Saturday, February 22, 2014

Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction by Adam Jones.

Adam Jones has written a condensed, informative study of Genocide. In the space of 400 pages, he has presented the major mass killings since 1900, and elucidated the primary issues facing genocide politics, scholarship and activism. His study begins by discussing the first known genocides, moves on to philosophical and legal definitions of the term, and ends with a chapter on the effects of imperialism, war and revolution. Jones does not shy away from controversial topics that might make religious people uncomfortable. As a scholar of intellectual honesty, dedicated to preventing genocide, he discusses Old Testament scripture where God repeatedly commands his followers to murder all of the residents in a particular locale. Borrowing from sociologist Helen Fein, he refers to God’s motivational speaking as the “religious tradition of contempt and collective defamation” (Jones, p. 4).

The next part starts with pre-20th Century genocides of indigenous peoples around the world. This is followed by a series of chapters on the more recent genocides of the 20th and 21st Century with which we are all so sadly familiar. These chapters necessarily lack the comprehensive qualities of a book that focuses on a specific incident. But they will provide the reader with a helpful overview, which is the purpose of an introductory work. Each instance of genocide is followed by a useful bibliography of the major texts on each topic, so that a reader may delve more deeply based on her or his preference.

There is some superfluous political correctness, deflecting from the main point of the book, in the form of oversensitivity. Yes, “The Redskins” is a racist name for a football team (Jones, p. 82). There would be loud objections if the team were called “The Dirty Jews.” But in the context of a discussion of Native American genocide, such language corrections are trivial by comparison and detract from the subject. There are some claims along these lines that are unexamined and exaggerated.  The suggestion, that US auto companies name their gas-guzzling products “Winnebago” and “Cherokee” to negatively associate Native Americans with technologies that damage the environment, is an over-think. Car companies also name their autos “Gremlin” and “Impala;” which does not imply an attempt to blame African wildlife or tiny mythical beings for Co2 emissions.

A third and important section of the book focuses on understanding the social, psychological and political factors, which result in genocide. There is some excellent information here condensing the ideas of various thoughtful professionals. While these experts seek to find and understand the commonalities among mass killings, they are quick to point out that each occurrence has its individual character. This is a good time to caution the reader that, no matter how much you have delved into the study of genocide, or how well-armored your sensibilities, you still run into information that will flatten you. The unique nature of each genocide is what allows even the most experienced individuals to be struck by new images and characteristics.

The last section of the book covers post-genocidal incident issues of remembering and justice. These are full of useful information. This section ends with the weakest chapter in the book, “Strategies of Intervention and Prevention.” Not only does it contain all of the tried and un-true past solutions to prevention, but also it fails to address the evolutionary causes of genocide: we are biological creatures. We clawed our way to the top of the Food Chain through aggression and competition. Our first genocides were on a smaller scale, when our hominid ancestors massacred other groups, or chased them away from hunting grounds and watering holes to perish. Killing “The Other” is in our DNA. Until we include this sober fact in our equations, it will be difficult to innovate effective prevention strategies.

Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction is a brave early attempt in a poorly understood field. It is, as explained by the author, the first “comprehensive introductory text” (Jones, p. xxii). Therefore it is an historic innovation. Though, like all firsts, it contains flaws and gaps, it is admirably informative. This work permits the reader to establish a fine overview and strong foundation for further study.

Jones, Adam. Genocide. A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.

For review of another book on Genocide, see: