and in so doing, sealed the fate of colonialism everywhere in the world. The peaceful movements of Gandhi did more to bring independence than did all the twentieth-century wars of independence.”

    I gotta think that the devastation and dislocation caused by the Second World War and the looming threat of a deeper, more thoroughly revolutionary independence for India led by the Communists and other socialist parties were major factors that convinced the Brits to let go of the colonial reins. Factors which had nothing to do with pacifism and everything to do with war and armed struggle, in one way or another.

    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — May 10, 2009 @ 2:22 am

  6. Nik raises an excellent point vis-a-vis pacisfism versus armed struggle in India as the same phenom applied more or less to the Civil Rights movement in the US vis-a-vis Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Similarly, Uncle Sam’s A-bombs incinerated the civilians in Hiroshima & Nagasaki not for the allegedly pacisfist aim of avoiding a land war on the Japanese mainland but rather to halt the Westward advance of the Soviet Red Army in its tracks, just as Dresden wasn’t fire bombed to terrorize German’s into Peace so much as it was to prevent the Red Army from acquiring all the Third Reich’s machine tool technology which was heavily concentrated in that industrially strategic city.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 10, 2009 @ 6:29 am

  7. […] Proyect has done some interesting posts on this sort of thing, including this one on Violence and indigenous peoples. Hint: it’s not what a lot of people, including Jared Diamond, would like us to […]

    Pingback by Another bloated comment reply: Indigenous people, conquest, and violence « Urocyon's Meanderings — November 30, 2009 @ 2:14 am

  8. […] In my own analysis of Papuan New Guinea blood feuds and Diamond’s shoddy research, I wrote: […]

    Pingback by Fuck Jared Diamond | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 26, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

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