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Polynesian Resource Center

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Book Review: The World Until Yesterday; Jared Diamond

Polynesian Resource Center

Diamond's theme is What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? It is not a great book, unlike his brilliant Guns,Germs and Steel, but it contains many ideas and hints worth us pursuing. Basically Diamond looks at what we could learn by studing the social approaches of indegenous people in the areas conflict resolution, treatment of the elderly, childcare and a host of other subjects. I suppose it does deserve that damned with faint praise description of Popular Science, but those that use such terms give us the heads up that we are dealing with “experts” jealous of their rights to speak for their fields. The most interesting chapter is the rearing of children in traditional societies and anyone who has watched Western children unwrap Christmas presents containing cheap manufactured plastic toys only to discard them and move on the the next unopened present knows in their heart there is something deeply wrong with Western approaches to children's potential for imagination.

Diamond tends to cherry pick his way across the various differences between Western social behaviours and those of traditional societies, but to be fair this is a subject that could justify a thousand books and how can you possibly do much more than hope to raise awareness of this subject and in this Diamond succeeds. I think where Diamond is weak is going beyond briefly flashing a torch on these subjects. My feeling is he is a good observer and his years of fieldwork in New Guinea certainly supplied the material to question our own Western arrogant assumptions of superiority. This is a step beyond what most Westerners are capable of, but whether he has the sort of mind to go further than than is less certain.

For a New Zealander, especially one whose father was adopted into the Moriori of the Chatham Island is came as a shock to read in Guns,Germs and Steel Diamond his description of the massacre and enslavement of the Moriori People, we just do not expect an Amercian to be aware of the subject, little own understand the point of view of both sides in the tragedy. I think most who have a contection to the Moriori felt surprised and enormously grateful of Diamond's scholarship. That is much the point to understanding Diamond, he is very much an old South Pacific hand, highly knowledgable and in sympathy with the people. Therefore I am inclined to forgive Diamond's book for being a little light, as it does contains much food for thought and makes a great starting point for those who hopefully will follow.

The one glaring annomally between Western State enforced concepts of social behaviour and of traditional groups is undoubtedly the repressive restrictions on human autonomy. This grows apace in the West where no area of human behaviour is not constricted and poscribed with the heavy hand and influence of Abrhamic Religion at the back of most of these ideas. Repackaged of course via Sigmond Freud and his followers. People in the West like to imagine that they live in freedom when in fact William Blake's imagry of “Mind forged manacles ” is really the norm from birth to the grave. Sexual repression and limitations on freedom of true inquiry as to the nature of what it is to be human are as all pervasive as they are violently repressive. State education and pressure on parents to toe the line with regard proscribed versions of child rearing are total. The States of the West do not want free human beings, but worker bees feed consumer goods to maintain their docility. Orwell's nightmare vision was real as regards the Soviet Union, but in a broader sense is also true of the West today. When we look at the fate of Polynesians and their treatment at the hands of religious bigots and repressive Western States we truly see a Paradise Lost. The Europeans who witnessed it saw it happen before their eyes and many were filled with regret and a sense of loss. To understand this is to understand Jared Diamond's point of reference, because he also witnessed it in New Guinea and his attempt to right the balance is I believe his motivation for writing this book.

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