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More "Guns, Germs, and Steel" Weirdness...

A correspondent sends me to another academic's take on Jared Diamond. Here's David H. Holberg, Chair, Department of Anthropology, Cornell University:

The Einaudi Center - Guns, Germs, and Steel: All of you who were involved in an initial way in thinking about the Diamond book might be interested to know that Yali, whose question Diamond claims prompted his book, is the subject of a relatively long study in 1964 by the anthropologist Peter Lawrence. (Diamond met Yali in 1972). I thank Jane Fajans (who works in New Guinea) for alerting me to what is an extraordinary account giving much greater depth to Yali and the question he asked. A good portion of Lawrence's book entitled Road Belong Cargo is devoted to Yali's role in millenarian movements and other political activities. Lawrence's account (as does other expert testimony) contradicts several of Diamond's representations about Yali. From what I have read so far, I would conclude that Diamond's representations are fundamentally misrepresentations which, unconsciously perhaps, disguise a racist and ethnocentric position...

It's beginning to look as if people like Ozma's calling Guns, Germs, and Steel "quasi-racist" and Tak's saying that it "perpetuates racism" may simply be aping their elders. It appears to be a thing their sub-group does in order to close the circle of discourse against outsiders--just as economists close the discourse to outsiders by saying "they don't have a mathematical model" and historians close to discourse to outsiders by saying "they don't have any new primary-source evidence." If so, Ozma's and Tak's claims that Diamond is "quasi-racist," or "perpetuates racism" should not be understood as empirical claims about the world but merely as markers of their own commitment to a group that seeks to close the discourse to outsiders.

Holberg continues:

...Moreover, [Diamond's] patronizing objectification of Yali...

Here's Diamond's description of his meeting with Yali, in full:

... a remarkable local politician named Yali.... We walked together for an hour, talking during the whole time. Yali radiated charisma and energy. His eyes flashed in a mesmerizing way. He talked confidently about himself, but he also asked lots of probing questions and listened intently. Our conversation began with a subject then on every New Guinean's mind--the rpaid pace of political developments. Papua New Guinea, a Yali's nation is now called, was at that time still administered by Australia as a mandate of the United Nations, but independence was in the air. Yali explained to me his role in getting local people to prepare for self government.

After a while, Yali turned the conversation and began to quiz me. He had never been outside New Guinea and had not been educated beyond high school, but his curiousity was insatiable. First, he wanted to know about my work on New Guinea birds (including how much I got paid for it). I explained to him how different groups of birds had colonized New Guinea over the course of millions of years. He then asked how the ancestors of his own people had reached New Guinea over the last tens of thousands of years, and how white Europeans had colonized New Guinea within the last 200 years.

The conversation remained friendly, even though the tension between the two societies that Yali and I represented was familiar to both of us. Two centuries ago, all New Guineans were still "living in the Stone Age." That is, they still used stone tools similar to those superseded in Europe by metal tools thousand of years ago, and they dwealt in villages not organized under any centralized political authority. Whites had arrived, imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as "cargo."

May of the white colonists openly despised New Guineans as "primitive." Even the least able of New Guinea's white "masters," as they were still called in 1972, enjoyed a far higher standard of living than New Guineans, higher even than charismatic politicians like Yali. Yet Yali had quizzed lots of whites as he was quizzing me, and I had quizzed lots of New Guineans. He and I knew perfectly well that New Guineans were on the average at least as smart as Europeans. All these things must have been on Yali's mind when, with yet another penetrating glance of his flashing eyes, he asked me, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

It was a simple question that went to the heart of life as Yali experienced it. Yes, there still is a huge difference between the lifestyle of the average New Guinean and that of the average European or American. Comparable differences separate the lifestyles of other peoples of the world as well...

Patronizing? Objectification? I do not think those words mean what Holberg thinks they mean.

Holberg continues:

...for rhetorical purposes exposes in a clear way the conceptual deficiencies of his key arguments in the book. I will almost certainly use passages of Lawrence's book as the basis of freshman writing assignments in reference to Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Lawrence's long biography of Yali indicates that Diamond is wrong on the facts. Diamond writes, "He had never been out of New Guinea and had not been educated beyond high school, but his curiosity was insatiable." Yali had in fact been in close contact with Europeans since an early age and joined the New Guinea Police Force as a young man. He got swept up into World War II activities and after excellent service was promoted to sergeant and joined the Australian army. In 1943 he received an initial six months of training in Australia. Later in 1943, he returned to Australia: "There he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant-Major, higher than which no native could rise in the Australian army." In 1944, after a series of war time incidents in New Guinea (including a trip on a U.S. submarine), he returned to Australia for six months more training in Brisbane.

I will not try to repeat many of the fascinating details of Yali's subsequent career as both a leader of millenarian movements and regional politics other than to emphasize that the question Diamond uses as a device to frame his account was one New Guineans had struggled with since the early days of contact.

Immediately after the war, Yali was the leader of a very prominent cargo movement (movement to acquire European goods). Lawrence divides the movement into five separate phases. The fifth led to the jailing of Yali and others in 1950 for five years. In the fifth phase, Yali directed a movement to return to native ritual practice. To give you a sense of the cultural politics of the scene I will quote a brief passage from Lawrence about this fifth phase:

"Thus almost overnight the pagan revival became the Fifth Cargo Belief. Although he had described his doctrine in full to Yali and his close associates, Gurek ['theologian' of the movement] gave only the barest outline to the people at the assembly at Sor, telling them simply that it was now known that the New Guinea deities as a whole were their true cargo source [not Christianity]. Yali's new policy was fully justified: the natives must abandon Christianity and go back to their own religion so that the goods they wanted would come. Gurek gave them the following instructions: Traditional rituals for agriculture, important artefacts, pig husbandry, and hunting, and the old taboos associated with them, were to be reintroduced; the Kabu Ceremony was to be performed in full, especially the secret parts of it reserved for adult males; and the Letub table ritual was to be instituted. Small tables were to be set up in private houses and near deity sanctuaries. They were to be covered with cotton cloth and decorated with bottles of flowers. Offerings of the spirits of the dead, who were to be invoked to send cargo. The invocations and offerings would ensure that the deities handed over presents to the ancestors who, pleased by the ritual (especially the Kabu Ceremony), would deliver them to their descendants. At such times, the natives would be told by the spirits during dreams where the goods had been leftCin deity sanctuaries or other parts of the bush. The cargo would include rifles, ammunition, and other military equipment.

"Gurek made other claims on this occasion. Apart from cargo in its usual sense, the deities would send also European domesticated animals, especially horses and cows. Additional 'laws' were laid down: Yali was henceforth to be addressed as King; and the days of the week were to be renamed. Gurek said that as Yali had been born on a Thursday, it was to be renamed Sunday and observed as the official day of rest from now on.....

"Once Gurek had laid the foundation of the doctrine of the Fifth Cargo Belief and the cult associated with it, Yali made a few minor additions of his own by attempting to draw parallels between the new ritual and what he had seen of European life. Gurek said that Mass was a hoax, and that the Kabu Ceremony and the table ritual were the true 'road of Cargo'. Yali corroborated this by saying that while he had been in Australia he had never once seen Mass celebrated, but he had often observed Europeans dancing and setting out vases of flowers in their house, restaurants, and other buildings. The dancing was obviously the equivalent of the ola of the Kabu Ceremony, in which men and women participated together outside the cult house. Again, floral decorations were the European version of the table ritual and, like the Kabu Ceremony itself, were means of honouring the ancestors. Although these ideas added little to the new cult, they were important in that they confirmed Yali's previous conclusions that the European and native religious systems were roughly similar in structure and function."

Diamond missed a lot when he was in New Guinea just as he misses a lot in his panoptic view of human history....

This is fascinating. It makes out Yali the ex-Australian army NCO and Cargo Cult leader to be much more and much less sophisticated than the charismatic politician Diamond describes. More sophisticated: rather than never leaving New Guinea, he spent a year in Australia and voyaged on a submarine. More sophisticated: he leaves Diamond with the impression that he is genuinely searching for answers, rather than cross-checking and seeking confirmation for conclusions he already holds. Less sophisticated: Yali has failed to recognize the distinction between natural technology and supernatural gifts of the gods, and has led many of his followers astray as well.

But how does this the fact that Yali is different from the man whom Diamond thinks it is "expose in a clear way the conceptual deficiencies of [Diamond's] key arguments in" Guns, Germs, and Steel? It is a mystery:

Holberg gives a clue:

...Most fundamentally, [Diamond] did not hear Yali's question and his book is no answer. Rather it perpetuates the colonial relation which Yali through oppositional politics attempted to transform. Yali, in a very fundamental sense, was concerned about what in our terms would be called inequality, justice, fairness, and morality...

Now it becomes clear. Holberg wishes that Yali had asked Diamond one of:

  • Why don't the westerners share their wealth with the New Guineans?
  • Why don't the westerners do more to teach New Guineans how to prosper?
  • How do westerners live with themselves, knowing how unjust is the world that they rule?

Instead of:

  • How did whites learn secrets of wealth and prosperity that New Guineans did not?

At least one of Holberg's beefs, it seems, is not with Diamond but with Yali: Yali is not following the script that Holberg wants him to follow.

And Holberg concludes:

Diamond provides no solace. On the contrary, his deterministic (and simplistic) argument has the opposite effect. Diamond tells us things are the way they are because that is the way that they have to be. Yali was not asking about the origins of unequal relations; he was asking about their perpetuation. In a word, Diamond denies Yali an equal humanity because he makes no attempt to understand Yali in his own terms. This failure is compounded in a more encompassing way in the key arguments of the book because Diamond's argument does not allow humanity in general any sort of culturally-inflected agency in the context of history.

And here we have why, in Holberg's eyes, Diamond is a racist: Diamond (in Guns, Germs, and Steel) focuses not on how human agency is culturally-inflected, but on how it is geographically-inflected and environmentally-inflected. That's materialism. That's reductionism. That's determinism. That's not racism.

P.S.: Road Belong Cargo is a very good book.

UPDATE: And still more weirdness:

Henry Farrell criticizes another Savage Mind, Tak Watanabe, accusing Jared Diamond of "perpetuating racism":

Frog in a Well - The Japan History Group Blog: There are also frightening parallels in the history of Japanese fascism to the kind of environmental determinism used by Diamond.... Diamond... shares with Watsuji a basic methodology of relying on environmental factors as a way to typologize groups of people according to 'race.' The danger here lies... in the biologism of his methodological assumption.... [H]e perpetuates racism by associating a group of people with specific traits...

Ralph Luker jumps in to defend Tak:

History News Network: Henry, It appears to me that... you all are talking past each other.... Isn't it possible that, read in a Japanese context, [Jared] Diamond's argument plays into a Japanese tradition of racialism or racism that isn't otherwise inherent in Diamond's argument in non-Japanese contexts? As Japan specialists, Tak and Jonathan have some obligation to make that point and make it reasonably forcefully, if we fail to understand it. I don't see them as attempting to shut down debate, but as arguing that we -- you and I -- simply don't know enough about the Japanese context to appreciate that fact. I don't have any problem with acknowledging that I don't know nearly enough about Japan to argue with them.

No. It is not possible. The Jared Diamond essay under discussion ends:

The Japanese Roots: WE HAVE SEEN THAT THE COMBINED EVIDENCE OF ARCHEOLOGY, physical anthropology, and genetics supports the transparent interpretation... [that] the Ainu are descended from Japan's original inhabitants and the Japanese are descended from more recent arrivals [from Korea about 2400 years ago]. But that view leaves the problem of language unexplained. If the Japanese really are recent arrivals from Korea, you might expect the Japanese and Korean languages to be very similar....

[M]odern Korean may be a poor model for the ancient Yayoi language of Korean immigrants in 400 B.C.... Modern Korean is derived from the language of the kingdom of Silla... but Silla was not the kingdom that had close contact with Japan in the preceding centuries. Early Korean chronicles tell us that the different kingdoms had different languages... the few preserved words of one of those kingdoms, Koguryo, are much more similar to the corresponding Old Japanese words than are the corresponding modem Korean words.... The Korean language that reached Japan in 400 B.C., and that evolved into modem Japanese, I suspect, was quite different from the Silla language that evolved into modern Korean. Hence we should not be surprised that modem Japanese and Korean people resemble each other far more in their appearance and genes than in their languages.

History gives the Japanese and the Koreans ample grounds for mutual distrust and contempt, so any conclusion confirming their close relationship is likely to be unpopular among both peoples. Like Arabs and Jews, Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood yet locked in traditional enmity. But enmity is mutually destructive, in East Asia as in the Middle East. As reluctant as Japanese and Koreans are to admit it, they are like twin brothers who shared their formative years. The political future of East Asia depends in large part on their success in rediscovering those ancient bonds between them.

Trust me, to say that modern non-Ainu Japanese have the bulk of their ancestors not among the Jomon potters but among the rice-growing Koreans who migrated to Japan 2500 years ago, and have Koreans as their closest cousins--that does not "play into a Japanese tradition of racialism or racism."