The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Cargo Cult Mentality

Posted on | December 20, 2019 | Comments Off on The Cargo Cult Mentality


One of the basic mechanisms of human culture is emulation, or as my parents used to call it, “Monkey see, monkey do.” Children will tend to emulate whatever behavior they see, which is how peer pressure operates: If your teenager’s friends start acting in ways that you disapprove, you can expect your child to emulate this misbehavior, whether it involves sexual promiscuity, substance abuse or criminality: “Monkey see, monkey do.” And if parents don’t exercise discretion in terms of what their children are watching on TV (or consuming via the Internet), it’s possible that your child could be drawn into very dangerous behaviors by the same principle. This is how, for example, the transgender cult has spread among adolescents by “social contagion.” Indeed, even terrorism is spread by the process of “monkey see, monkey do” emulation, which is why violent radicals post videos of their atrocities and publish “manifestos” on the Internet, justifying their violence and urging others to take up their extremist “cause.”

To understand how emulation operates, it helps to study the so-called “cargo cults” that proliferated in the South Pacific in the 20th century:

A cargo cult is a belief system among members of a relatively undeveloped society in which adherents practice superstitious rituals hoping to bring modern goods supplied by a more technologically advanced society. These cults . . . were first described in Melanesia in the wake of contact with more technologically advanced Western cultures. The name derives from the belief which began among Melanesians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that various ritualistic acts such as the building of an airplane runway will result in the appearance of material wealth, particularly highly desirable Western goods (i.e., “cargo”), via Western airplanes.

To say that Pacific island societies were “relatively undeveloped” is a euphemism; they were primitive backward people who, when first encountered by European explorers, lived in a Neolithic stage of development far behind that of Mesopotamia in 1,500 B.C. That natives of Melanesia were at least 3,000 years behind Western civilization is simply a fact, but facts are now racism. Nevertheless, the point about cargo cult thinking is that these primitive islanders were unable to comprehend the advanced social and economic systems that produced, e.g., steam-powered ships, airplanes and the manufactured goods that the white man’s mechanical contrivances delivered. Utterly ignorant of how and why “cargo” had been produced and transported to their remote islands, the natives were understandably mystified when the arrival of “cargo” was interrupted. So they resorted to imitative rituals by which they believed the return of “cargo” might magically be reinstated.

The 21st-century American might laugh at these primitive superstitions, except that similarly ignorant “monkey see, monkey do” behaviors can be observed in our own society every day. My favorite example is the teenage boy who observes that girls are interested in athletes. The star basketball player in high school is popular with the girls, and so lower-status teenage boys — including the ones with zero athletic aptitude — will often emulate the athletic boys in terms of their attitudes, manners and clothing. This is why you see so many dorky suburban white boys wearing Nikes, NFL jerseys, etc., slouching around and speaking in a rap-influenced slang: “Wazzup, bruh?” These behavioral styles are an attempted imitation of popular black athletes. The clumsy adolescent white boy lacks the essential substance of the black athlete’s appeal, yet superstitiously believes (in cargo-cult manner) that he can obtain popularity by performing a superficial imitation.

The pioneering sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) was the first systematic attempt to explain how status displays (e.g., conspicuous consumption) operate to communicate class membership among social elites. Most people never learn to think critically about such status-display behaviors, so that their emulation of the “elite” is thoughtless and unconscious. This behavior often takes the form of displaying symbols of wealth (e.g., designer-label clothing or luxury automobiles) as if mere possession of these symbols meant the same thing as actually being wealthy. Driving the same car or wearing the same clothing brands as a movie star, a software entrepreneur or a professional athlete is not the same as having millions of dollars in the bank, but we often see people who don’t seem to grasp this fact. The young guy with a $45,000-a-year job driving around in a new Cadillac Escalade wants to impress people by pretending to have wealth he doesn’t actually have. His luxury SUV is a status symbol, but the status he’s attempting to display is an illusion, if he’s leasing this vehicle for $1,800 a month (nearly half his annual income) while living with his mother. This is a cargo-cult type of behavior, and is in fact quite the opposite of behaviors that actually produce wealth. A young man who hopes to become wealthy would be best advised to live within his means, preferring to put money in the bank rather than engaging in ostentatious displays of a luxurious lifestyle. Nevertheless, we often see young people go deeply in debt to indulge their appetite for status symbols, and this cargo-cult mentality can also be witnessed in acts of criminal stupidity:


A bank employee from North Carolina is accused of stealing $88,000 in cash from the bank’s vault, then foolishly posing with the stacks of dough on his social media pages, according to the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina.
The man, Arlando M. Henderson, was arrested by the FBI on Dec. 4 in San Diego — but not before dropping $20,000 on a down payment for a Mercedes-Benz, the indictment alleges.
Henderson, 29, had access to the bank vault and allegedly stole money from deposits made by customers on at least 18 occasions over the past year. He then made cash deposits into an ATM near his workplace.
But the glory didn’t last long — especially after he shared images of his riches on Facebook and Instagram. In several posts, he can be seen grinning with massive wads of cash. In one, he poses next to his new Benz.
“I make it look easy, but this s–t really a PROCESS,”
a caption from an Aug. 4 post read.
In another, he wrote, “Looking at my brand thinking this how I got rich.” . . .
Henderson has been charged with two counts of financial institution fraud, 19 counts of theft, embezzlement and misapplication, and 12 counts of making false entries, which carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine, per count; and transactional money laundering, which carries a penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Flashing actual stacks of money is the crudest possible status display, and I can 99.9% guarantee you that anyone who does something like this on social media is engaged in some kind of criminal behavior. People who obtain wealth by honest means are not prone to such shameless ostentation, and this kind of cargo-cult behavior exhibits a level of stupidity that is not usually compatible with economic success. 



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