Around four years ago, there was some controversy about Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (and, I gather, a PBS documentary based on the book). Various bloggers at savageminds.org – a group anthropology blog – for example, here and here and elsewhere – attacked Diamond for various reasons, up to and including calling him racist. Brad DeLong replied by accusing the critics of being “positively green with envy at Jared Diamond’s ability to make interesting arguments in a striking and comprehensible way, and also remarkably incompetent at critique.” Henry discussed the flap here, here, and here, writing: “I strongly suspect that the ‘Diamond=racist’ claim is a more-or-less pure exercise in boundary maintenance – I certainly haven’t seen any substantial counter-evidence to date. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a real, substantive argument to be had between different ways of knowing, or that there aren’t advantages to anthropological approaches which can’t be captured in a big, sweeping structuralist account like Diamond’s.” And he linked to Tim Burke, who here and here offered a critique of Diamond that was more – shall we say – nuanced (and interesting!) than the one at savageminds.org.
Now there’s a new controversy. About a year ago, Diamond published an article in the New Yorker called “Vengeance Is Ours.” Abstract is here – full text available to subscribers only (I think) from that link.
In it, Diamond recounts a story told to him by Daniel Wemp, who served as Diamond’s driver when Diamond was doing environmental field work – recording bird songs – in Papua New Guinea in 2001-2002. The story begins when Wemp’s uncle was “killed in a battle against the neighboring Ombal clan.” Diamond tells us that in Papua New Guinea, “traditional methods of dispute resolution still coexisit uneasily with the methods of state government,” and under these traditional methods (which Diamond surveys), it fell to Wemp to exact vengeance for the death of his uncle. Eventually – I’m cutting to the chase, ignoring many of the controversial details – Diamond quotes Wemp saying that Henep Isum, who was the target of Wemp’s vengeance, was hit by an arrow which “cut his spinal cord. That’s even better than killing him, because he’s now still alive today, eleven years later, paralyzed in a wheelchair, and maybe he’ll live for another ten years. People will see his constant suffering.” Diamond reports that Wemp’s attitude toward this was “unapologetically positive: a mixture of exhilaration and pleasure in expressing aggression.”
Then, there’s this exchange, which Diamond reports has “haunted me ever since”:
I asked Daniel why, on learning of Soll’s death, he hadn’t saved himself all the effort and expense, and just asked the police to arrest Isum. “If I had let the police do it, I wouldn’t have felt satisfaction, he replied. ‘I wanted to obtain vengeance myself, even if it were to cost me my own life. I had to ask myself, how could I live through my anger over Soll’s death for the rest of my life? The answer was that the best way to deal with my anger was to exact the vengeance myself.”
Unfortunately, it turns out that much of the story is demonstrably false, and Daniel Wemp is suing Diamond for $10 million. The critique is led by stinkyjournalism.org. Their information about the case is here. And here’s an article about the case from The Australian, which includes a link to a very detailed letter sent to the New Yorker by a Ph.D. student in law who is apparently serving as Wemp’s adviser.
From the outside – far outside – it looks to me as though Diamond was at a bare minimum awfully sloppy and possibly worse. But it’s not hard to imagine the possibility that as they drove through the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Daniel Wemp told some tall tales for his foreign visitor, not realizing that his stories would form the basis of a New Yorker article. Speculating wildly, it may be that Diamond was overly eager to believe the tall tales that Wemp presented because they resonated so deeply with another, more personal story. At the end of the article, immediately after reported the “haunting” conversation, Diamond tells us about the other story through which he “came to appreciate the terrible personal price that law-abiding citizens pay for leaving vengeance to the state.”
The story is of his father-in-law, a Polish Jew who fought against the Soviet invasion in 1939, was captured and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia, then fought in the Polish division of the Red Army. In 1945, he took a platoon to his village in Poland to try to find what had happened to his family. It turned out that his mother, his sister, and his niece had remained hidden for two years before being discovered and shot. He was told who the killer was, and was prepared to kill him, but he held his fire, thinking to himself, “This man behaved like an animal, but I don’t want to become an animal myself by shooting him.” Instead, he turned the killer over to the police, who “imprisoned the murderer, investigated – and then, after about a year, released him.” Diamond reports: “Until his own death, nearly sixty years after the murder of his parents and his release of his mother’s killer, Jozef remained tormented by regret and guilt – guilt that he had not been able to protect his parents, and regret that he had failed in his responsibility to take vengeance. That was the responsibility that Daniel had satisfied, and the terrible burden that Daniel had spared himself, by personally orchestrating the shooting of Isum.”
What Diamond’s father-in-law went through is horrific. But it’s hard to know exactly what lesson Diamond wants us to draw from it or from Wemp’s story. The subtitle of the article is, “What can tribal societies teach us about the need to get even?” After re-reading the article, I still don’t know exactly what Diamond thinks that we should learn. The closest he gets to an explicit answer is this: “while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged.” What does Diamond mean by “acknowledging” our vengeful feelings? The closest he comes to a practical recommendation is this: “Many state governments do attempt to grant the relatives of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one’s murderer.” Personally, I have mixed feelings about this practice. But in the age of “suck on this” celebrations of personal vengeance seem less than compelling.
To me, these stories illustrate the great importance of having an effective system of law. Diamond doesn’t say – and probably doesn’t know – why the Polish police released Jozef’s family’s killers. Perhaps they – or witnesses – thought the killing of a few Jewish women wasn’t a big deal. Perhaps it was bureaucratic bungling during the early stages of the reconstruction of Poland. Or perhaps it’s just possible that there wasn’t any admissible evidence against the accused. Here’s how Jozef had identified them:
Jozef demanded that the villagers bring him the man who had led the gang of killers. Initially, they refused or professed ignorance. At that point, Jozef and his men rounded them all up and he told them, ‘If you don’t bring me the man within one hour, I will shoot every fourth person among you.’ From the expression on Jozef’s face, the villagers saw that he meant it, and they brought him the man.”
Well, they brought him a man, and it might have been the man. But Jozef was right not to shoot him.
I’ll give the last word on the subject to Nietzsche (Genealogy II.11.4):
From a historical point of view, law represents on earth … the struggle against the reactive feelings, the war conducted against them on the part of the active and aggressive powers who employed some of their strength to impose measure and bounds upon the excesses of the reactive pathos and to compel it to come to terms. Wherever justice is practiced and maintained one sees a stronger power seeking a means of putting an end to the senseless raging of ressentiment among the weaker powers that stand under it (whether they be groups or individuals) – partly by taking the object of ressentiment out of the hands of revenge, partly by substituting for revenge the struggle against the enemies of peace and order, partly by devising and in some cases imposing settlements, partly by elevating certain equivalents for injuries into norms to which from then on ressentiment is once and for all directed. The most decisive act, however, that the supreme power performs and accomplishes against the predominance of grudges and rancor – it always takes this action as soon as it is in any way strong enough to do so – is the institution of law, the imperative declaration of what in general counts as permitted, as just, in its eyes, and what counts as forbidden, as unjust: once it has instituted the law, it treats violence and capricious acts on the part of individuals or entire groups as offenses against the law, as rebellion against the supreme power itself, and thus lead the feelings of its subjects away from the direct injury caused by such offenses; and in the long run it thus attains the very reverse of that which is desired by all revenge that is fastened exclusively to the viewpoint of the person injured: from now on the eye is trained to an ever more impersonal evaluation of the deed, and this applies even to the eye of the injured person himself (although last of all, as remarked above).