To the Editor,
One of the reasons Jared Diamond, the best-selling author of books like Guns, Germs, and Steel, gets anthropologists' feathers all ruffled is because he has the affinity to write about indigenous and native societies in rather romanticized, fossilized terms - to view them as proud yet homogenized groups who exist primarily as a tool of Western self-reflection, as a measuring stick of how far we have fallen from a (heavily mythologized) "pristine" past. This is, of course, a harmful fallacy, because as Wade Davis writes in his critical appraisal of Diamond's latest book, "Traditional societies do not exist to help us tweak our lives as we emulate a few of their cultural practices."
In this way, Diamond sets up a very problematic teleology in much of his work, a tidy (and untrue) progression from pristine --> damaged, noble savage --> ignoble civilian, that anthropologists have eschewed for quite a while now. In his pseudo-manifestos for social and environmental change, he paradoxically calls on his WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) readers to both mimic traditional societies' practices (which of course are infinitely more varied, complicated, managed, and modern than he makes them seem) - while also insisting we take it solely upon our western selves to actually do anything. Diamond writes, "We ourselves are the only ones who created our new lifestyles, so it's completely in our power to change them." I ask: who has this power to change? And what are we changing from? As much as he likes to speak of indigenous practices, is he not squarely setting his WEIRD readers in a distinct and action-oriented category from not just our ancestors, but from all the 'others' who don't fit in his acronym? Does he forget that many humans, indigenous or not, have very little power to change anything at all?
It seems to me that the 'we' Diamond calls upon to speak up and make change are a very small set of people, a very privileged group, while silencing many others, expecting them to perform simply as mythologized tropes for a largely determinist argument. After reading your magazine for five or so years, I fear that many of your articles operate on a similar premise: travel, em/immigration, and opportunities exist and are played out for the same 'we' as Diamond's. In many of your pieces, albeit not concerned with social and environmental change, the 'others' end up becoming, often subtly and with much panache, subjected to the same structural silence. In your declarations of jet-setting trends, new investment opportunities, and exotic and unexplored lands, everyone but the privileged ‘we’ are simple cultural mirrors to see ourselves in, in vain. I will touch on two articles that I find most problematic in this way: The Geopolitics of Name-dropping (March 2014), and more direly, The Intoxicating, Tradition-steeped Charm of New Orleans (October 2013).
Content-wise, in some paragraphs the Geopolitics opinion piece is interesting. Particularly, the author’s discussion of place-names (Bombay/Mumbai, Burma/Myanmar) highlights the complex meanings these titles hold for individuals who live there and identities that form there, often that go against pre-supposed geopolitical correctness. As the filmmaker Mira Nair states in the paragraph on Indian nationals referring to Mumbai as Bombay, “But for many — and I am one of them — the idea of the city lies in the word ‘Bombay.’” Unfortunately, this opinion piece is not primarily about the intersections between native national understandings of place-names and the projection of these names to the Western outsider. What this article is premised on is a trend – the latest and greatest jet-setters taking job positions or holding destination christenings (?!) in newly-formed, hard-to-pronounce places. Quotes from the author’s friends who live in these places are greatly outnumbered by phrases like “But besides bragging rights, there’s also a practical value to getting the names right,” or “Africa is not the only continent that presents rich opportunities for naming skirmishes.”
The author presents a story of a woman who became the envy of her friends by taking a job in the “newly minted” South Sudan, winning the “traveler’s triple crown” of going to “a city nobody had ever heard of, in a country that had formerly not existed, in a place nobody could point to on a map.” Not only is the author’s half-sentence historical trajectory of South Sudan incorrect (it was never controlled by Egypt), it was astonishingly trite. I cannot blame the author for her honest assessment, most likely coming from a place of personal experience, but the piece is emblematic of the privilege assumed of the magazine’s readership. A blasé trend-piece crystallizes otherness within a ‘triple crown’ of linguistic and symbolic purgatory: these places are unknown (why?), new (due to what?), and hard to pronounce (for whom?). These places are desired for their otherness, first and foremost. The historical, cultural, and ideological details are left behind.
After reading the Geopolitics article, I was immediately reminded of a piece I clipped out of October’s style magazine, one I’ve highlighted, used in class as a discussion-starter on race and development, and have thought about a lot since its publication. The article The Intoxicating, Tradition-steeped Charm of New Orleans is undoubtedly the most insensitive magazine piece I’ve read in a while, and was the original impetus for writing this letter. It is important for me to bring it up in relation to the point I’ve been making so far, because the charge of Romanticization-and-Homogenization-as-Structural-Violence does not only apply to places outside our borders. You have managed to commit this glossy violence at home.
I cannot go into too much detail without writing a term paper, so I will highlight a few pertinent examples. In fact, I can simply stick with the article description to support my point. Underneath the title of the article, it reads, “With its last-frontier appeal and magical mixed bag of culture, New Orleans is quietly luring a circle of expats, who find an evolving city that’s just the right amount of undone.” Frontier. Magical. Expats. Undone. Each word brings with it discursively symbolic force, each word provides the reader with a mental blueprint on which to build all other assumptions, even before the article has begun.
Having spent time doing anthropological fieldwork in southeast Louisiana, I must immediately question the intent behind the words in this adjective-filled article description. Can New Orleans be considered a ‘frontier,’ and if so, does a frontier not ultimately symbolize violence and subjugation? Is New Orleans magical because of its partial afro-Caribbean lineage, and if so, do we want to call those native to the area magical, as if we’ve never heard of the racist trope of the Magical Black Man? Do we call those who move to recently-devastated parts of our country expats (like we have done with Detroit in the recent past), and if so, how do we reconcile our pride in the city’s ‘resilience’ with the verbal designation of it being outside of the Polis, outside of proper citizenship? And, what about New Orleans is undone? Is it the storms, the Parish government corruption, the offshore oil industrial lobbying, the disaster-porn bus tours of the lower ninth ward? What makes something the right amount of undone – is it the moment in which ‘we’ are willing to risk our WEIRDness for socioeconomic gain, while perhaps willfully (and even gleefully, according to the article) perpetuating the centuries-long loss of ‘others’?
This is my first set of questions that I would have for the author of the article and the editor of this magazine, as they relate to the one sentence description, with the purpose of pointing out the problematic nature of articles of this type. That is, I ask these questions not because I want answers, but to demonstrate that they are unanswerable. It is not in the purview of a style magazine, nor is it in the purview of Jared Diamond (or any anthropologist) to provide answers or solutions to these wildly complicated issues. I do not believe it is unreasonable, however, to expect a magazine owned and published by the New York Times to write with an intention to subvert this form of normative violence. What I mean by this is: Places, and people, are not just mirrors to a mythic past or ideal future, they are not just destinations, nor are they so easily deemed just right. They exist in specific moments and epochs, they are experienced in places that ripple with action and meaning as multiple as they are unified. Moreover, they do not require your magazine’s readers, nor Jared Diamond’s WEIRDos, to exist, let alone be worthy of words on a page. Instead of calling these people and places what we need or what we could have, we must not call on them at all. We must let them speak.
I should state, as a type of conclusion, that I am not necessarily surprised at this trend I have noticed in your magazine, nor do I expect any fundamental change by writing this letter, as your readership (myself included) may come to expect a particular point of view. However, I hope that by at least raising the issue, you might become aware of the harm your language and imagery can bring, the inherent silencing of many groups in your printed words. Margaret Atwood once said, “A word after a word after a word is power.” Do not take your privilege lightly. Think deeply. Before you write your own, be open to listening to the words of others.
University of Arizona, Tucson