Barry O, He Go: the Cargo Cult Presidency of Barack Obama

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.

This two-minute kitschy clip from an old TV documentary gives a good view of a cargo cult airport and shows apparently authentic footage of cultists waiting for the cargo to arrive:

This second short clip from a different documentary crosses the line from "kitschy" to "condescending," but nonetheless gives a good overview of how cargo cults originated, even if the islanders in this particular scene are more consciously acting for the camera:

The mysterious origins of cargo

The American military has repeatedly confirmed from WWII until now that no one named John Frum was ever in the Armed Forces, and researchers have similarly failed to turn up any American civilian ever named John Frum either. Of course, some anthropologists, in an a-HA! moment, realized that the original visitor must have said, "Hi, I'm John from America," which the Tannans must have assumed was his full name -- John Frum, America.

What fascinates us about the John Frum movement and cargo cults in general is that the cultists had no idea where "cargo" comes from, and assumed it must be created magically and sent by spirits or deities. They had no conception what the world was like outside their island, or that there even was a world outside their island.

So, instead of figuring out how to generate cargo -- or wealth in our terminology -- themselves, the Tannans wait for a messianic figure to arrive and rain riches down upon them as a reward for their piety.

This, at the risk of overstating the obvious, is the exact attitude of Obama's fan and voters -- at least in 2008 and 2009.

If you want what I have, then do as I do

One little-discussed aspect of cargo cults is that they are usually made up of two separate, mutually contradictory drives. On one hand, the movements are now thought to be a reaction against the introduction of Western and Christian values to the islands -- in particular work-for-work's-sake, worshipping a non-materialist god, long-term planning, and so forth. But at the same time, the cultists want all the great stuff that the Westerners brought with them in addition to the strange cultural rules. But the islanders never seemed to grasp that the two are inherently connected: Westerners were able to create all that wonderful cargo because of their cultural attitudes. If you reject the culture of these fabulously wealthy foreigners, then you'll never get what the foreigners have. Which is fine -- nothing wrong with being anti-materialist. But if you insist on craving material goods, you'll need to adopt the kind of culture that will enable its creation, as historians and sociologists have been pointing out for centuries. The technological advances of civilizations, from China to Mesopotamia to Europe, were derived from cultural and religious patterns which encouraged work, accumulation of knowledge, individual betterment, and so on. Those areas of the globe which had different social structures -- such as the South Pacific -- never made most of the technological breakthroughs achieved elsewhere, because of a different way of approaching the world.