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.

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