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.

Now, one can argue over whether our materialistic/technological society has been a good thing for humanity after all. But if you side with the non-materialists, then you can't expect to reap the benefits of Western technology while at the same time rejecting the effort and the philosophy behind it.

"We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For"

Consider this description of John Frum, and note the many similarities to our cultural perception of Obama:

John Frum is the son of God, but he's not Jesus. He's a black Melanesian, but sometimes a white man - or, according to others, a black American GI. He's a kastom messiah, come to turn the people of Tanna back to their old ways before the missionaries - but he's also a universal avatar of change, a successor to Buddha or Jesus or Mohammed.

The messianic nature of Obama-worship has been noted ever since he first appeared on the political stage, and which reached its climax at his inauguration in January 2009, with Obama even topping Jesus as our nation's favorite hero, in a poll taken shortly after he assumed office.

But while Obama may have been perceived as a messiah, there were simply too many differences between Obama-ism and Christianity for there to be a direct comparison between him and Jesus. So that parallel was set aside as being a bit too awkward. Yet analysts forgot: Jesus isn't the only messiah, fictional or real, in human consciousness. There have been plenty of others, most of which are now forgotten. But of them all, the one messiah closest to Obama is John Frum, because the essence of the John Frum cult revolves around waiting for the messiah to arrive and shower believers with unearned wealth. Sound familiar?

One of Obama's most potent campaign slogans was "We are the ones we've been waiting for." While many have since noted the not-so-hidden narcissistic megalomania encoded in the slogan -- Obama was asking us to vote for him, after all, not for ourselves, so by "We are the ones" he really meant "I am the one" -- but it was the second half of the sentence which disturbed me even more. "Waiting for"? The implication is that Americans have been pining for a messiah to rescue them, as if that was our default position. Waiting. Waiting.

I saw this as vaguely insulting, because plenty of Americans haven't been waiting for anyone to do anything -- we've gotten on with our lives, under our own steam. But then it hit me: a certain percentage of Americans -- 52.9%, as it turned out -- were indeed passively waiting for someone to come along and make things better, and by "make things better" they meant give me more stuff ("stuff" being the American translation for "cargo"). And that someone wasn't John Frum -- it was Barack Obama.

Give us some good tok-tok

In Paul Theroux's classic travelogue The Happy Isles of Oceania, he reprints the lyrics of a John Frum hymn he hears while in Vanuatu:

John Frum

He mus come

Look at old fellas

Give us some big presents

Give us some good tok-tok

The last line is relevant to our current discussion -- because as important as the presents (cargo) is "tok-tok" (talking), or making eloquent grandiose speeches. The Tannans seek the warm fuzzy reassurance of some good "tok-tok" from John Frum, just as much as they seek actual physical cargo. In quite exactly the same fashion, in 2008 and early 2009 many Americans practically derived nutritional sustenance not from any actual legislation coming from Obama but simply from the grandiose promises of his speeches. The words themselves were in part the fulfillment of the promise.

But words can only take you so far as a messiah. Eventually, you're going to have to produce some cargo. And for Obama, that's where things started to fall apart. Because we Americans are not quite as naive as the islanders in the John Frum cult. Obama did indeed start showering America with cargo -- free wealth in the form of bailouts, stimulus packages, more food stamps and welfare, free health care, and so on. But unlike the Tannans who didn't question where all this stuff might be coming from, Americans dared to peek behind the curtain, and discovered to our horror that the cargo Obama was doling out didn't come from heaven, it came from . . . us! We certainly were the ones we had been waiting for, but not quite in the way we envisioned. Obama was smashing open our piggy banks and our grandkids' piggy banks, then making a big show out of handing us back our own money (minus expenses, of course), as if it was cargo from on high.

Collapse

Over the last three months there have been countless essays dissecting the complete disintegration of Obama-worship in this country, culminating in a poll this week showing that Obama has now hit his lowest approval rating ever.

The fantasy has collapsed, and the Barry O cult collapsed with it.

Why? Because those of us who are paying attention realize that we're not getting cargo after all; we're getting ripped off. It's as if the original cargo cultists one day walked to the far end of their own island to discover that John Frum was mining gold out of their own land and using their stolen gold to buy presents for his followers.

Big government as cargo cult

To extend the comparison to its logical conclusion: All of "big-government liberalism" ultimately rests on the same type of cargo-cult thinking. Most Americans have only the vaguest notion of how the federal government functions; even I, somewhat of a political junkie, am overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the government, and can't even begin to keep track of its innumerable expenditures and entitlement programs. But at least I understand where the federal government's seemingly infinite supply of money comes from -- taxes paid by me and people like me. To paraphrase Obama: "We are the gold mine that's paying for everything." Yet even that pedestrian "detail" seems lost on many Americans, especially those who view the government as a magical candy machine which dispenses free benefits. People who pay little or no taxes voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers, while the taxpaying middle class as a group gave him the fewest votes of any income group. This supports the stereotype that Obama voters, in general, are the recipients of entitlement payments and government largesse, while the Tea Party/anti-Obama activists are the ones footing the bill for that largesse. We, the politically engaged class that writes and reads political Web sites, are keenly aware of the whole struggle over the federal budget. But a distressingly large proportion of Americans don't know and don't care about what goes on behind the scenes: to the extent that they think about the government, they see it as a source of free money -- or cargo, as it were.

What happened between mid-2008 and the end of 2010 is that the number of Americans who realized that the cargo cult of Barack Obama was a hoax finally passed the tipping point.

On November 2, The Barry O movement will cease to exist. A sad day for political anthropologists, but an immense relief to the taxpayers funding the massive cargo-drops of Obama's presidency.