"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."


Glenn Reynolds:

Barack Obama:
"Impossible to transcend."

Albert A. Gore, Jr.:
"An incontinent brute."

Rev. Jeremiah Wright:
"God damn the Gentleman Farmer."

Friends of GF's Sons:
"Is that really your dad?"

Kickball Girl:
"Keeping 'em alive until 7:45."

Hired Hand:
"I think . . . we forgot the pheasant."

I'm an
Alcoholic Yeti
in the
TTLB Ecosystem

Friday, October 29, 2010

Government as Cargo Cult; Barry O as John Frum

Occasionally while surfing the Internet, I have an AHA! moment, when I run across something that's not only just right, but which evokes envy:  Rats!  I SO wish I'd written that!  And so it is today with Zombie's "Barry O, He Go: the Cargo Cult Presidency of Barack Obama," which begins:
The presidency of Barack Obama is a cargo cult. And Obama himself is the new John Frum.

But unlike traditional cargo cults, which persist despite decades of fruitless prophecies, the Barry O cult is disintegrating before our very eyes, as Hope and Change Airport — built entirely out of hollow bamboo and even hollower promises — has failed to attract the predicted heaven-sent magical prosperity.

John Frum, He Come

The title of this essay is a riff on John Frum, He Come, a now-classic book of popular anthropology which introduced the American public to the bizarre world of cargo cults in the South Pacific, especially on a small island called Tanna in what is now Vanuatu.

Shortly before WWII, a strange belief emerged on Tanna that a magically powerful American soldier appeared on the island bearing wondrous “cargo” — manufactured Western goods and packaged food, which he handed out as gifts. He called himself “John Frum,” but, after advising the villagers to return to their traditional rituals and customs, he just as quickly disappeared.

Some villagers did what John Frum recommended and began to engage in rituals, summoning him back with more of his amazing cargo. Lo and behold, it worked! Because shortly afterward, thousands of more Americans appeared — soldiers and sailors and Marines passing through on their way to defeat the Japanese, as it turned out — bearing more cargo than the Tannans could even imagine. But just like the original John Frum, the Americans quickly disappeared once more, taking their cargo with them, and once again leaving the island in poverty.

And ever since then, Tanna’s islanders have been waiting, waiting, waiting for John Frum to return with his cargo. They invoke him with dances, they sing hymns to him, they fashion simulations of American military outfits and march back and forth, and even build airport control towers out of bamboo and clear runways in the middle of nowhere, thinking that the existence of a simulated bamboo airport will somehow supernaturally induce the arrival of a cargo-laden plane.

Still, no John Frum. Yet with infinite patience, the islanders wait.
Exactly. Exactly right. An alarmingly large and growing segment of the American population has come to view a variety of things as "cargo," stuff mysteriously and miraculously conjured out of nothingness by some incomprehensible gods, and they want some -- homes, medical care, college degrees, retirement income. They have no idea where this cargo comes from, but they want some, and their worshipful eyes focused two years ago on Barack Obama.

The article concludes that disappointment and reaction have set in amongst different parts of the electorate, and that the mid-term elections are likely to see a backlash against the new John Frum. Of course that's true, but the more significant point is that while particular false messiahs may be specifically rejected at the polls, America's Cargo Cult isn't going anywhere.

Once upon a time, a District of Columbia public school teacher told my son's social studies class that all "rich people" were criminals -- that in order to have become rich (and we tremble to consider what he might have defined as "rich") someone had to have committed a crime. In his view, there was simply no way to acquire wealth other than taking it from someone else. Cargo: wealth is a thing, like a rock or a tree. Some people have some, while the cargo cultists want some.

So next time you see a political rally, or watch a politician speak, or listen to an economist explain the necessity of the next big thing, consider whether you're looking at real political discourse -- where real people have real disagreements about whether we really need to build that road or not -- or are instead viewing one or another manifestation of America's Cargo Cult, and the construction of yet another wicker transport plane, which the natives fervently believe can conjure the real thing, and they will be showered with medical care, mortgages they need not pay, and a comfortable retirement for which they've done no work. It's all just magical cargo, and they want some.

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