Thursday, February 16, 2006

Secular Modes of Redemption

Like many people, I've toyed with the notion that American fundamentalism is a cargo cult, living for the day when some Republican prophet - syncretically identified with a post-Darwinian Christ whose central teaching is "Blessed are the fit, for they shall survive" - will bestow untold wealth and power on his followers.

Apropos of which, a new Smithsonian article discusses the oft-studied cargo cult that worships a mythical American called "John Frum" (February 15 is the cult's high holy day). Mr. Frum's adherents believe that he's chosen a local volcano as his pied-à-terre, and that he intends - in his own sweet time, natch - to restore traditional values:

“John Frum came to help us get back our traditional customs, our kava drinking, our dancing, because the missionaries and colonial government were deliberately destroying our culture,” Chief Isaac says....
In other words, Frum is the mystical ace up the sleeve of people who, by any objective standard, are losing their local culture war. And what's particularly interesting is that he's going to reward his followers by reconciling their traditional values with the very consumer culture that threatens traditionalism.
“John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”
That's not too far removed from our own free-market fundamentalism, which has also tried to co-opt the socioeconomic forces that threaten its "moral values." In both cases, the desire to return to a traditionalist Golden Age conflicts with the desire to enjoy the material trappings of the dominant culture; the conflict is ostensibly resolved when money and commodities become what Marc Fonda calls "secular modes of redemption." Gary North is a typical exponent of this view:
When Christianity adheres to the specifics of the Bible, it produces free market capitalism.
An earlier article on the Frum cult describes its embrace of conspicuous consumption as modeled by the American military:
Quite likely, the ni-Vanuatu aimed to evoke this godlike strength by casting their things away. So outside the perimeters of recognizable human activity, the military's expenditure was deemed the behavior of divinities: large-scale destruction of usable goods and a cavalier attitude toward disposability were inscribed in cargo cult religious practice.
Meanwhile, many of our own fundamentalists preach an odd gospel in which earth's wealth is inexhaustible, and can therefore be squandered, but not given away. Thanks to God's bounty, we can't run out of oil or wood or water. Thanks to God's laws, the "undeserving" have no claim to this cornucopian wealth.

Which, I suppose, just goes to show you that primitivism is in the eye of the beholder. Western observers who flock to Vanuatu for John Frum Day - which has become a tourist attraction, and thus, in a certain sense, a fulfillment of prophecy - often report variants of this conversation:
“John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago, and none has come,” I point out. “So why do you keep faith with him? Why do you still believe in him?”

Chief Isaac shoots me an amused look. “You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth,” he says, “and you haven’t given up hope.”


Thers said...

I enjoyed this sentence from the article: "Many Americans know Vanuatu from the reality TV series “Survivor,” though the episodes shot there hardly touched on the Melanesian island nation’s spectacular natural wonders and fascinating, age-old cultures."

No, I bet they didn't.

I suggest dropping David Frum into a volcano to appease the gods.

Eli said...

Now, "Survivor: Cargo Cult" I think I would actually watch...

JMS said...

The cargo cult -- cuts deep into the way people behave.

What are progressives waiting for?

Phila said...

The cargo cult -- cuts deep into the way people behave.

What are progressives waiting for?

A good question, and one I was going to try to address, before realizing that it'd make this piece even more scattered.

A lot of 'em, I'm afraid, are waiting for things to get worse. "Once a few cities are underwater, people will have to take notice!"

But even among folks like WorldChanging, I sometimes have a frustrated feeling that people are simply working towards a sustainably sick culture...which, to be fair, probably says more about my own quasi-theological melancholia than it does about them. But there's a grain of truth to it all the same, IMO; there's a sense in which science, for instance, is the progressive's John Frum.

I don't think we're waiting for a leader. I don't think most progressives really feel they need a leader, at least not in the sense that the authoritarian right does. The problem is, our political system demands one and will simply assign the role to anyone convenient. Which I guess is why the conservatives I know so often assume that Hillary Clinton speaks for me.

JMS said...

"A sustainably sick culture" --

good way to put it.