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Monday, May 12, 2008

"It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it." - Robert E. Lee

***

Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: Reporting & Essays

"When I asked Daniel how the war that claimed his uncle’s life began, he answered, “The original cause of the wars between the Handa and Ombal clans was a pig that ruined a garden.” Surprisingly to outsiders, most Highland wars start ostensibly as a dispute over either pigs or women. Anthropologists debate whether the wars really arise from some deeperlying ultimate cause, such as land or population pressure, but the participants, when they are asked to name a cause, usually point to a woman or a pig. Any Westerner who knows the story of Helen and the Trojan War will not be surprised to hear women named as a casus belli, but the equal importance of pigs is less obvious. However, New Guinea Highlanders, whose main food staples are starchy root crops like sweet potato and taro, are chronically starved for protein, of which the island’s dark, bristly pigs traditionally furnished the only large source. As a result, pigs are prized symbols of prestige and wealth. Peaceful competition and ostentatious displays involve pigs, and they are also used as currency for buying women. Pigs are individually owned and named, and, as piglets, they are sometimes nursed at one breast by a woman nursing an infant at her other breast...

It’s true, of course, that twentieth-century state societies, having developed potent technologies of mass killing, have broken all historical records for violent deaths. But this is because they enjoy the advantage of having by far the largest populations of potential victims in human history; the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot...

A striking feature of New Guinea’s history is that New Guineans traditionally practiced unchecked violence against each other, yet they offered only limited resistance to the imposition of state government and the ending of that violence by European colonial powers. That wasn’t just because Europeans had guns and New Guineans didn’t; the number of armed Europeans involved in “pacification” was often absurdly few. Daniel’s view points to another reason: as more New Guineans were exposed to the benefits of state-administered justice, they saw that they were better off living without the constant fear of being killed...

In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, without any empirical evidence, that state government arose historically through a voluntary social contract: people foresaw the benefits of state government, and they freely agreed with each other to subordinate their own individual rights to those of the state, in order to obtain the hoped-for benefits. Through the writings of Western travellers who have observed states arising de novo in various parts of the world during the past six hundred years, and through the deductions of archeologists, we now have abundant empirical evidence that Rousseau was completely wrong. No people has ever freely organized itself into a state in the absence of external pressure, and people have always been understandably reluctant to cede power over themselves to some other entity...

We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitive, something to be ashamed of and to transcend."


So much for Noble Savages.
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