Jared Diamond, Television Phenomenon
The historian, biologist and UCLA Professor Jared Diamond has accomplished a feat more rare than altruistic Congressmen. He’s transcended the anonymity and general irrelevance of academia. Like Camille Paglia, Alan Dershowitz, and Noam Chomsk, Diamond is a scholar who’s achieved pop culture notoriety.
His two best known books, the recent “Collapse,” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” were national best-sellers, attracting readers from all segments of the populace, readers who liked Diamond’s easy-to-grasp distillation of big ideas. “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” for example, is a 512-page tome whose thesis statement can be reduced to: History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological difference among peoples themselves. Those who domesticated plants and animals early got a head start on developing writing, government, technology, weapons of war, and immunity to deadly germs, and, thus, conquered the world.
Many of Diamond’s arguments are circular and incomplete, and more than a few scholars have taken him to task for ignoring information that contradicts his theory. Most intellectuals are difficult to understand; Diamond isn’t. Critics say this is because he appeals not to well-educated experts but casual enthusiasts. His entertaining (but flawed) Grand Theory, they say, is perfect fodder for television, not rigorous scholarship. Indeed, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” was made into a 3-part special on PBS.
The TV quandary is this: How do you present a book of grand ideas without alienating non-academic viewers, yet, simultaneously, retain an aura of academic authority? The producers decided the best choice was to get Jared Diamond to star.
It’s a canny notion. Diamond regularly attracts hundreds of people to his book signings; museums dedicate exhibits based on his work; and among the PBS crowd, he almost qualifies as a sex symbol. The problem, however, is that Jared Diamond is uncomfortably awkward in front of the camera, especially when the producers make him pretend that he’s speaking extemporaneously to someone just off camera. Watching this genius nerd fire a musket in Spain or attempt to draw a bowstring in the highlands of New Guinea borders on the comic, and the gravity of his mind (best appreciated in print) is diminished by the weightlessness of the medium. Television, where Diamond’s easy-to-digest notions would seem best suited, makes him look ridiculous.
Having a comb-over doesn’t disqualify Donald Trump from TV, and a weird moustache-less beard didn’t prevent C. Everett Koop from gaining some measure of fame, so why shouldn’t Diamond, weirdly accented speech notwithstanding, have his shot? To authors and thinkers accustomed to being roundly ignored, it’s encouraging to see someone aggressively un-telegenic make the big time.