Monday, February 6, 2012

Fuck Candy, I Want CARGO

SO. What are you doing this February 15th? Will you be mourning the fact that no one gave you any flowers or candy and that you are probably going to die alone in a house filled with cats and piled up newspapers and then the cats are going to get hungry and eat you because no one will know you've been dead for like, a week at least?

OR. Or. Will you be celebrating John Frum Day?

Personally, I always have a way better time celebrating the crap out of random holidays. This all started in 8th grade when my friend Jessica and I decided to celebrate ANZAC DAY. Because it was on the calendar and sounded weird and we had no idea what it was. Wikipedia was not a thing that existed back then. So we invented all these "traditional and holy customs" to celebrate it, one of which for some reason involved a giant canister of Planter's Cheez Balls my mom got from BJ's Wholesale Club.

Later on, what with the advent of the interwebs, I discovered that Anzac day was actually some kind of Australian holiday meant to celebrate dead soldiers. Which is sad, and also does not involve, in any way, the giant canister of Planter's Cheez Balls my mom got from BJ's Wholesale Club. 

My friend Jenn and I also have a special method for celebrating Groundhog's Day, but all I can tell you about this is that it involves a sacred and holy unsuccessful pinata. Make of that what you will.

This year, I would like to start celebrating JOHN FRUM DAY. Which, in case you do not know, is the day when John Frum will come back to the island of Tanna and bring us all CARGO.

BUT LET'S BACKTRACK. Ok, so way way back in the day, like every other place on earth, the Vanuatu Islands were colonized by the British and the French. And they sent MISSIONARIES to govern them. Which is of course such a good idea, right? So, the missionaries were total killjoys and wouldn't let them dance or get laid or do anything fun, or do anything at all on Sundays because they were all now going to be Christians! But the people of Tanna were pretty bad ass and instead of conforming and joining up, they ATE said missionaries. Ok, not like, all of them, but there were definitely some instances of cannibalism and the island became known as a fairly dangerous place. Like, you know how in Looney Tunes or Disney cartoons there were sometimes these weird racist looking caricatures of cannibals who would put Bugs or whomever in a giant pot of boiling water that he would think was a jaccuzzi but then realize they meant to eat him? Even though technically that wouldn't be cannibalism because he was a rabbit and not a person and some people eat rabbit normally? Well, these people were the basis for that whole thing. Except that in real life, they are super awesome, which you will know should you ever get the chance to watch the BBC series "Meet The Natives".

So, anyway, WWII comes along and, for whatever reason, the US decides it should probably set up bases on Vanuatu. The people on Tanna take to the Americans a little bit more than the British and the French because they were just mostly minding their own business and not trying to convert them to Christianity or anything (My, my! How things have changed!). They were especially fascinated by the fact that there were black servicemen. Also the Americans built roads and hospitals, which people were fond of. Now, one thing that totally fascinated the people of Tanna was that all these planes kept dropping by the island to bring the soldiers CARGO. Cargo being food and magazines and all sorts of other stuff. The islanders believed that all the paperwork and marching and other things they saw the soldiers doing were rituals which brought the precious cargo to the island- despite the fact that they also believed that the cargo had been meant as a present to them from their ancestors. The Americans, they believed, were doing all these rituals in order to intercept the delivery of said cargo.

When the American's left, the islanders, having gotten used to the luxuries provided by the cargo, they tried to replicate all of the rituals they saw the Americans performing. They made headsets from tin cans and plane ramps from trees. Still, the cargo did not come.

At some point during all of this, the islanders either met or didn't meet a man named JOHN FRUM.

John Frum was either black or white.
John Frum was either short or tall.
John Frum was an American Serviceman
John Frum was a Vanuatu Native who dressed up like an American Serviceman and made promises.
John Frum was a spirit vision induced by drinking "kava".
John Frum, along with Prince Phillip, was the son of the volcano god.
John Frum lives inside the volcano

And John Frum told them to reject all of the shit they'd been fed by the white missionaries, and to go back their traditions (called "kastom"). He brought peace to the land and promised to return some day on February 15th. The people of Tanna do not know which February 15th it will be, so every year they have a giant parade where they dress up in clothes resembling WWII uniforms, or wear jeans with USA written on their chests and march around the island and build ramps for all the planes to land on. When John Frum returns, he will rid the island of white people, bring houses and wealth and cargo and food and transportation and everyone will live forever and everything will be super great on the island of Tanna.

Personally, I think this seems like a way better time than Valentine's Day.

The interesting thing about "Cargo Cults" is that they give us a way to see, in real time, how religions and systems of belief actually develop in the first place. The fact that many of these cults sprang up entirely independent of one another- in places as varied as Vanuatu and the islands of Australia- gives us an idea of the type of circumstances that predicate systems of belief. It sort of follows along with Arthur C. Clarke's third law of prediction- that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. While the worship of John Frum, or Prince Phillip, or Tom Navy may seem patently ridiculous to an outsider, it's certainly not any stranger than the worship of Jesus or Mohammed or whomever. Like older, mainstream religions, the accounts of the "real" John Frum are varied, and it's not known for certain whether he was a real person or an amalgamation of a few different people. John Frum could have been his real name, or it could have been "John From America" or "John From Jesus Christ" (meaning John The Baptist). He may have been an islander who taught his fellow natives to revolt against the missionaries even before the Americans arrived, or he may have been an American Serviceman. The particular vagueness of his origins are exactly what allowed him to evolve into a savior type figure.

Anyway, that is the story of John Frum. You can talk about him at cocktail parties. Or have a parade in his honor.