“F**K Diamond,” Deconstruct Everything, Cite Marx: A Reaction
“Jared Diamond is back at it, once again trading in the familiar determinist tropes that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for his 1999 book Guns, Germs and Steel,” opens David Correia in his recent diatribe entitled “F**K Diamond.” The essay, purportedly a review (?) of Diamond’s latest book, builds into the now familiar rant attributing to Diamond racism, simple-mindedness, and over-generalization. The title of Correia’s essay and his tone throughout leave no doubt that he experiences a measure of glee writing this response piece.
However, I have a question, did Correia even read Diamond’s latest book? My reading of The World Until Yesterday does bring to light Diamond’s leaning toward environment-culture correlation and causation, but I am not convinced that Correia read it, and if he did, he has set up a highly flammable strawman seeking only to dismiss Diamond, not to improve scholarship nor to actually enable geographers, anthropologists, and other scholars to face surmounting crises in cultural and biological extinction. As a result, Correia’s essay is problematic for those who are simply trying to blend science, humanities, traditional ecological knowledge, and other forms of human expression to live together better.
I anticipate that I will be branded by those sympathetic to Correia as a “defender of Diamond,” (so what if I am or am not!), but I am more concerned with devolving scholarship than with the validity or lack thereof of Diamond’s positions. Correia and sympathetic colleagues might ask why try to blend science with anything; isn’t all science white-washed, Western, imperialistic, male-dominated, and therefore hopelessly and fatally flawed (so comes the question from a white-Western male, judge me if you please)? If so, then trade in your autos, pharmaceuticals, refrigerators, plumbing, and so forth. There is no upside in consistently rubbing the noses of scholars in the divisions between science and non-science, Western and non-Western, and so forth. We get it! So stop rubbing salt in the wound, and if you are a Marxist, be dialectical.
Careful (or even casual) reading of Diamond’s latest book reveals that he may well be listening to his critics. Appalling as it may be for cultural determinists to lose their whipping post, is there no middle ground? Does correlation never lead to implications of cause? Is environment ever deterministic? The unwillingness to even conceive of the possibility makes Diamond’s position intractable. Should he extend toward acknowledging the important roles of colonialism on the distribution of and travails of contemporary cultures, it’s never enough. He has been judged, deconstructed, and damned to post-modern hell, and those who have written him off have granted him a one-way ticket.
I challenge Correia and any sympathetic colleagues to actually read Diamond’s latest book. Read the chapter on language (Chapter 10) first; were not the boarding school polices of US Indian Affairs examples of the historical outgrowths of colonialism? Does Diamond fail to understand the gravity of language extinction, rapid, gradual or in between? Does he not explicate the role of development in traditional societies, the following role of bilingualism in the home, and the gradual transition via global homogenization of culture toward monolingualism and traditional language loss in children? This seems like information that the average US citizen needs to be more aware of. Diamond’s portrayals reach broad audiences, if nothing else. Perhaps discovering that there are some areas in which Diamond may have something of value to offer is the greatest threat?
Similarly, on pages 360 to 361 Diamond clearly explicates linkages between state politics, world rejection religions (Diamond’s term), and the role that Western religion has played in justifying war and colonialism. He is quite aware of the relationship between cultural extinction and colonialism, which was sanctioned via wedded state and religious authority in Western societies.
What more, then, is Diamond so guilty of? Is it his portrayal of many traditional peoples as quite capable of violence? The patterns he observes, for example, in New Guinea might also be attributable to recent cultural change in response to colonialism. Diamond does not make this linkage, which is an important omission. However, he does make a separate critical point that is important for environmental and social justice scholars:
“the reason not to mistreat indigenous people is not that they are falsely accused of being warlike, but that it is unjust to mistreat them. The facts about traditional warfare, just like the facts about any other controversial phenomenon… are likely to eventually come out. When they do come out, if scholars have been denying traditional warfare’s reality for laudable political reasons, the discovery of facts will undermine the laudable political goals”.
Regardless of whether or not one takes Diamond’s position concerning warfare, a phenomenon undoubtedly more complex than he portrays it, he is correct about the infusion of political correctness in advocacy and its potential cost.
Further, Correia has ceded the high ground to Diamond, who refers to the positions of his would-be critics as “laudable.” This is high praise compared to being told to “eff oneself” in print. So we are left with Diamond studying “them” from the perspective of “us,” perhaps this is his great sin—he has the gall to make observations. Should there be no attempts at synthetic scholarship across cultural boundaries? Should scholars simply not use heuristics to communicate at all? If we conceive of basic divisions in world cultures for the purpose of learning are we always, undeniably becoming parasitic colonialists ourselves? Great questions; they seem personal, but we too easily throw out the synthetic baby with the bathwater of over-generalization.
At least Diamond takes the risk to synthesize. There are many examples throughout Diamond’s latest book that indicate he is not the troll that he has been judged to be. There is also plenty of material ripe for criticism. The most important limitation of Correia’s response is that he utterly fails to provide an alternative synthesis.
And this leads me to a greater suspicion; the problem is not really Diamond at all. All science, most synthesis, and definitely all attributions to environment as causal of culture are simply to be rejected out of hand. There is no need to read carefully because shared outcomes, cooperation, and collaboration are not the goal. That leaves academic gamesmanship for its own sake as the ultimate reason for Diamond bashing.
Left with a choice, I gravitate toward the engaging tone of Diamond over the personal attacks (see the title of Correia’s paper), despite numerous flaws of over-generalization, which most scholars are smart enough to navigate on their own.