Today is the first anniversary of the historic decision by the Botswana High Court that the G/wi have a right to live on their own land. Unfortunately, the government of Botswana has been doing its best to thwart that decision ever since. Other countries in the news are savaging forest ecosystems, building dams and roads through homes and villages, and subverting the traditional cultures of their peaceful societies.
Distressing as those reports may be, the books and articles that are reviewed in these columns frequently provide an antidote to the negative aspects of the news. The works reviewed here often analyze the peaceful societies in more depth than news stories. Facts and discussions in reviewed works usually probe the values of societies that rarely if ever go to war, that are able to maintain nonviolence in the face of discrimination, and that promise a more positive outlook for humanity than one can get from simply following the news.
Four of the books reviewed during this past year, one each season in fact, would make excellent holiday gifts. A glance back at them should help shake off the gloom of the weekly news, build holiday cheer, and give hope for the coming year. These four books combine carefully drawn, powerful arguments with interesting examples and stories. Good anthropologists are often good storytellers, as these books demonstrate. While there are certainly realistic, negative, and discouraging aspects to all of them, they are, basically, hopeful and positive works.
The best book of last winter was Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ work on the Ju/’hoansi, an update of her international best seller from 1959, The Harmless People. It was published in late 2006 and reviewed in February 2007. Thomas revisits her notes and recollections from her periods of time living with the Ju/’hoansi, then known as the !Kung, while she was a young woman in the 1950s. She describes her recent visit to the same people, now subsisting in resettlement communities rather than foraging out on the land. After many decades, she was recognized with joy. The discouraging aspects of their present living conditions are alleviated, in this book, by her effective recollections of the ways they used to live, the “ Old Way” as she calls it.
In the early spring, Douglas Fry published the best book of that season, a work that argues quite eloquently that humanity is just as capable of making peace as it is of fighting wars. In the course of the book, he considers the arguments of those who maintain that human nature is essentially aggressive and warlike. Proponents of that belief cite archaeological reports, historical tidbits, and, of course, the obvious evidence (to those living in Western societies) that humanity is basically aggressive, competitive, and warlike. He demolishes all of those arguments. Relying on his vast knowledge of anthropological literature, he builds his case that humans are also highly capable of pro-social behavior. Maintaining inter-society peace is quite possible.
The best book of the summer was Fernanda Pirie’s new work describing the ways the Ladakhis build and maintain harmony in their villages. She indicates that the rural people of Ladakh place a very high value on maintaining peaceful relationships. Even when people become angry, they must never show it. When fights do break out, which are rare occurrences, the families and friends, the village leaders, and the village meeting, if it goes that far, are more concerned about getting past the anger than they are about solving the causes of the dispute itself. Pirie explains how the villagers believe that effective conflict resolution will maintain the independence and autonomy of the community from outside interference.
The outstanding book of the autumn, reviewed on November 29, is a work on gender egalitarianism among the Batek people of Peninsular Malaysia, written by Kirk and Karen Endicott. The book carefully describes the society as it existed in 1975, with supplementary information based on later visits by the authors. It pays a lot of attention to Batek ethical values and how they guide their lives. The book provides an excellent overview of a society that is still able to subsist, to a considerable extent, in the natural forest environment of a national park. And just as important, the Batek seem able to continue their traditional practices of gender equality and nonviolence. An interesting 37 minute ethnographic DVD about the society accompanies and supplements the book.
All four of these books are available from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, and doubtless other online booksellers. Readers who prefer to patronize physical bookstores might consider checking out the arrangement of books in those stores before approaching the service counters about ordering these titles. If a bookstore has a section for “Military History,” it is always appropriate to inquite about the section on “Peace History.” If there is a section for books on violence, one might ask where the books on nonviolence are located. These four wonderful titles could be shelved in that latter section, and if they aren’t, it doesn’t hurt to make the bookstore aware of its lack.
Best Winter Book: Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. 2006. The Old Way: A Story of the First People. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux
Best Spring Book: Fry, Douglas P. 2007. Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. New York: Oxford University Press
Best Summer Book: Pirie, Fernanda. 2007. Peace and Conflict in Ladakh: The Construction of a Fragile Web of Order. Leiden and Boston: Brill
Best Autumn Book: Endicott, Kirk M. and Karen L. Endicott. 2008. The Headman Was a Woman: The Gender Egalitarian Batek of Malaysia. Long Grove, ILL: Waveland