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Above email address currently deprecated! Use gary underscore farber at yahoodotcom, pliz! Sanely free of McCarthyite calling anyone a traitor since 2001!
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I've a long record in editorial work in book and magazine publishing, starting 1974, a variety of other work experience, but have been, since 2001, recurringly housebound with insanely painful sporadic and unpredictably variable gout and edema, and in the past, other ailments; the future? The Great Unknown: isn't it for all of us?
I'm currently house/cat-sitting, not on any government aid yet (or mostly ever), often in major chronic pain from gout and edema, which variably can leave me unable to walk, including just standing, but sometimes is better, and is freaking unpredictable at present; I also have major chronic depression and anxiety disorders; I'm currently supported mostly by your blog donations/subscriptions; you can help me. I prefer to spread out the load, and lessen it from the few who have been doing more than their fair share for too long.
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"The brain is wider than the sky, For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include With ease, and you beside"
-- Emily Dickinson
"We will pursue peace as if there is no terrorism and fight terrorism as if there is no peace."
-- Yitzhak Rabin
"I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they ought to be."
-- Alexander Hamilton
"The stakes are too high for government to be a spectator sport."
-- Barbara Jordan
"Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to
trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule --
and both commonly succeed, and are right."
-- H. L. Mencken
"Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.
It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."
-- William Pitt
"The only completely consistent people are the dead."
-- Aldous Huxley
"I have had my solutions for a long time; but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them."
-- Karl F. Gauss
"Whatever evils either reason or declamation have imputed to extensive empire,
the power of Rome was attended with some beneficial consequences to mankind;
and the same freedom of intercourse which extended the vices, diffused likewise
the improvements of social life."
-- Edward Gibbon
"Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his
expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were
respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom."
-- Edward Gibbon
"There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify
the evils, of the present times."
-- Edward Gibbon
"Our youth now loves luxuries. They have bad manners, contempt for authority.
They show disrespect for elders and they
love to chatter instead of exercise.
Children are now tyrants, not the servants, of their households. They
no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents,
chatter before company, gobble up their food, and tyrannize
"Before impugning an opponent's motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments."
-- Sidney Hook
"Idealism, alas, does not protect one from ignorance, dogmatism, and foolishness."
-- Sidney Hook
"Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.
We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect
disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest
and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized."
-- Reinhold Niebuhr
"Faced with the choice of all the land without a Jewish state or a Jewish state without all the
land, we chose a Jewish state without all the land."
-- David Ben-Gurion
"...the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him
an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this
or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages
to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also
to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing,
with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess
and conform to it;[...] that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion
and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty....
-- Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson
"We don't live just by ideas. Ideas are part of the mixture of customs and practices,
intuitions and instincts that make human life a conscious activity susceptible to
improvement or debasement. A radical idea may be healthy as a provocation;
a temperate idea may be stultifying. It depends on the circumstances. One of the most
tiresome arguments against ideas is that their 'tendency' is to some dire condition --
to totalitarianism, or to moral relativism, or to a war of all against all."
-- Louis Menand
"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis."
-- Dante Alighieri
"He too serves a certain purpose who only stands and cheers."
-- Henry B. Adams
"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the
poor to beg in the streets, steal bread, or sleep under a bridge."
-- Anatole France
"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."
-- Edmund Burke
"Education does not mean that we have become certified experts in business or mining or botany or journalism or epistemology;
it means that through the absorption of the moral, intellectual, and esthetic inheritance of the race we have come to
understand and control ourselves as well as the external world; that we have chosen the best as our associates both in spirit
and the flesh; that we have learned to add courtesy to culture, wisdom to knowledge, and forgiveness to understanding."
-- Will Durant
"Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is
but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest
winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?"
-- Herman Melville
"The most important political office is that of the private citizen."
-- Louis D. Brandeis
"If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable."
-- Louis D. Brandeis
"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
-- Louis D. Brandeis
"It is an error to suppose that books have no influence; it is a slow influence, like flowing water carving out a canyon,
but it tells more and more with every year; and no one can pass an hour a day in the society of sages and heroes without
being lifted up a notch or two by the company he has kept."
-- Will Durant
"When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music."
-- Louis Menand
"Sex is a continuum."
-- Gore Vidal
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should
make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, 1802.
"The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible,
and in many things leave one free to follow his own judgment, because there is great obscurity in many matters, and
man suffers from this almost congenital disease that he will not give in when once a controversy is started, and
after he is heated he regards as absolutely true that which he began to sponsor quite casually...."
-- Desiderius Erasmus
"Are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule of what we are to read, and what we must disbelieve?"
-- Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to N. G. Dufief, Philadelphia bookseller, 1814
"We are told that it is only people's objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort,
are 'objectively' aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true,
the 'objectively' line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore 'Trotskyism is Fascism'. And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.
This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people's motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions."
-- George Orwell, "As I Please," Tribune, 8 December 1944
"Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If 'needy' were a turn-on?"
-- "Aaron Altman," Broadcast News
"The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand."
-- Lewis Thomas
"To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man's lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?"
"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."
-- Samuel Johnson, Life Of Johnson
"Very well, what did my critics say in attacking my character? I must read out their affidavit, so to speak, as though they were my legal accusers: Socrates is guilty of criminal meddling, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example."
-- Socrates, via Plato, The Republic
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, represents, in the final analysis, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower
"The term, then, is obviously a relative one; my pedantry is your scholarship, his reasonable accuracy, her irreducible minimum of education, & someone else's ignorance."
-- H. W. Fowler
"Rules exist for good reasons, and in any art form the beginner must learn them and understand what they are for, then follow them for quite a while. A visual artist, pianist, dancer, fiction writer, all beginning artists are in the same boat here: learn the rules, understand them, follow them. It's called an apprenticeship. A mediocre artist never stops following the rules, slavishly follows guidelines, and seldom rises above mediocrity. An accomplished artist internalizes the rules to the point where they don't have to be consciously considered. After you've put in the time it takes to learn to swim, you never stop to think: now I move my arm, kick, raise my head, breathe. You just do it. The accomplished artist knows what the rules mean, how to use them, dodge them, ignore them altogether, or break them. This may be a wholly unconscious process of assimilation, one never articulated, but it has taken place."
-- Kate Wilhelm
"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed."
-- Albert Einstein
"The decisive moment in human evolution is perpetual."
-- Franz Kafka, Aphorisms
"All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
-- Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
"First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you."
-- Nicholas Klein, May, 1919, to the Third Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (misattributed to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 1914 & variants).
"Our credulity is a part of the imperfection of our natures. It is inherent in us to desire to generalize, when we ought, on the contrary, to guard ourselves very carefully from this tendency."
-- Napoleon I of France.
"The truth is, men are very hard to know, and yet, not to be deceived, we must judge them by their present actions, but for the present only."
-- Napoleon I of France.
"The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to know."
-- On the subject of torture, in a letter to Louis Alexandre Berthier (11 November 1798), published in Correspondance Napoleon edited by Henri Plon (1861), Vol. V, No. 3606, p. 128
"All living souls welcome whatever they are ready to cope with; all else they ignore, or pronounce to be monstrous and wrong, or deny to be possible."
-- George Santayana, Dialogues in Limbo (1926)
"If you should put even a little on a little, and should do this often, soon this too would become big."
-- Hesiod, Work And Days
"Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
-- Eugene V. Debs
"Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself."
-- Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign
"All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written "al-Qaida," in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies."
-- Osama bin Laden
"Remember, Robin: evil is a pretty bad thing."
Gary Farber is now a licensed Quintuple Super-Sekrit Multi-dimensional Master Pundit.
He does not always refer to himself in the third person.
He is presently single.
The gefilte fish is dead. Donate via the donation button on the top left or I'll shoot this cutepanda. Don't you lovepandas?
Current Total # of Donations Since 2002: 1181
Subscribers to date at $5/month: 100 sign-ups; 91 cancellations; Total= 9
Supporter subscribers to date at $25/month: 16 sign-ups; 10 cancellation; Total= 6
Patron subscribers to date at $50/month: 20 sign-ups; 13 cancellations; Total= 7
...writer[s] I find myself checking out repeatedly when I'm in the mood to play follow-the-links. They're not all people I agree with all the time, or even most of the time, but I've found them all to be thoughtful writers, and that's the important thing, or should be.
-- Tom Tomorrow
I bow before the shrillitudinousness of Gary Farber, who has been blogging like a fiend.
-- Ted Barlow, Crooked Timber
Favorite.... [...] ...all great stuff. [...] Gary Farber should never be without readers.
I usually read you and Patrick several times a day, and I always get something from them. You've got great links, intellectually honest commentary, and a sense of humor. What's not to like?
-- Ted Barlow
One of my issues with many poli-blogs is the dickhead tone so many bloggers affect to express their sense of righteous indignation. Gary Farber's thoughtful leftie takes on the world stand in sharp contrast with the usual rhetorical bullying. Plus, he likes "Pogo," which clearly attests to his unassaultable good taste.
Jaysus. I saw him do something like this before, on a thread about Israel. It was pretty brutal. It's like watching one of those old WWF wrestlers grab an opponent's
face and grind away until the guy starts crying. I mean that in a nice & admiring way, you know.
-- Fontana Labs, Unfogged
We read you Gary Farber! We read you all the time! Its just that we are lazy with our blogroll. We are so very very lazy. We are always the last ones to the party but we always have snazzy bow ties.
-- Fafnir, Fafblog!
Gary Farber you are a genius of mad scientist proportions. I will bet there are like huge brains growin in jars all over your house.
-- Fafnir, Fafblog!
Gary Farber is the hardest working man in show blog business. He's like a young Gene Hackman blogging with his hair on fire, or something.
-- Belle Waring, John & Belle Have A Blog
Gary Farber only has two blogging modes: not at all, and 20 billion interesting posts a day [...] someone on the interweb whose opinions I can trust....
-- Belle Waring, John & Belle Have A Blog
Isn't Gary a cracking blogger, apropos of nothing in particular?
-- Alison Scott
Gary Farber takes me to task, in a way befitting the gentleman he is.
-- Stephen Green, Vodkapundit
My friend Gary Farber at Amygdala is the sort of liberal for whom I happily give three cheers. [...] Damned incisive blogging....
-- Midwest Conservative Journal
If I ever start a paper, Clueless writes the foreign affairs column, Layne handles the city beat, Welch has the roving-reporter job, Tom Tomorrow runs the comic section (which carries Treacher, of course). MediaMinded runs the slots - that's the type of editor I want as the last line of defense. InstantMan runs the edit page - and you can forget about your Ivins and Wills and Friedmans and Teepens on the edit page - it's all Blair, VodkaP, C. Johnson, Aspara, Farber, Galt, and a dozen other worthies, with Justin 'I am smoking in such a provocative fashion' Raimondo tossed in for balance and comic relief.
Who wouldn't buy that paper? Who wouldn't want to read it? Who wouldn't climb over their mother to be in it?
-- James Lileks
I do appreciate your role and the role of Amygdala as a pioneering effort in the integration of fanwriters with social conscience into the larger blogosphere of social conscience.
-- Lenny Bailes
Every single post in that part of Amygdala visible on my screen is either funny or bracing or important. Is it always like this? -- Natalie Solent
People I've known and still miss include Isaac Asimov, rich brown, Charles Burbee, F. M. "Buzz" Busby, Terry Carr, A. Vincent Clarke, Bob Doyle, George Alec Effinger, Abi Frost,
Bill & Sherry Fesselmeyer, George Flynn, John Milo "Mike" Ford. John Foyster, Mike Glicksohn, Jay Haldeman, Neith Hammond (Asenath Katrina Hammond)/DominEditrix , Chuch Harris, Mike Hinge, Lee Hoffman, Terry Hughes, Damon Knight, Ross Pavlac, Bruce Pelz, Elmer Perdue, Tom Perry,
Larry Propp, Bill Rotsler, Art Saha, Bob Shaw, Martin Smith, Harry Stubbs, Bob Tucker, Harry Warner, Jr., Jack Williamson, Walter A. Willis, Susan Wood, Kate Worley, and Roger Zelazny.
It's just a start, it only gets longer, many are unintentionally left out.
And She of whom I must write someday.
NOT RELATED TO DAVID. I loves me cargo cult stories. Hard to describe in short precisely why, since it's rather a spread of somewhat amorphous reasons, and I also wouldn't like my interest to be taken as any sort of "haha, your silly culture is so silly!" response.
It would be wrong, on the other hand, to deny that one reason they fascinate me is that they are so obviously in-your-face in being based upon false suppositions, and suppositions that are, indeed, from our Western point of view, blatantly ludicrous in a way that I find difficult to not simultaneously find both funny and sad.
Let's get to it, though; I've read several accounts of the specific "John Frum" cult/religion before -- although it's not substantively particularly different from any other of the cargo cults that arose out of WWII (and in some rarer cases, before, going back to at least the 19th century), but this account, by Paul Raffaele, is fresh and vivid.
Just some tastes:
Chief Isaac Wan, a slight, bearded man in a blue suit and ceremonial sash, leads the uniformed men down to open ground in the middle of the village. Some 40 barefoot "G.I.’s" suddenly emerge from behind the huts to more cheering, marching in perfect step and ranks of two past Chief Isaac. They tote bamboo “rifles” on their shoulders, the scarlet tips sharpened to represent bloody bayonets, and sport the letters “USA,” painted in red on their bare chests and backs.
This is February 15, John Frum Day, on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. On this holiest of days, devotees have descended on the village of Lamakara from all over the island to honor a ghostly American messiah, John Frum. “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.”
The island’s John Frum movement is a classic example of what anthropologists have called a “cargo cult”—many of which sprang up in villages in the South Pacific during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into the islands from the skies and seas. As anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent 17 years in Vanuatu, explains: “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” The locals don’t know where the foreigners’ endless supplies come from and so suspect they were summoned by magic, sent from the spirit world. To entice the Americans back after the war, islanders throughout the region constructed piers and carved airstrips from their fields. They prayed for ships and planes to once again come out of nowhere, bearing all kinds of treasures: jeeps and washing machines, radios and motorcycles, canned meat and candy.
But the venerated Americans never came back, except as a dribble of tourists and veterans eager to revisit the faraway islands where they went to war in their youth. And although almost all the cargo cults have disappeared over the decades, the John Frum movement has endured, based on the worship of an American god no sober man has ever seen.
As the jeep rattles up a steep slope, the narrow trail slicing through the jungle’s dense green weave of trees and bushes, Jessel tells me that he is the brother-in-law of one of the cult’s most important leaders, Prophet Fred—who, he adds proudly, “raised his wife from the dead two weeks ago.”
When we reach the crest of a hill, the land ahead falls away to reveal Yasur, Tanna’s sacred volcano, a few miles to the south, its ash-coated slopes nudging the shoreline at Sulphur Bay. Dark smoke belches from its cone. “‘Yasur’ means God in our language,” Jessel murmurs. “It’s the house of John Frum.”
“If he’s an American, why does he live in your volcano?” I wonder aloud.
“Ask Chief Isaac,” he says. “He knows everything.”
For as long as Tanna’s inhabitants can remember, island men have downed kava at sunset each day in a place off-limits to women. Christian missionaries, mostly Presbyterians from Scotland, put a temporary stop to the practice in the early 20th century, also banning other traditional practices, or “kastom,” that locals had followed faithfully for millennia: dancing, penis wrapping and polygamy. The missionaries also forbade working and amusement on Sundays, swearing and adultery. In the absence of a strong colonial administrative presence, they set up their own courts to punish miscreants, sentencing them to forced labor. The Tannese seethed under the missionaries’ rules for three decades. Then, John Frum appeared.
Daniel was once a member of Vanuatu’s Parliament in Port-Vila, and his constituents included John Frum followers from what was then the movement’s stronghold, Ipikil, on Sulphur Bay. “I’m now a Christian, but like most people on Tanna, I still have John Frum in my heart,” he says. “If we keep praying to John, he’ll come back with plenty of cargo.”
Daniel leads me to his village nakamal, the open ground where the men drink kava. Two young boys bend over the kava roots Jessel had purchased, chewing chunks of them into a stringy pulp. “Only circumcised boys who’ve never touched a girl’s body can make kava,” Daniel tells me. “That ensures that their hands are not dirty.”
Other boys mix water with the pulp and twist the mixture through a cloth, producing a dirty-looking liquid. Daniel hands me a half-coconut shell filled to the brim. “Drink it in one go,” he whispers. It tastes vile, like muddy water. Moments later my mouth and tongue turn numb.
After I drink my third shell of kava, Daniel peers into my undoubtedly glazed eyes. “I’d better take you back,” he says. By the seaside at my hut, I dance unsteadily to the rhythm of the waves as I try to pluck the shimmering moon from the sky and kiss it.
The hut is dominated by a round table displaying a small U.S. flag on a pedestal, a carved bald eagle and imitation U.S. military uniforms neatly folded and placed in a circle, ready for use on John Frum Day in a little more than a week. Above, suspended by vine from a beam, hangs a globe, a stone ax and a pair of green stones carved into circles the size of a silver dollar. “Very powerful magic,” the chief says as he points to the stones. “The gods made them a long time ago.”
Written on a pair of blackboards is a plea that John Frum’s followers lead a kastom life and that they refrain from violence against each other. One of the blackboards bears a chalked red cross, probably copied from U.S. military ambulances and now an important symbol for the cult.
“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, his pidgin English translated by Daniel.
“But if John Frum, an American, is going to bring you modern goods, how does that sit with his wish that you lead a kastom life?” I ask.
“John is a spirit. He knows everything,” the chief says, slipping past the contradiction with the poise of a skilled politician. “He’s even more powerful than Jesus.”
“Have you ever seen him?”
“Yes, John comes very often from Yasur to advise me, or I go there to speak with John.”
“What does he look like?”
“Then why does he live in Yasur?”
“John moves from America to Yasur and back, going down through the volcano and under the sea.”
When I mention Prophet Fred, anger flares in Chief Isaac’s eyes. “He’s a devil,” he snarls. “I won’t talk about him.”
What about your visit to the United States in 1995? I ask. What did you think of your religion’s heaven on earth? He raises his hands apologetically. “I have much to do today. I’ll tell you about it another time.” On the way back to my hut, it occurs to me that I forgot to ask him to take me to the volcano.
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.”
Villagers on Tanna began throwing their money into the sea and killing their pigs for grand feasts to welcome their new messiah. Colonial authorities eventually struck back, arresting the movement’s leaders—including Chief Isaac’s father, Chief Nikiau. They were shipped to a prison at Port-Vila in 1941, their subsequent years behind bars earning them status as the John Frum movement’s first martyrs.
The cult got its biggest boost the following year, when American troops by the thousands were dispatched to the New Hebrides, where they built large military bases at Port-Vila and on the island of Espíritu Santo. The bases included hospitals, airstrips, jetties, roads, bridges and corrugated-steel Quonset huts, many erected with the help of more than a thousand men recruited as laborers from Tanna and other parts of the New Hebrides—among them Chief Kahuwya.
The Americans’ munificence dazzled the men from Tanna, as did the sight of dark-skinned soldiers eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, living in similar huts and tents and operating the same high-tech equipment as white soldiers. “In kastom, people sit together to eat,” says Kirk Huffman, who was the curator of Vanuatu’s cultural center during his years in the island nation. “The missionaries had angered the Tannese by always eating separately.”
It seems this is when the legend of John Frum took on a decidedly American character. “John Frum appeared to us in Port-Vila,” Chief Kahuwya says, “and stayed with us throughout the war. John was dressed in all white, like American Navy men, and it was then we knew John was an American. John said that when the war was over, he’d come to us in Tanna with ships and planes bringing much cargo, like the Americans had in Vila.”
In 1943, the U.S. command, concerned about the movement’s growth, sent the USS Echo to Tanna with Maj. Samuel Patten on board. His mission was to convince John Frum followers that, as his report put it, “the American forces had no connection with Jonfrum.” He failed. At war’s end, the U.S. military unwittingly enhanced the legend of their endless supply of cargo when they bulldozed tons of equipment—trucks, jeeps, aircraft engines, supplies—off the coast of Espíritu Santo. During six decades in the shallows, coral and sand have obscured much of the watery grave of war surplus, but snorkelers can still see tires, bulldozers and even full Coke bottles. The locals wryly named the place Million Dollar Point.
After the war, when they returned home from Port-Vila to their huts, the Tanna men were convinced that John Frum would soon join them, and hacked a primitive airstrip out of the jungle in the island’s north to tempt the expected American planes from the skies. Across the South Pacific, thousands of other cargo cult followers began devising similar plans—even building bamboo control towers strung with rope and bamboo aerials to guide in the planes. In 1964, one cargo cult on New Hanover Island in Papua New Guinea offered the U.S. government $1,000 for Lyndon Johnson to come and be their paramount chief. But as the years passed with empty skies and seas, almost all the cargo cults disappeared, the devotees’ hopes crushed.
At Sulphur Bay the faithful never wavered. Each Friday afternoon, hundreds of believers stream across the ash plain below Yasur, coming to Lamaraka from villages all over Tanna. After the sun goes down and the men have drunk kava, the congregation gathers in and around an open hut on the ceremonial ground. As light from kerosene lamps flickers across their faces, they strum guitars and homemade ukuleles, singing hymns of John Frum’s prophecies and the struggles of the cult’s martyrs. Many carry the same plea: “We’re waiting in our village for you, John. When are you coming with all the cargo you promised us?”
Threaded among the singers’ perfect harmonies is a high-pitched Melanesian keening that hones each hymn with a yearning edge. I look around in vain for Chief Isaac until a senior man in the cult whispers that after drinking kava, Isaac has disappeared among the darkened trees to talk to John Frum. The weekly service doesn’t end until the sun comes back up, at seven the next morning.
That's really more than I should quote, but as always, one of Amygdala's many mottos: wot the hell.
Another reason cargo cults fascinate me is that the way disparate cultures change each other as they interact fascinates; cargo cults are simply an extremely melodramatic and utterly vivid example of that. They're one of the various closest analogues we yet have to humans meeting an alien non-human culture. On another front, often they serve as a form of political movement that there otherwise isn't local cultural space for.
Other lessons that might be learned, I leave, as I often to, in my cheating lazy way, as an exercise for you, the home viewer. This includes any 'o them there analogies one might draw.