Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Dead have no internet

There's a lawsuit and a scandal brewing over a story that the polymathic Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse) wrote for The New Yorker about tribal feuding in Papua-New Guinea. (The story is online for subscribers only, but I recall how impressively detailed it was.) Now,the partipants in the feud, with the help of some well-connected American watchdogs, have sued, putting forth their own version of events and challenging Diamond's right to have published his without their knowledge or consent.

One reporter paraphrases the lesson drawn by the anthropologistical blogger Alex Golub:
The rise of the Internet means that whatever scholars write about their field informants—no matter how remote those people might seem—will inevitably be read by the communities they have described.
Golub acknowledges anthropologists should always have considered their ethical obligations to their subjects and to the rigorously established truth. But there's no doubt that the prospect of the subjects actually seeing your work and then hiring lawyers and coming after you must wonderfully concentrate the anthropological mind.

That doesn't happen to historians. Unless you are writing very contemporary history, your subjects will maintain the magnificent silence of the grave. So are we less responsible? Or do other historians, defending their take on the same subjects, do the necessary and expose our flaws sufficiently?

The former. The former.
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