There’s a petition floating around on Change.org asking that the Burning Man Organization change this year’s theme from “Cargo Cult” to something… well, more culturally sensitive.
I wanted to share my own reaction to this petition, and why I think their objection to the theme is flawed, and frankly, intellectually dishonest. Here’s an excerpt from the BMOrg’s theme announcement:
“Our story begins in Melanesia during World War II. Thousands of American GIs suddenly descended on this South Sea island chain, bearing with them unimaginable riches: magical foodstuffs that never spoiled, inconceivable power sources. Just as abruptly the troops departed, leaving only broken, rusted Jeeps, crumpled beer cans, and the memory of Spam. To the astonished eyes of the natives, this was a miraculous occurrence, and they yearned for the return of abundance.”
Over the next few years, a religion of sorts arose on the islands, as the natives built totems and developed rituals intended to lure back the sailors and their cargo. Some of these “Cargo Cults” are still active today — the most famous being the John Frum cult on the island of Tanna.
“Movements like these were a way for traditional people to come to terms with colonialism and Christianity,” says one anthropologist. “Vanuatu’s culture would have been entirely squashed if it wasn’t for cults like John Frum.”
The BMOrg writes:
“Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the Cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don’t know how it’s made, where it’s made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing.”
What’s the first thing that came into your mind when you read that sentence? I thought of Apple. I bet some of you did too. Let’s face it — there’s a certain religious dimension to the company:
The massive, church-like interiors of the retail stores. The throngs of people waiting to speak to the the all-knowing technicians at the Genius Bar. Steve Jobs announcing the release date of the next iPad — posthumously, via hologram — like some kind of modern-day Hari Seldon. (OK, maybe that last one hasn’t happened yet. But I wouldn’t put it past him.)
According to the petition,
“The theme announcement encourages event-goers to appropriate and misinterpret Indigenous culture from that region…. It reinforces myths, which justify colonialism…. Our community protests the use of a theme that encourages mockery, misinterpretation and appropriation of Indigenous culture.”
But is this truly the case? Does the theme encourage mockery of Indigenous culture? Or does it ask us to look in the mirror at the “astonished eyes” we all have when faced with circumstances beyond our understanding? It seems to me that the petitioners see the phrase “astonished eyes” and feel embarrassed for the natives. They think, “We would never believe such a silly thing as they did.” They want to draw a fine line between that kind of wonder and incredulity and our own civilized lives.
When I see the words “astonished eyes,” I see my own eyes when I walk into that Apple store. I see the eyes of awe-struck Americans at Barack Obama’s inauguration. I see the eyes of my friends gazing up at the Man for the very first time.
Is it fair to say that natives dancing around a “totemic sky-craft” is one thing, and yet our actions at the Burn are something else altogether? Why? Because we bring a level of self awareness and, even, perhaps irony to our ceremony? Hell, this year I marched dressed up as a Carrot protesting thousands of folks dressed as Bunnies who were themselves protesting against Humanity. And we’re worried about them getting made fun of?
Was it “silly” for the Melanesians to build up a religion around American merchant ships? Perhaps. But no less silly than many of the “cargo cults” that spring up among “civilized”, “educated” people. (Need I mention Joseph Smith?)
How do we know that these natives don’t have the same in-depth conversations about their Cargo Cults that we have about our own practices? Perhaps some are openly skeptical. Perhaps others never believed that their actions would bring the cargo ships back any faster, but participated anyway because it feels good to do something while you wait. Just like pressing that elevator button or cross-walk symbol for a second or third time, even though we know it won’t make the light change any faster.
“In the past we believed in John Frum, but now we believe in Jesus,” says one native. Which faith is more reasonable than the other? Does it matter?
Recently, violence broke out on Tanna between the followers of Christian leader “Prophet Fred” and members of the John Frum cult. Prophet Fred, writes one blogger, “preaches Christ’s return, which is two millennium overdo, while mocking the hopes of John Frum’s return.” Sound familiar?
When confronted with the question, “How could someone believe that?” it is difficult to admit, “I might have believed that too if I had been there.” It is easier to keep a safe distance, to approach the question academically, than to embrace the fact that human beings (ourselves included) have the capacity to believe things that aren’t true.
In my opinion, the Cargo Cults were a perfectly rational attempt to understand the situation at hand. They don’t require the same leaps of faiths — more like mental gymnastics — that today’s modern religions entail. These folks simply took the information at hand and incorporated it into the worldview that existed around them. We can look at Cargo Cults in one of two ways. Either this is what primitive people do when confronted with “civilized” society, or this is how human beings react when confronted with circumstances beyond our understanding. It is our innate desire to understand, to reason, to explain.
The petition claims, “The theme announcement, with its un-nuanced summation of the ‘cargo cults’ frames American people as the technologically-superior benevolent savior-gods and native people as naive, wide-eyed primitives.” Sometimes, it’s good to be wide-eyed. We’re all “primitives” when it comes down to it. We all want to burn things and dance around the fire. To assume that some of us are intelligent enough to do it ironically and others aren’t is the height of cultural superiority.
The only reason to be afraid of this year’s Burning Man theme is to be afraid of the capacity in all of us to get carried away by something we don’t understand — be it culture, computers, or some other cargo…