“All it takes is a Passport”

My reading of The World Until Yesterday (WUY) is taking me down a Jared Diamond rabbit hole which is turning into a semester-long project. At the end of my last entry on Diamond I wanted to talk more about how his approach to understanding human variation differs from that of actual cultural anthropologists. However, in order to do this I’d actually have to review his other new book Natural Experiments in History, which would drive me off course of my review of WUY. Since these blog postings are going to be collected and appear in an actual published article and the deadline is nigh, I’ll reign in these general discussions of what science is or could be, and continue on to chapter 1 of WUY, entitled “Friends, Enemies, Strangers, and Traders.”

I should begin by saying that there is a lot that is right in Diamond’s book — all the stuff that he got from anthropologists! So much of WUY is a standard ‘they do it different, and possibly better, over there’ anthropological line that it is hard to criticize the broad thrust of the book. My feeling about WUY overall is similar to my feeling about Guns, Germs, and Steel: the stuff that Diamond borrows and popularizes is good, useful, and deserves a wider audience. It’s the things which Diamond adds to this that are so problematic. Overall, I think that Diamond is like Mao: 70% right and 30% wrong. Or, as they say in tok pisin, em i gutpela tasol em i no gutpela tumas. 

There will be some people who will just be filled with outraged that Diamond refers to people as hunter-gatherers because doing so inherently wrong. There will be those who are nauseated at the press coverage and fanboyage which surrounds Diamond. There will be those who dislike the compromises that one makes when writing a popular book. And there will always be the sticklers for detail who are outraged when Diamond says his coffee cup is in the middle of the saucer when it’s actually three centimeters to the left and Jared Diamond is trying to cover that up! But overall Diamond is a careful, intelligent, experienced, person who has drawn fire before and is very good at covering his ass. When someone like that does their impression of an anthropologist, its hard to make simple arguments stick, or to excuse superficial reading of his work. Again, the comparison to David Graeber is relevant: the people who have already decided they do not like him will not take the time to read the work critically and look for the actual problems that might lie therein.

At base, what drives people crazy about Diamond is his Whiggish history of humanity, a personality and disposition to be insufficiently critical of his subject position. We see it peak out in unexpected places in WUY, where it is carefully shielded by reasoned generalization. Whether or not you like Diamond’s tendencies is a personal choice so I can’t really argue with people who just, in principle, think the guy should be more interested in Occupy. But I do think that this Whig version of human history does lead to some strange conclusions — like the one I will examine in this chapter, about passports.

In this chapter, Diamond lays out what all traditional/small-scale societies have in common by examining how they divide space and the people who travel though it (see my notes for World Until Yesterday). Traditional societies (TS) have a variety of different forms of managing land between groups. In situations where food supply is scarce or unpredictable and population is low, boundaries between groups tend to be porous, while in stable, fertile areas they are likely to be well-defined and patrolled. According to Diamond people know little about the broader world, trade mostly with adjacent groups, and fear strangers they encounter as potential enemies.

There’s a lot to say about this picture, but here I want to focus on one thing. Diamond contrasts this closed-in existence with that of modern first-worlders. “Over much of the world today,” he writes, “citizens of many countries can travel freely. We face no restrictions on travel within our own country. To cross the border into another country, we either arrive unannounced and just show our passport, or else we have to obtain a visa in advance but can then travel without restrictions in that other country. We don’t have to ask permission to travel along roads or on public land. The laws of some countries even guarentee access to some private lands” (37). Such freedoms, he says, are “unthinkable… almost everywhere in the world throughout human history and still are in parts of the world today” (37).

I understand why some people would believe that this is true: the story that Diamond is telling jibes with (but carefully avoids endorsing!) an evolutionary view of increasing freedom and human perfection that can be traced back to Herbert Spencer, among others. There are many social scientists whose books are still on the shelves who make a similar argument. However, I think this point is profoundly wrong.

Let’s face it, people living in a world without the state, bureaucracy, police, and complex networks of material culture allied with these forces (fences, locks, concrete barriers) lived in a world of much greater freedom than those of us who have passports today. If you wanted to go somewhere, you went there. Today you need a passport and visa — objects which require a lot of time and money to get. For people who are not wealthy college professors, getting a passport takes a lot of time and trouble — much less trouble than putting some sweet potato in your netbag and hitting the road.

And indeed, Papua New Guineans have frequently remarked on this difference between their country and mine. I’ve frequently been told that America is a “money country” where your actions are curtailed by police and strangers, whereas Papua New Guinea is a “free country” where you can “eat, sleep, and run free”. In America you must have a job to earn money to buy food, and getting time off to leave the country is not easy. In Papua New Guinea, most people are not enmeshed in a system of industrial work-time and can pretty much do and go where they want without having someone fire them for being late to work. And while police violence is a problem, it is also random and not something used to enforce the dictates of the state.

Of course, Papua New Guineans couldn’t physically travel as far as Americans today because they lacked the technical capacity to do so. But our capacity for long-distance travel comes from a narrowing of our choices, a placement in a system of inequality which amplifies our ability to do some things and forecloses the possibilities of us doing others.

The same is true of everyday life within the US and EU. I was struck by Diamond’s argument because my own experience of returning from Papua New Guinea to the US was the exact reverse of his — compared to PNG’s rural countryside of subsistence farmers, America’s physical environment of enclosed private property, security cameras, locked buildings, ‘warning do not enter’ signs, lampposts and pipes and public telephones and ATMs and vending machines — which all claim to be illegal to tamper with — is a minefield of fenced-in, warded-off, privately owned property which restricts your freedom.

Even in ‘public’ spaces in the United States, permissible actions are incredibly curtailed. You can’t sleep. You can’t go to the bathroom. In many places you cannot cook or eat food, or must wait for special times to do so. Unless if you’re in NOLA, you most likely cannot drink alcohol outside. You cannot ride cars without elaborating permitting and licensing rules. Even if you have obtained all those permits and licenses, you still must travel at certain speeds, and obey the instructions of stop signs and traffic lights. You must drive on one side of the street and not the other. You can only park in some places and not others, and often times you must pay for parking. You cannot dig up electrical cabling under the ground. The subsoil resources you find beneath your house do not belong to you. You cannot print your own passport or money. The list goes on and on.

Diamond probably thinks, like most Americans, that it is worth making this trade off in order to be able to go on vacation to France. But its one thing to say that its worth giving up your freedom to acquire vacations, another thing to mistake the latter for the former. Many Papua New Guineans I’ve met have told me they would rather live free and reliant on their sweet potato garden then give up their autonomy in exchange for occasional plane flights.

In fact, most people who live in many countries around the world (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil) cannot just up and travel wherever they’d like. Visas and passports are even more difficult for them to acquire — if you are a Papua New Guinean coming to the United States, you must overcome the presumption that you are an intending migrant. From the lofty big-picture viewpoint of Guns, Germs, and Steel US and EU privilege is the result of the shape of continents and where cattle were domesticated. But at any scale that is relevant to our current lives, the current international travel restrictions (or lack thereof) on Americans follow from a history of international relations in which the US and the EU have been pushing people around a really long time. Our freedom is a result of our power, not the generic way we carve up time and space. It’s genuinely surprising to me that Diamond, the guy who literally wrote a book on colonialism, can transform “the most privileged people from the most privileged countries can do what they want” into “highly evolved states allow people more freedom of movement than traditional societies”. Its strangely myopic and, at at basis level, just not true.

I think you can see now why I call WUY the “Anti-Debt“. Beneath Diamond’s particular aim to find things of value in TS, there is a much bigger narrative at work about world history and the value of Western society. One may or may not find this story offensive or politically incorrect, but to me the most important thing to note is that at times it just leads one astray into saying things which, imho, are just incorrect.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

25 thoughts on ““All it takes is a Passport”

  1. Can I just say, that as well as this post being really interesting, it’s super informative and helpful to see the way you’ve made your notes – have picked up some ideas I’m going to use! Any more of this in the future would be appreciated please!

  2. This is really interesting. It kind of reminds me when I did a paper on levi-Strauss’s theory of culture and mind. This would have been a good comparison to do it on.

  3. I know Rex will ignore this comment as such is the white power pattern that he has developed to let me know that I am of ‘the lesser orders’, but I do think it is worth pointing out the following, especially in a post which takes Diamond to task for not being sufficiently critical about his subject position (e.g. ” We face no restrictions on travel within our own country.”).

    Clearly Diamond was not thinking about policies like ‘stop-and-frisk’ when he made the above-quoted statement. But neither does it seem was Rex. And this is in fact no small omission given how racial subject position and skin color affect all the other forms of ‘unfreedom’ which Rex lists above. Yes, the restriction and ‘do not enter’ examples be enumerates may apply to all bodies within a national territory (in this case the US), but they certainly do not apply equally.

    So yes, good to be attentive to subject position, and call out when others might need to do the same.

  4. Rex, this is great, thank you. I completely agree. Passports seem so basic to highly-mobile members of industrialized societies that they often forget that many cannot take such free international travel for granted. (And the ability to travel, of course, is not the same as the ability to legally immigrate and work — a distinction that many do not make.)

    A brief ethnographic example, now a decade old: I had so many people ask while I was in Bolivia how to immigrate to the U.S. (and I was so ignorant about how to do that, being a US citizen) that I finally informally asked someone at the embassy what the process was. The response? Basically this: The people you work with don’t stand a chance of getting a visa to enter the U.S.

    This was meant to be realistic, not offensive (and this person did explain the procedure, information that I passed along), but it’s a far cry from the idea of free travel throughout the world. And now, of course, Bolivia has responded to this inequality by making it difficult for US citizens to gain permission to live there. Meanwhile, Bolivians (including some that I worked with) continue to emigrate, but less to the US than to Spain, Brasil, Argentina, etc. People are still moving around, yes, but national policies influence what those patterns look like.

  5. I don’t know if this has been observed before on SM about Diamond, but Rex’s observation about “covering his ass” is what has raised the ire of many because it manifests itself when presented in public by a complete refusal to engage seriously with discussion that questions anything in any way.
    [warning: anecdotal evidence follows]
    I had this experience when on a panel with Diamond about GG&S at the American Historical Association meeting in 2000 with me as an ethnohistorian (who had in fact won numerous awards in 1995-6 for an ethnogenesis book that centrally demonstrated the success/failure patchiness of guns, germs, and steel in a North American area he did not consider) together with environmental historian J.R. McNeill (who had in fact won numerous history awards for his world environmental history in that same year and wrote the encounter with Diamond up here: http://nicspaull.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/guns-germs-and-steel-critique-mcneill.pdf). Both of us presented considered critiques of the work from our own areas of expertise and generally, and I feel did politely and constructively raise issues with the book while praising it for its popularization of important questions. Further, Diamond had access to our papers beforehand. It was so civilized that many in the audience were speechless when Diamond completely ignored what we had to say and simply reasserted all his arguments; though McNeill may have remembered this as a “bracing discussion,” except for denying that there was much to talk about Diamond did little else except reiterate his own position–and, as we can all observe, has blithely continued in the same vein to colonize more areas and topics.

  6. @Pat, thank you for the link and anecdote.

    In Rex’s previous extremely helpful review of Questioning Collapse, he outlines a similar point:

    As for Diamond, the impression I get of him is of a scholar who increasingly refuses to adhere to the best practices of the university, and who can get away with it because of the power and influence that comes from being in the public eye.

    Questioning Collapse

  7. Jason, great quote/reminder, especially given that this power/high-public-profile refusal to adhere to university best practices is not limited to Diamond. I also thinks it makes for an interesting conduit for rethinking the actual–and frightening–rectitude of Diamond’s “all it takes is a passport” assertion. It just depends on which ‘passport’ one is actually thinking about: race/class/color privilege, institutional status and affiliation, high public profile.

    Seems like we’re having another kind of, de facto conversation about ‘open access’. And certainly worth thinking about how the traditional concerns on this site with Open Access relate to this other kind of ‘open access’. And they are certainly NOT unrelated as the kinds of books Diamond writes, even though sold, make their way to a large public more easily than most academic journal writing (even when articles are free online, because of issues of the article’s conceptual and syntactical accessibility, or lack thereof), or academic writing more broadly; plus, a copy of Diamond’s latest book will most likely make it to a public library, where it can be obtained without buying it. For many reasons, including subject position of the author and subject matter, simply publishing one’s academic writing free online does not mean that it will get much public (or anthropological) attention. So it is certainly worth thinking about why Diamond has such a high public profile and gets to speak publicly for anthropology.

    Similarly, given the question in this post of to what extent Diamond’s claim that all one needs to travel internationally is a passport (and a visa) is not true and is a product of his inadequately acknowledging his subject position (and white male) privilege, and given that anthropologists are responding to this post by citing their own foreign fieldwork experiences, it really is necessary to return once again to the issue of whiteness/light-skin privilege as its own ‘passport’ (quite often) for international travel, especially in many parts of the world which will see a white anthropologists as authorized to speak/speak for/speak over, as an expert ‘Westerner’. It really is kind of ridiculous that we just can’t be more forthcoming about this (yes, the predictable pattern of race avoidance discussed in “Anthropology as White Public Space?”, I know), but it is clearly a factor both in academic and non-academic international travel (as well as intranational travel), and certainly affects one’s anthropological fieldwork experience and conceptualizations of it (as was clear in the discussion of Adam Fish’s December 2011 ‘Hackers,Hippies…’ post). It is not simply the color of one passport that matters for international travel, but also the color of one’s body: and yes, this goes for relatively-wealthy anthropology professors and graduate students, too.

  8. Hi @Discuss,
    Thank you for the comment, which reminds me of two things. Back when I was guest blogging here I wrote The Bongobongo and Open Access which aimed at the idea of accessibility. That seemed to be something Trouillot and Thomas Hylland Eriksen were aiming for in the mid-2000s, and sometimes seems to get lost.

    Turning to Trouillot and the idea of the passport reminded me of a great article he wrote The Anthropology of the State in the Age of Globalization which speaks precisely to how the state polices movement, externally and internally. Trouillot’s third example, of “the encounter between one Turenne Deville and tbe U.S. government in the 1970s. At the news that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was to send him back to Haiti, Deville hanged himself in his prison cell” (2001:125) seems interesting to consider these days, especially since Diamond lately has stylized himself as qualified to write about Haiti and the Caribbean (his one chapter in the book Rex mentions above, Natural Experiments of History is about Haiti and the DR).

  9. Why was my response to Jason’s comment deleted when it did not violate the comment policy?

  10. Diamond is interviewed in today’s New York Times magazine. He wins the prize for the most pretentious response to “What are you planning to read next?” His reply (capitals are mine) “I am going to REREAD ­Thucydides.”
    Why do I care about Jared Diamond (caution, personal anecdote follows)? I was part of an Earthwatch dig on Easter Island when JD was doing his research for “Guns, Germs and Steel.” He came up to our dig and started talking to the archaeologist who was in charge. I wandered over to listen to their conversation. The great JD shooed me away, dismissively, saying something to the effect of “We are having a serious scientific conversation. It’s not for the likes of you.” I guess that JD doesn’t consider a woman with a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from an Ivy League school worthy of listening to him squeeze every last fact out of a junior colleague for a book that will make him rich and will include only a cursory acknowledgement of the junior colleague.

  11. I have decided to put my response to this post on my blog, because otherwise I know I’ll only generate a flame war or something similar and we’ll all end up worse off. My comment is also quite long.

    But even though I have commented on this post on my blog, I have to comment a little here. Look at this point, for instance:

    Diamond probably thinks, like most Americans, that it is worth making this trade off in order to be able to go on vacation to France. But its one thing to say that its worth giving up your freedom to acquire vacations, another thing to mistake the latter for the former.

    There are different kinds of freedom. The failure to grasp this elementary point ruins the entire post. Your freedom to drive recklessly outside of the speed limit would impinge upon my freedom to go about my day unmolested by a tonne of screeching metal. Your freedom to shit in the kitchen of a restaurant would impinge upon the freedom of the proprietor to sell sanitary food. The freedom to murder is technically a freedom like any other; your freedom to kill other human beings would impinge on the freedom of other human beings to live.

    So we agree on a set of laws that navigate through this mess of freedoms as best as they can. By using good sense, we can try to maximise the freedom of human beings to live their lives without fear of one another. We can actually use the law to maximise freedom. The state doesn’t just take freedom away.

    Seems like basic political philosophy to me. Maybe I’m missing something.

    If you’re interested in Natural Experiments of History, you could check out Michael Smith’s review. His take on Collapse and its associated literature is also good.

  12. A serious question: What happens in PNG in 1900 if you and a friend “put some sweet potato in your netbag and hit the road”, heading ESE? Do people welcome you along the way, gossip with you, assist you in finding places to sleep, and do you eventually wind up at Port Moresby? Do the same things happen to you if you are female as if you are male?

    Brad DeLong

  13. I went for the same angle in a blogpost here, but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears. It’s surprising to see the common libertarian trope that the state is the only impediment to freedom repeated on an anthropology blog.

  14. Brad DeLong: From Schieffelin and Crittenden (1991, page 18-19): “As subsistence cultivators, Papuans were largely self-sufficient in terms of their day-to-day needs. Other items, tools, decorations, and shell valuables could be obtained through trade. Indeed, Papuans traditionally traded extensively up and down the coast, and along traditional trade routes that reached deep into the interior. But trade and ceremonial exchange played a much more important role in Papuan societies than merely providing extra necessities. Together with marriage they were major vehicles for cementing and maintaining political alliances and important social relationships, insuring the safety of individuals traveling outside their home areas, and maintaining peaceful relationships (or at least truce) between neighboring groups.”

    This passage follows another snapshot of pre-‘pacfication’ Papua that emphasizes tradiontal enmity and such (I will post that later today for provocation). The point however is that while of course there was a lot of war, equally there were important kinds of trade and gift-exchange relationship that crossed territory, sometimes even vast distances. Picture the great shell wealth of highland Papua New Guinea displayed in ceremonial gift exchanges (such as moka). Where do you suppose these shells up in the mountains came from?

  15. Brad: On showing up in Port Moresby in 1900: The colonial state was as likely to be a problem for you as was anything else. Again, I quote from Schieffelin and Crittenden (1991, page 31): “Caste legislation had existed in Papua from the earliest days of Australians rule. Papuans were prohibited from drinking alocohol and from wearing clothes on the upper parts of their bodies. Indentured laborers were required to be in their assigned quarters from 9PM until daylight, or they could be jailed. Employers could slap, cuff or kick (thought no beat) laggard Papuan employees. Papuans not on a work contract were not allowed within five miles of Port Moresby unless they could prove they could support themselves in town.”

  16. That is a non-sequitur. Rex claims that there is greater freedom of movement outside of states, and there isn’t. No one is denying the presence of trade and marriage alliances between pre-state societies, but does it mean that you could simply wander from place to place before ‘pacification’? Of course not. Restrictions were greater before pacification, in the sense that the consequences of going to different places were more severe, involving the high likelihood of death or rape (not, of course, to excuse the absurd, illiberal laws of the colonial era).

  17. Brad asked a specific question about PNG in 1900, and I provided him some ethno-historical evidence about movement in Papua at precisely that moment in history, including with reference to Brad’s inquiry about Moresby. Recall further that I wrote: “This passage follows another snapshot of pre-’pacfication’ Papua that emphasizes traditional enmity and such (I will post that later today for provocation).’ Keeping in mind these details, I guess I think that we have to ask more specific and refined questions than, could you ‘wander from place to place’? *That* question strikes me as unintelligible in this instance.

    Finally, I suspect that Rex is in fact writing within a specific genre convention here: like Diamond, he’s overstating his case for rhetorical effect.

  18. Your response was appropriate, then. However, Rex’s case was not merely an exaggeration – it was literally the opposite of the truth. And while the precise situation Brad referred to may have been an inappropriate example, it is still important to challenge the pre-state freedom idea.

  19. So in PNG around 1900, *if* your family has gift-exchange friends in the right direction, and if they have gift-exchange friends in the right direction and are willing to let you draw on their connections, then you can put some sweet potato in your netbag and go if you have a hankering to travel? And if not, not? And what if you happen to be female?

  20. Re: “Port Moresby”:

    I said Port Moresby because once you get there you can’t go any further without a boat, not out of any illusory belief that ca-1900 Port Moresby would be a safer place for anybody born in PNG than the rest of the island. Encounters with colonizers are always fraught with danger: at worst, they are there to steal your stuff; at best, to “civilize” you…

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