Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Yali at yuletide

Did some victims of genocide bring it on themselves? (To be sure, I think not. But the question is being raised--once again; it's socio-biological logic I find troubling.)

In today's "Science Times" section of the Times there's a long story about the ecocide end of the genocide spectrum - and about other ways in which societies have historically led to their own demise. Reading along, the piece seems innocuous, another collage of curious is-that-so? socio-biological factoids. But at heart it's an account of the reactions for, and mostly against, the Guns, Germs and Steel theses in Jared Diamond's best-selling book. A chart offered alongside the text shows that of five examples of societies that went extinct, all five "failed to solve social problems." And we are reminded that in a section of his book called "Collapse," Diamond argued that a "precipitating" cause of the genocide in Rwanda was Malthusian. The country had let its population outstrip its food supply. This is controversial stuff, to be sure.

Along the way we are reminded of "Yali's question" and fortunately get two opposing interpretations, that of Diamond and that of his detractors. Among the latter are anthropologists who have written a book length rejoinder all about "Yali's question."

Yali was a political leader of an ethnic group in Papua New Guinea, a people who had gotten used to the bounty of supplies delivered from the air by the Allies during World War II. In the immediate postwar years a cult arose among this people, a "cargo cult." They built ritualistic landing strips and control towers and wore faux headsets carved from wood, trying to summon back the packaged food, medicine and weapons that Yanks, Brits and Aussies had flown in during the early to mid-1940s. Yali asked Diamond this question: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" I urge readers to consult the Times for a good summary of Diamond's interpretation of Yali's question and of his critics', but I'll say here that everything depends on what you think Yali meant. That there could be a connection between understanding Yali's question and contending the alleged socio-biological causes of Hutus killing Tutsis is, to me, earth-shattering. I'm glad the counterargument against Diamond gets such play here. Quite a Christmas Day feature for the Times.

If fifteen conditions must or do exist that led to genocide, fourteen of them are matters of conscious political will combined with conscious political neglect or avoidance and conscious political failure of will (to negotitate, to compromise, to re-arrange borders, etc.). We focus on the fifteenth - the climatic, the evolutionary, the catastrophic [e.g. drought] - at the peril of letting social will and action (those taken and those we fail to take) off the hook.