He's Wrecking Their Brand

Anthropologists are fretting over the Jared Diamond fallout.

Dudes, you can’t have it both ways; you can’t engage the public (which is what many of you want) without risking that your work will be interpreted in ways that you never intended. Diamond is an easy straw man because he’s not a member of your club. (And, yeah, because he now might be in a heap of trouble.)

I also have a hard time believing that one writer could embody a whole field, which is what anthropologists seem to believe. If Diamond is the public face of anthropology, don’t blame him. Blame yourselves, blame your own field for not cultivating any cross-over scholars that know how to write for your flagship journals as well as for Harper’s or The New Yorker.

Historians don’t have this kind of problem (or defensive posture). Nor do political scientists or biologists.

So stop bitching about Diamond and start writing (especially if you have tenure) for larger audiences than a couple of dozen fellow scholars. Yes, a place like Savage Minds is a good start, but it’s still an insular world.  Take a look at Patty Limerick’s example if you want to see how it’s done. She’s a highly respected environmental historian who over the years has written regularly for newspapers, including a guest op-ed stint for the NY Times.

Calling all Savage Mind bloggers. I’m sure one of you can rise to the occasion.

2 Responses to “He's Wrecking Their Brand”

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    I have to say this sounds fishy:

    ‘Rhonda Roland Shearer, director of the New York City-based Art Science Research Lab, whose media ethics project, stinkyjournalism.org, will soon release a 40,000-word study on Diamond’s story. 

    ‘Shearer dispatched researchers to New Guinea and interviewed 40 anthropologists to fact-check Diamond’s story with a fine-tooth comb. The result, as summed up by the report’s working title: “Jared Diamond’s Factual Collapse: The New Yorker‘s Papua New Guinea Revenge Tale Untrue.”‘
    Hmm, sounds like some serious resources have gone into this.  And note:
    ‘Complicating Wemp’s case, perhaps, is an interview he gave to Shearer’s researchers, in which he stated that the stories he told Diamond were in fact true.
    ‘But a Wemp friend and legal adviser, Mako John Kuwimb, explains: “When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment. Daniel’s stories were not serious narrative, and Daniel had no idea he was being interviewed for publication. He has never killed anyone or raped a woman. He certainly has never stolen a pig.”‘

    Why am I reminded of Phil Hartman’s old SNL routines featuring the “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer“? 

    Interestingly Margaret Meade, the most famous of anthropological popularizers and an unquestionably respected member of the profession, ended up embroiled in a similar controversy re her seminal study “Coming of Age in Samoa,” although in her case the critics waited until she was dead and didn’t try to involve the lawyers.

  2. I wanted an opportunit to point out a couple of errors and misconceptions that have been repeated across the Internet that are resulting from errors in the Forbes report (Many others got it right–like AP and the NY Post). 

    Mr. Bloom wrote: “Hmm, sounds like some serious resources have gone into this.”

    When we discovered that Isum was not in a wheelchair as Diamond said from an arrow in the spine and that Daniel Wemp denied Diamond facts (that he was a murderer, etc) –the stakes were obviously high for everyone concerned–careers, reputations and jobs on the line. So you are darn tootin that I am going to be over-the-top careful to make sure what we are saying is right. We worked with local researchers who went into the Southern Highlands of PNG to find the people Diamond named. 

    The following statement you quote from Forbes is an uncorrected error. “Complicating Wemp’s case, perhaps, is an interview he gave to Shearer’s researchers, in which he stated that the stories he told Diamond were in fact true.”

    Wemp never told our team that Diamond’s stories were true.  He consistently said the opposite “inaccuarte inaccurate.”

    You also quote from same article: “But a Wemp friend and legal adviser, Mako John Kuwimb, explains:'”When foreigners come to our culture, we tell stories as entertainment. Daniel’s stories were not serious narrative, and Daniel had no idea he was being interviewed for publication. He has never killed anyone or raped a woman. He certainly has never stolen a pig.’ “

    There are different standards for truth telling here in American. In court swearing on a bible is one thing. Telling someone rumors or things you heard from others in a private conversation is another.

    Daniel Wemp is not a historian, but a working stiff . He was not told that he would be featured in The New Yorker Magazine. No one from the famed New Yorker fact checking dept–or Diamond himself–called him or other indigionous people named before publication to make sure what Diamond said was right.

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