Friday, February 19, 2010

The Johnson Cult

A cult is a momentary relief from confusion. It’s a refuge for those who don’t have the brains and/or balls to be responsible on their own without the approval of others.

Papua New Guinea is the eastern half of the island on New Guinea, a large island land mass within Indonesia, in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. It has over 850 indigenous languages, with at least as many traditional societies.

Papua New Guinea was first colonized in the 1870s. Germany ruled the northern portion and the British ruled the south. Soon thereafter, Australia took over. During World War II, it was occupied by the Japanese. After the war, Australia regained control.

And so it goes with small island nations in a world of struggle for supremacy.

In 1964, due to pressure from the United Nations, the territory began a new era of independence. Lyndon Johnson was President of the USA at the time.

Lavongai is a 460 sq. mile island within the New Guinea island region with a population of about 5,000.

In the first election to select someone to represent them in the House of Assembly, the Lavongais voted for Lyndon Johnson. Even after the Australian authorities explained that they couldn't vote for Johnson, the Lavongais refused to change their vote. They wanted the American President to be their representative.

To much of the rest of the world, this seemed a bit odd. After all, Johnson was already fairly occupied in Washington D.C. escalating an expansive conflict in Vietnam and coping with race riots in American cities.

This caught the attention of the media in America. They referred to the Lavongais as "Johnson Cultists."

The first to break the story was TIME magazine (Feb. 28, 1964): "Cultists believe that white men do not work, that they merely write secret symbols on scraps of paper, for which they receive planeloads of 'cargo' – boats, tractors, houses, cars and canned goods. After the election, cultists believe that they will inherit the white man's magic to make goods materialize without doing any work."

The March 9, 1964 issue of NEWSWEEK magazine, referring to the election, reported that "the murderous Kukukuku warriors and the wild Nembi people promised not to eat any candidates." And in their issue of June 22, 1964, they implied the natives were immoral for thinking they could actually buy Johnson's influence.

Ironically, buying Lyndon Johnson's influence wasn't really all that difficult but that's another story for later.

The media had assumed that the ignorant islanders yearned for Johnson because he was the architect of the "Great Society" – a liberal scheme to promote socialism (welfare, Medicaid, Medicare, etc.) which would keep liberals in control. To the media, the natives merely wanted a piece of the great government giveaway pie.

But nothing could be further from the truth -- the Lavongais were simply exercising their cultural tradition.

It turns out, as it occasionally does, that no one from the media actually visited the island to research the story. The journalists basically created the reportage based on a few scattered facts and armchair speculation.

In 1964, Dorothy Billings was teaching anthropology at the University of Sydney in Australia. Intrigued by the stories of the "Johnson Cult," she ignored the objections of the Australian authorities, who considered the natives to be extremely dangerous, and traveled to Lavongai to become the first anthropologist to live on the island.

What she eventually discovered was a "culture of shaming." The natives believe you cannot trust a person until you have seen his anger. Thus, they go out of their way to provoke, through shame, a quarrel with others.

"In the vote for Johnson, the people shamed the Australian administration for not having done a better job of developing the island, while pretending that they were just following Australian orders to vote," Billings claimed.

It was all just a simple cultural misunderstanding. There's a lot of that going around these days.

Personally, I belong to the Cult of Individuality -- in order to become a member you must think exactly as other cult members think, which obviously prevents you from being an individual and therefore automatically disqualifies you for membership.

As for my own journalistic talents, I never visit the scene of the action either. I gather a few facts and run with it. But instead of armchair speculation (making things up based on my biases), I have a method to my madness.

First, I light four yellow candles and place them in a row, north to south. Then I stare at the candles until they blend into one. At this point, I'm in a complete hyper-dimensional trance of “fear and loathing” whereby I am able to assemble all aspects of the subject matter related to the scattered facts. Then I leap to my word processor and begin automatically typing with my eyes closed, while being possessed by the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson.

As you can see, I'm very much like the Lavongais -- I shame the reader into thinking it's worth reading.

Quote for the Day -- "Freedom is something that dies unless it's used." Hunter S. Thompson

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and where the Cult of Bret flourishes among rebels with or without a cause. His blogs appear on several websites, including

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