1980s >> 1980 >> no-911-july-1980

Carter, Reagan and the Cargo Cult

Two long-running news stories have been jostling each other in the headlines of the daily papers for some time now: the troubles in the New Hebrides, and the United States presidential elections. There are perhaps more similarities between them than appear on the surface.


The New Hebrides group of islands, east of Australia and north of New Zealand, came to the attention of French and British sailors in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, said a recent article in the Observer (25.5.80) by Alexander Frater, who was born there, “great forests of sandalwood were found, and the European invasion began. It was a holocaust of wholesale kidnapping, treachery and casual slaughter. Western diseases swept the islands, huge tracts of tribal land were stolen”. A hundred years ago the population was supposed to have numbered about a million. In 1936 it was down to 22,000—ninety-eight per cent of the native people had died out under the impact of capitalism. It is a common enough story throughout the areas of the world colonised by Western European entrepreneurs.
European greed
Britain and France both wanted the islands, but neither was prepared to fight for them; so they established a joint-ownership, a condominium, which began in the 1880s. So the two powers were jointly in control while the native population nearly died out. At the same time the Scots Presbyterian Church started sending in numerous missionaries (including Alexander Frater’s grandfather). They denounced the greed of the Europeans, but they also, wrote Frater, inflicted “terrible damage on the population. Having banished traditional tribal values and practices, they offered nothing substantial to replace them: the Sunday ‘sing-song’ was not enough. The people grew apathetic: many sickened and died. To make matters worse, a few islanders went to the other extreme and formed themselves into vigilante squads, punishing anyone disobeying the mission teachings. The social centre of many villages became the whipping post.”


Now Britain and France, dwarfed by the growth of capitalist super-powers like Russia and America, and forced by by their reduced importance in the world to liquidate their empires, are getting out. An independence day for the New Hebrides (where the population has now recovered to all of 112,000) has been fixed for July 1980. In a condominium (called a pandemonium by the natives, since the British and French rulers are always at odds) irrelevant antagonisms are immediately available; an English-speaking and a French-speaking party contested a general election, and the former won (by means of rigging the polls, say the latter). So the party to form the first independent government will be Anglophone. Secessionist groups are springing up, covertly supported by the French. Two islands are chiefly affected: Espiritu Santo in the north, where a local Eurasian notable called Jimmy Stevens has already declared UDI, and Tanna in the south.


The jumble of competing economic, national and religious influences in the islands (the French, Catholic themselves, deliberately supported heathenism to counter Scottish Presbyterian influence) has resulted in the appearance of the Cargo Cult in the New Hebrides. This seems to have originated in Papua, which had a similar history of colonial exploitation (by the British, in this case, on their own: the British and Dutch divided the island of New Guinea, the British half being Papua; the other half was ultimately conquered by the “liberating” Indonesian army and is now being held down by a murderous Indonesian dictatorship, under the name of “West Irian”). In Papua the idea spread that a great man was coming, who would solve all problems, make his followers immortal and distribute cars, washing machines and so on to all the faithful. He is coming in an aeroplane, a great white bird, and the Papuan Cargo Cultists have cut airstrips in the jungle, complete with rickety “control towers” and land-bound “aeroplanes” to attract the forthcoming white bird, which will also carry the believers’ ancestors. The cult has taken root in the New Hebrides, particularly on the island of Tanna. There the coming hero is known as John Frum, and the movement’s political wing, the Jonfrum Party, has two MPs in the New Hebrides Assembly. Subdivisions of the cult on Tanna have identified John Frum variously as ex-President Lyndon Johnson, several members of the French Communist Party and the Duke of Edinburgh. (Death, which has in fact removed Lyndon Johnson from active campaigning, is no impediment to the religious enthusiast: the dreadlocked Rastafarians of Jamaica and Brixton know that their chosen Messiah, the ex-Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, is still going to lead them to a land of plenty, despite his recent decease.)


The apotheosis of the Duke of Edinburgh apparently came about because a British Resident Commissioner suggested him as a candidate (no doubt the French Resident Commissioner was advocating prominent Frenchmen for the same office). The affair was scaled by the Duke himself who, flattered on hearing of his new status, sent out a large signed portrait of himself, which is now jealously guarded and displayed as reverently as priests treasure a saint’s toe-nail. The devotees look forward eagerly to the Duke’s arrival. The “airfield” for his plane has been hacked out of the bush, and the necessary costume, a penis gourd or straw codpiece, has been forwarded to Buckingham Palace.


Second Coming
Many newspaper writers and TV commentators have had a good laugh at the expense of the Cargo Cult, before retiring solemnly to worship at the shrines of their own version of the delusion, that father and mother of cargo cults, Christianity. Frater himself, visiting the island of Paama, had no hesitation in knocking up a sermon for 400 local Presbyterians, “based on a couple of verses from John, chapter 14”. All early Christians believed that Jesus was returning in person to solve all problems, confer immortality and distribute goodies. The belief waned somewhat, but returned with vigour as the year 1000 (the “millenium”) approached, and will no doubt revive more widely as the year 2000 gets nearer (round numbers have a fascination to the irrational). Many Christian sects have never abandoned the belief in the literal bodily Second Coming; and it is standard orthodoxy throughout the church that the world will end on a given date, though we shall apparently then go to join the great man, and the spirits of our ancestors, rather than having them come back to us. Whether a belief is any less illogical when proclaimed in a sumptuous cathedral with glorious spires and towers pointing heavenwards than it is when announced in a leaning bamboo “control tower” pointing more or less in the same direction could no doubt be debated by the assorted faithful.


It may be that many Christians now only half believe in the Christian teachings-bishops are always telling us so. But the philosophy of the Cargo Cult is still flourishing in the Western world, and striking examples of it are depicted daily in our newspapers. The present run-up to the United States Presidential elections is one obvious case. Every four years hopes rise to a peak. Eager eyes search the horizon: rumours of possible saviours come and go: and at last the devotees divide into two armies, each with its own coming Great Man. It has never worked before, they concede ruefully; but this time all will be well! The Great Man will arrive, not in a white bird, but in the White House, and he will solve all problems, confer immortality if not on individuals then at least on the USA and its supremacy, and distribute all manner of good things.


Each claimant to the title will make his promises and swear his oaths to introduce a near-paradise (the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society); and at the end, after the shouting has died away, the capitalist class which really rules America can be sure that the elected incumbent will do his best for capitalism. Whatever the pledges, whatever the promises, the scope for action is strictly limited, and must be so in any country where the vast majority are dedicated to the preservation of the capitalist system.


In 1960 the Americans elected John F. Kennedy President and Lyndon B. Johnson Vice-President; they were going to lead the world forward to better times, a new era was dawning. In fact Kennedy sent advisers and arms supplies to South Vietnam, and Johnson, after Kennedy’s assassination, ordered in hundreds of thousands of combat troops. In 1968 Nixon was elected because he pledged withdrawal from the morass of the Vietnamese war, and yet he kept the troops there. When he did pull them out, it was only after the next election of 1972, when US capitalism had decided that the situation was beyond saving. In 1972, the US people voted in Nixon and Spiro Agnew after a “law and order” campaign, to lead a crusade against immorality and crime and establish a high-principled government. They were, it turned out, both crooks. Agnew had to resign less than a year later, after a federal investigation brought to light his corrupt practices (taking bribes, avoiding income tax, and so on) both as Baltimore chief executive and Maryland Governor and as Vice-President. Within two years Nixon had been forced to resign after it had been revealed how had been part of the Watergate Conspiracy. These two lawbreakers, Nixon and Agnew, had won the greatest ever victory at a Presidential election. Every state in the Union went for them, with the sole exception of Massachusetts. Even F. D. Roosevelt never got such majorities. And they both broke the law they had been elected to preserve and defend.


Jimmy Carter
The reaction against the smart big city operators brought in the “country boy” Jimmy Carter from rural Georgia in 1976. And he has given every appearance of being out of his depth ever since. More than one of his entourage has departed from the White House under a cloud. Some of his supporters soon turned against him. “Party workers who supported Mr Carter in 1976 now speak of him with bitterness. They blame him personally for unemployment and inflation, calling him a hypocrite, a liar, an incompetent” (The Times, 3.6.80). But enough of the Democrats, rallying round “their” country after the Iranian seizure of the American embassy, came to his rescue to ensure him the nomination this time as well. His main Democratic rival was Edward Kennedy, who unfortunately behaved in a dubious way both when taking his college exams and after the accident at Chappaquidick. Some commentators, however, incline to the view that without the Ayatollah Khomeini, Carter would not have withstood Kennedy’s attempt to gain the nomination. In the event Carter will almost certainly fight in November against the Republican champion, Ronald Reagan, a handsome but aged ex-actor who has only a tenuous hold on the simplest rules of arithmetic. He thinks, for example, that when Lyndon Johnson cut individual taxes by 19.4 per cent, and corporate taxes by 7.7 per cent, that it constituted a “27 per cent average across the board”. An average would depend on how much tax was collected from individuals, and how much from corporations, but it would have to be more than 7.7, and less than 19.4. Many other examples of Reagan’s elementary errors are given in The Times, 23.5.80. Reagan now makes military-sounding noises, threatening to get Russia in line by using the big stick, but if elected can be relied upon to go along with the desires of the American ruling class (whether that is more bellicose or more pacific from time to time).


But with an electorate which is brainwashed into supporting capitalism, in which the great majority are simply voting for the continuance of their own exploitation, such strange “leaders” as these can rise to the top. And it is no part of a socialist’s business to recommend more or less efficient or honest contenders as executives of American capitalism. All we can say is that the workers of the USA, just as much as the people of the New Hebrides, both of whom are now scanning the horizon for the great man who is to come and heal all ills, are going to be as disappointed in the future as they have been in the past.


Alwyn Edgar