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Hoisted from the Archives: Savage Minds on "Yali's Question" Once Again

We are not going to have an April Fool's Day this year. We are going to have an April Fool's month!

Let's start by hoisting some of the true postmodern crazy crazy from the archives from a decade ago:

Brad DeLong : Yali's Question Once Again: Timothy Burke 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 >>.

I have considerably more serious and deeper complaints than "analytical and rhetorical strategies".

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 used stone tools similar to those superseded in Europe by metal tools thousand of years ago....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.

Brad DeLong : Intellectual Garbage Pickup on Guns, Germs, and Steel: Sigh.

Time for some unpleasant but necessary intellectual garbage pickup on the critics of Guns, Germs, and Steel over at

An ordinary human being, on reading:

Ozma: Diamond... argues that the inhabitants of this Eurasian landmass started off with a better array of potentially domesticable plants than did prehistoric humans living elsewhere on the planet. There are pages and pages of discussion of wild plants with a large, oily seed yield -- the kinds of plants that would be good candidates for domestication. At first reading, my problem with this argument was that it is utterly post-hoc: he insists that there just plain are (and thus, by inference, were) more such plants in Eurasia than elsewhere, but I wondered about ongoing hybridization between wild ancestor plants, land races, and domesticated plants across thousands of years of domestication and whether that may have transformed what he takes to be the "wild" baseline.

But my fuzzy doubts [about Diamond] are mere amateur ankle-biting as compared to the expertly rear-end-kicking article lead-authored by John Terrell of the Field Museum (full reference below). It demolishes the bright line demarcating agricultural domestication in human prehistory that sustains this entire portion of Diamond's argument. It also offers a thoroughgoing critique of Diamond's thesis and evidence. Highly recommended reading...

would think that the article cited challenges Jared Diamond's belief that the inhabitants of Eurasia 12000 years ago had a larger and more promising array of potentially domesticable plants than did people living elsewhere, and presents evidence that Diamond's claims about Eurasian agriculture's ability to draw on a broader portfolio of plants is false.

The ordinary human being would be naive.

The article doesn't.

What the article does do is to point out that lots of people spent some time farming, some time hunting, and some time gathering (blackberries, anyone? there are still a few left); and to point out that people who are not-farmers alter the landscape (planted any Baobab trees lately? Set any forest fires to enlarge clearings so that there will be more deer about?). It goes on to claim that we simply should not talk of the "domestication" of particular kinds of plants or animals--or at least the article claims that "any knowledgeable fly-rod fisherman... has domesticated his or her surroundings... at least as skillfully as a farmer domesticates the Indiana landscape by turning the sod and planting corn and soy beans..."

Brad DeLong : Sigh One Last Time...: Here is what Jared Diamond says, in his Guns, Germs, and Steel, about the consequences of the enormous Eurasian (and even more enormous western European) edge in power--in guns, germs, and steel--that had developed by 1500:

The history of interaction among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries.... [M]uch of Africa is still struggling with its legacies from colonialism. In other regions... civil unrest or guerrilla warfare pits still-numerous indigenous populations against governments dominated by descendants of invading conquerers. Many other indigenous populations... so reduced in numbers by genocide and disease that they are now greatly outnumbered by the descendants of invaders... they are nevertheless increasingly asserting their rights...

Here is what Fred Errington and Deborah Gewertz say about Diamond:

Savage Minds: [Diamond offers] a history of morally neutral conquest through the use of techniques and technologies of physical domination... a model that justifies as well as universalizes expansionism: one used to explain what happened to "everybody for the last 13,000 years" (1997: 9).... Indeed, given Diamond's view of history, the conquest that he (rather mechanistically) entitles "Collision at Cajamarca" (1997: 67), was inevitable.... De Las Casas, citing eye-witnesses and writing only two decades after the event, conveys the massacre as remarkably cruel and entirely unjustified. From his contemporary Spanish perspective, Pizarro was, even by the standards of the time, a "great villain."... We do not think that Diamond, given his history of grand inevitability, would be much interested in such alternative voices as de Las Casas's.... Certainly, the voices of those like Yali would scarcely register: their concerns and sense of injustice would not be heard, their claims to moral worth would not be recognized....

Errington and Gewertz are, of course, simply lunatic.

"Genocide" is not a "morally neutral" term. To say that indigenous peoples "so reduced in numbers by genocide and disease that they are now greatly outnumbered by the descendants of invaders" are now nevertheless "asserting their rights" is not to ignore the "concerns and sense of injustice" of indigenous peoples.

It is hard to know why Errington and Gewertz make the claims that they do. Are they so ignorant of the meaning of words in their own culture that they think the word "genocide" is "morally neutral"? Are they making a cynical bet that the group they are really addressing is made up of people who will never take the time read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, and thus that they can simply make stuff up?

To claim that Jared Diamond sees genocide as "morally neutral conquest through the use of techniques and technologies of physical domination" is very false and ugly.

Brad DeLong : 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?"

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 material circumstances.

Fred and Deborah do not treat Yali with dignity, but as a sock puppet whom they are free to misrepresent at whim to advance their own bizarre ideological agenda.