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.


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.

21 Responses to “Barry O, He Go: the Cargo Cult Presidency of Barack Obama”

  1. 1germaninspain on Oct 28, 2010 at 2:14 am:

    Very interesting comparison, cargo religions (thanks for the new sources, it reminded me that I wanted to read more about those) and state benefits for certain groups – but why do you stop there? Why don´t you compare Cargo religions with the whole US society?

    How much and what do you produce yourselves? Don´t you depend on the import of all kind of stuff / cargo to be happy? What do you do besides “paying” for the cargo with a currency that is worth less every day? What will you do the day the dollar hits the bottom? Sing songs and wait at beaches, ports and airports in the hope that ships and airplanes with cargo will appear and exchange it for your dollars? You write much about personal effort to obtain material things, but what effort does the US society realize to get the imports? Your economy is based to a dangerous degree on services and finance products, both immaterial goods. Seriously, you need to rethink on what you want to base your economy.

    And the middle class: has it still not been understood in the US that the middle class is an illusion, a mirage to keep people happy? Traditionally it is the fiscal milk cow for any kind of government, since it can be best controlled (incomes from salaries, property-owners, everything is visible) and got the greatest benefits from a working society (laws, security, infrastructure,…). With the end of the cold war and the end of communism (Cuba and North Korea are negligible as threats) the middle class is no longer necessary, it has no function or reason for existence and will disappear unless a strong communist / anticapitalist enemy emerges. It will reduce again to traditional academic professions as doctors, lawyers and of course entrepreneurs who open their own businesses and little more, but certainly no people who work for others.

  2. 2Alex on Oct 28, 2010 at 3:24 am:

    The poll you cite for Obama’s low approval rating adds to 104%.

  3. 3Gunther on Oct 28, 2010 at 6:17 am:

    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

    Indeed. I’m surrounded (family, neighbors, co-workers, etc.) by ‘environmentalists’ who, despite using electricity that comes from burning coal mined via mountain top removal, (baaaaaad), think nothing of using electric dryers for their clothes and to power all the other gadgets their houses are stuffed with. Despite 40 years of geopolitical turmoil due to our insatiable appetite for oil, drive 20 mpg Subarus. And somehow think that recycling newspapers and cereal boxes absolves them from Consuming Mass Quantities.

    Prior to 2008 the lack of any tangible energy policy was Bush’s fault. When I pointed out to these people that their own consumption levels displayed a complete lack of personal responsibility (i.e. “where is your energy policy?”)…they simply redirected the blame back to Bush. His lack of environmental leadership caused them to consume on levels they knew were unsustainable (to use a favorite meme of the left). Now that Obama is in charge they continue to consume on the same level, but they can at least do so with the knowledge that ‘something’ is being done. Things are being ‘made better’, even if, to a person, they can’t quantify what is actually being made better.

    And, like true cultists, there is absolutely no reasoning with them.

  4. 4The Osprey on Oct 28, 2010 at 6:19 am:

    Did John Frum have a TelePrompter?

  5. 5Gunther on Oct 28, 2010 at 9:05 am:

    @germaininspain: Why don´t you compare Cargo religions with the whole US society?

    You make a valid point. But why stop at the US? Doesn’t a good portion of Western Europe depend on Russian gas to keep them from freezing every winter? Not to mention that the entire European welfare model is creaking under its own weight yet riots break out every time some government threatens to force the light of day upon its citizens.

    I’m not intentionally picking on Europeans…just making the point that all 1st world countries depend (too) heavily on others. Heck…it’s even more prominent at the personal level. I barely know how most of the mechanical/electronic things in my house work…and am very limited when it comes to in-depth repair. It is admittedly a poor position to be in that I have such little knowledge of the things I daily depend upon.

    But Zombie needn’t write an all-encompassing essay just to focus on the Obama-as-Frum connection. He’s simply highlighted a single tree in the forest…but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the forest as well.

  6. 6KimberGrl on Oct 28, 2010 at 11:24 am:

    @Gunther: And somehow think that recycling newspapers and cereal boxes absolves them from Consuming Mass Quantities.

    I love the phrasing here. My husband has always said that at some point environmentalism went from recognizing that environment needed to be protected to becoming a religion. A no thought, no logic, just my feelings religion…….

    It always kills me when these environmentalists criticize sport hunters and fishermen. They don’t realize that we are the ones that started (and, more importantly,paid for) the conservation movement. We are the ones that started (and, again, paid for and still pay for) the national park system. We realize that our sport will not exist without wild lands AND we are willing to pay for it. How many backpackers that scorn hunters, complain if they have to pay $5 for a wilderness camping permit. Yet hunters and fishermen think nothing of shelling out $20 (and more, depending on what they hunt/fish) for a hunting permit. The kicker is (as anyone who has ever hunted or fished will telll you), hunting/fishing is not getting. More often than not, you come home empty handed…..

  7. 7Perpetua on Oct 28, 2010 at 11:32 am:

    This cargo cult analogy also explains why the rich with inherited wealth went for Obama. Rich with inherited wealth have the actual experience of receiving material goods from the ancestors rather than earning them through work. Sometimes the rich even have the experience of waiting first and then receiving when their when their grandparents or parents die, or waiting for the trust fund to become under their control. Somtimes trust funds are set up to distribute 1/3 at 21, 1/3 at 28 and 1/3 at 25 or such a schedule so the person has multiple wondrous cargo experiences.

  8. 8eots on Oct 28, 2010 at 12:19 pm:

    germaininspain — besides dependency Cargo cults have a messianic component — like the cult of Obama, but unlike the American society as a whole.

  9. 9CultLeader on Oct 28, 2010 at 4:52 pm:

    Nifty: the clearing of the fields and construction of the planes would be stimulus projects, and the individuals in charge would have to be community organizers.

  10. 10Daniel Noe on Oct 28, 2010 at 5:43 pm:

    Yes, we have become too dependent on other countries in trade, but I believe the point was that it was our culture that allowed us to get there in the first place. Read up on the protestant work ethic.

  11. 11germaninspain on Oct 29, 2010 at 5:47 am:

    @ Gunther – yes indeed Europe / 1st World countries have lost a lot of production capacity due to globalization and this is a danger, since for the sake of profit we are transferring all know-how we have to countries with cheaper wages. While as long as we still have a technological advantage there is no problem, but how long will we have this advantage? And the main question: why do the state and population have to bear the consequences and costs (unemployment, less taxes,…) while the companies keep the benefits? Globalization has mostly benefited the companies and the emerging countries, not “our” first world societies.

    What you describe concerning the mechanical and electronic things – it´s intended, until the 70´s any product treated properly lasted much longer than today, and most important: repair was part of the design work to make repair easy. Now the manufacturers want to sell you the same (upgraded) product every 4 years, so why make it durable? Repair is not profitable for any manufacturing company, and if the production site is somewhere in Asia even less. But anyway, even if we would understand the way they work – would our fingers fit inside to do the repair?

    And yes, the European welfare model is creaking for many reasons, mainly globalization and demographics (in the 50´s some geniuses thought life expectancy would remain at 60 something, once the people who survived the two world wars passed away it raised sharply while the number of births declined steadily). Yes, it was flawed from the beginning.
    That it was not corrected in time is an inherent failure of democracy. Since politicians want to be re-elected, they have persistently ignored this problem, since the solution is an unpopular one – either rising taxes or lowering service. It was always duly procrastinated to the next government for at least 4 decades. A correction that in the 70´s would have meant a small sacrifice, would have been still bearable in the 80´s, only to become a painful shock in the 90´s and finally is now causing riots (for the moment just in France, not surprisingly the European country with one of the most citizen friendly laws considering retirement age at 60 years, now raised to 62, while in Spain it has been raised from 65 to 67 and no one cared really much).
    It´s the price of democracy.
    Anyway, Europe will still go on with this type of welfare system since the majority is convinced that the benefits for the society as a whole are greater than the costs. We now have the opportunity to tune and adjust the system until it breaks down again in one or two generations for other reasons. And coming back to the riots: unions and common citizens are mad at their governments because they want to Americanize the welfare system and that is so contrary to our believing and traditions that we will not accept it. The TEA party in Europe goes in the opposite direction.

    @ eots – sorry, I can´t agree in any way.

    American society HAS the messianic mission to bring liberty, democracy, capitalism and free trade to the rest of the world. That´s the image Washington, Hollywood and Wall Street have been promoting since the end of the 1st world war (if not since the signing of your constitution), and for the sake of that mission the US have gone to war many times and made many enemies throughout the world.
    (I know it´s just marketing and an excuse to justify interventions wherever, whenever and against whomever, the problem with marketing and image is, it sometimes is believed and you have to stick with it if you don´t want to loose your credibility.)

  12. 12eots on Oct 29, 2010 at 12:18 pm:

    No magical thinking involved.

  13. 13Sadistic Eristic on Oct 30, 2010 at 11:42 am:

    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.

    Interesting post zombie. Unfortunately, I think you may have misinterpreted Obama’s quote. I think that Obama was not speaking to the entirety of the American people. He was speaking specifically to his fellow vanguards. The second “we” is informative. He was speaking to all those who share his vision to fundamentally transform America. The first “we” emphasized that he and the other true believers would accomplish what all those others, FDR, Wilson, Carter, Clinton, etc. had failed to – to finally banish capitalism from America and permanently add the US to the list of socialist countries. Certainly, Obama is a narcissistic and naive megalomaniac, one would have to be to have such ambition after living such an unaccomplished life, but he does see himself as part of a team who will impose their will upon the rest of society. After so many failed attempts, he and his buds would make it happen. Obama’s action have certainly made clear that he doesn’t much care whether the American people want a messiah or not. Ever since the advent of popularly elected governments, the power hungry have justified their actions with unfounded claims that what they want is really what the people want.

  14. 14Guy Average on Oct 30, 2010 at 7:04 pm:

    Interesting parallels cited here, Zombie.

    I do hope that you are correct in your prediction for the election. Even with the decline (and hopefully the fall) of Obamunism, there will still need to be a whole lot of undoing of damage in the years ahead, or the standard of living in the USA will end up resembling that of Vanuatu.

  15. 15mercanaire on Oct 30, 2010 at 8:02 pm:

    Zombie, I gotta say this – and want you to know I mean it in a good way…

    You are freaking me out.

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