Cargo Cults

Well, I’ll be buggered.

Back when Katrina hit, they were showing all that heartbreaking of footage of people waiting for buses, and arranging themselves in neat lines, and cleaning the bus station, in the hopes that rescue would come if they just saw how civilized and orderly the people were being. Of all the tragedies involved in the hurricane, that was the one that really killed me–I choke up even now–and part of the reason was probably that some long-dormant connection fired in my brain and I thought “Holy crap, these poor people are being driven to some kind of mini-cargo cult.”

Cargo cults, for those who didn’t take cultural anthropology back in the day, were a bizarre phenomenon that occurred primarily in isolated bits of New Guinea, but elsewhere as well. Once upon a time, an explorer would hack his way through the jungle to an isolated community. He would convince, threaten, cajole, and bribe the natives into building an airstrip. Once the airstrip was built, the explorer’s plane, who’d been doing flyovers once a week or so, would now have a place to land in the rugged terrain, and would land on the airstrip, delivering a load of cargo to the explorer, who, restocked and resupplied, would thank the natives (I hope) and hack his way off into the brush again.

“Aha!” the natives would say, who were for the most part perfectly intelligent people, but with a worldview that sadly did not encompass planes and airstrips, and thus cast it into terms they understood, “if one prepares the strip of ground and performs the rituals here, the great bird of heaven descends and brings gifts of steel and guns from its belly. We will build our own airstrip and summon our own bird and cut out the middleman.”

And so, there was a stretch of the 20th century where somebody wandering through the jungle might find a perfectly good airstrip out in the middle of freakin’ nowhere, being tended by natives. Reputedly some of ’em got incredibly elaborate, as tribesman travelled and saw airports–some of them were even supposed to have faux control towers and terminals and all the trappings. It was one of those weird phenomenon that made good little anthropology students cringe in their chairs, even as they went “Wow! That’s FASCINATING!” This became known as the cargo cult.

The Katrina thing struck me as exactly the same way. There was nobody coming, but they were trying to perform the rituals of Waiting For The Bus as well as humanly possible, in order that the bus might be summoned. There were perfectly good reasons why intelligent people would think this would work, at the time–they thought things were being held up because of percieved lawlessness, and were attempting to convince the authorities that they were decent people who deserved to be rescued–and they all foundered on the fact that the buses just weren’t coming. This was not an irrational act, and the people involved were not dumb. Cargo cults are really quite rational things–they follow entirely logically from observations of the world, and from the worldview of those involved. They just founder on information that they have no way of knowing.

I bring this up because, as I was explaining this all to James at the time, I mentioned that cargo cults–the real, dramatic kind, not the minor metaphorical variety–have pretty much died out. But as said article shows, apparently I was wrong, and there are still some left. And it’s one of those heartbreaking phenomena that I think people shouldn’t forget. If we’re ever visited by aliens, I’ll bet dollars to donuts we form our own version of a cargo cult back here on earth. Probably a coupla versions.

And this is your fairly depressing but hopefully educational bulletin for the morning.

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