Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Radio New Zealand Interviews Benny Wenda

Benny Wenda, West Papuan independence leader and founder of the Free West Papua Campaign, was interviewed on Radio New Zealand by Chris Laidlaw this Sunday.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Can You Trust Jared Diamond?

Bryn Williams
Slate Book Review

"Jared Diamond is a master of cultural and historical bricolage. His books weave epic stories about the human condition from the disparate cultural practices of a wide range of people living in different environments. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond used this eclectic empiricism to tell a story about the role of geography in human history. In Collapse, he used the same approach to stage a morality play about the dangers of disregarding those geographic conditions. In his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, Diamond probes the differences between modern cultures and traditional societies that subsist through hunting and gathering, and he comes to several bold conclusions about their relative merits. His examples are evocative and his narration is powerful, but Diamond ultimately fails to substantiate his arguments. By the end of the book, it is impossible to tell if one has finished reading a masterpiece of rigorous analysis or a masterfully written collection of just-so stories.

(read more)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Nigeria's Oil Disasters Met By Silence


"In 2010 the world watched in horror as the Gulf of Mexico filled with 5m barrels of oil from an undersea leak caused by the careless handling of equipment on the part of BP and its partner Halliburton. Shocking images of uncontrolled spillage erupting from the ocean floor travelled around the world for weeks, sparking a media frenzy, a range of stern governmental responses and a huge amount of public outrage. BP has spent millions on the clean-up and millions more on a public relations campaign, all in an effort to repair the damage it caused to the Gulf but also to its image and, perhaps more importantly for BP, to its share price.

"Last month, on the other side of the Atlantic, the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell's operation caused from 1m to 2m gallons of oil to spill into the ocean off the coast of Nigeria, also as the result of an industrial accident. It was the worst spill in Nigeria in 13 years in a part of that country where the oil and gas industry has been despoiling the environment for more than 50 years, on a scale that dwarfs the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico by a wide margin. Shell claims it has completely cleaned up the mess, but villages counterclaim the oil has been washing up on their coastline. The world's media seem to be uninterested in checking the facts.

"You may wonder where the outrage against Shell is? To say that it is nonexistent except for a few responses from the environmental community would be an understatement. The simple fact is that Shell and its "sisters" in the West African oil patches are rarely scrutinised except in the most egregious cases – which this one surely is – and the world seems to simply expect that the people of Nigeria should live with these sorts of occurrences because they unfortunately lack the political and media clout to do otherwise.

"In any other region of the world the behaviour of the companies involved would result in major sanctions and criminal prosecutions. Hundreds of square miles of sensitive coastal wetlands have been poisoned, perhaps forever. Fishing areas have been turned into toxic waste zones. Village life has been grotesquely refashioned as a result of flaring gas fumes and pipelines that sometimes run through people's homes. Disease, birth-defects and chronic illnesses are all part and parcel of an unregulated industry that operates outside the range of global media but with the full complicity of the Nigerian government that wants nothing whatsoever to upset its unctuous cash-cow.

(read more)

Jared Diamond vs. Reality

In case you haven't had a chance to read the rebuttal by Survivor International regarding Jared Diamond's most recent book tour comments, they're here.  It's sad that so much press is devoted to Diamond's book. Meanwhile, the political and economic struggles of so many of the world's people are largely ignored.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaida sharing money, explosives and training

in Johannesburg

Three of Africa's most dangerous Islamist militant groups are striving to co-ordinate their operations and represent a deepening threat to security on the continent, the US has warned.

General Carter Ham, head of the US military's Africa Command, said there were signs that Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb were sharing money and explosive materials and training fighters together.

"Each of those three organisations is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat," Ham told an African Centre for Strategic Studies seminar in Washington. "What really concerns me is the indications that the three organisations are seeking to co-ordinate and synchronise their efforts – in other words, to establish a co-operative effort amongst the three most violent organisations … And I think that's a real problem for us and for African security in general."

(read more)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

CIA tactic to trap Bin Laden linked with Polio Crisis

in Islamabad
The Guardian,

"An alliance of 200 US aid groups has written to the head of the CIA to protest against its use of a doctor to help track Osama bin Laden, linking the agency's ploy to the polio crisis in Pakistan. The country recorded the highest number of polio cases in the world last year, a health catastrophe that threatens to spiral out of control.

"In July the Guardian revealed that the CIA used a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, in the hunt for Bin Laden. In the weeks before the 3 May operation to kill Bin Laden, Afridi was instructed to set up a fake vaccination scheme in the town of Abbottabad, in order to gain entry to the house where it was suspected that the al-Qaida chief was living, and extract DNA samples from his family members.

"However the ruse has provided seeming proof for a widely held belief in Pakistan, fuelled by religious extremists, that polio drops are a western conspiracy to sterilise the population. "The CIA's use of the cover of humanitarian activity for this purpose casts doubt on the intentions and integrity of all humanitarian actors in Pakistan, thereby undermining the international humanitarian community's efforts to eradicate polio, provide critical health services, and extend life-saving assistance during times of crisis like the floods seen in Pakistan over the last two years," the InterAction coalition wrote to the CIA director, David Petraeus.

"The group, which includes the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps and Care, said that as well as damaging the drive against polio and other health problems in Pakistan, the CIA's tactics had endangered the lives of foreign aid workers. In recent months, at least five international NGO workers, including a British doctor, have been kidnapped by presumed Islamic extremists."

(read more)

For NZ Leaders, New Zealand-Indonesian Trade Relationship more important than Rights of West Papuan Indigenous People

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully refuses to meet with West Papuan Independence Leader Benny Wenda:

McCully Snubs West Papuan 
Isaac Davison
The New Zealand Herald

Earlier, Indonesia repeated its claim that Benny Wenda is a criminal in order to pressure the New Zealand government not to speak to Wenda.  The fact that Wenda is being blacklisted by the Indonesian government was covered in a UK Guardian article last summer:

Benny Wenda's plight has highlighted the misuse of Interpol
Alex Tinsley
UK Guardian

It is an all too familiar pattern where national leaders choose to value trade relationships over human and indigenous rights.  I can understand the importance of maintaining trade relationships, but it is short sighted to think that the rights of indigenous people are less important to the national self interest than the business interests of a narrowly held set of multinational corporations.  In the case of New Zealand, there are corporations involved in mining, oil and gas in Indonesia.  Protecting the wealth of these corporations are clearly more important to New Zealand's national leaders than the human rights of the West Papuan people.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The People of Papua New Guinea Speak for Themselves

Rebutting Jared Diamond's Savage Portrait

Paul Stillitoe and Mako John Kuwimb
International Media Ethics News
April, 2010

[Blog note:  This article was published in response to Jared Diamond's article in the New Yorker "Annuls of Anthropology:  Vengeance is Ours".]

"How do tribal communities in developing countries without functioning police, judges, law courts and prisons ensure social stability?  This question is of perennial interest to anyone familiar with tribal societies. It is difficult for those of us familiar with such state institutions of law enforcement to imagine how people in tribal environments create order, particularly in dense populations like that of the New Guinea Highlands which also prizes individual political autonomy. The popular image – traceable to Renaissance times, when Europeans first encountered tribal peoples – is of savages condemned to disorderly, even anarchic lives of constant violence and frequent bloodletting. A recent example of this image is portrayed and promulgated by Jared Diamond in “Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” published in the The New Yorker,April 21, 2008.

"We seek to refute this portrayal in general and Diamond’s article in particular, which we believe amounts to nothing less than a betrayal. We were prompted to do this by the defamation of friends and relatives in the Was Valley of the Southern Highlands Province (SHP) of Papua New Guinea (PNG) who have, in Diamond’s article, been cast in such a caricature of tribal life as inveterate murderers, plunderers and rapists living in virtual chaos.

"It is astonishing that media outlets still grant space to such a view of tribal life after a century of anthropological research has debunked it. Stateless or acephalous (headless – i.e. without authoritative officeholders) polities have long attracted attention and we have accounts of fascinating arrangements that substitute for central government. The Highlands of New Guinea have featured prominently in furthering our understanding of such tribal constitutions. So here we go, yet again, to rebut the savage misrepresentation.

"We are not contending that disputes, aggression and killing are unknown – tribal people do not, any more than Westerners, live in a utopia. But an informed understanding of what happens in such conflicts challenges any sense of state smugness. After all, when it comes to the mayhem of their violent disputes, “civilized” states outdo all comers, as the current sorry Iraq and Afghanistan tragedies show. And if you value liberty, tribal constitutions maximize individual freedom beyond anything imaginable under democracy’s elected governments . . .

(read more)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Fall of the Asante Empire

 Kumasi, capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana, during the 19th century.
Image published: 1901.
(courtesy eonimages.com)

author:  Robert B. Edgerton
Free Press, First edition 1995

With the recent discussion about Jared Diamond's latest book, in which he compares two types of societies: "Primitive" and WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), I thought it worth finally getting around to posting on this book on the Asante Empire.  The black, educated, pre-industrial, rich, constitutional monarchy of the Asante Empire and their century long battle to preserve their empire against British dominance is vividly described here by Robert Edgerton.  Given that both Edgerton and Diamond are professors at UCLA, Edgerton in anthropology and Diamond in geography, I am a bit at a loss to understand why Diamond doesn't spend some time in his latest book discussing the fact that there are many alternatives to "WEIRD" societies which are not at all primitive.

There are several excellent reviews of The Fall of the Asante Empire on Amazon.  I include several here:

Tim F. Martin:

"The Fall of the Asante Empire by Robert B. Edgerton is a rather engaging book that can be read on several levels. It is an account of one of the last existing preliterate sub-Saharan African civilizations, the author providing speculation and first-hand contemporary accounts of one of the most noteworthy and powerful non-European civilizations of West Africa. As one might imagine it is also a vivid, detailed, and exhaustive (though certainly not tedious) tale of the various cold and hot wars that broke out between an ambitious, imperialistic British Empire and a sometimes bellicose but often surprisingly peace-loving native civilization, a tale filled with bravery, treachery, humor, and tragedy, of an African state that though locally quite powerful was increasingly aware of the growing disparity in military might between the two civilizations. It is also an interesting study in international affairs; one filled with failed peace attempts, misread intentions, and missed opportunities for peace.

"The Zulus are with good reason both during the 19th century and today a highly respected example of the military power, success, and bravery of native African armed forces, one that for a time prevailed against a much more powerful British Empire, its flamboyantly dressed and clearly very brave warriors capturing the imaginations of many Westerners. The author though laments that for many Americans and Europeans, recognition of the valor and success of the African fighting men begins and ends with the Zulus. Largely unrecognized is the longest and most successful military resistance to European colonization, that of the Asante of Ghana, which fought against the British from 1807 to 1900, a century long conflict of numerous small and many large battles, several of which the Asante were the clear victors, the only West African army to defeat the Europeans in more than one major engagement.

"At the start of the 19th century the Asante Empire was at its height, easily the most powerful state in West Africa, an empire of over three million people in what is now Ghana and then referred to as the Gold Coast. This was more than half as many people as there were in the U.S. at the time and more than one quarter of the population of Britain (eleven million people in 1801). In land area the empire was larger than England, Wales and Scotland (or the state of Wyoming), stretching four hundred miles north from the coast, dominating nearly five hundred miles of coastline. The heartland of the Asante people was the tropical forest zone of the Gold Coast, a hot, humid, wet, and luxuriant forest that was not well-liked by Europeans.

"More than just the physical and population size of the Asante were impressive. Unusual among the native African states, the Asante, particularly at the beginning, had a remarkably successful governmental structure. It was able to balance the needs and desires of the king with a ruling oligarchy, a system of checks and balances in which sometimes the king was supreme on a given issue, at other times a near-parliamentarian body had the last say. It had a fairly large and successful government bureaucracy that oversaw many aspects of daily life. Though the empire included many subject kingdoms, conquered peoples, and a sometimes restive slave population, it had a surprisingly cohesive national identity, a "deep patriotism" that survived the worst military setbacks in a century of conflict, that despite internal divisions among a "hodgepodge" of people there was a surprisingly large core that was "always willing to fight and die for the Asante union."

"Most remarkable of all perhaps was the Asante fighting man himself. Despite the fact that most of its common soldiers were slaves, often recently captured, they often fought superbly and obeyed their orders with bravery and enthusiasm, amazing the British as they stood their ground against clearly superior firepower (which would later include artillery and machine guns). Also, most were only part-time soldiers, not living and serving in units like their British opponents, required to own and maintain their own flintlock musket (this long musket, called the "long Danes," gave the Asante an enormous advantage over their native neighbors as the Asante possessed a near monopoly on guns along the Gold Coast, though as the century progressed these guns became vastly inferior to later British weaponry).

"The heart of the book is an account of the military campaigns that took place between the two great powers, the author detailing the causes, course, and consequences of each battle, discussing the tactics of each encounter, the role various weapons played, the bravery (or cowardice) of individuals of note in each battle, whether the conflicts were small-scale conflicts that occurred basically by mistake or massive mobilizations of men, planned well in advance and involving tens of thousands of individuals. This made for gripping reading and the author, though primarily working with writings from those of the British side, nevertheless worked hard to provide a balanced portrayal of both sides of these various conflicts.

"Regrettably misunderstanding was as often at the root of Asante-British fighting as was British imperial ambitions, as each side "struggled with their colossal incomprehension of one another's values, religious beliefs, diplomacy, sense of honor, and national purpose." Both sides could be self-righteous, insistent upon their cultural and in the case of the British oftentimes racial supremacy. In many ways economics was at the heart of the conflict, but even there misunderstanding prevailed, as each side was oftentimes ignorant of the others needs and goals in that arena. Even attitudes towards the other's culture, even ones that did not directly affect the other, would color policy towards the other (such as the British distaste for Asante human sacrifice, well-detailed in this book, as well as the views of their source for porters and interpreters, the native Fante, who hated their Asante overlords and never missed an opportunity to paint vivid pictures of Asante "cruelty, rapacity, untrustworthiness, and lust for war," hardly providing a balanced portrait to the British)."

M. Noland:

"The Ashantis never really made their peace with the British and this history has relevance for contemporary Ghana as manifested by the underrepresentation of the Ashanti in the politically influential [Ghanaian] armed forces, relative to other ethnic groups."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Questions for Jared Diamond

Could Yali, the man who's question Diamond claims promulgated the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, simply have been asking Diamond why he and other "white people" travel with so much junk?

What is modernity?  For example, was Classical Greece modern or a subsistence-farming society?  Were the British Isles prior to 1500, modern or a subsistence-farming society?

Does the human proclivity for war really have anything to do with modernity or not?  For example, how does Diamond account for the Peloponnesian War or the wars between the Gaels and Picts and the wars between Scotland and the English?

Did farming have anything to do with the development of cultural or intellectual modernity?  What about other kinds of resource aggregation such as fishing or hunting that would also have allowed people leisure time and time for cultural development?  There are many examples of societies that did not engage in farming as their primary activity yet had highly developed political and social structures, as well as technology and art.  How does Diamond account for this?

Why doesn't Diamond discuss the impact of megafauna extinctions on human culture?  It's possible that farming was primarily a response to population increase, climate fluctuations and megafauna extinctions.  It is not clear that Neolithic farmers were better off than Palaeolithic Hunters in terms of their overall quality of life.  The paintings of the Chauvet Cave indicate a highly developed Palaeolithic culture, yet Jared Diamond followers never discuss this.  Why not?

What about the long term impact of industrialization?  Can it really be argued that industrialized societies that have leaned heavily on fossil fuels to develop are more advanced that pre-industrial cultures that developed without fossil fuels?  In the long term, in terms of survival and in the face of climate change, who really is more "modern"?

Regarding Diamond's recent comments on the treatment of the elderly in pre-industrial societies, can it be said that industrial societies treat their elderly better than the indigenous societies he describes?

It is becoming depressingly common to hear quotes of Diamond as an authoritative expert on all things Palaeolithic, Neolithic, native, anthropological, archaeological, pre-industrial and "modern".  While I agree with Diamond on some issues, such as the influence of geography in human development, he is outside his area of expertise on many of the topics he covers.  He more often than not does not reference experts in the areas of many of the topics he discusses.  Yet, it is still common to hear issues of human prehistory or wealth and development disparity discussed with glib references to Diamond, as if these issues are foregone conclusions requiring no further investigation and no action.

Canoe Journey Journal

Suquamish Canoe, Suquamish to Tulalip, 26 nautical miles in 11 hours

Recently, I've posted several articles on the Squamish/Suquamish people of the Pacific Northwest, so it is especially a pleasure to discover a beautiful online journal of canoe journeys of the Suquamish people of Puget Sound, Washington State, USA. The journal covers their canoe journeys made in 2011 and 2012. An article in the New York Times also describes the recent history of Squamish/Suquamish canoe cultural celebrations.

Currently, a group of Suquamish are visiting another famous canoe people, the Maori, in New Zealand. The Canoe Journey Journal has a short post describing this visit: Suquamish visit to the New Zealand Maori. Hopefully, there will be more posts soon. Thanks to Terry for telling us about this.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Round World Made Flat

The curious neoliberal social scientism of Jared Diamond
Jackson Lears

"IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CULTURE, intellectual celebrity requires the ability to hear the ideological background music of the historical moment, and to play effortlessly in tune with it. Some people have a special knack for this: One thinks of Francis Fukuyama announcing “the end of history” when the Soviet Union fell, or Malcolm Gladwell celebrating the value of snap judgments (in Blink) to the leaders of recently downsized corporations. The key move is to avoid any discussion of power or class relations, of political or social conflict, in favor of apparently neutral and impersonal forces.

"In recent decades, there has been a powerful resurgence of deterministic schemes—technological, biological, environmental—all exuding an aura of scientific inevitability as they claim to explain centuries of historical change. Rather than attend to the messy struggles between haves and have-nots, or between colonizers and colonized, our celebrity intellectuals prefer to focus on the cosmic implications of the latest networking strategy from Silicon Valley, or the natural selections they imagine happened on the savannah one hundred thousand years ago. This is what passes for serious thought in our neoliberal moment—a vacuous ahistorical frame of mind that allows the privileged to feel comfortable with their privilege, and well-informed into the bargain.

"Jared Diamond is nothing if not a celebrity intellectual, though he achieved that status somewhat late in life. Having toiled in comparative obscurity for decades as a physiologist specializing in gallbladder functions and later an ornithologist specializing in birds of New Guinea, at the age of sixty, in 1997, he burst into prominence with Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and became the basis for a TV series; eventually Diamond was landing speaking gigs at TED conferences and Microsoft-sponsored events. (Bill Gates wrote a blurb for the book, which he found “fascinating.”) What was in Guns, Germs, and Steel to create such a commotion among the custodians of conventional wisdom?

"Diamond claimed that the book was an effort to answer “Yali’s question.” Yali was a man Diamond had met in New Guinea in 1972, who asked: “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?” Diamond interpreted this to mean: Why did you Europeans create wealthy and powerful nations, and why did we—the rest of the world—fail to? Diamond’s answer was that the triumph of the West had nothing to do with racial or intellectual superiority. Instead, it was about the rise and spread of agriculture, beginning in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.

"The gradual growth of farming over centuries allowed time for the development of technologies (which included guns and, eventually, steel) as well as the domestication of large animals. Domesticated animals became a crucial cog in the wheels of agricultural production; they also introduced disease germs, which gave Eurasians the opportunity to develop some immunity over time. The spread of agriculture stemmed entirely, in this telling, from topography, from climate, and, at bottom, from the shapes of the continents themselves. The longitudinal gradient along the temperate zone made trade and other connections between peoples easier to establish across Eurasia than in Africa and the Americas, where latitudinal gradients posed stiffer obstacles to the circulation of goods and technology. Geography was destiny.

"This was a sweeping argument against politics, economics, culture, or any of the other categories of understanding that historians and anthropologists like to use when they try to explain broad changes over time. Part of the appeal of Guns, Germs, and Steel was its simplicity, which was fortified by a foundation of scientific expertise. But it had a subtler political appeal as well. Diamond presented himself as a tolerant liberal, challenging racist notions of Western supremacy. Of course, no one with any intellectual legitimacy was invoking racial superiority as a historical explanation (at least not in public) by the 1990s, but Diamond still had comforting news for his upper-class, enlightened audience: The conquest of dark-skinned people was a process that occurred long ago and far away, and the dominance of the West over the rest was a product of impersonal forces, not human decisions.

"There were major problems with Diamond’s argument, even on its own terms, beginning with its imprecision and disregard for contrary evidence. In slipping from Europe to Eurasia, he failed to acknowledge the vast stretches of inhospitable mountains and desert along the longitudinal gradient that was supposedly the sluiceway of agriculture. But the more serious difficulties involved what he left out. His self-proclaimed brief against racism let imperialists off the hook. Indeed, the word imperialism never appeared in the book. Empire, in Diamond’s view, just grew. Ignoring class and other social divisions among the victors as well as the vanquished, he overlooked the complex political conflicts involved in imperial policy—which included decisions about how to use guns and steel as well as how to make alliances with native elites. As the anthropologist Michael Wilcox writes: “A more appropriate troika of destruction [than ‘guns, germs, and steel’] would be ‘lawyers, god, and money.’”

"The most glaring omission from Diamond’s account is the violence involved in the imperial grab for power. As Eric R. Wolf wrote in Europe and the People Without History (1982): “Europeans and Americans would never have encountered these supposed bearers of a pristine past if they had not encountered one another, in bloody fact, as Europe reached out to seize the resources and populations of the other continents.” Wolf was a Marxist, writing at the dawn of the neoliberal era; his work will never be made into a PBS documentary series as National Geographic did with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s bowdlerized account of empire, in contrast, left out the inconvenient history and captured the triumphalist zeitgeist of the fin de si├Ęcle.

"Diamond’s next book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), was a fitting companion to the previous one. If Guns, Germs, and Steel played to the racial liberalism of upper-class professionals, Collapse flattered their environmental concerns. It purported to illuminate the dark side of the story told in the earlier book. If the haves acquired wealth through geographic accident, Diamond claimed, the have-nots lost it by squandering their own natural resources. He told tales of ecocide by indigenous people of the North American Southwest and of Easter Island, of postemancipation Haiti and of modern China. Here again the publicity machine clicked in, producing uncritical reviews—including one by Gladwell himself. Civilizational collapse made a good story, especially if it could be shown to be the fault of the native populations themselves.

(read more)

Voice of the Common Man

A short video on the life and message of Woody Guthrie (10 minutes, youtube)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Are We Losing the Race Against Climate Change?

Marker shows the extent of the Athabaska Glacier, Canadian Rockies, in 1925 and now (courtesy Idle Moor)

Science Friday's Ira Flatow talks to experts on climate change.