Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (David Brooks Edition)
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In Deepest Anthopologia...

Strange and bizarre ideas these Savage Minders have...


Fred and Deborah at Savage Minds say, I think, that inhabitants of Papua-New Guinea are not allowed to want steel axes, modern medicines, and umbrellas because they are useful in dealing with nature, but only because they are markers in human status games:

Savage Minds: "On cargo and cults — and Yali’s Question" Posted by Fred and Deborah: Yali and other PNGuineans became preoccupied with the refusal of many whites to recognize their full human-ness.... In their efforts to establish... equality... PNGuineans sought, often through magical and ritual means, the European things—-the “cargo”—-that whites so evidently valued.... Deeply resenting their inferiority in colonial society.... [Jared] Diamond, hence, misunderstands what many PNGuineans desired when he explains the background to Yali’s question (about the differences between white and black people).... [H]e presents local resentment as directed not at the nature and use of concerted colonial power so much as at the differential access to goods...

[I]n using the term “goods” Diamond implies that such items were inherently desirable.... Diamond suggests that local people will do whatever it takes to get such things: that in their desire for goods, local people are the agents of their own domination.... [H]e displaces our attention from the nature of colonial power relations.... PNGuineans such as Yali wanted cargo not because of its inherent and instantly recognizable value, but... to transform the relations of inequality between whites and blacks.... They wanted cargo primarily because they objected to... the... colonial governmen... [which] diminished their relative worth...

One might say that the Savage Minders misrepresent Jared Diamond's book. Yali's question is not "about the differences between white and black people." Yali's question is: "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?" http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2005-3_archives/001336.html.

One should say that the drawing of a sharp distinction between the "nature and use of colonial power" on the one hand and "differential access to goods" on the other would make Karl Marx's head explode. "Power," Marx would say, "is used to create 'differential access to goods'! That's the point the ruling class sees in having power!"

One must say that the Savage Minders' posing of a stark binary opposition between cargo-qua-use-value and cargo-qua-carrier-of-social-status seems badly off. Take it from me: lots of cargo makes life easier, more pleasant, less dangerous, less stressful, and more fulfilling. Take it from me: lots of cargo greatly improves one's bargaining power vis-a-vis others in social and economic situations--there are few unpleasant or laborious situations to which you must submit because there are no better options. For what is status but power over destiny, the ability to say no" coupled with the ability to make others jump? These are inextricably linked: almost always, it is possession or control over important use-values that carries with it benefits in terms of status and bargaining power; almost always, high status and bargaining power are used to gain control over important (because scarce) use-values.

Yet Fred and Deborah want very badly to draw a distinction between a "western" orientation, toward technology, wealth, and use-values, and a very different Papua-New Guinean orientation:

About Yali: Yali... remained largely PNGuinean... concerned less about the material attributes of things themselves than about the social uses to which things were put.... [For Yali] things have value because they can be used in transactions to establish relationships of recognition and respect... more like gifts than commodities. They are exchanged to establish relationships of obligation, alliance, and friendship rather than to get "good deals."...

Once again, the insistence on a binary opposition. Why? Why either-or? Why not both-and? If the deal is not good, the obligation is not established. If what is exchanged is not of significant use-value, its exchange is not an act of friendship and alliance. If the colonial government keeps you poor and without cargo, you have low status and cannot look the white invaders in the eye. If you claim to be of equal status--indeed even if the Australian government formally recognizes that you are of equal status--and yet have so little cargo that you are less able to keep yourself well-fed, dry, and entertained than the lowest-ranking clerk in a government office, your claim to equal status is empty.

Yali was interested in how he could get cargo for his people so that they could do their daily work more easily and efficiently. Yali was interested in how he could help his people stand up so that they could look the western invaders in the eye. Yali thought (correctly) that acquisition of cargo would be a powerful tool to that end. In the course of a long conversation, Yali asked Jared Diamond a question as part of his continuing campaign to learn about how the world worked. Jared Diamond allows Yali his own words and ideas. Diamond, I think, takes some care not to mention aspects of Yali's career that Diamond believes would rob Diamond's readers of their respect for him and his question.

Jared Diamond treats Yali with dignity.

Fred and Deborah enter the scene. They appear to say that were Yali and his people to recognize--as anyone who has spent two days in a Pacific rainforest does--the usefulness of a steel axe, their "desire for [western] goods" would make the "local people... the agents of their own domination." They prefer to construct a Yali who cares only about overthrowing colonial oppression, and not about how access to western technology could improve the material circcumstances of his people.