Yali's Question Once Again
Timothy Burke http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=94#comments has serious complaints with the analytical and rhetorical strategies pursued by Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz in the quarrel they pick with Jared Diamond at http://savageminds.org/2005/09/07/diamonds-argument-about-the-haves-and-have-nots/#comments.
I have considerably more serious and deeper complaints.
Let's look at what Jared Diamond reports in his Guns, Germs, and Steel of his conversation with Yali:
...a remarkable local politician named Yali.... We walked together for an hour.... Yali radiated charisma and energy.... He talked confidently about himself, but he also asked lots of probing questions and listened intently.... 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... used stone tools similar to those superseded in Europe by metal tools thousand of years ago.... 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." Many 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.... 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?"...
Now let's look at how Fred and Deborah characterize Diamond:
Whereas Diamond understands Yali to be asking about “things”—-about Western “goods”-—Yali was actually asking about social equality. Whereas Diamond thinks Yali envied nifty Western stuff, Yali actually resented the not-so-nifty Western condescension that allowed Europeans to deny PNGuineans fundamental worth. The misunderstanding matters, we think, as more than an issue of factual error. That Diamond does not stretch his imagination to understand Yali’s cultural views is consistent with the history he presents. This is a history that he believes happened for reasons that we in the contemporary West already believe in. It is a history that accords with our view of how the world fundamentally works. Because such a history conveys the perspectives of the “haves,” it not only hinges on the (seemingly) self-evident, it also sustains the self-interested...
Remember the words that Diamond write: "tension... colonists... openly despised... 'primitive'... white 'masters'... on Yali's mind... penetrating glance of his flashing eyes." Diamond does not believe that Yali is interested only in "goods" and not in social equality: Diamond thinks that Yali is very interested in social equality. Diamond is not ignorant of Yali's resentment of Western despisal of Papua New Guineans: Diamond is not so naive as to think that Yali only "envie[s] nifty Western stuff." And Yali was not asking about social equality--if he were, he would have said, "Why is it that you white people treat us black people like s---?" Instead, Yali was asking about "things"--"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?" is a question about things.
I cannot avoid interpreting Fred and Deborah's characterization as a bad faith misreading of Diamond. It carries us out of the territory of speech situations a la Habermas, and into the territory of Karl Rove.