Stinky Journalism has launched the latest in it’s still-ongoing criticisms of Jared Diamond’s Vengeance piece in The New Yorker. While we haven’t covered all of the SJ columns on this blog, I do think it’s important to direct people’s attention to this one. Rebutting Jared Diamond’s Savage Portrait: What Tribal Societies Can Tell Us About Justice And Liberty is the lengthiest, most competent, and most incisive account of the short-comings of Diamond’s article. Indeed, it looks to be the definitive last word on the subject. This is the one to teach along side the Diamond article.
The piece is co-written by Paul Sillitoe and Mako John Kuwimb. Paul is recognized pretty much worldwide as the expert on the area where the events in Diamond’s story take place. More than that, however, he has a reputation for scrupulous, scrupulous ethnographic work. I heard him once say that he was an “ethnographic determinist” — meaning that he believed in “putting facts on record”. He has not only produced decades of publications, but all of his work shows an exactitude and rigor which is astonishing and, frankly, a little intimidating. Famously, his book on Wola agriculture includes descriptions of Wola attitudes to worms, that is how complete the guy is (in fact, if you are looking for a good ethnographic description of pre-contact highlands PNG for an intro class, I’d recommend his Grass-clearing Man. But be warned — you are going to learn a lot about giving pigs away). I’ve never met Mako John Kuwimb, but his bio — which includes time working for the well-known Australian legal firm Warner-Shand — is impressive and, best of all, he is a Papua New Guinean from Southern Highlands talking about his own people and his own experiences.
In sum, the piece is by 1) the top expert the area and an anthropologist renowned for his empirical rigor and 2) a highly-educated Papua New Guinean from the area under discussion. It’s no surprise, then, that the piece is so thoroughly put together. It is, in essence, an account of what actually happened in the conflict that Diamond described, complete with timeline, pictures, and a detailed description of events. Interspersed throughout is a wider account of how people manage conflict and reciprocity in areas without much governmental presence. Thus the article is a double repudiation of Diamond’s piece — it not only sets the facts straight, it points out the flaws in his theoretical account of ‘vengeance’ in ‘primitive societies’ as well. As someone who lived not too far from this area not too long after the events recorded in the story, this account rings very very true to me.
There are, of course, things one could quibble about in the article. A major thrust of the piece is that Papua New Guineans live freer lives than people in highly-governed first world countries. This is something I hear frequently when I visit the highlands: that Papua New Guinea is a “free country” where you can “eat free and run free” without external government forces or the induced poverty that a cash economy creates. At the same time, however, I know many Papua New Guineans who long to be free of the web of obligations and reciprocity that goes along with life in the highlands, and to live without the sometimes-crushing anxiety and concern for status that drives people to participate in exchange in order to not be seen as rubbish men. Perhaps the piece invites us to think more carefully about what justice and liberty really are, rather than simply accept that the correct answer to this question is an inversion of the one Diamond gives.
Overall, however, the biggest impression one gets after reading is this piece is: this is ethnography (or perhaps, ‘this is journalism’?). We have often talked on this blog about how Diamond’s work uneasily spans several genres. With Kuwimb and Sillitoe’s piece, we finally get to see what the situation in Papua New Guinea really is, what high-quality work looks like, and what the public really deserves from their experts.