Cultivating ignorance

by Henry Farrell on July 28, 2005

Another post from a Savage Minds contributor, Tak, on a “different blog”:, talking about the Diamond controversy. Other Savage Minds types have denounced Diamond as “no nothing anti-racist” and “quasi-racist” (they seem to be overlapping categories); Tak says that he’s just plain racist. The basis for this accusation? First: Diamond says “in an article”: that the Japanese are the most distinctive major country in terms of their culture and environment. But Japanese imperialists too say that the Japanese are distinctive in terms of their culture and environment. In Tak’s own words, “Stop right there, mister, because to those who know Japan’s modern history, he has just reproduced the rhetoric of Japanese imperialism!” In addition, there are “frightening parallels” between Diamond’s belief that physical environment is an important causal variable, and the work of a racist Japanese author, who, according to “some Japanese critics” believed that environmental factors were responsible for Japanese racial superiority. _Quod erat demonstrandum_. Or something. Second, Diamond “perpetuates racism by associating a group of people with specific traits,” (i.e. cultivating rice!) and holds to the bizarre thesis that “rice cultivation gives a military advantage over hunter & gatherer people.”

This is beyond sloppy. You don’t fling around accusations of racism in public forums without serious evidence. Tak doesn’t have serious evidence, or, as far as I can see, any evidence whatsoever. Instead he has a selection of egregious misreadings and slurs-by-association (you can judge for yourself whether Tak’s piece is a fair summation of Diamond’s article; the latter is a short, easy read). I simply don’t understand what is going on here with Tak and with the other Savage Minds who have contributed to this debate. It’s fine and good to challenge Diamond’s evidence and arguments with other evidence and counter arguments. That’s what academic debate should be about. It’s also fine to challenge particular styles of thinking if they’re unable to come to grips with certain kinds of phenomena. But if you want to claim that certain kinds of reasoning are inherently racist and repugnant to right thinking people, which is what seems to be going on here, you had better have strong evidence to back up your accusations. So far, all I’ve seen a lot of vaguely worded innuendo. There’s some underlying deformation of thinking here, and I’m not sure what’s driving it.

Update: Kerim at Savage Minds offers a “possible explanation”:

bq. If we anthropologists seem a little to ready to throw around the term “racist” it is not because we are “jealous” of other disciplines … it is because we are all too aware of our own history as a discipline. Anthropologists were the foot-soldiers of colonialism, promoting theories of racial superiority to justify colonial expansion. As a result, we are sensitive to the ways in which specific interests can be served in the name of “objective” science.

This seems to me to be at least part of the story – anthropology’s complex historical relationship with imperialism is indeed one of the mainsprings of the discipline’s identity. But while it helps explain, it doesn’t _give license_ to Ozma and Tak to fling about poorly sourced accusations of racism like confetti (Diamond very clearly is not promoting any sort of theory of racial superiority, or anything like it).

Update 2: See this “post”: by Tim Burke, which does a nice – and careful – job of criticizing Diamond.

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08.02.05 at 3:38 pm



Hiram Hover 07.28.05 at 2:21 pm

I didn’t have quite as negative a reaction to Tak’s piece as you did, nor do I think he meant to call Diamond himself racist.

The piece is a bit meandering, but I understood Tak to be arguing that Diamond’s work itself is not so much racist as racialist–ie, it views “races” as biologically determined groups rather than social constructs. Diamond “perpetuates” racism to the extent that he endorses that central premise–at least, that’s what I got from his piece.


Louis Proyect 07.28.05 at 2:22 pm

I haven’t read Tak’s post, but Diamond definitely has some problems on the racial front. In “Collapse,” he argues that Haiti remained poor in comparison to the Dominican Republic because it insisted on retaining an African character and did not open its doors to Europeans, who presumably were more resourceful and could have helped to jazz the economy.

Diamond’s account of Haiti was lifted entirely from the work of development economist Mats Lundahl, who has a long record of defending free markets and liberalized trade. In some ways he can be described as a Swedish version of Jagdish Baghwati. In the 1980s he took the position that economic sanctions against South Africa would harm Blacks. He has also described the period of 1870 to 1914 as a kind of Golden Age for the world economy. In other words, he might be grouped with Niall Ferguson and other intellectuals nostalgic for the good old days of Imperialism.


blah 07.28.05 at 2:37 pm


How is that a problem on the “racial front”?


Henry 07.28.05 at 2:39 pm

Hiram, but what’s with the guilt-by-association arguments about the linkages btw Diamond and Japanese racists then? I’ll happily admit that some of the connections that Tak was trying to draw escape me – but I don’t see how the piece can be read except as a claim that Diamond-style arguments are tainted by their association with racist tropes. And I’m assuming here that Tak, as an anthropologist, is familiar with the distinction between racist and racialist. In any event, if you look at the article, Diamond’s argument very clearly isn’t racialist either – he talks about how the Japanese seem to have inherited a mixture of genes from Korean invaders and aboriginal inhabitants. Nor does he even hint at any point that there’s a causal connection between a group’s genetic inheritance and its behaviour (the fact that Korean invaders seem to have cultivated rice doesn’t mean, nor does he claim that it means, that the Koreans were smarter, better or anything of the sort).


blah 07.28.05 at 2:45 pm

Well, it was clear to me that Diamond was using “Japanese” as a culteral concept, not a racial one. He says straight out at the beginning of the article:

On the one hand, the Japanese people are biologically undistinctive, being very similar in appearance and genes to other East Asians, especially to Koreans.

So it seems strange that he would be accused of using the concept as a racial one.


Steve LaBonne 07.28.05 at 2:48 pm

So far from equating agriculture with any sort of “superiority”, he has emphasized that most people in hunter-gatherer societies lived longer, healthier lives than most people in early agricultural societies, in one of his essays even describing the agricultural revolution as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”.


soru 07.28.05 at 3:10 pm

There’s some underlying deformation of thinking here, and I’m not sure what’s driving it.

Perhaps they are deep instinctive racists, and are only able to suppress that urge by constant recital of anti-racist formulas, with a side order of projection?

Of course, making an accusation like that on such flimy evidence could be seen as a bit unfair to them.



pjs 07.28.05 at 3:26 pm

Both Savage Mind pieces seem to exhibit one of the worst tics of the academic left – a tendency to evaluate arguments exclusively with reference to whether or not they might, in some distorted form, serve the rhetorical purposes of one’s political opponents. It’s exactly the same approach to debate you find coming from the most thuggish members of the war party – whole lines of argument (e.g., Do our actions lead to more terrorism?) are ruled out from the start on the grounds that they stray too close to the other side’s manner of thinking.

What is so depressing about this approach isn’t just that it’s bad scholarship. It’s that it rests on a complete misunderstanding of the point of scholarship, or at least a refusal to see arguments as anything rhetorical strategies. Intellectual curiosity plays no role at all. The answers are all already known, making the point of scholarship simply to destroy, piece by piece, the other side’s ammunition.


Hiram Hover 07.28.05 at 3:31 pm


I put that “racialist vs. racist” construction on Tak’s argument because I didn’t see that he directly accuses Diamond of racism, but uses phrases like “perpetuates racism” or has “racist assumptions,” and complains of Diamond’s “biologism.” But I must (shamefacedly) confess that I hadn’t read Diamond’s piece before my initial comment; now that I have, I can’t see that either the racist or racialist criticism seems fair.

I was also struck that Tak really focuses on the introduction and conclusion of Diamond’s piece (he blockquotes both), and not that much of the specifics of what’s in between. There may be a certain measure of laziness in that, but it probably also grows out of what seems to a resentment of Diamond as a “popularizer”—Diamond’s piece appeared in Discover magazine, and it’s probably in the introduction and conclusion of such writing that he’s most likely to make concessions to popular sensibilities, preconceptions, etc. It strikes me that Tak was responding less to the content of Diamond’s piece than to the popular misconceptions and simplifications that he felt Diamond was appealing to—which I mean as an explanation, not excuse, for his charges.


blah 07.28.05 at 3:42 pm

I thought Brad made a good start at explaining the deformation of thinking:

C. Northcote Parkinson was the first to identify the phenomenon of “injelitance”–the jealousy that the less-than-competent feel for the capable.

Here we have a classic case from the anthropologists at Savage Mind, who are both 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.

It seems that they didn’t like the book (which some did not even read) and then needed reasons to explain why they didn’t like it. Hence the strange post hoc criticisms.


Steven 07.28.05 at 3:42 pm

Having followed the debate at Savage Minds and particularly the contretemps with Brad deLong (and not being an academic myself), what strikes me is that the working assumptions of the Savage Mind folks seem to be that all cultures are equal, that Western culture is inherently racist, that all white members of Westen culture are inherently racist and that any attempt to discuss cultural development or history without reference to racist attitudes is fundamentally flawed. As the delightful Ozma said at one point, the implication of Diamond’s work is “an assertion [that]tramples upon all that anthropology holds dear,..” If that’s the case, it’s no wonder that the Savage knickers are considerably twisted over Mr. Diamond’s work.


Jason McCullough 07.28.05 at 3:45 pm

Louis, I don’t have the book in front of me, but I so do not remember Diamond arguing Haiti remained poor because they “insisted on retaining an African character and did not open their doors to Europeans.” Here’s the amazon search inside the book, and I see nothing resembling that.


david 07.28.05 at 3:59 pm


I don’t know if you answered these in the other thread, but:

How does citing Charles Tilly support the conclusion that we need a Diamond-like environmentally materialist cartoon strip as our first level of causation? Tilly seems coarse-grained, sure, but he’s hardly blaming the plants.

What on earth makes you think that the discipline of anthropology, home to Sidney Mintz, Eric Wolf, and Pigs for the Ancestors, is hostile to materialism?

And, just cause it makes me feel better: I read the book, I liked parts and didn’t like others, good on domestication, but very derivative (Crosby should sue), full of pop speculation, awful on the conquest, which is the key point it is supposed to explain, and it is obvious to anybody who’s read it that Diamond is making claims about European dominance now, despite the hedging and claims he stops off early.

None of this has anything to do with this post, sorry, but it keeps being intimated: “how could anyone but a rube not recognize the genius of GGandS?”

As for the rules of academic discourse, you’re no doubt right, but I didn’t hear anybody here suggest you shouldn’t call people you disagree with thugs and hacks, nor that it is rude and nasty to impart the motive of jealousy to those who think differently about some pop science book you like.


Ginger Yellow 07.28.05 at 4:00 pm

I’m not an anthropologist, but the violence of the reaction suggests to me that Diamond’s book undermines (or is perceived to undermine) some core tenet of the discipline. You get a similar reaction from scientists when creationists try to replace research with Goddidit, although admittedly the scientists’ responses tend to be more coherent. At a guess, I would say it’s Diamond’s (supposed) biogeographic determinism that offends them so muc. This would explain why they miss the point so completely, arguing about motives when Diamond is discussing means, for example.


Rob Breymaier 07.28.05 at 4:02 pm

Envi D has consistently come up against a criticism that it supports racist or racialist attitudes. Diamond is just the latest to feel the heat.

Theoretically, the key to remaining true to environmental determinism is that one must consider the environment as the determining factor in any human phenomenon. But, that’s not so easy, especially as time gets closer and closer to the present.

One might be able to argue that the environment was a highly determining factor very early in the development of some peoples. But, it is unlikely to have ever been the sole reason. The ultimate problem is defining the moment in history where the environment is less than 50% responsible.

And, that is in the determination of a discrete group of people. One has to also determine what a discrete group is and then decide when different groups cease to remain discrete. As history progresses, 2 things (among others) work against envi d:

1.) The environment is less and less fundamental to development in general as time goes on.

2.) As time moves forward, it takes larger and larger environmental anomalies and disasters to make a significant dent in development. Thus, when these events do happen they tend to spread their impact over numerous discrete groups.

Environmental determinism is one of the original geogrpahic theories and has largely been left behind in geography. It has recently been in resugence because of other social science disciplines finding it attractive. (And, I suspect because of Diamond’s success.)

Anyway, I hope this is informative on how Diamond is limited by the theory he is working with.


Jonathan Dresner 07.28.05 at 4:21 pm

The first thing that Mr. Farrell doesn’t know about Tak’s argument is that the Japanese racialists he cites are not fringe elements, but were among the most widely respected and influential social scientists and philosphers of Japan’s modern Imperialist era.

The second thing Mr. Farrell doesn’t realize is that the tropes of race and uniqueness in Japan are still immensely powerful and important components of national and even personal identity. Many of them parallel the error Mr. Diamond makes by ignoring centuries, if not millenia, of intervening (regionally and socially diverse) cultural development and political change, and the relatively recent roots of both the discourse and practices of cultural unity.

What looks like an offhand comment and “guilt by association” is really a pretty fundamental issue, one that would be pretty well understood by most of the readers of Frog in a Well: Japan.

There are some interesting, if contentious, arguments in the Diamond piece Tak Watanabe critiques, but the framing of the question is deeply flawed.


Henry 07.28.05 at 4:49 pm

Hiram – you may well be right about the motivation for the post.

David – answering those questions in order.

(1) I cited Tilly as evidence that big causation arguments without much room for individual agency aren’t _ipso facto_ right wing. That’s all. As I understood Ozma (and as noted I found her arguments rather hazy), this was one of the indictments that she seemed to be drawing.

(2)Of course there are materialist anthropologists – I’d add Marvin Harris to your list. But there is an awful lot of anthropological theory that seems to me to be deeply suspicious of materialist accounts, and also some degree of animus (varying from dept to dept) between cultural and physical anthropology. Not so?

Strengths and weaknesses of GGaS I’ll pass over – as noted in the post above, some kinds of criticisms seem to me to be perfectly legit. But as for name-calling – I’d far prefer to be called a thug or a hack than a racist. Wouldn’t you?

Jonathan – what on earth does the centrality of racism to certain discourses in Japan have to do with the question of whether Jared Diamond is a perpetuator of racist myths. This seems to me to be a complete red herring. Is Diamond making a racist argument? No. Is he making a racialist argument? No. He makes a very anodyne statement about the uniqueness of Japanese culture and environment, and proceeds to launch into an account of why Japanese myths of racial distinctiveness have no empirical basis.


Doug 07.28.05 at 4:58 pm

Maybe Tak et al. are a put-up by the right-ish bits of the academy to make more left-ist bits look silly?

Or is the right not that clever anymore…


david 07.28.05 at 5:10 pm

Thanks! I still can’t square you’re citing of Tilly with your later claim that it’s either independent physical causes first or culture all the way down.

Marvin Harris is great toilet reading, and I mean that as praise. You’re right there is plenty of AT that isn’t materialist — but that there is so much materialism (and Marx-loving) out there suggests it’s not a disciplinary flaw.

You’re right there is animus between cultural and physical (very frequently, that hate each other, and think each other very stupid) but that’s not the issue here — I think you’re talking about approaches of competing groups of cultural anthropologists.

Thug better than racist, sure, but Delong hadn’t been called any names (I don’t think a fair reading of Ozma’s post is to think one’s been called rascist, even if you disagree with its implications), and I would have thought somebody here would have called him out for that ugly post.


Wrye 07.28.05 at 5:19 pm

Since the thrust of the Diamond article is to argue the non-mystical and entirely explicible nature of the origins of the Japanese (in effect a rebuttal of the uniqueness argument favoured by the many and various rightwing purveyors of nihonjinron) I think knocking it for being too nihonjinron in its formulation is a bit…odd.
Is this entirely about using the word unique as opposed to distinct?

He says unique among major powers. There are…what, ten of these? Twenty? So it’s true so far as it goes….

(Oh, wow, I like this preview feature very much indeed. Kudos to those responsible).


Henry 07.28.05 at 5:25 pm

As stated, I was just citing Tilly to answer that specific point. The culture v. materialism stuff – what I was trying to ferret out was the reason why Ozma believed that attention to the physical and technological underpinnings of power somehow detracted from the study of colonialism, racism and so on. I got the impression that she was arguing that one had to _start_ from cultural phenomena such as colonialism or racism or whatever to construct useful explanations, but am not sure if this is what she was claiming – I did try several times to get her to articulate exactly what her objections were, but she wouldn’t bite. As for matters of language – while Brad’s description was severe, Ozma _did_ explicitly claim that Brad, I and everyone else who had read and liked GGaS is ipso facto guilty of a form of racism. See comment 58 to the previous post (and comment 56 for context). On Harris – the thinking man/woman’s toilet reading is just about right.


Jack 07.28.05 at 5:26 pm

Anyone who thinks that Diamond is playing fast and loose ( I think this is the substance of the complaint unless naivety sums it up better ) should read Michael Kremer (1993) on Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million 1990.

It must always be irritating when someone swans into a discipline and makes a contribution to the big picture without paying their dues.

For example, Ed Witten did wonderful things for maths but quite a lot of what he did wasn’t actually maths and the concerns of the mathematicians were valid even when Witten was right about the conclusions. Was Von Neumann greeted warmly when he ventured into economics? I imagine that Diamond’s contribution is not quite on that scale but the issues might be similar.


Steve Burton 07.28.05 at 5:57 pm

“You don’t fling around accusations of racism in public forums without serious evidence.”

Uhhh…really? The folks at Gene Expression will be surprised to learn that.


Andrew 07.28.05 at 6:33 pm

Steve Burton, obviously, in the sentence you refer to, “you don’t” doesn’t literally mean “no ones does,” but rather “you shouldn’t”.


Steve Burton 07.28.05 at 6:52 pm

Yes, Andrew, obviously. You miss my point.


Luke Weiger 07.28.05 at 6:55 pm

“There’s some underlying deformation of thinking here, and I’m not sure what’s driving it.”

One obvious candidate: self-righteousness. That’s almost certainly part of the explanation.


fifi 07.28.05 at 7:08 pm

The problem I had with the book is it made too many concessions to “cultural” factors. I suppose JD was trying to be diplomatic.


Jonathan Dresner 07.28.05 at 7:08 pm

Actually, Mr. Farrell, I would say that Diamond is making a racialist argument, and that is the crux of Tak Watanabe’s critique. It’s not a crude genetic one — it’s a sophisticated cultural one, though that doesn’t stop him from throwing in genetic and appearance issues — but it’s racialist and deterministic nonetheless. The only significant difference between Diamond’s argument about common Japanese-Korean heritage and the early 20c Imperialist racist arguments is that Diamond, like most western scholars, sees the (genetic, cultural, political, military) influences flowing from the continent as determinative rather than vice versa.

Diamond is not making very original arguments, from the perspective of Japanese studies, and the ones he does make are flawed. It’s an example, if you will, of trying to use the master’s tools, but, as in the case of the Japanese scholars cited by Tak, the master’s tools are flawed ones.


jane adams 07.28.05 at 7:09 pm

Without going into all the issues, the argument that X shares some beliefs with a distasteful Y does not invalidate X. We all share a large number of beliefs. It is the system and suggested behaviors of such beliefs that become the issue.

As an example Hitler was a vegetarian, once characterized himself as an unusually humane person because he arrived at an allegedly less painful way to kill lobsters for his less enlightened colleagues and also pionered the concept of eliminating non native vegetation, a thing popular among many of the ecological minded here.

From this should I conclude that vegan earth huggers share Hitler’s approach in all things or even some of the nasty ones?

The idea that certain ideas are tainted and thus inadmissable is “natural.” It is also ridiculous. Most major thinkers in history have had some questionable or downright disgusting notions. Potentially liberating movements have been tainted. For example early labor movements in this country were heavy with racism.

When formulated into a system and enforced by some structures (an academtic thoughts are) the kind of thought that demands purity, defines purity and rejects purity is at best a drive towards totaltarian mediocrity, but tends to become even more nasty because the “others” are “demonized.” We wind up with systems that don’t distinguish Diamond from those who ordered the rape of Nanking.
After all it can be argued that he shares similar beliefs and see what those lead to?!


Andrew 07.28.05 at 7:21 pm

“You miss my point.”

Care to explain your point, then? I interpreted your statement as saying that the people at GNXP are frequently the object of accusations of racism “flung about,” and therefore that GNXPers would be surprised to hear Henry’s statement that “you don’t” making wild accusations of racism because they get that all the time. I don’t see what other interpretation it admits. (Certainly GNXPers do not accuse other people of being racists, given that they spent an large amount of time arguing that what their critics call racism is not actually racism, or is justifiable racialism.)


jane adams 07.28.05 at 7:36 pm

The thesis that agreeing on a shared set of origins will help things is a bit utopian. Indeed the Japanese made this argument in their co prosperity sphere, but some were more equal than others.

However it is a belief shared by many of the “progressive” here. It is usually fairy liberal assimilated individuals who can refer to themselves as “Asian.” Among those from the old country other identities are primal, but the “Asian” persective trivilizes the specifics of culture and history. Indeed it can’t even go back less than 40 years when Filipinos were excluded from Japanese and Chinese groups. The common identity which blurs specifics is sadly too often the meaning of “multi cultural.”

It is not a particularly new fact to note that several waves of Koreans were crucial in spreading “civilization” (eg. Sino based culture) to China and the records clearly show that at times Korea was among the most advanced of the associated nations. But of course this will make no difference to chauvinists.

And perceptions of the 2 cultures of each other are fairly complex. 20 years ago Japanese said “if you think we were something wait until the Koreans come, they work *really* hard.” Not necessarily an insult. And Koreans remark: “1 Korean can beat one Japanese, but 2 Japanese can beat 2 Koreans.”

I have only a superficial smattering of the various perceptions between the 2 cultures, but they certainly include promising things. The recent infatuation of things Korean (especially Korean male stars who evidently hit the romantic spot) in Japan is a *perhaps* a promising indication.

And racial or cultural past aside, the Japanese are “different.” There are just aspects of their culture that startle even Asians, something unique, self created. It’s like travelling into Europe and hitting Hungarians, only more so. Their culture developed in a semi isolation where it got periodic injections of the outside world and developed them in ways no one else did.

How you quantify this I don’t know, maybe you can’t. Certainly all cultures have lots of odd and unique features and great strangeness if you delve deeply (just look at our own), but there is something about Japan…

Of course given the way it’s culturally fertilizing the world this may be less and less striking.


blah 07.28.05 at 7:49 pm

Actually, Mr. Farrell, I would say that Diamond is making a racialist argument, and that is the crux of Tak Watanabe’s critique. It’s not a crude genetic one—it’s a sophisticated cultural one, though that doesn’t stop him from throwing in genetic and appearance issues—but it’s racialist and deterministic nonetheless.

How is it a racialist argument? Race is a pseudo-biological category, not a cultural one. Diamond specifically says there is no significant biological difference between the Japanese and other East Asians – so how can he be making a racialist argument?


Jonathan Dresner 07.28.05 at 7:59 pm

Because, “blah”, he’s arguing that the racial similarity of Japanese and other East Asians should dictate their relationship.


Steve Burton 07.28.05 at 8:00 pm

andrew: OK, since you *did* take my point, I’m at a loss to understand why you thought your original reply (comment #24 above) was responsive. But no big deal.


Andrew 07.28.05 at 8:26 pm

Apologies to everyone on this thread for digressing from the actual topic of discussion for something that’s, as Steve says, no big deal. Steve – my interpretation of your comment #23, which it appears you have assented to, requires that “you don’t” be interpreted literally as “no one does,” so I responded by saying that’s not what Henry meant. That might have been a bit snide of me; if so, I apologize.


Hiram Hover 07.28.05 at 9:01 pm

But Jonathan — I really did read the bit about “joined by blood” and “rediscovering those ancient bonds” in the conclusion as throw-away lines that sought to give the article relevance for a popular readership. That’s not to say he shouldn’t be held accountable for them, but it seems rather uncharitable to base one’s entire evaluation of the essay–and his larger work–on them, unless you’re already primed to do so.

The bulk of the piece avoids claims that blood is or ought to be historically determining–indeed, he explicitly rejects that view. Maybe his recounting of thousands of years of history is derivative or just plain bad history, and maybe he over-emphasizes environmental factors. But those are rather different criticisms.


david 07.28.05 at 9:24 pm

This goes back aways, and I’ve been drinking Thai malt liquor, but:

Henry, you say: “As for matters of language – while Brad’s description was severe, Ozma did explicitly claim that Brad, I and everyone else who had read and liked GGaS is ipso facto guilty of a form of racism.” But that’s not what she’s really saying. She’s saying — buy into this argument, you’re less likely to get at the real issues, and bad things might happen.

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t believe that bad theories can lead to bad outcomes, or that people for the best intentions may produce something that does harm. For goodness’ sake, Delong lectures people who don’t support the trade agreements he likes, telling them they are actively immiserating already poor people of color in India and China. His evidence for this is no thicker than Ozma’s. So why should this anthropologist’s charge of false consciousness, or unintended outcomes, or whatever you want, be taken so personally?


Jonny Ho HO 07.28.05 at 9:28 pm

Diamond’s ‘conclusion’ that a shared racial heritage should be an invitation to harmony between Korea and Japan is NOT the thesis of his article, as I read it. It is merely a nice a rhetorical piece of wishful thinking to end the article on an optimistic note, and nothing more. To site this as proof that Diamond is a ‘racialist’ as jonathon dresner does is a difficult and twisted leap of logic.


Henry 07.28.05 at 9:32 pm

Hi David – it _is_ what she’s saying. Take a closer look at the debate. First, what Walt Pohl says:

bq. Ozma: It’s not that you don’t like the book; it’s that you a) didn’t really read the book, b) misread the little that you did read, and c) accused everyone who liked the book of racism.

Then, what Ozma says:

bq. Walt, As for (a) and (b), nothing I’ve learned from this process has led me to believe my take on the book is mistaken. As for c, guilty as charged. Not of genetic racism, no. But guilty of what I called in my original post “no-nothing anti-racism”, yes, absoutely.

Ozma agrees wholeheartedly that she’s accusing everyone who liked the book of a form of racism – more specifically of the attenuated form of racist denialism that she calls “no-nothing anti-racism,” or “quasi-racism.” That’s what’s gotten Walt Pohl and others upset and annoyed (or in my case, giving up on trying to argue with someone who doesn’t seem to present an argument so much as a worldview that she believes to be unassailable on principle). It’s not a bad ideas leading people astray kind of claim. It’s a claim that people who disagree with her about this book are _ipso facto_ quasi-racists.


david 07.28.05 at 9:46 pm

I don’t want to fall into one of those worldviews, and I’m not Ozma nor do I care much to be defending someone else’s views; but I think the charge of quasi-racism, made under provocation, is the same as what I said earlier. She’s saying the book covers up colonialism by naturalizing inequality over the long term. Race comes into play because colonialism is built on racial distinctions. There is nothing difficult, or obscure, or even particularly controversial, about such an argument. You don’t have to agree, but there’s no reason to get outraged about this particular charge. (I know you asked for clarification, but the charge seemed and seems perfectly clear to me.)

Diamond’s book might lead to tears over the fate of the world rather than outrage over acts of injustice. It might not. Again, I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s not so crazy a charge; and academics of all stripes say shit like this all the time. Political theorists? endlessly; Political Scientists? with numbers; economists? with venom towards those who don’t buy their premises; Literary critics? please, it practically defines the discipline. And the free traders of the world say the same kinds of crap about people like me who don’t buy in(Daniel Davies is good on this point) all the time, but nobody takes it personally and cries out “quit calling me a racist.”

I hate to brownnose, but, despite the fact that I think Delong deserved a smackdown, you all run a discussion really well, and thanks.


razib 07.28.05 at 9:50 pm

given that they spent an large amount of time arguing that what their critics call racism is not actually racism, or is justifiable racialism

i’ve never supported racialism. just for the record andrew ;)


John Quiggin 07.28.05 at 9:53 pm

‘Was Von Neumann greeted warmly when he ventured into economics?”

i can’t say anything about informal responses at the time, but the textbook accounts don’t give any hint of disciplinary xenophobia. If anything the opposite: if you took a standard econ course, you’d get the impression that von Neumann, Nash and Savage were all economists (Varian’s text mentions in a footnote that von Neumann was one of the leading mathematicians of C20, but that’s an exception).


Tom Lynch 07.28.05 at 10:14 pm

Re “injelitance”: I’ve read a few bits and pieces of Diamond’s work now, and while he is usually enjoyable to read, often because of his controversial assertions (e.g. subsistence agriculture as humanity’s worst mistake), his need to recast historical patterns in a very narrative, populist form is frustrating. He makes interesting arguments though.

I agree with Henry’s point that the “Frog in a Well” post about this article was overstated and made strange arguments. There is no impression from Diamond’s article that he is aligned with Japanese biological or historical essentialism. In fact, the main similarity between his work and “Japanese fascism” would appear to be the tendency to make sweeping claims about causality in relation to the macro-scale events of history.


Muninn 07.28.05 at 11:33 pm

I am glad Jonathan has stepped in to try to counter some of the puzzling critics of Tak. I think we should all recognize that Tak isn’t accusing Diamond of being a cross-burning racist.

What is missing from much of this discussion, and what Tak, Jonathan, and people like me are very sensitive to: the very complex and problematic legacy of essentialized concepts of race and their employment in historical argument in such ways that, often unwittingly, propagate the very kinds of fallacious categories they are seeking to overcome.

I think one of Tak’s points, and Jonathan has touched on this and similar issues in his comments above, is that “being joined by blood” (which is central to conceptions of race) is for Diamond in his essay, the key thing which moves across time (and to the all important conclusion), his excellent discussion of cultural influences notwithstanding.

Other commenters here seem to like to characterize Diamond’s introduction and conclusion as “throw-away” lines or not “central” to his piece, but if these are not important, then what is the point of his piece? Many more theoretically inclined anthropologists and historians are equally frustrated with some of our less generous critics who think that because we are sensitive to starting assumptions, rhetoric and, god forbid, the consequences/intents of scholarship, we are thus somehow completely incapable of evaluating evidence.

I think Tak and other critics are on the mark when they warn scholars like Diamond to be a little more careful (and I think Tak is not condemning Diamond as much as he and others would like to caution against certain assumptions and question-framings) – who are indeed perpetuating the kinds of argumentation which are central to nationalist anachronisms about ethnic purity and progressivism through history as well as to the projects of modern imperialism (and Japan, as Tak suggests by bringing up Watsuji and also adding one excellent contemporary Japanese scholar who has done pivotal work in debunking these arguments)

One of the major points at which many of the disagreements on this seem to boil over is when critics claim Tak and Savage Mind of being sloppily anti-empiricist and thus wild and crazy leftist nut cases whose propensity for critical theory has disqualified them from any productive debate.

I would suggest that much of this arises from the refusal to recognize that Tak doesn’t need to be an archeologist to critique Diamond’s essay on Japan. He doesn’t need to evaluate a shred of Diamond’s argument about agriculture because that is NOT his angle of critique. Like all scholarship, Diamond’s essay embarked on its argument from the port of certain assumptions and however good its archeological analysis, it sailed mysteriously through a bermuda triangle of thousands of years of history to arrive at a solution for Japanese-Korean tensions today. Tak and other students of these fields such as myself, are interested in questioning this starting points and their sometimes troubling teleology.


seth edenbaum 07.29.05 at 12:00 am

“In fact, the main similarity between his work and “Japanese fascism” would appear to be the tendency to make sweeping claims about causality in relation to the macro-scale events of history.”

Maybe this says something about sweeping generalizations. especially in the context of japanese history. Maybe it’s important for someone as the author of a book to discuss the implications of his argument, and how he thinks it should or should not be used.
I think this would be a good place to continue the discussion of social vs asocial networks from a a few days ago. Anthropologists become part of the social networks of their subjects, and see their subjects as part of their own networks. That’s a more sober way of repeating what I wrote yesterday.

I won’t say it’s right to have a bias in favor of human agency, but I won’t say it’s right to have one against it, and these days theories of passivity are popular: history is not what we’ve done, but what’s happened to us; ideas as “memes” are not things that are spread by us but seemingly by themselves. This all strikes me as more taste than anything. And DeLong responds to criticism is irrationally as anyone else I know. There’s a logic to this behavior, but not his logic. Someone should do a psychological study of tech-nerds. Why should I listen to philosophies of human interaction written by sexually immature electronic gamers? There is a disconnect here.

We’re human beings, observing human beings. Some of us prefer looking at rocks. But we should all err on the side of caution when making generalizations about each other. Does DeLong do that? Henry Farrell? Jared Diamond? Diamond is the only one I hesitate to have an opinion about. But I’m comfortable assuming that the world is more complex than any model we make of it, so sweeping generalizations bother me on principle.

All ideas exist in the social world. Mathematics exists in it as the record of our choices as to how to use it, to build missiles or buildings. Given this fact there’s an element of taste in any choice of career or field of interest. Micro or macro, if someone doesn’t have a subtle understanding of human interaction, I question their ability to understand how we have become what we have. Does this mean I think X or Y is wrong? No. It means I think that X or Y will never be so entirely absolutely on the money about everything that context and means of communication will be irrelevant.


grackel 07.29.05 at 12:42 am

If, as someone stated above- which is consistent with my own experience- there is a continual, usually low-grade, state of warfare between the cultural and physical anthro factions, there is a vituperative animus held by many anthropologists toward geographers, whom the former mistakenly feel encroach on their own domain. I would suggest that those so critical of Diamond, mistakenly believe that their own discipline is the sun fully risen and shining bright, while geography is merely a relic of earlier times. How irritating that it should garner attention. How maddening that it appear full of life, and even fun. .


J. S. Nelson 07.29.05 at 1:58 am

I haven’t read many of the comments here, as I’m pressed for time, but sometime I’d like to really talk in depth about racism. For right now I’ll just talk a little bit.
I can’t actually speak for the SM folks, but given some of the things I’ve read from them, I’m guessing their attitudes about racism are somewhat similar to mine. (I’ve been involved with anti-racism work for a few years, in case you’re wondering why I tend to speak up when it comes up.)
The deal here is that there is a difference in the way various people see racism, and that’s something everyone is starting to pick up on. The first thing I learned when I started doing anti-racism work was that almost everyone has attitudes that are racist or promote racism. You, your mom, me, everyone. So, yes, it’s true that we assume that western culture is inherently racist. I’ll come back to this, but I’ll go over something I said at SM again first: Contemporary thought about racism isn’t centered around the white robe wearing, cross burning type. Those people still exist, and they’re still horrible but the racism that makes the biggest impact on people’s lives is the attitudes held by people who don’t think of themselves as racist, and the structural features of government and society that contribute towards inequality. To us, racism is not that old beast we thought it: a hateful fire in the hearts of some outspoken individuals, fought off by the noble few. It’s a much more subtle and widespread thing. It’s in the way my manager was more likely to card people with darker skin, it’s in how convinced my father is that it was the mexican garderners that stole his tools (it’s in how all the landscaping crews are mexican & every joke about them mowing your lawn,) it’s in the way I find myself in stores keeping my eye on the guy in FUBU but not the guy in Abercrombie & Fitch, it’s in the way that although my family was below the poverty line, it was unthinkable to not go to college, when it’s hardly considered for many of the latinos down the street, and it’s in portraying people in other cultures as though they were trapped in the past. The concept of racialism is a good one, and if you don’t view that as racism you must at least aknowledge that it helps propagate prejudice. So, when someone is accused of holding an position that we(I?) call racist, it doesn’t mean we think that they are likely to participate in a lynching or that they’re necessarily hateful, or even that they’re a bad person. It just means that we think that they (most likely unknowingly) hold a position that propagates or reinforces prejudice. Perhaps we(all sides of this issue) need to refine the way we discuss these things, and (to do the achingly “PC” thing) work on our vocabulary so as to prevent misunderstanding.
Now, to briefly return to a previous point: Yes, we assume western culture is inherently racist. Also: every other culture. We just tend to be more critical of western culture because, for one thing, it’s easier to see the ill effects of racism if it’s all around you (not in a far off place) and also simply because as the people who’s ancestors brought the guns and germs, we have the power. A racist living in poverty has little effect compared to a racist in, say, congress.

Also, before I go, I would like to quickly comment on this whole “injelitance” thing. *Ahem* Grow up. Reacting to criticism by saying “you’re just jealous!” brings the maturity of the discussion down to around a junior high level. I’m sure these people are very smart, and they make wonderful professors or students in their fields. Now, if they would only act like it. This kind of thing is a weak ad hominem attack (not that these people are the only ones in this discussion guilty of ad hominem attacks.) It just makes it really hard for me to take anyone who uses it seriously. The post to which I am now replying is a solid example of a reasonable argument. Waving your hands and muttering “Injelitance!” isn’t. I mean, come on.


Jonathan Dresner 07.29.05 at 5:40 am

With respect to “Jonny Ho Ho” (who can’t even copy my name correctly) and Hiram Hover, those lines about reconciling Korea and Japan are not throwaways, in my reading of the article (or a bunch of other people’s, apparently). Without them, the article has no thesis to speak of, no purpose other than an odd romp through relatively recent scholarship by a decidedly non-expert.

If he wanted to write something that was relevant to the present, how about an analysis of the geographic and technological pressures that determined Korea’s colonization: Korean-Japanese relations had been tolerable for two centuries before that little (yes, I’m being sarcastic: it was a disaster for Korea) turn for the worse.


Aidan Kehoe 07.29.05 at 5:49 am

J. S. Nelson, all the judgements you cite are more related to socio-economic class than race, and to judge them racist is to indulge in thinking that is more race-centred than it should be. Go live someplace European where blacks are not noticeably disproportionately poor and where, say, the Russian mafia has a disproportionate amount to do with local crime; your reaction to indices of poverty will not change, but skin colour will no longer be one of those indices.


Michael H. 07.29.05 at 6:36 am

I can’t actually speak for the SM folks, but given some of the things I’ve read from them, I’m guessing their attitudes about racism are somewhat similar to mine.

Why would Sepia Mutiny be interested in this topic?


Donald Johnson 07.29.05 at 7:07 am

I have nothing to contribute to the discussion of Diamond’s ideas and whether they are influenced by racialist notions. I’m putting in my two cents regarding the point David is making. Henry’s got a double standard with respect to Brad DeLong. It’s all very well to say that “racist” is worse than “thug”, but when Brad said Ozma was a thug and a hack, that’s shorthand for saying she’s a PC totalitarian/ Stalinist. Brad is prone to saying rather nasty things about people–he went after that German writer (Grass?) a few months ago,accusing him for no good reason of being a Holocaust minimizer. I’ve googled some of what he’s said about Edward Said–that he worked as hard as he could to make the Oslo peace process fail (as though Said didn’t have legitimate reasons for criticizing it and really just wanted to see the Israelis driven into the sea). Brad is a master at assuming the absolute worst of people he disagrees with, but to Henry his words are just a little harsh.

When I read Henry’s piece about Tak, I clicked over expecting to see a left extremist throwing wild accusations of racism in all directions–instead I found someone who says Diamond is well-intentioned, but using reasoning that is both false and very similar to that used by Japanese racists. I have no idea if Tak is right or if the criticism has any validity, but it’s not exactly shocking to be informed that Western scholars, often with good intentions, may fall into racialist thinking. I’ve not read “Guns Germs and Steel” and have always thought of Diamond as someone who discredited racist assumptions, but it’s not out of the question that he might be well-intentioned and still wrong. Apparently, though, anthropologists who criticize him can’t be well-intentioned and wrong–they’re “thugs” and “hacks”.


tak 07.29.05 at 7:31 am

Hi Henry,

I don’t mean any disrespect and I welcome any thoughts on my reading of Jared Diamond’s essay, but frankly speaking I’m a little disappointed at how mean-spirited this exchange has become. Perhaps my reading was sloppy and my argument weak, but does this warrant an attack of this magnitude?

That being said, I am both stunned and excited that my post is being discussed on Crooked Timber. I honestly appreciate the chance to re-work my thoughts and to discover a new audience outside my disciplinary shelters. So here’s my second go at it, as crooked as this timber may be!

First: I didn’t say that Jared Diamond was racist.

I tried in my post over at Frog in a Well to be generous in my reading of his article, but it seems that I didn’t give that impression to some of my readers. I actually enjoyed it (I would not have read it otherwise). Well written and imaginative, his prose conjured up for me a panoramic view of the historical past. I especially found the details exhilarating, epecially the parts in the middle where he describes what they ate, how they procured food and stored it, what sort of language they spoke. In regards to parts I did not understand, such as his argument about the rice agriculture revolution that ushered in the Yayoi period, I was hoping that a kind reader or two would help me figure them out (as some did). In this regard, as you point out Henry, I am guilty of laziness.

I also felt that he was sensitive, if only mildly, to the history of the politics surrounding the scholarship on the origin of the Japanese. His opening and closing sections led me to think that he intended his article to be a corrective to the widespread historical misunderstanding of how East Asian “peoples” came to be. (By the way, in this article he avoids the term “race” and instead uses “people,” e.g., “the Japanese people,” “the East Asian peoples,” and so on.) Reading him I did not think that he was racist. Rather he was trying to find a way to debunk the racist sentiment between Japanese and Korean by presenting several mediating layers of evidence (archaelogical, physical-anthropological, linguistic) and causal explanations (technology and the environment seems to be his favorites).

Yet despite the things I liked about the article, I was disturbed by some of his assumptions, which in my opinion are the kind that help fuel the very racism abound in East Asia today. This is what I meant by him perpetuating racism. My beef with him is that I don’t think the enmity between Korea and Japan, which he casts in a simplistic narrative of the conqueror and the conquered, can be helped by “find[ing] common ground” in the intertwined prehistories of these peoples. I don’t think evidence is enough. As some others have already commented, I wanted Diamond to go a little further in thinking about the conceptual genealogy of the term “people,” which I read, quite naively at first but now confirmed by my second reading of the article, as “race.”

I cringed when I read the following sentence (in the second paragraph of the Discover article): “Among world powers today, the Japanese are the most distinctive in their culture and environment.” This may seem innocuous to some, but it reminds me, and that of my fellow Frog in a Well contributors, of the same language used by Japan’s cultural nationalists. Although Diamond does provide evidence as to the environmental uniqueness of the archipelago, his statement about “culture” is touted as a given. Besides, what “culture” is not by definition unique, if the very terms for comparison must be defined according to the dictates of each individual culture? So without giving any evidence for Japan’s “unique culture,” he embarks on the twists and turns of the history of these peoples, all interacting among themselves, to beget the modern Japanese. Somehow this uniqueness is an essential part of the Japanese people from antiquity.

Now, take this opening paragraph from the new middle-school textbook (in English, pdf) that was approved by Japan’s Ministry of Education earlier this year. This textbook was written by right-wing revisionist historians who are seeking to erase any mention of the Nanjing Massacre and sexual slavery, among other wartime and imperialist era details that cast Japan in a negative light, from the school curriculum. These textbooks have hence been the target of protests from governments and citizens in East Asia:

The history you are about to study is the history of Japan. In other words, you will be familiarizing yourselves with the stories of your ancestors — your blood relatives. Your closest ancestors your parents, who were preceded by your four grandparents. As you go back further in time, number of ancestors increases with each generation. Then you realize that the humans populated the Japanese Archipelago are ancestors you share with the other students in classroom. In every era, Japanese history was made by ancestors common to all of us.

This paragraph emphasizes the fact that these ancestors, from Jomon to the near-present, are “blood relatives.” I can say, from my own partial education in Japan and from the textbooks I have seen since, that this rhetoric of “ancestors” and “blood relatives” in classrooms did not exist prior to this textbook. And for students of Japanese history, these phrases come right out of Japan’s wartime propaganda.

Diamond might respond by mentioning that Koreans, too, are “blood relatives.” Reportedly, here (in Japanese), the revisionist textbook’s take on the Jomon people falls into the first of the three theories of the Yayoi transformation considered by Diamond. But does that really matter to the Koreans and Japanese? As he himself notes in the second section, these facts are always interpreted to serve the respective nationalisms of the two (or three?) countries. Also there has been no proof so far that arguing on the basis of historical evidence has actually changed the minds of these revisionist historians. Diamond is attuned to this dilemma, but not enough.

Henry, I can hear you saying that what I am claiming here — of a connection between Diamond and these revisionist historians — is based solely on resemblence and association. Sure, there is perhaps no direct connection between Diamond and these efforts by Japan’s revisionist historians, and I bet that Japanese archaeologists, and the textbook authors, do not read Diamond’s work (although Diamond relies heavily on Japanese scholarship). But I was suggesting that they, and me too in varying guises, drink from the same river of 19th century ethnology. Archaeology and ethnology in Japan share a history together with their Western counterparts, of which Diamond would probably consider himself to be a part.

Piles of evidence shown to Japanese revisionist historians, including the research results of Japanese archaeologists and physical anthropologists which Diamond neatly synthesized in his essay, have not helped change their minds. This means that at least one item in the sometimes contentious relationship between Japan and her continental neighbors will never be resolved. Perhaps re-thinking the history of the concept of race, environment, and culture might be the next move.


Hiram Hover 07.29.05 at 8:20 am

Jonathan — Diamond’s piece has no purpose or thesis, you say, if you ignore the bit about being joined by blood. I don’t think that’s true. The purpose is to answer this question, posed in the third paragraph:

How can we resolve this contradiction between Japan’s presumably ancient language and the evidence for recent origins?

That in fact seems a perfectly appropriate scholarly question to me, and it stands if you drop the introduction and conclusion that he used to frame the piece for a popular readership. Tho again, I’m not saying he answers it well.

I’m glad to see Tak’s clarifications, which confirmed my own sense that he’s not calling Diamond and everyone who likes his work racist (I haven’t read GG&S, and don’t have an opinion of it, so I didn’t feel personally implicated either way.) And I also have some sympathy for the notion that a specialist familiar with racist tropes in his area would cringe to see them reproduced, even innocently or unwittingly, by a non-specialist writing for a popular audience.

I do think Tak is a bit ungenerous when he criticizes Diamond for giving no evidence of Japan’s culture being “most distinctive.” In the sentence that immediately follows that claim, Diamond refers to the Japanese language, which he elsewhere characterizes as distinctive. Is that characterization right? I don’t know. Is it enough evidence for a broad claim about the distinctiveness of all of Japanese culture? Probably not, and maybe it’s one he should have avoided given how the idea of Japanese cultural distinctiveness has been deployed by Japanese nationalists. I take that to be Tak’s larger point, but it might have been made in a more measured way.


Henry 07.29.05 at 8:42 am

David – I guess we’ll just have to differ about what Ozma was trying to do and argue. As best as I can see, the accusation of quasi-racism was there right from her original post – anyone who liked Diamond’s book, liked it for the wrong motives. I also understand that she has a “history”: of arguing (here under her real name) that those who disagree with her have hidden and unpleasant motives/prejudices. It’s a style of argument that, to put it mildly, doesn’t advance debate. If Ozma etc had engaged in an empirical critique of Diamond, I would have found it very interesting. If they’d set out to show systematically how he underestimates this or that important factor, and provided arguments to that effect, I’d have also found it really helpful. But instead, we got an extremely vague and as best as I can see unfounded accusation that Diamond, and anyone who read the book and liked it, were guilty of thoughtcrime. Her recent comment over at Savage Minds, in which she attributes the reaction that she aroused to enraged Diamond fans who had to, _had to_, obliterate any form of opposition or criticism to his work is both silly and self-serving. It creates a nicely insulated little mental universe in which any disagreement with her views is by definition unwarranted. As best as I can see, Diamond’s quasi-racism is, for her, _inarguable_ – at the very least, she manifestly failed to provide convincing arguments to show that it was there.

j.s nelson – your argument is interesting, but to my mind not really relevant here. I’m very happy to acknowledge the continued existence of pervasive and systematic racism at an informal and (sometimes) unacknowledged level in US society and elsewhere. But before I accuse someone of racism, I should provide good evidence that he or she is in fact being racist whether for explicit or implicit reasons. This is what is sorely lacking in the current debate.

Seth – back to the question of whether accounts of history and social process without much room for agency are conduits towards passivity. By no means necessarily – cf Tilly etc, and big fat structuralist Marx. You do realize, I trust, the irony implicit in your statement.

bq. But we should all err on the side of caution when making generalizations about each other. Does DeLong do that? Henry Farrell? Jared Diamond? Diamond is the only one I hesitate to have an opinion about.

Apparently some of us have greater license to make broad generalizations than others ;)

Tak – the reason why this debate has taken a “mean spirited” tone is, I believe, the tone that it began with, an attempt to associate Diamond with racist rhetoric and ideas. First, there is an enormous difference between the terms “people” and “race.” The first implies some degree of constructedness (cf. Derrida on “We, the people”), the second an essentialized notion of identity based on common bloodlines. Second, the fact that Diamond refers to the uniqueness of Japanese culture, or that he may be influenced by the historical development of his discipline does not imply guilt-by-contagion. To take an obvious example: Stephen Jay Gould devoted much of his career to arguing against various forms of racism. Like his opponents, Gould was influenced by nineteenth century thought (i.e. Charles Darwin). By the same token, he believed in evolution etc, again like many of his opponents. Does this make him a racist, or someone who furthers racism? Hardly. Finally, your claim that associating a group of people with a set of traits furthers the cause of racism defines “furthering the cause of racism” in such a broad and ill-defined way that it’s hard to think of much social science beyond the purely individual level that doesn’t somehow do this. The accusations of racism and furthering the cause of racism are extremely strong ones. Before making them, you need to have strong arguments and good evidence. Guilt-by-association doesn’t cut it. I’ve no particular desire to harangue you; I imagine that you’re a careful academic, doing interesting work. But when you start a public debate by claiming without good evidence that someone is, at the very least, furthering a racist cause, you should not be surprised when others vigorously dispute this claim.


Peter 07.29.05 at 11:28 am

I think the sudden rise in critiques of Diamond’s works is really an attack on Collapse, without mentioning Collapse, or its premises due to their disfavor among the politically powerful. If one can successfully tar and feather GG&S as a “racist book” then all one has to do to poo-poo Collapse is to refer to the author as a racist. Thus marginalizing his environmentalist arguments.


Louis Proyect 07.29.05 at 1:20 pm

Comments on part 3 of PBS series on “Guns, Germs and Steel”:


J. S. Nelson 07.29.05 at 2:31 pm

Aidan, you agree with me here, you just don’t know it. We make about the same point here. Yes, these things are actually related to socioeconomic class, but the problem is that here (not necessarily in Europe,) skin color does function as a statistical indice to poverty and the common perception is that things that are associated with poverty (IE tendency toward crime) are in fact a function of race. My criticism is towards people who attribute specific behavior to race when it’s a function of other factors, and towards the institutions that continue to propagate things like economic disparity locally. I didn’t say that every culture has the same amount of racism or that it takes the same form.
Henry, above all I was hoping ot affect the tone of the debate. I may seem like I come down on the SM “side” of this debate, when really I have no opinion about the actual matter at hand and I do think that some of their claims are pretty sketchy. My contributions so far have been targetted towards what I see as misconceptions of the nature of racism as it’s being discussed. I’ll speak more on this later.


tak 07.29.05 at 2:36 pm

Henry: I agree that “race” is different than “people,” and I’m sure Diamond meant something by using the latter rather than the former. But I’m not sure this distiction holds for him, at least not in the Discover article in question. Does he make this distinction in GG&S?

I don’t know the Derrida reference (I’d love the citation, it sounds intriguing!), but if he is referring to something like a modern political notion of the people, defined against the state or the market in some way, then the term “Jomon people” may not make sense.

So I’m curious to hear what you make of Diamond’s use of the term.


seth edenbaum 07.29.05 at 5:02 pm

in order to respond we’d have to get into a discussion of the the 19th century narrative tradition [social network?] of which Marx was an active [not passive] menber. He was a writer and a pamphleteer; as much as he claimed to analyze and critique he does not fit the mold of a 20th century figure, and ideology as such marks the difference between dialogue or argument within the culture of Marx’s time to the asocial, false, pseudoscientific remove of 20th century analytical thought.

Marx wrote about people and ideas. He was observant and wrote extremely well. Whatever claims he made for his macroscopic viewpoint, he was not naive about people or their motivations. Novelists still read him.
Did Marx make it easy for others to follow blindly? I suppose, but I’ve always thought of any argument from strict constriction, original intent, or literalism to be waste of time.


Henry 07.30.05 at 9:57 am

Tak – the Derrida reference is somewhere close to the beginning of Declarations d’Independence, Otobiographies (Paris; Galillee, 1984).

Diamond seems to me to use the term “people” as a catch-all term for something like ‘coherent social group.’ It clearly isn’t a surrogate for “race”: nb his statement that “the Japanese people are biologically undistinctive, being very similar in appearance and genes to other East Asians”

Seth – I’m not at all sure that I follow what you’re saying here, but it seems to be something along the lines that Marx can’t be assimilated to the kinds of “asocial, false and pseudoscientific” thought that you so dislike. As I’m sure you’re quite well aware, Marx himself would have disagreed vehemently with that assessment. He saw himself as the discoverer of large-scale, and quite impersonal laws of history (the bourgeoisie are trapped by them as much as the proletariat). He developed highly schematic accounts of different modes of production, lumping in very different kinds of society together in a far more cavalier fashion than Diamond. His _magnum opus_ is best considered as a disquisition in the spirit of the classical economists whom he was trying, point by point, to argue with, not to replace their asocial and pseudoscientific form of reasoning with something more humanistic, but to replace it with a somewhat modified asocial and pseudoscientific Grand Theory of his own. Now you may quite reasonably say that the bits of Marx you find most interesting aren’t the Grand Theory bits. But to downplay them as an element of Marx’s thought in favour of those pamphlets, jeremiads and bits of off-the-cuff writing that can be assimilated with a bit of Procrustean chopping and stretching to the kinds of thought that you favour is to miss out on most of the fundamentals that guided Marx’s thought. Even the Eighteenth Brumaire doesn’t make sense unless you have some notion of base, superstructure etc to see where Marx is deviating from it. And if Marx can do this, can deviate in interesting ways from grand theories, why can’t Jared Diamond, or indeed Brad DeLong or other economists? If you think that Grand Theorizers, whose main interest isn’t in cultural context, can’t say anything worth saying by definition, you need to cut Charlie loose. No two ways about it. Or, alternatively you might consider getting off your high horse and actually start engaging in real argument rather than somewhat lazy dismissals-on-principle of forms of thought that you don’t personally care for. Either is fine by me.


Aidan Kehoe 07.30.05 at 12:54 pm

J. S. Nelson; I still disagree with you that it makes sense to call that discrimination racism, if it is much more a function of socio-economic class than it is of race. And, at this point, it is much more of socio-economic class than it is of race. The wage gap in the US between equivalently qualified blacks and whites has closed, my friends in Florida and in the rest of the American south tell me that something like a ban on inter-racial marriage would be unthinkable today, that the situation today is a long way from the 1950s, songs by black men about being pimps have huge commercial success. (Note, this last is not a good thing. But it wouldn’t have happened in 1955.)

No belief that distinctive characteristics and abilities are determined by race, there.


seth edenbaum 07.30.05 at 1:34 pm

Two points:
Tim Burke. in the comments to the post you linked to, respondng to a question about the causes of the Rwandan genocide:

“Depends on who you ask. Most historians and anthropologists think the overpopulation theory of Rwandan genocide is largely bunk, that it’s premised on old colonial mythico-histories of the region that backdate genocidal ethnic pressures into the precolonial era. I tend to agree: I’m sure that the fertility of the land in the region combined with high population is a small contributing factor, but it’s unimportant in comparison to the nation-state as a political technology, colonial definitions of ethnicity, the role of the development industry, and so on.”

You’re both quibbling over nothings if you accept that the above is true.

Marx was part of a literary and scientific culture before the great divide. I think the man known by his family and friends (and you too) as ‘The Moor’ would roll his eyes hearing arguments like this from an economist. J. K. Galbraith I think talks about Keynes chatting with pig farmers about feed and shit. Life is muck; I don’t trust DeLong’s awareness of that or his capacity for empathetic understanding of his fellow man. But judging from the comments above you seem to think it’s fine for those studying things which involve, or are said by many to involve human agency, to be woefully ignorant of the history and manner of human action. So modern ‘scientists’ are under no obligation to be worldly wise. Marx would disagree

Nobody accused Diamond of ‘being’ racist, they accused him of doing what Burke says he does.


Henry 07.30.05 at 3:10 pm

Seth – if you’re trying to claim or insinuate that Marx argues that we need a sympathetic account of the nuances of human culture and individual agency to understand historical development, you’re talking smack. Go back and read _Capital_. Your apparent claim that those who concentrate on structural forces as major explanatory factors are “woefully ignorant of the history and manner of human action” is silly and tendentious seems to me to be less a serious argument than an exercise in pose-striking and hyperbole. As noted before – if you want to start making serious arguments make them – this is just name-calling standing in lieu of arguments.


seth edenbaum 07.30.05 at 4:31 pm

I’m not trying to claim or insinuate that Marx argues that we need a sympathetic understanding of the nuances of human culture and individual agency, I’m stating that he hadone. He was a system builder, an activist, and an organizer. What sort of awareness does that take? He was bourgeois and he knew it, and finally his works last because they describe problems not because they solve them. He wrote when philosophy was still a literary endeavor, before it became a ‘science.’
I don’t take people on their words. I take their words and try to understand what they are. I think Marx would approve of that technique.


Charles Park 07.31.05 at 3:03 am

Hi, I’m part of the lay (non-academic, a small business man) so I may sound naive. But for all this talk of “race”, has it (that “race” exists) ever been scientifically proven?

I’ve heard that anti-semitism was originally a German scientific study of the Jewish race. I’ve also heard about the American scientific study of cranial sizes between the “white” and “yellow” races. It’s expected that Imperial Japan would have its own cadre of scientists to justify injustice.

Personally, I feel a bit schizophrenic growing up and living in our hyper-race conscious great American society while not seeing any “race” or “races” around me to speak of. I’ve never met a “white” person, or “yellow” or “black” or “red” or “brown” or magenta for that matter. And I am not color blind.

Why are we all hung up about race?

If you consider yourselves scientists and get excisted about racism, why not rigorously debunk the notion and point out the hypocrits of “racism” for what they are. Need to be pointed in the right direction? It appears to me that racism has always been about securing privileges by the privileged. Somebody has pointed out that in the modern American welfare state (or what’s left of it), it’s even being used by the underprivileged to extend the priviledges of the welfare system.

My take on Jared Diamond was quite anti-racist:

The fact that Europeans conquered much of the world was not because they were “white” but because they were “people” who were endowed with very productive geographies. Similarly, the fact that the Korean Koguryo pioneers transplanted the Japanese Jomon hunter gatherers aroud 400 BC as much as the American pioneers transplanted the American Indians in more recent history was not because of their “race” but because of their productive system of agriculture. (And was there a “Korea” or “Japan” in 400 BC?)

Rather, I think if you are an anti-racist, it’s time to celebrate. Now instead of wondering if any deficiencies about race or anything personal had anything to do with losing your land, you can point to the impersonal forces of geography and human nature. (And you can stop feeling sorry that your race is so superior.) That’s what makes me excited about science vs. the quagmire of the political sphere.

I think Jared Diamond is more a student of technological diffusion theory, extending the theory into the analyses of population geography and the clash of civilizations (or peoples). Unfortunately, he started in the wrong discipline. But this is a Discovery article and us lays need as many plain talking integrators of the latest scientific advances we can have which otherwise would remain inaccessible.

Stop talking about race, do something about it.

Thank you for your illuminating discussions. And thanks Tak for igniting it and leading me to this wonderful blog.


Henry 07.31.05 at 12:02 pm

Hi Seth – I still think that it’s just plain impossible to view Marx (or at least to view him as he himself wanted to be viewed) except as a grand systematizer. If you think that the most attractive parts of Marx are the non-systematizing aspects, I would agree – but his own intellectual progression is very clearly from someone who was more interested in philosophy etc to someone who was not interested in (individual) human agency, arguing with the classical economists, and seeking to create his own grand system to replace theirs. And I think (lowering the rhetoric a couple of notches) that there’s something valuable to be gained from looking at Marx as an exemplar. To say that someone is vitally concerned with grand theory, with huge forces etc is not to say that this person is necessarily ignorant of the importance of human agency (much of Marx’s commentary on current events was not, creating obvious problems for Marxian exegesis). It’s to say that it sometimes makes sense, if you want to look at certain issues, to abstract out agency, contingency and all that, and look at the world _as if_ they didn’t matter. Now it’s obviously a different matter if you dogmatize that simplification, discard the ‘as if,’ and make the strong positive argument that human agency doesn’t matter. It’s an enormous problem if you then go and try to reconstruct society along lines that suggest that it doesn’t matter (see on this James Scott’s _Seeing Like a State_ – a truly great book that I think you would find interesting and sympathetic. But the criticisms that apply to the second and third of these viewpoints don’t necessarily apply to the first. That is, you can make interesting and valuable arguments about social development that don’t directly invoke human agency (although they should indirectly rest on a theory of human agency – there’s a fascinating debate between Michael Taylor and Theda Skocpol on this), as long as you recognize, implicitly or explicitly, the limitations of your causal arguments (that there are some things that they simply can’t explain). My sense is that Diamond is reasonably good on these limits – which is one of the reasons that I find him vastly more sympathetic than, say, much of the ev. psych literature.

Charles – there is a fair amount of literature out there that makes these arguments (Gellner on the arbitrariness of group distinction comes to mind in his book on Nations and Nationalism).


seth edenbaum 07.31.05 at 1:44 pm

Henry- I was taught to read books not for their author’s ideas but for their conflicts and contradictions; between one idea and another or between idea and form. The more an author gives full reign to both sides of this -internal- debate interesting the work becomes. This goes for fiction and non-fiction. I really do operte on the assumption that the world as we experience it is too complex to recreate. To that extent any novel is a grand theory and vice versa. And any ‘GT’ that doesn’t put it’s conflicts up front is dangerous. That’s why economists worry me more than businessmen, since they seem to have only one idea and be amazingly loyal to it.

Your take on ev. psych is that it’s bad science. Another take, not on ev.psych itself but on studies that avoid dealing with agency, would be to ask that those involved in such studies have an understandng in the fullest sense of what agency is or can be seen to be. There’s a degree of preference here, of taste for a certain forms of logic, and the modern era is full of attempts to impose logical equations on the world. Modern economics after all is not a theory in the sense that evolution is a theory. Modern economics can’t explain the bahavior of my landlady, and it makes a lousy defense of sheetrock as a construction material.

This is not to say that science is relative, or even that having Asperger syndrome should preclude you from a career in the humanities, though it would strike me as an odd choice. But the social sciences make use of numbers, they aren’t defined by them. They’re defined by language, by arguments over what the numbers mean. Again, I haven’t read GGS, but I’m not making any argument about the book one way the other: I’m defending the right of people to criticise a scientist as a sloppy social observer, when such observation is a part of his thesis.

That, and I’m getting nostalgic for the 19th century.


seth edenbaum 07.31.05 at 4:47 pm

I’m tired a lot these days:

“,,,you can make interesting and valuable arguments about social development that don’t directly invoke human agency (although they should indirectly rest on a theory of human agency – there’s a fascinating debate between Michael Taylor and Theda Skocpol on this), as long as you recognize, implicitly or explicitly, the limitations of your causal arguments (that there are some things that they simply can’t explain).”

As to whether or not Diamond does this I don’t know. Kerim and co. I think would say he doesn’t.


J Thomas 08.01.05 at 3:58 pm

I can’t speak for Ozma at all, I didn’t understand her points and she didn’t explain. I got some sense of some of the others, and I picked up ideas that weemed to me to be worth working out.

First, racism is not a scientific argument. It’s a cultural practice. So telling pepole that their racism is unscientific is no more justified or useful than telling people that their religions are unscientific. If you like, go tell some jewish people that cattle don’t have spotted calves from looking at spots while they conceive, and so Jacob couldn’t have done to Laban’s herds what the scriptures say he did. How do you suppose it will affect their faith? Tell christians their miracles are scientifically implausible, tell muslims they don’t understand the koran, etc. Will you shake their beliefs? No, they will think you are a boor.

Cultures are required to give their members a sense of how to deal with the “other”. There’s dealing with transient incidental “other” who’re polite and who’re just passing through, and then there are the “other” that they must somehow coexist with, or ethnic-cleanse, or run from. And a culture that doesn’t exclude the perpetual “other” will merge with them and change its special identity. Racism is one variety of this, one variety of excluding the “other”. I tend to believe today that this is all it is.

Suppose you want to get some racists to stop being racist. You want american white southerners to stop looking down on blacks, or texans to stop looking down on hispanics, and you want hispanics and blacks to fully accept whites, and so on. Does it do any good to call them racists? No, none at all. It shows that you disapprove of them. It shows that you consider them “other”, and you have no intention of accepting them.

So it seems to me that when Ozma was calling us racists she did not intend to have a rational discussion, she was saying that we were other and not worth attempting rational discussion with. And depending on her circumstances that might have been a rationally-best strategy at the time. She was helping to draw the distinction between her group and the others, which is an important thing to do when your group’s boundaries are too porous and need to be sealed some.

When people make distinctions based on income or class, there’s an issue whether they’re defining their groups that way. If you happen to be an upper-class republican who thinks of the middle class as “other”, then the difference between that and racism isn’t so much. If a lot of middle-class people believe that the boundaries are quite porous, that all they need is hard work and some good stock market choices and they will be accepted into the club, but you’re busy arranging the system so it isn’t true — that’s, well, unfriendly. But if the boundaries really are quite porous, if anybody can become a rich republican and join the club if they’re willing to work hard, then it isn’t so bad.

In general we can’t expect cultures to accept the “other”. Racism as one example of this will not go away. What we might possibly do is arrange for different cultures to live in close proximity (like, interspersed through the same cities) without a lot of conflict. Working together and knowing what to expect from each other. Treating each other well whenever necessary — so if you have a medical emergency you don’t have to be concerned what ethnicity the EMTs are etc.

I don’t know what it would take to get that, but we aren’t anywhere close. And people who don’t think they’re racists support a whole lot of institutional discrimination against “other”. As an example that won’t hit home to anybody here, I was surprised how many people denied they were racists and still supported the LA police against Rodney King. Similarly with Abu Ghraib. They were quite willing to have bad stuff done to the “other”. And I repeatedly heard the justification that things just as bad go on in US prisons, and that’s fine. They thought it was OK to have very bad things happen to criminals, as long as it wasn’t good people getting arrested for the kind of crimes that good people commit.

So, my guess is that Ozma belongs to a group where people recognise all this. And they feel a responsibility to improve US society to end institutional racism. This is a noble goal, but if they were to succeed at it in a way that left everybody sharing their special insight, they wouldn’t be a special group any more. They must continually fail at their goal if they want to keep their group identity. So, rather than finding ways to actually get the different groups to cooperate better, to maintain the group identities with a minimum of conflict, instead they firm up the boundaries between themselves and economists and other outsiders who just don’t get it. Very likely they don’t actually have the skills to accomplish their goals, even if their group identity didn’t come first.


Charles Park 08.02.05 at 4:16 pm

j thomas: Briefly, then what do you say to someone who says that “racism” is in their religion? Do you say that “I respect all religion, so I must respect your religion of racism”? Or would you reject “racism” as a cult of ignorance, which it is? Just because it is a practice and not science, it is not beyond scientific analysis. Many have tried it and so far, there is no scientific proof that “race” exists. I don’t think we need to get into the slippery slope of raising racism to the level of religion in a possible defense of it. By nature we prejudice our reality, that does not mean that we cannot bring the reality to light through study and analysis. Thanks.


J Thomas 08.02.05 at 5:17 pm

Charles, you and I are thinking at cross-purposes.

As I understand it, your view is that racists are treating some “other” people badly, and so you will treat the racists as “other” and look for ways to mistreat them enough to get them to quit.

This approach does not usually work. Just as the racists are intensifying the group identity of those they persecute, you intensify the group identity of racists by persecuting them.

I may have misjudged you. Maybe you’re fine about groups that don’t get along. Maybe you just want to affirm the practices of your group, which like most feels more connected when it has created external enemies.

For myself, completely apart from defending racism, I say that racism *is* like a religion and you aren’t going to persuade any racists by “scientifically debunking” it. That’s just another kind of attack to them because they don’t care about science when they’re doing racism, they care about the common observances that their group does. It doesn’t matter any more than it matters to fundamentalists what science says about the age of the earth. What matters is what their group agrees on and what their group does.

When I look at it that way, when I see race as simply one variety of us/other split, it leads me to think that we aren’t going to get rid of it. It’s something people do. People make us/other splits. They claim and want to believe that “us” is better than “other”, that members of their group can be trusted more than others, that members of their group will help them but members of other groups might attack them, etc etc. There’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to it, too.

So I want to look at ways that people can do us/other and still treat each other OK. If people ar racists but they work OK together with the people they’re racist about, if they sell to them and buy from them with no problem, if they get along even while they’re being racist, maybe it can work out.

I’ve seen hints of this in the american south. A lot of the whites whose status is low enough that they wind up supervising lower-class blacks, talk racist. But many of them are successful managers. (The others of course have to do something else.)

The supervisors say things like “blacks are lazy.”. They don’t mean they can’t find anybody who’ll actually do the work. What they mean is that lower-class white employees try hard to look busy when the boss is watching, and lower-class black employees often do not.

They learn to adapt. They give nonverbal signals of approval when the work gets done well. “Loan” a few dollars a bit before payday to good workers. Arrange a degree of flex-time, with the other employees pitching in. Not really different from anything else, except it isn’t the same culturally. And even while they’re showing genuine affection for each other, both sides are still racists. The manager is quite willing to use offensive language about them with his friends after work, and they do the same, both look down on each other, they see the white guy as extra uptight etc, and he puts up with things from *his* management that they wouldn’t accept. But they’re all polite to each other and they get along on the job.

We need that sort of thing to spread to the point that it doesn’t affect pay scales etc. When it’s often white employees under black managers and both sides know how to play their roles.

It *has* to be OK for individual people and social groups to be racist. They will, whether we decide it’s OK or not. What we need to change is the institutional racism that keeps some people down when it shouldn’t, and we need to develop the customs that let racists work well together with their complementary racists.

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