Diamond’s Argument about the Haves and Have-Nots

In earlier postings, we suggested that Diamond gets Yali's question wrong.  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. 

Many of you know the 13,000 years of human history that Diamond sets out in response to Yali's question – and so we won’t repeat it here.  In telling this history, readers learn that Yali's circumstances did not reflect any lack either in his intelligence or in that of other PNGuineans (and, of course, we agree).  Rather, we learn that Yali was poor and relatively powerless in his own domain because his ancestors lacked access to the mineral resources, domesticable animals, and the other advantages that allowed some to conquer others.  He was born, in terms of the luck-of-the-environmental draw, on the wrong side of the great geographical divide.  

Yet neither Yali nor most of the other PNGuineans we have known over our years in PNG would be satisfied with the inexorability of Diamond's luck-of-the-draw sort of answer, with the implications of his "that's-just-the-way things-were (and must-be)" sort of response.  Such an answer would strike them as a perverse justification of colonial forms of inequality, part of a story that denied them moral worth in the past, to say nothing of the future.  However, it is just this sort of answer, just this sort of invocation of historical inevitability, that tends to satisfy those who are already the haves.  In this regard, the ideology inherent in Diamond's reasoning goes well beyond the particulars of the history he presents.  This ideology supports the status quo, the interests of the already powerful.   For them, the inevitable and the inexorable are readily synonymous with the interests of the haves over the have-nots.  

More broadly, the ideology inherent in Diamond's reasoning is one we confront as teachers and scholars dealing primarily with the haves.  Students tell us that their parents encourage them to read Diamond's book, finding it invigorating.  The (former) president of Fred's college urged his faculty to read it.  In fact, he sent copies of Guns, Germs, and Steel to members of the faculty as a model of the kind of book he admired.  All over the United States, we learned, deans and presidents of other pricey institutions applaud the book.  At Cornell, it became assigned reading for all freshmen.  Moreover, many institutions pay Diamond generously to summarize his views in person, generally in packed lecture halls.  And, of course, there is his National Geogoraphic series.    We think such educated haves like the book so well because it resonates so much and so easily with their own concerns -- in effect, because it so readily sustains them.  They come away from the book (or lecture, or TV show) feeling pretty good about themselves -- both enlightened and open-minded.  They come away seeing the world without racial prejudice and having learned some important new facts and connections.  Furthermore, and significantly, they come away comfortably convinced that they have their cargo (unlike Yali and his people) for inevitable and impersonal geographic reasons.  No one is to blame for the fact that some people are, and no doubt will continue to be, the haves and that others are, and will continue to be, the have-nots.  Thus, Diamond's history is not only the delineation of an inexorable and inevitable trajectory.  It is, as well, both retrospective and prospective.  His depiction of the past provides a far from disinterested model for understanding the present and for shaping the future.  This is to say, he presents the world as one in which the have-nots, whether in PNG or elsewhere, must (seemingly) forever deal with the haves under conditions of fundamental disadvantage. 

But, what exactly is wrong with the history that Diamond presents?   Didn't the events Diamond relates really happen?  Must a history necessarily be disqualified because it conveys the perspectives and interests of the victors, of the haves?  Isn't Diamond's view simply informed by hard-headed realism about the way the world works?  

We certainly do not deny that certain forms of power had a significant role in effecting the kinds of historical events that Diamond delineates.  Diamond's depiction of the role that guns, germs, and steel played is often plausible.  What we do challenge is his conflation of the necessary with the sufficient.  This is to say, just because guns, germs, and steel were necessary to make certain historical outcomes possible, including those so upsetting to Yali, we do not have to assume that their possession was sufficient to explain these outcomes.  Just because sources of power are available, we cannot conclude that the power will be used for certain ends, or even that it will be used at all.  And, simply because European colonists had the power to pursue their interests at the expense of Yali and other PNGuineans, does not fully explain – or justify –  the ways in which they chose to use this power.  More later…….

27 thoughts on “Diamond’s Argument about the Haves and Have-Nots

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  4. “In earlier postings, we suggested that Diamond gets Yali’s question wrong. 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.”

    Ok, see, I’m really not getting this. Are you arguing that, had the Europeans acted snooty, but not actually been better off in terms of power and efficacy through technology than the PNGuineans, Yali would have held the same views about them?

    Imagine some group other than Europeans show up, don’t have the technology, the material standard of living advantage, or the efficacy advantage, but do have an ideology which simply causes them to turn up their noses at the PNGuineans. Would the PNGuineans have started up a cult to try to figure out how to obtain equal worth in the eyes of the newcomers? Just my hunch, but I suspect they’d mostly not care about the new, snooty, but otherwise equal arrivals.

    Anyways,

    You are essentially arguing that it would have been possible for all (not just some) groups of people who possessed firearms, who possessed huge populations, and who possessed germs in their bodies which resulted in other peoples who even walked nearby dying, to not actually dominate their neighbors. When the fans of GG&S say, “give me a break, with that many cultures possessing these things, ie, possessing the ability to colonize, one of them was going to go colonial eventually” you conclude that they are “excusing” that decision. I suspect most of them would look at of “what was” and “what morally ought to have been” as being entirely separate.

    And then for a kicker, just to make sure the argument is especially rancorous, you accuse the fans of GG&S of being biased by their desire to justify their own comparative wealth. Not a good plan. Given the horrifically tenuous nature of your argument regarding the alleged “justification,” and the fact that you personally seem to feel that a focus on the moral evils of colonialism is requisite, a similar accusation about your partiality is easier to make.

  5. Patrick — I don’t think what is being offered here is a declaration of absence of bias. I think, instead, what Fred and Deborah are suggesting is that we *think* about bias when evaluating arguments like Diamond’s, which makes a show of being extremely “bias free” in a particular way (with respect to race). It’s a kind of sleight of hand — Diamond says “look over here at the absence of race bias”! and Fred and Deborah are saying, hmm, from what other kinds of quiet bias might this bright lights/loud clanging declaration of “no race bias here!” distract us?

    They don’t strike me as claiming some kind of value-free ominpotence for themselves — they are merely suggesting we look at more than one thing in evaluating Diamond’s argument. They are not claiming to occupy a magically neutral panoptical position from which they alone can see everything. Your criticism seems to take them to task for something which they do not do.l

  6. I have a really long and wordy response to this series of posts up at my own site, but one narrowly focused point I make in passing is I think worth duplicating here. The assertion that positive readings of Diamond can be reduced to the functional ideological and psychological needs of a group that Errington and Gewertz call the “educated haves” is a sociological shorthand that I suspect most of us would flip out over were it made in the body of an ethnographic monograph. I know this is a short weblog entry rather than a long monograph, but the statement seems so cavalier in empirical terms: it’s made about a hugely generalized social group that is really vaguely identified with a tautological logic and no real investigatory curiosity about audience or reception or anything that anyone who likes the book has actually specifically said about it.

    I guess if this was just a tentative suggestion wryly tossed off and nothing was made of it, that would be one thing, but it functions in these postings as a substantive critique of Diamond’s work and a wide range of readings of it. That if you like the book or find it interesting, it must be because you are an educated have who needs psychological balm to cope with global inequality, and because you have found the book and it serves these purposes, Diamond must have intended to write the book in order to provision you this service and ergo, the book is substantially reducible to this ideological purpose. It’s not just the tautology that’s a problem here, but the crude functionalism.

  7. While there are plenty of ways to critique Diamond’s work I think that this is splitting hairs in a way that subverts your position in the arena in which you wish to have an effect, which seemingly has little to do with PNG and more to do with contemporary pedagogy of anthropology in the “educated West.”
    Diamond’s works are in my opinion too broad to be meaningfully applied or tested to specific cases. In many of the specific cases what are presented are a kind of “just so” story which over-emphasizes the environmental-determinist approach lurking in the work. Braudel I believe offers a more honest appraisal and specific historic narrative of the same processes, which I find more usable in terms of interpreting anthropological and archaeological data.
    In the case of Yali my recent field experiences have told me a great deal about the politician as informant. Often the local politician is the most capable bridge between the daily existence of a group and the interaction between that group and the outside world, whether neigboring groups or oil companies or governments. A politician is a person who can tell you unpleasant truths in a way that is palatable. In this sense, where there is an outside authority, the local politician becomes more like a shaman than a big man-he or she interlocutes the demands of the outside world and makes pleas to the seemingly inscrutable and irrational (to the indigenous person) world of this outside. Henry Sharp’s “The Power of Weakness” nicely captures the nature of this relationship for the Subarctic Chipewyan people. This makes him a limnal person, who, like the shaman, must operate in multiple realms successfully, at the risk of local rejection (for failure to get cargo, or for appearing to be selfish about the spoils of his work) or loss of perceived authority to the outside agents, who will try to find another interlocutor.
    Finally, the positioning of the anthropologists as being better able to understand without context the real meaning of what the informant said is not defensible. Yali meant what he said at that time to Diamond; Diamond in turn is free to interpret it as he wishes. A local politician may have meant exactly what Diamond said, or meant for Diamond to get that message, because he cannot control where that information goes and how it is used. Without some better explanation of the logical process used to make that counter-interpretation, it becomes another colonialist assertion a la Obeyesekere vs. Sahlins, e.g. “I know my natives better than you do because of x, y, and z,” where (x,y,z) do not equal greater study, better data, or more experience but rather some external notion irrelevant to the people at issue.

  8. Erik — we have several (perhaps all!) research interests in common, and I’d be interested in hearing more about it if you drop me a line. Some quick googling did not turn up the citation you mentioned by Henry Sharp — where is this article exactly? ty -R

  9. Ozma: I think the idea that you can explain the popularity of a book like this with any single line of argument is itself fallacious. I think if we were talking about the propagation of a cultural form in southern Africa or Papua New Guinea it would scarcely need to be said that this was important to remember.

    It’s also the case that beginning a discussion of a scholarly book that is read by scholars as well as a larger public with an external explanation of why it is read, cited, circulated, reproduced is a deferred form of ad hominem argument, which most of us know is a bad idea in terms of the mannered culture of academia, but I also think is just not a good practice in any context. So if I wanted to critique Diamond (which I do and have), I start by saying what I think is wrong about his book as a work of scholarship. I don’t start by saying, “What’s wrong with it is the wrong kind of people like it for the wrong kind of reasons.” That immediately tags anybody who does like it, or who criticizes it but doesn’t mark it off as racist or ethnocentric, as a person whose engagement with the text is always already everything but what that reader says it is. It’s not just that this is a really problematic thing for any anthropologist to do, a very incurious way to think about reception and circulation of culture, but it’s also a truly lousy way to persuade people to think differently. Which presumably one wishes to do with the “educated haves”, unless this is another case where it’s more important to rally the troops and every Diamond-lover out there is being seen as a lost soul forever consigned to the army of the ethnocentrenes.

  10. “Yet neither Yali nor most of the other PNGuineans we have known over our years in PNG would be satisfied with the inexorability of Diamond’s luck-of-the-draw sort of answer, with the implications of his “that’s-just-the-way things-were (and must-be)” sort of response. Such an answer would strike them as a perverse justification of colonial forms of inequality, part of a story that denied them moral worth in the past, to say nothing of the future.”

    I don’t know how many PNGuieans the authors have known over the years. I’ve been there myself. Most PNGuineans lived isolated lives in small hunting/gathering communities, with no contact with the outside world until the 1930s. So it’s inadequate to attribute the absence of technology, or social equality, or anything else in their society, “to colonial forms of inequality, part of a story that denied them moral worth in the past.” The people telling the story never heard of PNG.

    90-plus % of the American public believes that we have advanced technology and social forms because we come from an intellectual, cultural, or racially superior stock or because we’ve been blessed by God. Diamond’s work is an effort to show that we’re all the same, and that impersonal causes – geography, etc. – have given us advanced technology. It’s clear that Diamond’s intent is to repudiate the idea that western man is superior. He is subjectively an anti-racist. I suppose that Fred and Deborah’s view is that, his subjective intent notwithstanding, Diamond’s work actually promotes racism. I’m not convinced, and I don’t like that form of argument, but everyone’s entitled.

    I do think that Diamond’s efforts to develop a “scientific” approach to history is marred by his ignorance of Marxism, or perhaps an intentional refusal to consider it. It would be stimulating to see his geographical, etc. approach combined with a class analysis. Marxism has completely disappeared from the public arena, though. And Diamond’s explicit and implicit repudiation of western exceptionalism, and of the view that somehow we deserve the advanced technology, social forms, etc. – a view held by most Americans – is fresh and valuable all by itself.

  11. Timothy B — it’s *always* the content. You say that you don’t like the “form” of argument that addresses why Diamond’s book is popular, but you are just using that as a gambit to suggest “people who make that kind of argument are too stupid to make the far more clever sorts of arguments that I make”. If you would go ahead and say that, *then* we’d be getting somewhere.

    The argument you do make — which defers the field of battle from content to “form” — is a nasty rhetorical move. Nasty because it makes the strong claim that any argument about larger context — which is, in fact, the only context in which Diamond’s work is interesting *at all*, that is, as a social phenomenon — is not serious, tendentious, and unworthy of serious attention. Now, you must recognize that this is the exact nasty move pulled every time anyone wants to discuss what are so often called “identity politics” more generally. Why are you repeating that nasty maneuver? I can’t believe it’s for the same reasons that that nasty move is most often utilized; though perhaps, given our earlier pas de deux in which you felt free to tell U.S. feminism what it was doing wrong, it is.

  12. Rant time.

    You know, this is very frustrating. I keep hearing so many people talk about how this or that moral flaw in Diamond’s use of a freaking anecdotal story is demonstrative of larger flaw in his reasoning that totally undermines his thesis, but *no one ever gets to actually explaining what that is, or how it happens!* Critique Diamond’s book already! Quit setting the stage for *how* Diamond’s book might be critiqued, and do it!

    So far, there have been little teasers thrown out, and a few poor arguments that weren’t pursued very far. Diamond “neglects native voices?” Well, he’s writing about the effects of geography and the environment on long term cultural development. Crop yield analysis belongs here. I’m not sure what native voices have to do with this. I’m not sure what anyone’s voice at all has to do with this.

    The attacks on the crop yield analysis were abortive, and bizarre- references to the nutritional value of acorns that completely ignore the crop yield per acre issue? Come on.

    Diamond makes colonialism sound “inevitable” when really people could have chosen not to do it? Weak argument, it ellides on the definition of inevitable. Diamond’s “inevitable” is in the sense of the following statement: “In a society where handguns are commonly owned and carried about, it is inevitable that eventually someone will get shot.” Not, “it is inevitable that the sun will rise tomorrow.” There’s been some suggestion that maybe non-domineering cultural outlooks would have prevented colonialism, but Diamond’s point isn’t that this is not so, its that such a situation is extremely unlikely given the large number of cultures involved. Yes, there are some assumptions about human nature in there. But they seem rather convincing assumptions, and you can’t just throw them out by suggesting that its not a 100% certainly. Its enough for Diamond that the likelihood be really high.

    Instead, all we get is a big discussion on “wow, how interesting it is that Diamond’s book is so popular. I’m sure it has nothing to do with whether its actually convincing, that’s not worth even looking into, lets analyze people’s hidden racism instead.” For a bunch of people who keep talking about an anthropology of anthropologists, I suspect many of you wouldn’t like it if you got it. “Wow, how interesting it is that Diamond’s book is so unpopular with anthropologists. I’m sure it has nothing to do with whether Diamond’s book is unconvincing, that’s not worth even looking into. Instead, lets analyze their hidden anti-western bias, and discuss how their emotional need for moral condemnation of the west blinds them.”

    I could do that in *eigth grade.* And who knows, sometimes that sort of argument may even be true. But come on. If you’re going to do that, at least admit that you are not critiquing Diamond’s book. You are critiquing western attitudes about history and ethnicity. And bear in mind that since what you’re really doing is inferring subconscious motivation on the part of others, you will never, ever, resolve the issue.

    You’ll just make people really angry, and they’ll throw back at you logically equivalent statements about *your* alleged subconscious ideological blinders. And no one will ever get anywhere.

  13. Peter Clapp is simply confused (very confused) about some very basic facts about Papua New Guinea. Fred and Deborah have spent _years_ there, as have I. It is tiring to read comment after comment here and elsewhere in which people make shallow and unfounded statements about the country.

    Most Papua New Guineans lived in farming communities (often with intense cultivation) and were not hunter gatherers. While the bulk of the country’s population is in the highlands, which was not ‘contacted’ by Australians until the early thirties, coastal people (such as Yali) have cenutries of contact with the ‘outside world’ — if by ‘the outside world’ you mean white people. If by ‘the outside world’ you mean contact with the wider region and communities outside their own, then almost all Papua New Guinean communities meet this qualifications for more than centuries: every area of Papua New Guinea that I can think of had extensive trade networks that connected many communities. This is true of the Rai coast, the south coast of Papua, Milne Bay, Western province, the Sepik (Deborah wrote a book about this!) and of course the highlands, particularly where I worked. I mean oil gathered in Kutubu was traded all the way to Wapenemanda!

    Please, lets try to raise the bar a bit when we talk about Melanesia.

  14. Patrick,

    I think the focus on Yali is natural as a) Fred and Deborah are PNGists who are naturally concerned with the part of Diamond’s argument that directly intersects their own sphere of expertise, and b) Diamond himself makes a big deal of Yali’s question, both in the book and in the TV series. The question serves as a kind of “mythic charter” for Diamond’s whole study — seems to me we can spare a thought-cycle or two in sussing out whether the question really means what Diamond thinks it means.

    But there’s a wider question to this which, for me, has to do with the utility of the kind of world history that Diamond (among many others) writes. The subtext to most of the complaints lodged against GG&S here (and what I’ve seen elsewhere) is that, for anthropologists, this kind of history doesn’t really end up explaining much of anything. If you want to know why and (more importantly, from a scientific standpoint) how colonialism happened, is it enlightening to know that Europeans had a different set of material and biological resources than people in other parts of the world? I mean, it might be an interesting sidebar, but it’s not really a sufficient explanation — and, I would argue, the gist of the story lies elsewhere. In the case of PNG, the “stuffness” of European cargo doesn’t seem to address the way the history of colonialism (and post-colonialism) unfolded there.

    I don’t think the kind of work Diamond does is without value altogether, but I think most anthropologists would agree that it doesn’t shed a whole lot of light on the processes we study. I also don’t think his argument totally fails to be the anti-racist argument he claims — I think his thesis demonstrates the way that historical contingency can produce situations that look like the product of natural, inborn biological differences. But given that part of his claim is that his work challenges racist/racial explanations of history, I think at least part of the evaluation of his work *must be* an evaluation of whether it adequately addresses the racial thinking in the audience to which it is addressed. Diamond didn’t collate a bunch of facts into pure scientific knowledge, he wrote and published a book of popular science, and it is fair to evaluate it as a statement with a particular objective and a particular audience. It is also fair to evaluate the way that his work is used by that audience (or by other, unintended audiences), although as someone else pointed out, this requires looking beyond the text itself if it is to be anything other than speculation.

    Finally, as Rex notes, a lot of the debate here and elsewhere is being made by people who really don’t know a lot about PNG. I know *I* don’t know a lot about PNG, and I’d venture to say I know a hell of a lot more than many of the people making unqualified statement about what Fred and Deborah get wrong. One of the things a text like Diamond’s or like Fred and Deborah’s has to deal with is the misperceptions of faraway places that make racist understandings of history a possibility in the first place. When this debate first surfaced at SavageMinds, many people made comments about the low “standard of living” in places like PNG with no understanding of the ethnocentric assumptions embedded in a concept like “standard of living” in the first place. In the year 1999, it may well have looked to Diamond and many others like the West had all the cargo, but would Yali have asked the same question if, in 1492, he’d fallen in fron of the Aleph and caught a glimpse of European civilization (nb: the Aleph is a Borgesian device, a point from which all other points in the universe are simultaneously visible)? Yali’s question itself, it seems to me, is the product of a colonial history — not of a raw dichotomy between cargo-bearing Westerners and cargo-deprived PNGuineans (for whom “cargo” did not exist at all except in the context of the colonial situation). Does Diamond’s thesis make sense if we change our evaluation of colonial expansion and modern economic domination? That is, if we ask why it is that Europeans were destined to always fear the loss of the holding with which their national and personal identities were so strongly intertwined, that they were bound to put themselves in positions where the only way they could interact with people around the world was through the dynamics of domination, that they would be a source of fear, shame, and degradation in whatever people they encountered in the world — does asking a question like that leave us satisfied with the “guns, germs, and steel” answer?

  15. I said:

    Does Diamond’s thesis make sense if we change our evaluation of colonial expansion and modern economic domination? That is, if we ask why it is that Europeans were destined to always fear the loss of the holding with which their national and personal identities were so strongly intertwined, that they were bound to put themselves in positions where the only way they could interact with people around the world was through the dynamics of domination, that they would be a source of fear, shame, and degradation in whatever people they encountered in the world—does asking a question like that leave us satisfied with the “guns, germs, and steel” answer?

    On second thought, ignore that bit — reading it I realize it doesn’t say what I thought it said when I was writing it.

  16. Ozma:

    I’m saying that if you want to make arguments about the social context of reception, circulation and the making of meaning in regard to a single text, and the connections between that and some actually existing politics in the world, you can’t just assert any of that casually, not if you want to put some weight on any of it, not if you want it to be more than a conversational suggestion. What is readily available to any of us is a substantive critique of Diamond’s scholarship that proposes, perhaps, to convince some of those who like his book that their affection is misplaced because the book is either empirically wrong, conceptually flawed, or simply not a book that explains any of the things which really matter in the world.

    Why is that insufficient? What is so wrong with doing the scut work of trying to actually persuade people that their preferences are misplaced through methodical argument about the substance of the work?

    Why do you want to pass Go and collect $200.00, to essentially X out Diamond as another scholar whose work deserves a scholarly reply, and take the mere fact of his popularity as sufficient invitation to argue that his book does very bad things in the world? Without being willing to talk with any specificity about who these educated haves are, how they actually gained knowledge about the book, what they actually do discursively with it, how the book’s arguments circulate in the public sphere in some traceable way, how particular forms of global intervention have changed or been inflected in new ways by readers of Diamond, anything beyond amazingly confident but also hugely vaporous assertions that because you find the book disagreeable and recognize a set of nebulous connections between it and many other things you find disagreeable, Diamond must be produced by this vast disagreeableness and contribute enormously to its disagreeableness in turn?

    The more weight you want to place on an argument that a particular book does bad things in the world, the more evidentiary obligations you incur. Otherwise you’re no different than the conservatives over the summer who created a list of the ten most dangerous books in modern history, a list which assumed that when a conservative finds the content of a book disagreeable, he is safe in assuming that it had bad consequences in the world at large. Even with books which have most directly aspired to intervene in action or praxis, it’s never very clear what the relationship between the text and the context is. You simultaneously don’t take Guns, Germs and Steel seriously enough and take it too seriously all in one move. More importantly, you grant to yourself a basically unlimited capacity to maintain a Vatican-like list of Banned Books with which you need not engage substantively in terms of content but can target for critique because of blanket assertions that they must be doing the devil’s work in some fashion.

  17. Rex – you’re right. I was confused. Sorry for lowering the bar.

    But, as an outsider, accidently pointed here by a Brad DeLong link, let me try to raise four points – one of which was in my earlier post.

    1. Fred and Deborah attribute to Diamond the view that Yali (and other PNGuineans) lack modern technology not because of intellectual or other inferiority, but because “his ancestors lacked access to the mineral resources, domesticable animals, and the other advantages that allowed some to conquer others. He was born, in terms of the luck-of-the-environmental draw, on the wrong side of the great geographical divide.”

    Do Fred and Deborah disagree with Diamond’s view, as they characterize it? They can’t (it seems to me). So they must think that it’s an inadequate explanation, and that the technological backwardness of PNG and much of the rest of the underdeveloped world is also the result of colonial ways of thinking, racism, etc. But even if PNG has had centuries of contact with the western world, it had a thousand years w/no such contact. During that period, colonial ways of thinking, racism, etc. could not have played a role in keeping the PNGuieans from guns, germs, and steel.

    Don’t Fred and Deborah agree with Diamond that the underdeveloped world’s peoples are not intellectually, etc. inferior, and that they lacked many of the geographic conditions that favored western (and Chinese, etc.) development?

    In other words, don’t they agree with 90% of what he has to say?

    2. Put Yali’s question aside. Diamond asks another question – why didn’t the Aztecs invade Europe? You can’t argue that the Aztecs failed to develop guns, germs and steel at the same pace as Europe because of colonial ways of thinking, etc. What’s wrong w/Diamond’s geographically based explanation?

    Fred and Deborah suggest that guns, germs, and steel are necessary but not sufficient. Of course – to be an imperial power you need the means (GG&S), but you also need to be a brute. But the Aztec rulers brutalized their own peope and every neighboring, less-advanced people they could find.

    If they’d had the opportunity to invade Europe and loot Paris and Rome, do Fred and Deborah believe that they wouldn’t?

    3. According to Fred and Deborah, Diamond’s argument is attractive to the “haves,” because it absolves them of guilt for their own wealth and of responsibility to change the world, and that it suggests that the world’s relative weath and poverty cannot be changed (although Diamond doesn’t say so). They would likely add that whatever Diamond’s personal views, his theory objectively supports the status quo. Probably, they wouldn’t say that, because of the above, Diamond’s theory should be opposed regardless of its merits – but maybe.

    But most theories that attempts to explain the way things are is vunerable to attack as supportive of the status quo. E.g., Darwinism – and even Marxism. Most Marxists are for changing the status quo, but some – citing Marx’s view that only advanced capitalist societies are candidates for change – have opposed revolutionary efforts in less advanced societies.

    It is irrelevant to the GG&S’s merits that some “haves” may use it to feel comfortable about their privilege. (It’s certainly irrelevant to the book’s merits that Diamond gets paid to lecture on it. I’m not an academic, but I know that’s a cheap shot.)

    Most of Fred and Deborah’s piece is about the “haves” who are sustained by Diamond’s theories. But you shouldn’t evaluate a theory based on who uses it for what purpose. You should evaluate it on its merits.

    4. Possibly, some old geezer reads Diamond and says: “I used to avoid guilt over my wealth because I believed I was racially superior. I can’t use that excuse any more, but what-the-heck, I still don’t feel bad, because Diamond says my wealth was inevitable. Watch this drive.”

    But I don’t think so. I think that more people draw from GG&S the conclusion that Diamond intended – if there is no moral reason why one population is richer than another, maybe we should try to do something about it.

    Most Americans, including most American students, believe that America deserves its wealth and relative privilege in the world – that we earned it, worked for it, and are entitled to it, because of our merit – and that the world’s poor are responsible for their own condition, because they are racially, morally, or otherwise inferior.

    Diamond’s theory attacks this complacent, self-satisfied sense of superiority, by explaining that feelings of racial or moral superiority have nothing to do with relative wealth and poverty. Diamond himself opposes racial superiority theories – he is anti-racist.

    (BTW, it’s an old form of argument to say: “Well, X may think he’s attacking racism, but his work objectively supports the status quo, so he’s objectively a racist.” I’d like to see that form of argument disappear, but it will take a while. (A recent, bizarre incarnation – Rumsfeld saying that those who oppose the war “objectively” support terrorism.))

  18. oneman-

    It really doesn’t matter how much of a big deal Diamond makes of Yali’s Question. It doesn’t even matter if he makes it into some sort of mythic charter.

    Look. Lets a politician wants to create a social program, and he finds a single potential beneficiary of the program, and uses this beneficiary in public relations stunts. If we later discover that this particular individual is not nearly as needy and desparate as the politician made them out to be, and maybe wouldn’t gain quite so much from the program as was suggested, does that invalidate the 150 page document of social science research that backs up the program’s usefulness and efficacy that was NOT part of the photo op? Do the numbers suddenly change?

    As for the “looking beyond the text” issue, to do that you have to begin by looking at the text. Otherwise, you’re back at “them durned libral college perfessers!” territory, except from the other direction. Frankly, no one is doing this.

    And with the “does Diamond’s answer make sense if we ask an entirely different question” issue, you’ve got some problems there. It seems like Diamond has a pretty good response there. Its something like, “given that the ability to colonialize existed, and was possessed in fact by a wide number of cultures and governments, it was inevitable that someone would do it sooner or later.” Now, again, that “inevitable” is in the sense I described above, not fatalistically inevitable. And yes, there’s some assumptions about human nature in there. Maybe you want to argue that the entirety of asia and europe could have possessed the militaristic advantages they did indefinitely without beginning colonialism, or maybe that they could have shared their wealth, knowledge, and expertise with the rest of the world. You could argue that. But, first, merely saying that this is hypothetically possible is not good enough. Diamond’s “inevitable” is given the large numbers of peoples involved, and given human nature as it seems to be. Its an argument about probability. You need to show that the hypothetical history in which colonialism did not occur from any source is more than vanishingly likely. That seems a tough challenge.

    If you want to redefine his question to “why Europe, and not some other group with germs, guns, and steel? Why not China? Maybe it was some cultural factor in European thought, lets investigate that,” then fine. But you are of course aware that such an investigation would not actually contradict Diamond’s work. So claiming that it refutes Diamond, or criticizes Diamond, or even interacts with Diamond in any other way than fleshing out an area he doesn’t delve into, would be erroneous.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    “The more weight you want to place on an argument that a particular book does bad things in the world, the more evidentiary obligations you incur. Otherwise you’re no different than the conservatives over the summer who created a list of the ten most dangerous books in modern history, a list which assumed that when a conservative finds the content of a book disagreeable, he is safe in assuming that it had bad consequences in the world at large. Even with books which have most directly aspired to intervene in action or praxis, it’s never very clear what the relationship between the text and the context is. You simultaneously don’t take Guns, Germs and Steel seriously enough and take it too seriously all in one move. More importantly, you grant to yourself a basically unlimited capacity to maintain a Vatican-like list of Banned Books with which you need not engage substantively in terms of content but can target for critique because of blanket assertions that they must be doing the devil’s work in some fashion.”

    You are right. I do both of the things you suggest: I simultaneously don’t take GG&S seriously (in terms of its substantive scholarship) and take it very seriously (in terms of its effects in the world). Yes. Yes. Yes.

    And though you use the examples of the conservative naughty books list against me, I think they are absolutely correct to be concerned about the powerful influence of certain books. Do you really think they are wrong? I actually haven’t seen the list to which you refer, but let’s say I thought every book on it was the bee’s knees. The conservatives and I might *still* agree on one thing: that the books in question can exert some kind of power. We’d just disagree on whether that was to good or to bad ends. So, so far I am agreeing with your critiques but not quite feeling their sting.

    Now, comparing me to the Vatican — aww, that hurts. I have said over, and over, and over again in the great GG&S debates that I don’t advocate the banning, the burning, the forbidding, the wrapping-in-chains-and-throwing-into-the-sea of JD’s book. Hooray that it is in libraries everywhere. Hooray hooray. I say, yes, that it is a bad book with bad effects. But I’m not out to ban it (or any other books). So let’s put that aside.

    But the point you make can be expanded in other ways. Take the protocols of the elders of zion. I don’t want to ban that book. But I don’t think it would be a great use of anyone’s energy to systematically track down its claims and disprove them, saying at the end, “see? there is not a giant zionist conspiracy afoot to run the world”. It wouldn’t persuade the unpersuadable. More generally, I believe it would be a better use of energy to prompt people to think about what makes the claims of such a book seem plausible in the first place. If you disprove the Protocols, you are not doing away with anti-semitism. People could just think, “so that was a hoax, huh. I wonder where the real blueprint is hidden???”

    Let me take another example. Many people believe that the way to take on “creation science” is to show why it is factually wrong. I don’t agree. The motor of creation science is not in the world of facts. Whack the mole of creation science and what pops up? Intelligent design. One has to go after the surrounding framework.

    It makes for stickier work, yes — because yes, it does make a more fundamental challenge to the good will and good faith of the people who believe in and promulgate these accounts. It doesn’t say, “Oh, I am sure your motives are pure and your powers of reason intact. Let me engage you on that level”. It says, “I think your motives are not so great and your powers of reason questionable”. So yes, it’s also kind of arrogant. I’m okay with that. If I’m wrong, I’ll get my taters burnt. Maybe God created the world in 6 days, geography ordained the domination of white people, and now the Jews run everything. Will my face be red if all of that turns out to be true!

  20. The way you’ll “get your taters burnt” is quite different than that.

    Its when people look at you, see that you’ve just compared the study of history in terms of the influence of geography to the nazi era anti semitic literature, and concluded that both should be treated with the same degree of disgust by the academic world. And then those people will start thinking that maybe the whole Student’s Bill of Rights thing isn’t such a bad idea after all.

  21. Patrick,

    You are using the “Nazi defense” which I consider to be one of the most insidious and dishonest forms of debate. If anyone uses any WWII era references in a statement they immediately get attacked for comparing something to Nazis. This is wrong on two grounds: First, it turns Nazis into exactly the kind of pure evil scholars like Hannah Arendt warned us against doing. We can’t understand the Nazis if they are somehow above and beyond comparison. And secondly, it overlooks the actual nature of the reference being made. Ozma was not comparing GG&S to the Protocols of Zion, but was suggesting that it isn’t always necessary to discuss works “in their own terms.” I don’t agree with Ozma 100% on this, but I think her point is a valid one and that your reaction is uncalled for.

    In any case, the Protocols pre-dates the Nazis by a quarter of a century at least.

    As far as my disagreement with Ozma goes, I would say that it is necessary to discuss works in their own terms, but that it isn’t necessary for every scholar to do so. Just like there are blogs devoted to “fisking” everything conservatives say (Atrios, Daily Kos), while others proceed as if conservatives are wrong (Tom Tomorrow) and try to explain why and how they are doing what they do. I don’t see why we can’t have both kinds of critique.

  22. That’s only an intellectual sin if its done frivolously in order to score debate points where they’re not deserved. Its at LEAST as bad to throw out frivolous references to how your opponent shares traits in common with Nazis, in this case by claiming that Diamond’s book deserves the same response as virulent anti semitism deserves.

    Do you honestly see no problem with that tactic?

    As a matter of fact, Ozma’s position is especially worthless, even more so than the examples she’s cited. When it comes to attacking creationism on grounds other than intellectual, that’s only possible because someone else has already done all the intellectual heavy lifting involved. If the case for evolution had not been effectively established, someone who refused to debate the issue by means of attacking creationism and defending evolution on logical and evidentiary grounds would be rightly called highly intellectually dishonest. The irony would be especially high if the individual in question was, say, an evolutionary biologist who refused to argue in favor of evolution and against creation on anything other than collateral grounds.

    The same is true in reference to the Elder Protocols of Zion, and the underlying anti semitism. Its only intellectually honest to attack this in terms of its being racism rather than in analyzing its claims because at this juncture in history, the case for there NOT being a massive jewish conspiracy is pretty damned airtight. The attack on racism grounds basically boils down to, “the evidence that the Elder Protocols and similar books are right is nonexistant, and the evidence that they are wrong is overwhelming. This state of affairs is clearly visible to even the most cursory observation. Therefore, when someone looks at the facts, and comes up with the opposite conclusion of what the evidence clearly supports, its worth asking what’s really going on in that person’s head.”

    In every case, the usefulness of the “underlying motives of the supporter” analysis is premised on the actual facts having been effectively refuted elsewhere, and the information having been promulgated to the public. Sorry, but when it comes to Diamond’s book, the critics aren’t remotely near that point.

    And if a professional anthropologist isn’t willing to do the actual work involved in discussing an issue of anthropology, but prefers to skip straight to the moral villification, a new career might be in order.

  23. Patrick,

    The point about evolutionary biology vs. creation science: the latter is an epiphenomenon of the former, so this person in a vaccuum who might argue against creation science in the absence of evolutionary theory is a very hypothetical personage.

    Your protocols argument doesn’t make historical sense; the book made its first splash at a time when the objective evidence for it was miniscule; in fact if one wanted to believe Zionist conspiracy theories *now* would be the time, when there is an actual Zionist nation-state in existence. The point is that the book is and always has been ridiculous. It’s not ridiculous “now” in a way that it once was not, and it’s not anti-protocols research which has proven its silliness (nor was the book based on research — so research is *really* not the right grounds on which to question it).

    You are right that Diamond’s book is different — in fact the points you make are much better applied to his book than to the other two cases I raised (but I was making different points than you are. Anyway. to get us on to the same wavelength –). A point I’m now sorry has not been made more strongly by myself and others at SM is that in fact in the intellectual history of anthropology geographical determinism has come up again and again, so that for us it is “widely disproven”. So actually here you are right — the anthropological reaction to it is, “oh, that again”. It seems to arise in every generation. But this is also why the public embrace of it *is* an interesting problem in itself — locating inequality in nature rather than history seems to have a recurrent, perduring appeal. It was that phenomenon which I took up in my discussion of Diamond’s book (though I did make some address of its substantive content, as you may recall if you go back to my original post). But I didn’t emphasize that aspect out of malevolence, bad faith, or professional sloth.

  24. Its at LEAST as bad to throw out frivolous references to how your opponent shares traits in common with Nazis, in this case by claiming that Diamond’s book deserves the same response as virulent anti semitism deserves.

    This is most certainly not what Ozma was doing.

  25. Patrick,

    The point about evolutionary biology vs. creation science: the latter is an epiphenomenon of the former, so this person in a vacuum who might argue against creation science in the absence of evolutionary theory is a very hypothetical personage indeed.

    Your protocols argument doesn’t make historical sense; the book made its first splash at a time when the objective evidence for it was miniscule; in fact if one wanted to believe Zionist conspiracy theories *now* would be the time, when there is an actual Zionist nation-state in existence. The point is that the book is and always has been ridiculous. It’s not ridiculous “now” in a way that it once was not, and it’s not anti-protocols research which has proven its silliness (nor was the book based on research — so research is *really* not the right grounds on which to question it).

    However, the points you make *are* much better applied to Diamond’s book than to the other two cases. A point I’m now sorry has not been made more strongly by myself and others at SM is that in fact in the intellectual history of anthropology geographical determinism has come up again and again, so that for us it is “widely disproven”. So actually here you are right — the anthropological reaction to it is, “oh, that again”. It seems to arise in every generation. But this is also why the public embrace of it *is* an interesting problem in itself — locating inequality in nature rather than history seems to have a recurrent, perduring appeal. It was that phenomenon which I took up in my discussion of Diamond’s book (though I did make some address of its substantive content, as you may recall if you go back to my original post). But I didn’t choose to focus on that aspect out of malevolence, bad faith, or professional sloth.

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