Cargo Cult is a daring – and dangerous – theme. Get it right.

A ceremony raising the John Frum flag on the island of Vanuatu

I belong to a large but informal group of Burners whose unofficial motto is:  “Fuck the theme.”

We came to Burning Man for Burning Man:  the theme added nothing to the experience.  All it did was give complete strangers license to tell us things we already knew about Evolution, or to go off on predictable rants about the American Dream.

If Burning Man was Santa Claus, we felt, the theme was an icicle on Blitzen’s ass.

Not this year, though.  This year’s theme is a mind-fuck.  Because … well … let’s talk “Cargo Cult” through.

What’s very likely to happen this year is that:

 

  • tens of thousands of Burners
  • in flashy costumes
  • who are attending a ceremony where we burn a 40 foot tall wooden man and dance around him

are going to create camps and installations satirizing Cargo Cults because they:

  • dress in costumes and
  • build sculptures of air strips and bunkers
  • to dance around.

 

There’s a kind of subversive genius here:  Burners who take “Cargo Cult” at its easiest, laziest interpretation – look at those crazy people who have bizarre beliefs and perform useless rituals – are inadvertently putting themselves in the cross hairs.  Judging strictly by the superficial, the difference between “Burning Man” and a “Cargo Cult” is the difference between ABC and CBS.  They’re not the same thing, but a casual observer might never notice.

What makes this theme distinct from any that we’ve had in the post-“Helco” era is that there is no easy way to approach it.  That’s never been true before, at least in my tenure as a Burner.   There was always a safe position, hip and liberal but never out on a limb, that you could take on the theme.

And most of us did.

We all knew the platitudes we were supposed to mouth about “evolution” – we all knew the secure tropes everybody repeats about things that are “Green.”  Metropolis?  Of course we’re in favor of cities, and more efficient cities, and yadda yadda yadda.

Past themes made it easy to know what the general consensus was, which made it easy to play along with a smug grin of moral superiority.

“Cargo Cult” puts that attitude of moral superiority, of easy answers, on trial.  The potential to say something stupid about the legitimate struggles of people we do not understand is enormous.

Because, and I mean this with absolutely sincerity, we can learn a lot from John Frum – but we have not earned the right to take his name in vain.

That may sound odd.  Would I really suggest that a bizarre deity who is supposed to be an American soldier, for crying out loud, and who promises his devotees riches from America if they just pretend to run fake airports, has something to teach us?  Is worthy of our respect?

That’s an easy question to ask if you don’t know what John Frum, and his family members, have accomplished.

His family?  Yeah, John Frum belongs to a globetrotting tribe.  Cargo Cults emerged as part of a new era in global culture – and share DNA with some of the most significant revolutionary events of the colonial era.

By the 19th century Western colonialism had conquered the world.  There were differences, of course, between Catholic colonials and Protestant colonials, between Dutch colonials and British … but to some degree every other culture in the world had to kneel and kiss the ring of a Western power.    This was simply an accepted fact, and a not uncommon theory at the time was that gradually every other way of life would disappear after being confronted with Western culture’s obvious superiority.

The islands on which the Cargo Cults emerged were not exceptions:  the people who lived there when Europeans arrived were expected to Christianize, to leave their traditional culture and religion behind, and be second-class citizens toiling for the economies of some far off empire.  And if they wouldn’t do it voluntarily, they would be forced to.  The whole world would be forced to.

John Frum’s family is the reason that didn’t happen.  Before we can answer the question “Who is John Frum?” we need to meet his older brothers.

Who is Handsome Lake?

In 1799 Handsome Lake, a leading member of the Iroquois nation, grew terribly ill.  The historical records estimate him to have been 65 years old.  We know he was an alcoholic, and that he had seen his once powerful nation devoured by the United States, forced on to reservations, and put at the mercy of Christian missionaries who were intent on stamping out their traditional religion and way of life.

On what relatives expected to be his death bed, Handsome Lake was seized by religious visions;  spiritual messengers from another world told him that he must deliver his people a code to follow so that they would survive this dark time.

Handsome Lake preaching his code at the Longhouse. (Image courtesy of the Rochester Museum and Science Center)

He recovered from his illness, gave up drinking, and introduced what came to be known as “The Code of Handsome Lake” – and it caught on, becoming the dominant spiritual tradition of the Iroquois, which it remains to this day.

Now, a casual perusal of the Code of Handsome Lake suggests that its official tenants bore a stronger resemblance to the teachings of the Quaker Missionaries who were a constant presence on the Pennsylvania reservations than it did to the traditional spiritual practices of the Iroquois people:  its prohibitions against drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, abortion, gay marriage, single parents, and gambling, for example, do not conform to what we know of Iroquois culture prior to 1799.  It also codified the notion of a single “great spirit” above all others – a notion which a review of the (admittedly sketchy) records of Iroquois religion written prior to 1799 do not indicate was an established belief.  So it has been easy for critics of Handsome Lake to write him off as having introduced Christianity to the Iroquois by other means.

But such critics miss an important point:  the Handsome Lake religion was a key driver of a revival of Iroquois culture that is largely responsible for preserving it as an independent and vital force for the next 200 years (and counting).  He, and his new religion, are a key part of the reason Iroquois culture did not disappear the way so many other tribal cultures teetering on the brink of dissolution did.  For a native culture to have survived American manifest destiny was no small accomplishment.

Did Handsome Lake appropriate from western/Christian culture and offer it to his people?  I think it’s an undeniable conclusion when you look at the record.  But that he used the appropriation as part of a campaign to preserve the Iroquois way of life is equally undeniable.  His calling was to turn the tools of the colonials against them in order to keep his native culture alive, and he was successful.  Scratch beneath the surface of Handsome Lake, and you’ll find an astonishing amount of pre-1799 culture relatively intact.

Handsome Lake is John Frum’s brother, because they shared a mission.  It didn’t always go so well.  Sometimes the mission failed, but even then it still inspired others to pick it up down the line.

Who is Hong Xiuquan?

In 1837 Hong Xiuquan had failed repeatedly to pass the imperial examinations of China’s Qing dynasty – civil service tests which limited access to elite positions.  The exams required an extensive formal education to take, and so his peasant family had made tremendous sacrifices to pay for his studies.

Now a 37 year old failure whose potential had kept his family mired in poverty, Hong collapsed, took ill, and had mystical visions.  He only recovered after Christian missionaries (who were all over China at the time, protected by the Western powers who had vanquished China militarily and were essentially occupying its major cities) dropped by his family’s house and left pamphlets behind.

The pamphlets provided the key to the visions Hong had been having:  he realized, now, that he too was a son of God – Jesus Christ’s younger brother – and that he had been given a mission to rid China of both its foreign occupiers and the Qing dynasty.

It seems crazy on its face, but don’t laugh.  Take Hong seriously:  he damn near did it.  The civil war he began – the Taiping Rebellion – was the largest military conflict in the 19th century, lasting from 1850 – 1864 and killing some 30 million people by the time it was done.

That’s right:  30 million.  Take that number in.

Holy fuck.

Drawing of Hong Xiuquan (from approximately 1860)

There’s no way not to view the Taiping Rebellion as a tragedy, but it wasn’t a farce.   Hong’s grievances were legitimate:  the occupying Western powers were rapacious, with no concern for the well-being of the Chinese people.  Missionaries were trying to destroy Chinese culture.  The Qing empire was corrupt by this point, and besides:  who are we to suggest that a man who doesn’t want to live under a monarchy hasn’t got a case?

The fact that he failed … in no small part because he tried to replace a corrupt monarchy with a tyrannical theorcracy … doesn’t mean his initial complaint wasn’t just.  Sun Yat-Sen, who truly liberated China if anyone did, looked upon Hong as a forbear and the Taiping Rebellion as an inspiration.  His message has resonated in China for 150 years.

And that message was?  Hong (let’s spell this out) was a member of a colonized group who had a religious vision that used elements of the culture of his oppressors to create a legitimate liberation movement.  That the specifics of his vision seems crazy to us today, living in freedom and plenty, is beside the point.  It wasn’t for us – and it certainly wasn’t for our amusement.

It’s no accident that the revelation of Hong Xiuquan took place in the same historical era as the revelation of Handsome Lake:  the vile oil of western colonialism had seeped into the world’s native cultures, along with epic historical injustices, and the result was an explosive alchemical reaction. The particulars of the religious symbiosis might strike us as absurd (Christ’s younger brother?) but the fact is that cultures and religions change through exposure to one another:  we’re all familiar with the way Christianity absorbed pagan rituals that became Christmas and Easter, or the way Catholicism absorbed many of the Gods of South America as saints.  This happens – and it doesn’t automatically disqualify the religious experience that results.  And for a period of 150 years it was happening all over the world.

If the Taiping Rebellion is the worst case example, here’s my candidate for the best – and after that, we’ll get back to Burning Man, I promise.

Who is Anigarika Dharmapala?

Handsome Lake died a year after Hong Xiuquan was born, and the man who would become Anagarika Dharmapala was born just three months after Hong passed away in June of September, 1864.

He was born to one of the richest families in Sri Lanka, then under British control, where he was christened Don David Hewavitarane.  He received a classic British education at missionary schools with names like “C.M.S. Boys School (Christian College)” and “St Benedict’s College.”  He reputedly learned much of the Bible by heart, even as his sympathies were with a struggling movement to revive traditional Sri Lankan Buddhism.

In 1883 a mob of Sri Lankan Catholics viciously attacked a Buddhist procession.  The injustice inspired Don David to turn down his spot in the family business to become a Buddhist activist.  It also brought two of the westerners most interested in Buddhism, Theosophical Society founders Madam Helena Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, back  to Sri Lanka to file suit on behalf of Buddhists who were injured in the attack.  (That’s right, white people had to come from New York to sue on behalf of injured Sri Lankens.)

Anagarika Dharmapala

Don David, soon to become Anagarika Dharmapala, got a job translating for Col. Olcott, and became inspired by Olcott’s own passion for Theravada Buddhism.  It was Madame Blavatsky who suggested that he study the Pali language in which the original Buddhist texts were written, and Olcott and Blavatsky took Dharmapala on pilgrimages to some of Budhdism’s holiest sites.  One of these included the Mahabodhi temple, in India, where the historical Buddha had attained his enlightenment – but which had been controlled by Hindu religious leaders for over 1,000 years.

In no small part as a result of these experiences, Dharmapala decided to dedicate his life to restoring Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and Buddhist control of the Mahabodhi temple in India.

Thus we have the bizarre spectacle of two Western occultists widely regarded as charlatans and scam artists in their home countries helping inspire a legitimate cultural revival among native Sri Lanken Buddhists (and not incidentally across India).  Indeed, while there is still a Theosophical society today, it’s probably fair to say that the only nation on earth where Olcott and Blavatsky are widely respected is Sri Lanka, which is one of the thriving centers of the revived Buddhist world and where Dharmapala is a revered figure.  After his death the society he founded succeeded in putting the Mahabodhi temple under joint Hindu-Buddhist governance.

Handsome Lake, Hong Xiuquan, and Anagarika Dharmapala are three major figures in the history of efforts by native peoples to preserve their own culture in the face of colonial domination … and many of these efforts were initiated through a synthesis with Western religion and culture.  Without their efforts, and those movements, the world would be vastly different today.  Much of what we have come to automatically think of as global culture might very well have disappeared.

Now … okay … what the hell does this have to do with Burning Man and Cargo Cults?

Well, ask yourself, what is a Cargo Cult?  Ask yourself, as Burning Man has suggested:  Who is John Frum?

John Frum comes out of the Vanuatu islands (once known as The New Hebrides).  Most accounts with which I’m familiar suggest that he first appeared there in the 1930s – well before the New Hebrides were occupied by the American military as part of the Pacific Campaign in WWII.  Prior to military occupation the New Hebrides had been periodically visited by various European trading expeditions and were routinely swarming with … wait for it … Christian missionaries.    Missionaries who opposed and banned traditional practices that included drinking native intoxicants, dancing, and the local religion.  These missionaries even set up their own laws and courts to punish locals who deviated from the white man’s decrees.

Then John Frum appeared.  Right around the time Anagarika Dharmapala died.

Accounts of his appearance vary.  Here’s one from a great article in the  Smithsonian magazine:

Chief Isaac and other local leaders say that John Frum first appeared one night in the late 1930s, after a group of elders had downed many shells of kava as a prelude to receiving messages from the spirit world. “He was a white man who spoke our language, but he didn’t tell us then he was an American,” says Chief Kahuwya, leader of Yakel village. John Frum told them he had come to rescue them from the missionaries and colonial officials. “John told us that all Tanna’s people should stop following the white man’s ways,” Chief Kahuwya says. “He said we should throw away their money and clothes, take our children from their schools, stop going to church and go back to living as kastom people. We should drink kava, worship the magic stones and perform our ritual dances.”

The article continues:

It’s possible that local leaders conceived of John Frum as a powerful white-skinned ally in the fight against the colonials, who were attempting to crush much of the islanders’ culture and prod them into Christianity. In fact, that view of the origins of the cult gained credence in 1949, when the island administrator, Alexander Rentoul, noting that “frum” is the Tannese pronunciation of “broom,” wrote that the object of the John Frum movement “was to sweep (or broom) the white people off the island of Tanna.”

The leaders of the John Frum movement were arrested for their beliefs, tried, and sent to a prison at Port-Vila in 1941, becoming martyrs to the cause of religious freedom and self-government.

Now do you see the connection?  Whatever his exact origin, whether he was a spirit or a delusion used as an inspirational figure, John Frum belongs to that long line of native activists who used the symbols and trappings of Western culture to encourage an oppressed people to preserve their own way of life and cast off the shackles of unjust occupation.  John Frum was a vision that told the downtrodden their culture was legitimate and could be fought for.

He’s also part of the theme at this year’s Burning Man, where white people in faux Polynesian costumes will ask each other “Who’s John Frum?” and reply that he’s … I dunno … “an alien DJ.”

How do you feel about that?  Seriously, ask yourself for a moment:  how do you feel about Burning Man taking a religious figure (still worshiped today) who inspired native people to preserve their way of life and culture against an unjust missionary occupation … and making him a theme for our event in the desert?

Tricky, isn’t it.

The John Frum religion was hardly the first Cargo Cult – there are reports of them going all the way back to the late 1800s.  But most Cargo Cults served a similar purpose:  they were a rallying cry for people living under occupation to preserve a part of their own culture, and their leaders were routinely jailed for standing up to white colonial authority.  The culture they were fighting to preserve was certainly warped in strange ways by the occupation … but that’s what happens.  When you’re occupied you’re forced to change:  you’re forced to take what you can from your oppressors to get by from day to day.  Maybe your Gods become saints in their religion, or maybe you get the idea of a “Great Spirit” and a prohibition against divorce … or maybe you learn how they organize their society and then start your own movement using those approaches.  But you do what you have to because, bottom line, occupied cultures that don’t change die.  We have an Iroquois culture today because of Handsome lake;  Theravada Buddhism thrives in the world today in no small part because a western occultist convinced a young Sri Lankan activist that it was a great thing to learn to read Pali.

The indigenous cultures of many South Pacific islands still exist in no small part because of Cargo Cults.  They are, absolutely, a bizarre combination of hybrid elements.  I mean, they’re waiting for cargo to drop from the sky?   But who are we … especially we Burners … to judge rituals and beliefs so like our own but developed in no small part to get out from under an occupation that our country bore some responsibility for?

Now:  what’s the best way to handle this as a theme for Burning Man?

Well?

What’s profoundly interesting about this theme is also what’s so dangerous about it:  there are landmines everywhere.

Do we as Burners actually have anything to say about the history of anti-colonialism?

Do we who appropriate every cool religious icon on the planet for our parties and camps have anything useful to say about the people in those religions who were persecuted for trying to preserve the meaning of those icons?

Do we have any right to take John Frum’s name in vain?

This is a challenge, people.  And if we don’t get it right then our annual celebration will be a festival of assholery – a finger in the face of people whose only offense was looking silly to us while they tried to get missionaries and colonial powers off their land.

If we do get it right, we’ll have said something worth saying … about culture, about religion, about history, about oppression, about reconciling contradictory beliefs … in a way that we were never able to do with evolution or green tech or the American Dream.  Those things all had easy answers that were easy to offer, and no pitfalls that were hard to avoid.

“Cargo Cults” has no easy answer, and many, many pitfalls.

How do we do this right?

My advice is that we look to Cargo Cults not as strange and silly religions, but as inspirations for what Burning Man is trying to become.  Cargo Cults represent a profound cultural transformation that successfully saved those cultures.  Isn’t that what so many of us want to do?  Change the culture in order to save it?

We don’t have to agree with any of the particulars of what Cargo Cults believe (in fact, I don’t recommend it) to aspire to do what they did.

An aspirational take on this year’s theme would ask:  how do we use the inspiration of Cargo Cults to take it up another notch?

  • How do we … a movement combining anti-commodification principles with glamping … speak to a world that is drowning in cargo?
  • What hybrid forms of belief, combining the old and the new, can emerge that will actually inspire people today?
  • What fundamental realities are we … a culture that prides itself on being the most knowledgeable and rational on earth … making bad but rational assumptions about, the way Cargo Cults made the bad but still rational assumption that it was the activities of running an airport that brought the planes that held the cargo?
  • What things do we wrongly expect will disappear as a result of modernity’s “obvious superiority,” and why will they outlive us?

If art projects and camps can provide useful answers to these kinds of questions – hell, if they can even advance the conversation – Burning Man will have truly taken itself to a new level.

Failure means that you … yes, you personally … will be taking the side of the missionaries, giving persecuting Christians comfort, defense, and succor by mocking the people they tried to break.

The stakes are high, people.  Get it right.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

53 thoughts on “Cargo Cult is a daring – and dangerous – theme. Get it right.

  • Excellent post.

    “What fundamental realities are we … a culture that prides itself on being the most knowledgeable and rational on earth … making bad but rational assumptions about, the way Cargo Cults made the bad but still rational assumption that it was the activities of running an airport that brought the planes that held the cargo?”

    If I were taking this on (and sadly this is not as rational as you had hoped), I’d say it’s our gargantuan energy consumption. Our entire rational society has reorganized itself around a completely irrational behaviour: consumption of non-renewable resources. We have turned from a sustainable society (say, 2000 years ago) back to a hunter-gatherer society, only hunting is now called “exploration” and gathering is now called “production”, and our population is limited by those resources to a degree that is not commonly recognized (cf. _Overshoot_, by William R. Catton, Jr.)

    Once those resources are gone, if we haven’t undergone a massive cultural shift, there will be cargo cults building faux gas stations and even, yes, faux airports hoping that the gods will somehow refill the earth with oil.

    Bleak, perhaps, but that would be my take.

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  • what a fantastic piece, Caveat, and thank you for doing the work that it took to research, synthesize and then write so adeptly.

    Most of the subject matter is new to me, and without wanting to sound goody-goody about it, all of what is being explored here, in the piece and in the responses, is happening because of the theme. That’s already a win.

    Burning Man is a lot of things: this year it’ll be cargo pants in the missionary position AND it’ll be an intellectual salon on the nature of colonialism and resistance.

    You’ve really helped set an interesting stage. Thank you.

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  • Thanks for writing this. It is a positive take on and intelligent background to what is essentially a culturally insensitive theme. I can’t really see a Jews in the Desert or Holy Mass official theme at Burning Man – though I’m not against it :) – Agnostic as I may be, it always makes me wary to mock the culture of others from a western white pedestal. Thanks for writing.

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