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Who is John Frum?

As I listen to the perpetual whishing of pink hats being tossed into the presidential ring by those eager to take down Donald J. Trump in 2020, I can’t help but wonder if the only possibility of staving off the Armageddon brewing between America’s political left and right portends the return of the messiah. I don’t mean THE Messiah, although I’m certain he’d do a bang-up job calming the storm. I’m referring here to the other messiah, John Frum.

The tale of John Frum and his followers is one of those bits of weird history that flitted through my brain one day and got stuck there amongst the flotsam. Here’s the short version of the story: In the summer of 1776, British explorer, Capt. James Cook, was drawn to the South Pacific island of Tanna by the glow of Mount Yasur, an active volcano. Soon after Capt. Cook’s departure, boatloads of missionaries eager to save souls on behalf of the more well-known Messiah began showing up, carrying with them “miracles” of Western ingenuity that quickly enthralled the island’s indigenous people. Thus began more than a century of colonial influence on the small remote island.

Then one day in the late 1930s, a man believed to be an American GI appeared on the island. This man, John Frum, a/k/a John-a-man-from-American, told the indigenous people that he’d come to rescue them from the missionaries and colonial officials, and encouraged the tribal leaders to reject the European culture being imposed upon them. (A second version of the story is that the American GI delivered the same message when he appeared as an apparition to tribal leaders one evening after they had enjoyed a few too many kavas.) John Frum promised planeloads and shiploads of cargo to those islanders who returned to their ancestral way of life; and, who prayed to him, their messiah. A cargo cult was born.

Soon after the United States entered World War II, the American military began staging Tanna and a number of other surrounding islands for a future invasion of Japan. Just as promised, ships and planes came out of nowhere bearing all sorts of treasures including jeeps, radios, canned foods, candy, motorcycles, washing machines, Big Band records and Coca-Cola. The Americans shared the cargo with the indigenous people of Tanna who took it as a sign that their messiah, John Frum, hadn’t forgotten them.

The John Frum cargo cult is just one of the many cargo cults that sprang up across the South Pacific in places like New Guinea, Melanesia and Vanuatu during that era. As the American military settled into these islands, the cult members believed the cargo being unloaded at their docks and airstrips was meant for them and performed elaborate rituals to achieve a more equitable distribution of the goods between the foreigners that had brought the cargo and the cult members who had prayed for it. A number of cargo cults still exist on those islands today; their members still patiently awaiting their next shipment.

The long version of the story of John Frum and cargo cults requires an in-depth foray into history, anthropology and human psychology. But anyone dismissing the indigenous people of Tanna’s cultism as situational ignorance should take a good look around.

The first time I realized that cargo cults were alive and well in America was in the early days of the Obama administration. I heard a woman on the radio talking about her free “Obama phones” (she had 33 of them) with free talk, texting and data. The program still exists today, though it’s now viewed as a mere head-nod of liberalism compared to what’s being offered by the cargo cult candidates of today to anyone who will reject their founding father’s capitalism and follow them.

One candidate is promising free college educations for all. (Some of my right-leaning friends translate that to mean, “free progressive indoctrination for all” but that’s fodder for another day.) I’m part of the “all” so if he’s elected, I can finally boot my new career as an astrophysicist into high gear. “One second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation (corresponding to the transition between hyperfine levels of the ground state) of the cesium-133 atom.” I have absolutely no idea what that physics lingo means, yet denying me my basic human right because I’m aged with an IQ well below the average astrophysicist wouldn’t be fair. My education should include accommodating my physical and intellectual shortcomings. Right? I may not know much about the cesium-133 atom (nothing, actually, so maybe I should major in gender studies), but I do know one thing for sure … the future of “free education for all” translates to “can of worms.”

Who’s going to pay for it? If not tuition, I presume the money has to come from somewhere to keep the lights on and academia teaching? How will we logistically handle the swelling rolls of students vying for their freebie education but are better suited to doing something like fighting fires or driving trucks or producing podcasts? Certainly my presence in Physics 101 will dumb down the class, negatively impacting other more talented students. Let’s multiply that scenario by tens of thousands. Like I said … can of worms.

There are several cargo cult candidates testing the waters on providing all (there’s that word again) Americans with a universal base income. Free money. Oh, yeah. People being paid for NOT doing their jobs is an all-too familiar concept for South Carolinians. (Think failed V.C. Summer nuclear project. But I digress.) Initial proposals that would guarantee economic security for all even include those able bodied people unwilling to work.

Free money isn’t really free. People work for more than just money. Working boosts self-worth. It improves a person’s sense of accomplishment. It provides fulfilling social interactions. (Facebook doesn’t count as a real social interaction.) Working provides an opportunity for individuals to give the world of what they’ve got to offer. Anytime those who are able to work accept a check from the government, they are handing over control of their lives to that government.

What other ways are the cargo cult candidates looking to more equitably distribute other people’s money? There’s Medicare for all, free home and business energy re-fits for all, free “good” food for all, be it kale or caviar. Sounds like a political free-for-all to me …with a price tag estimated so far at $93 trillion — that’s $93,000,000,000,000 — the cataclysmic effect on the American economy is incalculable.

As I watch for the roll-out of the next freebie, I can’t help but wonder … rather than John Frum, where is John Galt when you need him?

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