Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 13, 2015

Blood Ties

Filed under: anthropology,feminism — louisproyect @ 3:39 pm

Recently I received a query from someone who follows my blog:

What does Marxism say about blood ties? My understanding is that Marx and Engels thought the family was a product of capitalism and that it would wither away when capitalism destroyed itself of its own internal contradictions. I’ve always had a problem with that. Of course, the specific form that the family takes in capitalism is unique to this economic system, but to me, the primacy of blood ties supersedes all else, and if capitalism should fall, there will always be the reality of blood kin. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll see this: kinship is all.

Does Marxism disagree?

Since others might have the same sorts of questions, I am posting a public reply.

Your question actually brings me back to discussions that were commonplace in the Trotskyist and feminist movements in the early to mid 1970s. Both movements viewed the nuclear family as a product of the capitalist system and one in which the man had the same relationship to the woman that a boss had to the worker. Engels’s “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” was one of the most popular Marxist classics among our ranks and in the woman’s movement.

Taking to an extreme, as it often was at the time, there was a belief that under communism children would be raised outside of the traditional family by “professionals”. We often liked to spin out fantasies about how it would work. Sperm and ovaries would be collected and fertilized in antiseptic nurseries in order to create the new generation. While nobody ever spoke in terms of eugenics, there is no doubt that this might have passed muster. Keep in mind that Leon Trotsky spoke highly of the practice in “If America should go Communist” as did the Swedish Social Democrats, including Gunnar Myrdal. With the Swedes, it went a bit further. They saw it as a way to weed out “undesirables”.

I first ran across these ideas long before I became a Trotskyist when I read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” in 1959 or so. The Wikipedia article states:

Human embryos are raised artificially in ‘hatcheries and conditioning centres’. The breeding and development of children destines them to fit into one of five castes named Alpha (the highest) through Epsilon (as in the Greek alphabet) which fulfill different economic roles. While Alpha and Beta fetuses are allowed to develop relatively naturally, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon fetuses are subjected to chemical interference to stunt their intelligence and physical growth. Members of lower castes (but not Alphas and Betas) are created using ‘Bokanovsky’s Process’ which allows up to 96 clones to be produced from one fertilized ovum.

For Huxley, this was anathema. His hero was John, a man who was raised on the Savage Reservation in New Mexico, a place that does not follow the norms of the Brave New World. When John leaves the reservation to confront the modern world, he has the same kind of reaction that Woody Allen had to the characters in “Sleeper”: what is wrong with these people?

I am not sure if you have read feminist literature of the 1970s but you will get more or less the same kind of approach. When I was in Boston in 1971, a group called Cell 16 put out a journal titled “No More Fun and Games”. One of the primary theorists was Roxanne Dunbar who I am contact with today mostly around indigenous issues (she is part Cherokee.) You can see the tables of contents listed here: http://www.greenlion.com/NMFG/nmfg.html

One of Dunbar’s most widely quoted articles was “Female Liberation as the Basis for Social Revolution” that can be read online here: https://www.waste.org/~roadrunner/RDO/_single_RDO_Female_Liberation_as_Basis_for_Social_Revolution.pdf. This is a citation that reflects the influence of Engels although Roxanne hated organized Marxism and the SWP in particular:

Where will this leave white men and “their” families? The patriarchal family is economically and historically tied to private property and, under Western capitalism, with the development of the national state. The masculine ideology most strongly asserts home and country as primary values, with wealth and power an individual’s greatest goal. The same upper class of men who created private property and founded nation-states also created the family. It is an expensive institution, and only the upper classes have been able to maintain it properly. However, American “democracy” has spread the ideology to the working class. The greatest pride of a working man is that he can support “his” wife and children and maintain a home (even though this is impossibility for many and means misery for most). The very definition of a bum or derelict is that he does not maintain a wife, children, and home.

Not a decade past when this article was written, radical feminism had largely disappeared and the SWP had made a “turn toward industry” that was strongly committed to “family values” even if there was no open acknowledgement as such. Couples began to get married and bring children into the world as a tactic to gain acceptance by fellow workers, even if I suspect an important part of this change was a yearning for a normal life.

Around the same time a number of Trotskyists either dropped out or having dropped out stopped supporting the SWP (including me). One person in particular began a serious scholarly study of marriage and the family based on both her reading of traditional Marxist literature and material in the sociology and anthropology discipline. I can’t recommend her work highly enough. Stephanie Coontz is the author of many books, including one that relates to your question as the title implies: “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage”. You can read an excerpt on her website (http://www.stephaniecoontz.com/) that I think will be helpful in coming to terms with your question. She is far better equipped to give an intelligent answer than me. I would only add that although she is talking about the relationship between men and women, it could equally apply to same-sexers.

Several small-scale societies in South America have sexual and marital norms that are especially startling for Europeans and North Americans. In these groups, people believe that any man who has sex with a woman during her pregnancy contributes part of his biological substance to the child. The husband is recognized as the primary father, but the woman’s lover or lovers also have paternal responsibilities, including the obligation to share food with the woman and her child in the future. During the 1990s researchers taking life histories of elderly Bari women in Venezuela found that most had taken lovers during at least one of their pregnancies. Their husbands were usually aware and did not object. When a woman gave birth, she would name all the men she had slept with since learning she was pregnant, and a woman attending the birth would tell each of these men: “You have a child.”31

In Europe and the United States today such an arrangement would be a surefire recipe for jealousy, bitter breakups, and very mixed-up kids. But among the Bari people this practice was in the best interests of the child. The secondary fathers were expected to provide the child with fish and game, with the result that a child with a secondary father was twice as likely to live to the age of fifteen as a brother or sister without such a father.32

Few other societies have incorporated extramarital relationships so successfully into marriage and child rearing. But all these examples of differing marital and sexual norms make it difficult to claim there is some universal model for the success or happiness of a marriage.

About two centuries ago Western Europe and North America developed a whole set of new values about the way to organize marriage and sexuality, and many of these values are now spreading across the globe. In this Western model, people expect marriage to satisfy more of their psychological and social needs than ever before. Marriage is supposed to be free of the coercion, violence, and gender inequalities that were tolerated in the past. Individuals want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex.

Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable. Although many Europeans and Americans found tremendous joy in building their relationships around these values, the adoption of these unprecedented goals for marriage had unanticipated and revolutionary consequences that have since come to threaten the stability of the entire institution.


September 20, 2014

Sustain CounterPunch and sustain yourself

Filed under: anthropology,Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:24 pm

Screen shot 2014-09-20 at 10.17.19 AM

This is as good a time as any to urge my readers to take out a subscription to CounterPunch magazine, especially since the latest issue contains an article I wrote about Indian gaming casinos that I am particularly proud of. It weaves together strands about the history of New York state’s indigenous population, popular culture and political economy in an effort to look at a controversial issue: do gaming casinos rob indigenous peoples of their identity?

There is some irony in me publishing this article in a magazine identified with the late Alexander Cockburn since I gave him hell about his support for casinos way back when (as I did over any number of questions, while remaining an ardent fan.)

When Jeff St. Clair suggested that I write such an article, I mentioned this to him but confessed that I could not even find the article that had sparked my pique (it doesn’t take very much.) In a fresh attempt this morning, I not only found it but realize now that it was much more nuanced than I appreciated at the time:

[from Alexander Cockburn, “Wild Justice,” New York Press, October 21-27, 1998]

The hunters crashed out of the resort at 5 am. and I read a few pages of Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide. He certainly raises victim,hood to the level of political manifesto arguing that his purpose is to claim genocide for Indians on the grounds that genocide has given the Jews moral authority and he wants the same moral authority for his people. This seems to be a sad posture, claiming moral authority by dint of the percentage of your number wiped out, with 100 percent moral authority established presumably when you are 100 percent extinct.

Do the Mandan have greater moral stature than the Blackfeet because a white man’s disease, smallpox, wiped out a higher percentage of their number? Do some Indian tribes, surviving in higher numbers, like the Yurok, have diminished moral stature? Or is It just A matter of “Indians” without. regard to specific tribes or destinies? For Churchill it is. He takes a population estimate, pre-white conquest, of 15 million Indians, subtracts the 248,253 Indians counted in the 1890 census and sets down the balance in the ledger of genocide. Ergo, moral authority amid the ruins. Rhetorically, it’s hard to argue with him, because In Churchill’s moral arithmetic you somehow become a denier not only of the Indian but of the Jewish Holocaust as well.

Do Indians really need a holocaust to give them standing? Surely not. To be frank, they’ve done better with casinos. Is it not more uplifting to see Indians as gallant and savvy survivors than as victim-dead? They certainly ended up with more land than two other ethnic grows on the losing end, the Spanish and Africans in North America. It’s true that disease, evictions and cultural dislocation wrought a devastating toll. On the Plains there were massacres: Sand Creek, Washita, Marias River, Camp Grant, Wounded Knee. In these infamous events there were somewhere around 1260 Indians dead. Between 1789 and 1898 the U.S. Army records 1535 Indian fights, with estimates of Indian dead running anywhere from 3000 to 6000. On the other side, between 1789 and 1898 Indians killed maybe 7000, soldiers and civilians. Of course Churchill would disdain such calculations as obscene efforts to establish some sort of moral equivalence, which was certainly the intent of some of the white historians totting up the numbers and claiming that more Indians were killed in intertribal warfare on the Plains than by the white soldiers. There’s no need to haggle over moral equivalence. The whites were the latest of the arrivals on the scene and got every thing. But rather than tout genocide as the battle standard, It is surely better to see Indians as brilliant diplomat-warriors who stood off three major sets of white invaders for centuries. In the end, the true hero is Red Cloud, the warrior/diplomat, rather than Ian Frazier’s (and no doubt Churchill’s) hero, Crazy Horse. Surely this is a more bracing lesson for young Indians than the cover of Churchill’s book, being photographs of the dead at Wounded Knee, and a drunk Indian on Main St., Anywhere, USA. I say, Get over it.

We drove across the rest of Montana, up over the road to the Sun in Glacier National Park over the Lolo Paw, down through% Idaho and into the tolling wheatfields of eastern Washington, like the most kitsch of Soviet socialist realist posters; With a great red sun going down, a grain elevator and a tractor in the foreground (and, as it happened, a child murderer going down to lethal injection in Walla Walla prison, just the other side of the horizon), Down the Columbia, past Sam Hill’s strange museum, down through a couple of stops by Washington and Oregon cops who probably thought we were ferrying dope. Into Oregon City we came, in the ’64 New Yorker with 4000 miles on the odometer, which now stands at 150,324. Back, most surely, in late 90s civilization. Our hosts, Jeffrey St. Clair and Kimberly Willson-St. Clair, are moving house and had just boarded Sam the Newfoundland until new fences could be built. A chipper young woman at the Clackamass Pet Spa had quoted him $14 a day for Sam’s bed and board, with optional extras. Sam could get a “nature walk” through Oregon’s dwindling Douglas firs for $1.50 a day, a ‘snack and snuggle for another $4 a day, “Indoor play” for another $4, and “sunbath” with restoring oils for $2 and a birthday party for $8. If he had a cat, she told the bug-eyed Jeffrey; pussy could, at $4 a day, enjoy a “mock mouse hunt.” So much for frontier days. This is how the trail ends.

Before giving you a flavor of what I wrote, I want to emphasize why it is important to subscribe to the CounterPunch print edition. It, along with yearly fund drives, is a major source of funding for one of America’s leading left institutions. I should probably have said global since the webzine has readers from every corner of the globe as I discovered after a very well-informed Swede wrote me concerning the ultraright. At $55 per year (10 issues) for the print edition and $35 for digital, it is great reading and won’t bust your budget.

In addition to my own jewel of an article, there’s one by David Price that is of particular interest to me since it overlaps with my own long-standing opposition to racism in anthropology that so often victimizes American Indians as “dinosaurs” that needed to be superseded by “civilization”.

In an article titled “The Bio-Social Facts of American Capitalism: When the FBI Dreamed of an Epidemic for College Professors”, Price, a professor of anthropology at St. Martin’s College in Washington state, takes aim at E.A. Hooton, an anthropologist at Harvard University who espoused eugenics and the theory that there were distinct “races”, each with their own distinct genetic “intelligence” capabilities. Harvard University, can you imagine that?

Using a FOIA request, Price was able to get the FBI files on Hooton that included some articles the good professor wrote during WWII, including one that called for “a program of supervised breeding, sterilization of the unfit, and increased control over the development and education of its future parents.”

A drawing contained in Hooton’s tract “Up From the Ape” illustrates his crude racist beliefs. In the past Harvard had no problem with someone like this holding a post and the U. of Illinois was okay with Robert Weissberg spouting similar racist filth but if you are too sympathetic to Palestinians, you’d better watch out.

Screen shot 2014-09-20 at 10.05.02 AM

As I indicated above, my article tried to tie together various perspectives to help understand the role of gaming casinos in American Indian society today, especially as they relate to Governor Cuomo’s signing off on them in Sullivan County where I grew up. Among the tribes who had considered making a bid was the Munsees who once occupied the very land beneath my feet when I lived at home. From my article:

Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? [A casino boss stereotyped in a “Sopranos” episode.] In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.

Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states:

The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.

You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been trans- ported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.

In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of Gotham, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting 60 Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.

Want to read the rest of the article and David Price’s as well? Go ahead. Take out a sub right now: http://store.counterpunch.org/subscriptions/. It will help sustain CounterPunch as well as sustain you politically and psychologically in the protracted struggle against capitalism.

June 22, 2012


Filed under: Africa,anthropology,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

Watch Trailer here

When documentary filmmaker Cevin Soling was in seventh grade, his social studies teacher passed out a copy of an essay by Lewis Thomas titled “The Iks“. It referred to a small tribe in northern Uganda that might have been called “the Ickies” based on what Thomas wrote:

The message of the book [anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s “The Mountain People”] is that the Iks have transformed themselves into an irreversibly disagreeable collection of unattached, brutish creatures, totally selfish and loveless, in response to the dismantling of their traditional culture. Moreover, this is what the rest of us are like in our inner selves, and we will all turn into Iks when the structure of our society comes all unhinged.

They breed without love or even casual regard. They defecate on each other’s doorsteps. They watch their neighbors for signs of misfortune, and only then do they laugh. In the book they do a lot of laughing, having so much bad luck. Several times they even laughed at the anthropologist, who found this especially repellent (one senses, between the lines, that the scholar is not himself the world’s luckiest man). Worse, they took him into the family, snatched his food, defecated on his doorstep, and hooted dislike at him. They gave him two bad years.

Three decades later, Soling decided to travel to Ik territory and meet the people who were either maligned by Turnbull or lived up (or down) to the portrait. The chronicle of that voyage is in the marvelous documentary “Ikland” that closed yesterday at the Quad Cinema in New York City but can be ordered from the film’s website. As someone who has followed controversies in academic anthropology for the better part of two decades, I can say that this film should be required viewing in anthropology classes everywhere. It is a singular lesson in how the social scientist can impose their own worldview on an innocent people in a manner that reminds one of  colonial domination. After all, Turnbull’s Britain once ruled all of Uganda so why shouldn’t he have his way with a mere tribe?

While it was within the realm of possibility that the Ik were as bad as Thomas portrayed them (he did blame their obnoxious traits on circumstances forced on them rather than any genetic predisposition), Soling must have sensed that another reality lurked beneath the surface as he said in a statement on the Ikland website:

I also had guiding principles of what not to do. I did not want to take an objective detached approach of treating people as experimental subjects, where comparisons to the viewer become implicit. At the same time, I did not want to take the other extreme of idealizing their society. When people were interviewed, I designed a conversational tone to overcome inherent distance, which focused on their daily concerns and enabled their dignity to emerge.

On my own website, I include these words from Frankfurt School luminary Max Horkheimer: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

After watching “Ikland”, one cannot help but think that Soling’s trek into Ik territory was also a “voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief” that the intended subjects of the film were so deserving of having their story told that any sacrifice made on their behalf would be worth it. In Soling’s case, and that of the tiny production staff that accompanied him, that sacrifice might have been their lives.

As documented in the film with surprising casualness and even a comic tone, the trip into northern Uganda involved numerous threats to health and safety. Soling and his comrades sleep in an infirmary in a tiny village, the nearest thing to a hostel in the Ugandan countryside en route to their destination. In nearby beds, there are people suffering from Dengue fever and anthrax. As they continue north, they pitch tents on a dirt road (more like a trail) and are awoken in the middle of the night by growling lions just outside the flaps. In a phone interview conducted with the director last night, he revealed that the only thought that came to him was this is where I am going to die. Continuing further, they run into a herd of elephants and once again escape with their lives. (African elephants—unlike their Indian brethren—are not only untrainable, they are violently hostile to people.) But the biggest threat of all was bandits and the feral combatants of The Lord’s Resistance Army, a group prone to wanton amputations and executions. While on the road in the middle of the night, the tiny convoy is attacked by small arms fire and only survives by driving ahead on punctured tires.

When they finally arrive in Ik territory, they are greeted warily. Few whites venture that far north and the Ik people tend to view all outsiders with some degree of suspicion since they have been preyed upon by hostile tribes in Uganda and the Turkana from Kenya to the north. The Turkana are warlike pastoralists who raid in order to steal food and cattle or goats reminding me in some ways of the Comanche who used to launch raids into Mexico in the 1850s. Despite having lost a number of their tribe to Turkana raiders in recent days, an Ik leader tells Soling that the Turkana can be generous when times are good. Given the desertification impacting almost all of northern Africa today and the exploitation of fertile land for agri-exports like coffee or cotton, it is understandable why the Turkana would be on the warpath much of the time.

Once the film crew settles into a daily routine with their hosts, we learn that Colin Turnbull’s analysis was not to be trusted. Like most people living communally, the Ik share their goods. When asked if some of the tribe hoards during a famine, they reply that in such times nobody has anything so there is nothing to hoard. Soling’s goal in enabling the Ik “dignity to emerge” is met with flying colors. As survivors of terrible privations, the Ik remain stoic and generous with each other and accepting and good-natured toward their guests. Perhaps the only defecation left on a doorstep was Colin Turnbull’s misbegotten book.

One of Turnbull’s sharpest critics within the profession is Bernd Heine, whose “The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda” (African: Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 55, No. 1, 1985) sets the record straight.

To start with, Turnbull visited the village of Pirre, an Ik center, but he came at a time when war forced non-Ik peoples to seek temporary refuge since it was the only village in the area that was policed and hence safe from banditry or terror. At times, therefore, the Ik were a minority there. Some of his main informants were not Ik at all but members of the Diding’a tribe.

Another of Turnbull’s errors was to view the Ik as hunter-gatherers like the pygmies he had also researched. He theorized that their anti-social behavior had something to do with being deprived of their livelihood since the state had banned hunting in Kidepo National Park, something that Lewis Thomas repeated:

The small tribe of Iks, formerly nomadic hunters and gatherers in the mountain valleys of northern Uganda, have become celebrities, literary symbols for the ultimate fate of disheartened, heartless mankind at large. Two disastrously conclusive things happened to them: the government decided to have a national park, so they were compelled by law to give up hunting in the valleys and become farmers on poor hillside soil, and then they were visited for two years by an anthropologist who detested them and wrote a book about them.

Thomas got the business about an anthropologist detesting them right, but they were never nomadic hunters. Instead they were farmers for at least 3000 years according to Heine, and as such quite good at it. Turnbull never figured out that they were farmers and kept looking for evidence of hunters being deprived of their way of life, almost one supposes like members of the NRA having their worst nightmare come true.

One of the most amusing and revealing passages in Heine’s critique deals with Turnbull’s flawed understanding of the Ik language:

Usually one of the first things an anthropologist in the field learns is the greetings. Turnbull made an effort, but with limited success. He notes, for example, that ‘the common, everyday greeting’ is ida piaji (Turnbull, 1974: 246). The Ik have a wide range of greeting forms, depending in particular on the time of the day. One of them is i-ida? (‘Are you [all right]?’), to which one replies, i-ida ‘bia ‘j? (‘Are you [all right] as well?’). It is probably the latter which he calls the ‘traditional’ or ‘common, everyday greeting’. It would seem that for all the two years he lived among the Ik he was not aware that he was greeting them with a reply to a greeting, furthermore with one which is used neither during the morning (ep-ida) nor during the afternoon hours (iria-ida).

I got a laugh out of this since my Turkish professor once read me the riot act when I told him “güle güle”, as a way of saying goodbye. Don’t you know, he said, the person staying behind says this, not the person leaving? Of course, I never claimed to be an expert on Turkish culture so I might be excused. Turnbull is another story altogether apparently.

I will conclude with Heine’s own restrained but devastating conclusion:

At first it was difficult to understand how Turnbull came to treat the Ik in his writings the way he did. The longer I was able to talk to the Ik about his work the more I got the impression that he tended to project his own feelings on to his research subjects. There are in fact some indications that what he claims to be typical Ik behaviour is rather an indication of his own mentality. For example, although dealing with a people he suspected to be hunter-gatherers his writings suggest that he was entirely ignorant of the plant and animal life of Ik country. Yet, as I have shown above, he concludes that it is not he himself but rather the Ik who are unfamiliar with their fauna and flora (Turnbull, 1967: 63).

When he observes that for the Ik ‘Misfortune of others was their greatest joy’ one is reminded of passages like the following, his descriptions of his own feelings and behaviour, which seem to point to his own frustrations:

It was one of the few real pleasure’s I had, listening to his shrieking and yelling when they caught him and did whatever they did … and then watching him come flying out of the odok holding his head and streaming with tears… [Turnbull, 1974, 102]

it was a pleasure to move rapidly ahead and leave Atum gasping behind so that we could be sitting at the di when he finally appeared and laugh at his discomfort. [Ibid., 178]

The unpleasantness of returning was somewhat alleviated by Atum’s suffering on the way up the stony trail. Several times he slipped, which made Lojieri and me laugh … [Ibid.]

The frustrations he encountered among the Ik are described in great detail, but he goes on to note: ‘For want of something to do, I used to measure the amount of rain that fell … The exactness of detail was no measure of my academic zeal, simply of my own frustration and boredom’ (Turnbull, 1974: 212). He describes the lack of mutual trust that he finds characteristic of the Ik, but he himself is not prepared to trust anybody, as sentences like the following suggest: ‘I disbelieved every word of this on principle…’ (Turnbull, 1974: 228).

The Ik are portrayed as a people lacking social integration, but if there is anyone who shows no interest in social integration it is Turnbull himself. He isolates himself behind a stockade ‘even bigger and stronger than that of my neighbours’ (Turnbull, 1974: 63), and ‘I used to shut myself up in the Land-Rover again to cook my meals and to eat them there’ (Turnbull, 1974: 79). It is not surprising, therefore, that my Ik informants frequently told me, ‘He made his observations in the bush, not where people were.’ To conclude, my observations have confirmed the claim made by Beidelman (1973: 171) in his review of The Mountain People: This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.

November 19, 2009

Claude Levi-Strauss

Filed under: anthropology — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss’s death on October 30 at the age of 100 led me to look a little bit into his thought. I was interested to see if his ideas had any bearing on my research into the Napoleon Chagnon controversy. Levi-Strauss’s initial foray into ethnology took place in the Brazilian rainforest among Indian tribes not that much different from the Yanomami. Indeed, Jacques Lizot, the gay anthropologist who became Chagnon’s adversary after their initial collaborations, was a student of Levi-Strauss. I also wanted to get a handle on his basic approach since Althusser’s Marxism is supposedly based on Levi-Strauss’s structuralism. What was that all about? Granted, it no longer has the urgency it once had. In my early days on the left and Marxist oriented mailing lists, structuralism still had some traction, owing to a large extent to the hegemony it enjoyed at the U. of Massachusetts under Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick. That seems like a lifetime ago now.

On the asset side of the balance sheet, it must be acknowledged that Levi-Strauss was—like Franz Boas—a major voice against social Darwinism. Along with Franz Boas, he rejected the idea that primitive peoples were doomed to become extinct in the “survival of the fittest” competition. Indeed, the connection between the two men was more than ideological. On December 22, 1942, Franz Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss were having lunch at the Faculty Club of Columbia University, a place that I have dined at frequently, when Boas suffered a heart attack, falling into Levi-Strauss’s arms. At the age of 34, Levi-Strauss was destined to assume the mantle of the dying 92 year old. In 1995, at the age of 87, Levi-Strauss wrote an article titled Saudades Do Brasil that took note of the cultural and physical genocidal tendencies brought on by “development”:

The Bororo, whose good health and robustness I had admired in 1935, are today being consumed by alcoholism and disease and are progressively losing their language. It is in missionary schools (which, by a curious reversal, have become the conservators of a culture they had in the first place worked at suppressing, and not without success) that Bororo youths are being taught about their myths and their ceremonies. But, for fear that they might damage the feather diadems, masterpieces of traditional art, the missionaries are keeping these objects locked up, entrusting the Indians with them only on strictly necessary occasions. They would be increasingly difficult to replace since the macaws, parrots, and other brightly colored birds are also disappearing…

I could not help but be reminded of Rosa Luxemburg’s 1917 letter to Sophie Liebknecht:

Yesterday I was reading about the reasons for the disappearance of song birds in Germany. The spread of scientific forestry, horticulture, and agriculture, have cut them off from their nesting places and their food supply. More and more, with modern methods, we are doing away with hollow trees, waste lands, brushwood, fallen leaves. I felt sore at heart. I was not thinking so much about the loss of pleasure for human beings, but I was so much distressed at the idea of the stealthy and inexorable destruction of these defenceless little creatures, that the tears came into my eyes. I was reminded of a book I read in Zurich, in which Professor Sieber describes the dying-out of the Redskins in North America. Just like the birds, they have been gradually driven from their hunting grounds by civilised men.

Despite his open affiliation with Marxism, Levi-Strauss was going against the grain of much of what had been written in its name when it came to primitive peoples. Unfortunately, social Darwinism had seeped into the thinking of some of the most important foundational figures, including Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov. Through most of the 20th century, this kind of thinking has tended to drive a wedge between socialists and indigenous peoples who still existed in communal societies. The Sandinista missteps with the Miskito Indians are just one example.

Levi-Strauss’s earliest academic training, like Marx’s (and mine!) was in philosophy. Reacting to the social and economic crisis of the 1930s, he became alienated from mainstream French philosophy that was shaped largely by Henri Bergson’s ideas. Bergson was strongly influenced by Charles Darwin and evolved a philosophy that stressed a kind of teleological and ameliorist vision of history, something that was obviously at odds with the economic misery and fascist movements that the young Levi-Strauss saw all around him.

In chapter six of “Tristes Tropiques”, widely considered Levi-Strauss’s masterpiece, he discusses “How I became an Anthropologist”. He describes his growing disenchantment with facile notions of “progress” taught in philosophy classes:

We watched self-consciousness in its progress through the ages elaborating constructions ever lighter and more audacious, resolving problems of balance and implication, inventing refinements of logic; and the more absolute the technical perfection, the more complete the internal coherence, the greater was the system in question. It was as if the student of art-history had been taught that Gothic was necessarily better than Romanesque, and flamboyant Gothic better than primitive Gothic, without stopping to wonder what was beautiful and what was not.

From Freud, Levi-Strauss learned that static antinomies such as rational and irrational were “no more than meaningless games”. And, in his typically eclectic fashion, he next found himself inspired by geology, a science that displays nature demonstrating “the living diversity” that “juxtaposes one age and the other and perpetuates them.” But it was Marxism that helped to finish the intellectual journey that began when he decided to travel to Brazil to study native peoples.

When I was about seventeen I was initiated into Marxism by a young Belgian socialist whom I had met on holiday. (He is today one of his country s Ambassadors abroad.) Reading Marx was for me all the more enthralling in that I was making my first contact, by way of that great thinker, with the philosophical current that runs from Kant to Hegel. A whole world was opened to me. My excitement has never cooled: and rarely do I tackle a problem in sociology or ethnology without having first set my mind in motion by reperusal of a page or two from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte or the Critique of Political Economy. Whether Marx accurately foretold this or that historical development is not the point. Marx followed Rousseau in saying and saying once and for all, as far as I can see that social science is no more based upon events than physics is based upon sense-perceptions. Our object is to construct a model, examine its properties and the way in which it reacts to laboratory tests, and then apply our observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings: these may turn out very differently from what we had expected.

At a different level of reality, Marxism seemed to me to proceed in the same way as geology and psycho-analysis (in the sense in which its founder understood it). All three showed that understanding consists in the reduction of one type of reality to another; that true reality is never the most obvious of realities, and that its nature is already apparent in the care which it takes to evade our detection. In all these cases the problem is the same: the relation, that is to say, between reason and sense-perception; and the goal we are looking for is also the same: a sort of super-rationalism in which sense-perceptions will be integrated into reasoning and yet lose none of their properties.

Despite his best of intentions, we must conclude that Levi-Strauss simply did not understand Marxism if he can describe it thusly: “Marx followed Rousseau in saying and saying once and for all, as far as I can see that social science is no more based upon events than physics is based upon sense-perceptions. Our object is to construct a model, examine its properties and the way in which it reacts to laboratory tests, and then apply our observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings: these may turn out very differently from what we had expected.”

Indeed, there is so much confusion packed into these two sentences that I despair of reading Levi-Strauss’s mind in order to figure out what he was trying to say. This much we know. He obviously saw Marx as some kind of precursor to structuralism since the idea that social science must not be based on “events” is surely another way of saying that history has little interest to the French philosophy current that operated in the name of Marxism for several decades and that led to all sorts of ideological confusion.

In closing the door on Bergson’s evolutionism, Levi-Strauss bent the stick too far in the opposite direction and ultimately decided that history was bunk, to use Henry Ford’s pithy formulation. The structuralist school became largely defined by its hostility to historical interpretations. In the case of Althusser, this meant breaking with the early Marx, who was befuddled apparently by both “humanism” and a Hegelian framework, and adopting a more “scientific” approach that conceived of Marxism in terms of Levi-Strauss’s “laboratory tests”.

When Levi-Strauss was at the pinnacle of his prestige, Susan Sontag wrote a article in the NY Review of Books titled “A Hero of Our Time” that would be included in “Against Interpretation”, a collection that made her own reputation. It was a review of his “Structural Anthropology”, snippets of which can be read on MIA. She writes:

Lévi-Strauss sees man with a Lucretian pessimism, and a Lucretian feeling for knowledge as both consolation and necessary disenchantment. But for him the demon is history—not the body or the appetites. The past, with its mysteriously harmonious structures, is broken and crumbling before our eyes. Hence, the tropics are tristes. There were nearly twenty thousand of the naked, indigent, nomadic, handsome Nambikwaras in 1915, when they were first visited by white missionaries; when Lévi-Strauss arrived in 1938 there were no more than two thousand of them; today they are miserable, ugly, syphilitic, and almost extinct. Hopefully, anthropology brings a reduction of historical anxiety. It is interesting that many of Lévi-Strauss’s students are reported to be former Marxists, come as it were to lay their piety at the altar of the past since it cannot be offered to the future. Anthropology is necrology. “Let’s go and study the primitives,” say Lévi-Strauss and his pupils, “before they disappear.”

It is strange to think of these ex-Marxists—philosophical optimists if ever such have existed—submitting to the melancholy spectacle of the crumbling pre-historic past. They have moved not only from optimism to pessimism, but from certainty to systematic doubt. For, according to Lévi-Strauss, research in the field, “where every ethnological career begins, is the mother and nursemaid of doubt, the philosophical attitude par excellence.” In Lévi-Strauss’s program for the practicing anthropologist in Structural Anthropology, the Cartesian method of doubt is installed as a permanent agnosticism. “This ‘anthropological doubt’ consists not merely in knowing that one knows nothing but in resolutely exposing what one knows, even one’s own ignorance, to the insults and denials inflicted on one’s dearest ideas and habits by those ideas and habits which may contradict them to the highest degree.”

Whether or not Sontag was being totally accurate, it is distressing to think that this self-avowed if confused Marxist cum geologist/Freudian was attracting such “former Marxists” who dwell in “systematic doubt”. If Marxism has been accused in the past for having a messianic certainty about its goals, I for one would continue to remain a Marxist than to remain paralyzed like Hamlet in “anthropological doubt”.

June 27, 2009

Chagnon among the Yanomamo

Filed under: anthropology,evolutionary psychology,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

When I first got word of the Jared Diamond/New Yorker magazine scandal, I could not help but think of Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomami. Just around the time that the Marxism list was launched, a big fight broke out among anthropologists over Chagnon’s fieldwork with the Amazon rainforest Indians provoked by the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon”. Sides were drawn in the profession between those pro and con Chagnon, who at least unlike Jared Diamond had professional qualifications in the field. In doing some preliminary research on the Chagnon-Tierney dispute, I have learned that some experts in the field without any apparent axe to grind have faulted his research.

I plan to revisit the controversy in light of what I have learned about evolutionary psychology, particularly through my reading of Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” but want to start off by posting some excerpts from the fifth edition of Chagnon’s “Yanomamo”, a book that was titled “Yanomamo: the fierce people” in its initial publication in 1977. Given all the controversy his research has generated, it is understandable why he would have dropped the fierce people, especially since the global perception that they are facing extinction. It would be like writing a book in 1940 titled “The Aggressive Jew”.

The excerpts below are not intended to be an introduction to Chagnon’s work, but only passages that struck my eye for obvious reasons except for the last, which I will explain beforehand. For a useful presentation of Chagnon’s approach, I have made available an article from the 1988 Science magazine titled “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population” at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/chagnon.pdf.

1. Chagnon meets the Yanomamo:

My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound. Mr. Barker commented that he was anxious to see if any changes had taken place while he was away and wondered how many of them had died during his absence. I nervously felt my back pocket to make sure that my notebook was still there and felt personally more secure when I touched it.

The entrance to the village was covered over with brush and dry palm leaves. We pushed them aside to expose the low opening to the village. The excitement of meeting my first Yanomamo was almost unbearable as I duck-waddled through the low passage into the village clearing.

I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose. The mucus is always saturated with the green powder and they usually let it run freely from their nostrils. My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were to be their next meal. I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation and filth hit me and I almost got sick. I was horrified. What kind of welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you? They put their weapons down when they recognized Barker and returned to their chanting, keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances…

As we walked down the path to the boat, I pondered the wisdom of having decided to spend a year and a half with these people before I had even seen what they were like. I am not ashamed to admit that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there. I did not look forward to the next day—and months—when I would be left alone with the Yanomamo; I did not speak a word of their language, and they were decidedly different from what I had imagined them to be. The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why I ever decided to switch from physics and engineering in the first place. I had not eaten all day, I was soaking wet from perspiration, the bareto were biting me, and I was covered with red pigment, the result of a dozen or so complete examinations I had been given by as many very pushy Yanomamo men. These examinations capped an otherwise grim day. The men would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the mucus off that would separate in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets. I asked Barker how to say, ‘Your hands are dirty’; my comments were met by the Yanomamo in the following way: They would ‘clean’ their hands by spitting a quantity of slimy tobacco juice into them, rub them together, grin, and then proceed with the examination.

2. The Yanomamo make a fool of Chagnon:

At first I tried to use kinship terms alone to collect genealogies, but Yanomamo kinship terms, like the kinship terms in all systems, are ambiguous at some point because they include so many possible relatives (as the term ‘uncle’ does in our own kinship system). Again, their system of kin classification merges many relatives that we ‘separate’ by using different terms: They call both their actual father and their father’s brother by a single term, whereas we call one ‘father’ and the other ‘uncle.’ I was forced, therefore, to resort to personal names to collect unambiguous genealogies or ‘pedigrees’. They quickly grasped what I was up to and that I was determined to learn everyone’s ‘true name’, which amounted to an invasion of their system of prestige and etiquette, if not a flagrant violation of it. They reacted to this in a brilliant but devastating manner: They invented false names for everybody in the village and systematically learned them, freely revealing to me the ‘true’ identities of everyone. I smugly thought I had cracked the system and enthusiastically constructed elaborate genealogies over a period of some five months. They enjoyed watching me learn their names and kinship relationships. I naively assumed that I would get the ‘truth’ to each question and the best information by working in public. This set the stage for converting my serious project into an amusing hoax of the grandest proportions. Each ‘informant’ would try to outdo his peers by inventing a name even more preposterous or ridiculous than what I had been given by someone earlier, the explanations for discrepancies being “Well, he has two names and this is the other one.’ They even fabricated devilishly improbable genealogical relationships, such as someone being married to his grandmother, or worse yet, to his mother-in-law, a grotesque and horrifying prospect to the Yanomamo. I would collect the desired names and relationships by having my informant whisper the name of the person softly into my ear, noting that he or she was the parent of such and such or the child of such and such, and so on. Everyone who was observing my work would then insist that I repeat the name aloud, roaring in hysterical laughter as I clumsily pronounced the name, sometimes laughing until tears streamed down their faces. The ‘named’ person would usually react with annoyance and hiss some untranslatable epithet at me, which served to reassure me that I had the ‘true’ name. I conscientiously checked and rechecked the names and relationships with multiple informants, pleased to see the inconsistencies disappear as my genealogy sheets filled with those desirable little triangles and circles, thousands of them.

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

And so on. Blood welled up to my temples as I realized that I had nothing but nonsense to show for my five months of dedicated genealogical effort, and I had to throw away almost all the information I had collected on this the most basic set of data I had come there to get. I understood at that point why the Bisaasi-teri laughed so hard when they made me repeat the names of their covillagers, and why the ‘named’ person would react with anger and annoyance as I pronounced his ‘name’ aloud.

3. The Yanomamo as “specimens”.

(I doubt that Chagnon consciously intended to dehumanize the people he was studying, despite his initial horror at their appearance, but I was struck by his comparison to them as the slime that lives within crustaceans below. That speaks volumes about the mindset of certain anthropologists.)

In this chapter I will discuss the daily social life and social organization of the fanomamo from several vantages, for there are, indeed, a number of acceptable land widely used approaches to the understanding of social organization in primitive (societies. I will focus primarily on the fascinating problem of village fissioning lamong the Yanomamo and how this reflects the ‘failure of solidarity,’ the inability lof villages to be held together by kinship, marriage, descent from common ancestors, and the ephemeral authority of headmen such as Kaobawa. It would appear that primitive societies can only grow so large at the local level—the village in this lease—if internal order is provided by just these commonly found integrating mechanisms: kinship, marriage, and descent.

I will also counterpose two points of view that are widely found in the field of I anthropology. One of the approaches is the “structural” approach, which focuses on 1’ideal models’ of societies, models that are constructed from the general rules of (kinship, descent, and marriage. These are highly simplified but very elegant [models, but they do not address the actual behavior of individuals in their day-to-Iday kinship roles, their actual marriage practices, their life histories, and why [individuals simply cannot ‘follow’ the ideal rules. The second approach is the statistical models’ approach, which is usually based on large numbers of actual I behavioral and genealogical facts, but yields less elegant, less simplified models. However, such models conform more to reality. I prefer the latter, for they lead to a more satisfactory way to understand individual variation and therefore the ability to predict social behavior. To be able to engage in this approach, one must, of course, [know what the “ideal” patterns are that people’s behavioral choices deviate from. A poignant way of illustrating the difference in these approaches is an anecdote I once heard the famous French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss use to justify his interest in ideal models and ‘structures.’ He likened social and cultural anthro–pology to a kind of science that studies crustaceans. It is legitimate, and even meritorious, he said, to concern oneself with the shell of the organism itself. ‘ Levi-Strauss preferred to consider the shells: They are attractive, symmetrical, pleasant to handle, and pleasant to think about. But he acknowledged that there were other ways of studying this life form. One could focus on the slimy, amorphous, rather unpleasant animal that lives in the shell—such as an oyster or snail. That, too, was a legitimate and meritorious endeavor, and he had no objection if others pursued that kind of approach. The issue, of course, has to do with the extent to which the shell and the amorphous animal inside it make much sense when considered alone and separately. My own view is that the animal inside the symmetrical shell is not as amorphous as it appears and itself has some structured integrity. I also believe that there has to be some kind of causal relationship between the animal and the type of structure it generates in the form of an elegant shell. The shell in this analogy is ‘social structure.’ The amorphous animal inside it is ‘social behavior.’ Once the question is posed, ‘What causes the animal to produce the elegant, symmetrical, shell?’ then a great variety of possible answers—and theoretical issues—comes into play. These are questions about causes of human behavior and, in turn, how that behavior—acts, thoughts, sentiments found among individuals in particular cultures—is shaped by and reflects realities such as demographic facts, physiological differences between males and females, and the evolved nature of the organism itself.

May 15, 2009

Science Magazine article on Jared Diamond/New Yorker scandal

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 1:58 pm

Fierce advocate. Media critic Rhonda Roland Shearer (above) charges that Jared Diamond’s article included errors about Daniel Wemp (left).


Science Magazine
May 15, 2009:
Vol. 324. no. 5929, pp. 872 – 874

Science and the Media: ‘Vengeance’ Bites Back At Jared Diamond

by Michael Balter

Two tribesmen from Papua New Guinea are suing the prominent biologist over a popular magazine article about the human thirst for retribution.

In April 2008, well-known biologist and author Jared Diamond penned a dramatic story in The New Yorker magazine, a violent tale of revenge and warfare in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Titled “Vengeance is Ours” and published under the banner “Annals of Anthropology,” the 8000-word article tells the story of a clan war organized by a young Papua New Guinean named Daniel Wemp to avenge the death of Wemp’s uncle, Soll. In Diamond’s telling, the war started in the 1990s over a pig digging up someone’s garden, went on for 3 years, and resulted in the deaths of 29 people. In the end, Diamond wrote, Wemp won: His primary target, a man Diamond referred to as “Isum,” had his spine cut by an arrow and was confined to a wheelchair. Diamond juxtaposed Wemp’s story with that of his own father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who never exacted retribution for the loss of his family, to draw an overall lesson about the human need for vengeance.

Read full article

May 12, 2009

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

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

For Diamond, the male bower bird makes art in order to pass on his genes

Meanwhile, we smoke cigarettes for the same reason the bird of paradise hangs upside down: to attract the opposite sex

Jared Diamond as sociobiologist

As alluded to in my previous post in this series, 19th century anthropology was deeply imbued with social Darwinist conceptions that in its crudest forms explained colonialism in terms of the racial superiority of the white man. If history moved from lower stages like hunting-and-gathering to successively higher stages like feudalism and capitalism, then the persistence of lower stages could only be explained in terms of brain size, etc.

In the late 20th century this kind of crude racism is no longer tolerated, except perhaps for the Bell Curve theory that achieved much more respectability than it actually deserved, a function no doubt of the racist reaction against the Black liberation movement of the 1960s.

However, just as the need existed in the 19th century to explain European domination over Africans et al, there is still a need today to make sense of how Europe and now the Americans and Japan enjoy a much higher standard of living than the rest of the world. Since it is simply not acceptable to refer to innate racial differences, a more sophisticated analysis is required. That is where Jared Diamond fits in. He caters to the better side of liberals by insisting on the innate equality of all men and women while absolving them for any responsibility for their government killing and stealing from the Third World in order to maintain their lifestyle. A PBS donor can sit in his Connecticut estate feeling no guilt since it was, after all, only an accident of geography that made him rich and the Bolivian poor. If the Incan had the same geographical advantages as the Briton, then things would have turned out differently.

If social Darwinism in its cruder forms has disappeared, there is a case to be made that it continues in a less offensive form today in the discipline known as sociobiology, a term coined by its founder E.O. Wilson and related closely to evolutionary psychology–another field heavily dependent on a mechanical adaptation of Charles Darwin’s writings. As the wiki on sociobiology states, “The discipline seeks to explain behavior as a product of natural selection; thus behavior is seen as an effort to preserve one’s genes in the population.” In keeping with its social Darwinist predecessors, sociobiology agrees that society moves from lower to higher forms. The earlier forms of society, like hunting and gathering, are closer to animal behavior and social evolution consists of moving away from instinctual needs toward more civilized behavior, despite the tendency of civilized man to engage in barbaric behavior, such as on the battlefield.

With this in mind, one cannot but help noticing what appears to be sociobiological themes in Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article, especially the idea that hunting and gathering societies were more genocidal on average than state-based societies such as the kind that were imposed on them by outsiders like the British and the Americans. According to Diamond, the natives of Papua New Guinea were relieved when colonial “pacification” involving an “absurdly few” armed Europeans was imposed on them, since finally they would be spared the “constant fear” of being killed by fellow tribesmen. In other words, the same excuse that the British made for themselves in colonizing India—they needed to curtail barbarisms such as sati, etc.—was made by Jared Diamond. The natives had to be civilized, even at the point of a bayonet.

Is it possible that Diamond’s sociobiological sounding arguments are just a coincidence? I would argue that they are not. Although not as well known as “Guns, Germs and Steel” or “Collapse”, his earlier work “The Third Chimpanzee” put him in that camp, at least partially. While the book does not harp on “selfish genes” or the other trademark elements of the discipline, there is plenty there to demonstrate Diamond’s affinity with Dawkins, Wilson, Pinker and company.

Some of it is unintentionally funny. For example, we learn in the chapter “The Animal Origins of Art” that people make art in order to attract the opposite sex and hence pass their genes on to the next generation. Diamond starts off by a reference to the bower bird, a creature he has studied as part of his day job as a biologist. It turns out that the male bird constructs elaborate and beautiful nests, a kind of art work in their own way, in order to attract females. Guess what. We make art for about the same reason:

Art is a quick indicator of status, which—in human as in animal societies—is a key to acquiring food, land, and sex partners. Yes, bowerbirds get the credit for discovering the principle that ornaments separate from one’s body are more flexible status symbols than ornaments that one has to grow. But we still get credit for running away with that principle. Cro-Magnons decorated their bodies with bracelets, pendants, and ocher; New Guinea villagers today decorate theirs with shells, fur, and bird-of-paradise plumes… In a world where art is a coin of sex, it’s only a small further step for some artists to be able to convert art into food. There are whole societies that support themselves by making art for trade to food-producing groups. For example, the Siassi islanders, who lived on tiny islets with little room for gardens, survived by carving beautiful bowls that other tribes coveted for bride payments and paid for in food.

The same principles hold even more strongly in the modern world. Where we once signaled our status with bird feathers on our bodies and giant clam shells in our huts, we now do it with diamonds on our bodies and Picassos on our walls. Where Siassi islanders sold a carved bowl for the equivalent of twenty dollars, Richard Strauss built himself a villa with the proceeds from his opera Salome and earned a fortune from Der Rosenkavalier. Nowadays we read increasingly often of art sold at auction for tens of millions of dollars, and of art theft. In short, precisely because it serves as a signal of good genes and ample resources, art can be cashed in for still more genes and resources.

With this kind of utilitarian vulgarity, it is of course no surprise that Diamond is a favorite over at PBS with its chronic fund appeals based on cheesy opera recitals and doo-wop.

In a chapter on smoking, drinking and drugs, Diamond once again draws on his experience as a bird naturalist, likening such dangerous behavior to male birds of paradise that grow long plumes out of their eyebrows and hang upside down during mating rituals. Despite their need to attract females, the males also risk attracting the attention of hawks. This risky behavior, according to Diamond, makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint because the suitors will have demonstrated to their female targets that they “have balls”. So what does this “theory” have to do with tobacco, drugs and booze? Diamond explains:

Especially in adolescence and early adulthood, the age when drug abuse is most likely to begin, we are devoting much energy to asserting our status. I suggest that we share the same unconscious instinct that leads birds to indulge in dangerous displays. Ten thousand years ago, we “displayed” by challenging a lion or a tribal enemy. Today, we do it in other ways, such as by fast driving or by consuming dangerous drugs.

Missing entirely from Diamond’s analysis is the social and economic importance of a substance like tobacco in the early stages of the capitalist system, nor its value today to investors like Warren Buffett who once observed: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.”

Turning to the far more serious matter of genocide, Diamond tries to explain what the Nazis did in terms of Chimpanzee behavior, referring to attacks by one band on another witnessed by the famed naturalist Jane Goodall in the 1970s. He concludes: “In short, of all our human hallmarks—art, spoken language, drugs, and the others—the one that has been derived most straightforwardly from animal precursors is genocide.”

With that in mind, it is now easy to understand why Jared Diamond was so intent on finding patterns of mass killings in Papua New Guinea where none existed. He was  so determined to make the case that he even fabricated words and events to suit his conclusion. One supposes that 8 years of George W. Bush will have its consequences on academia unfortunately.

Against this sociobiological nonsense, we can turn to the voices of reason in the sciences that recognized it for what it was after E.O. Wilson made his initial appearance. An open letter to the New York Review of Books titled “Against Sociobiology” appeared in the August 7, 1975 issue. Co-signed by Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and other university faculty and scientists, high school teachers, doctors, and students who worked in the Boston area, it rejected the “primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior”. It concluded:

What we are left with then is a particular theory about human nature, which has no scientific support, and which upholds the concept of a world with social arrangements remarkably similar to the world which E. O. Wilson inhabits. We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange. What Wilson’s book illustrates to us is the enormous difficulty in separating out not only the effects of environment (e.g., cultural transmission) but also the personal and social class prejudice of the researcher. Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

From what we have seen of the social and political impact of such theories in the past, we feel strongly that we should speak out against them. We must take “Sociobiology” seriously, then, not because we feel that it provides a scientific basis for its discussion of human behavior, but because it appears to signal a new wave of biological determinist theories.

Judging from the gushing reception that Jared Diamond’s implicitly sociobiological works such as “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse” have received, it is clear that biological determinist theories must be struggled against on all fronts including where their roots are relatively hidden. That is why Rhonda Shearer’s exposé of Jared Diamond’s New Yorker article is so important. It tears away the fig leaf and reveals that the ideological emperor is not wearing clothes.

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.

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.

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.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.