FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Last Cargo Cult

by CHARLES R. LARSON

As you enter the theater, the usher hands you a bill.  Money.  Real money.  I got $5.00; my wife, a $1.00 bill.  When we sat down, she said, “I only got a dollar.”  She noticed that another person had twenty dollars.  Didn’t make her feel too great.  Exactly.  The bills handed to viewers were soon used as a leitmotif throughout (and after) the show: Mike Daisey’s brilliantly provocative The Last Cargo Cult.

After the lights had darkened, Daisey was seated at a plain table, barren except for a glass of water.  Large boxes (FED-EX, UPS, plus Styrofoam coolers, and hundreds of packages with visible logos, DELL, Crate & Barrel, etc.) were piled up imaginatively, forming a huge arch behind him.  He’d apparently entered the stage by walking through the arch.  Seated at his chair, he never stood up during the hour and forty-five minutes of his monologue, though his body moved so frequently and his facial expressions were so varied that he often looked like a piece of silly-putty stretched into an incredible shape.

The Last Cargo Cult is a one-man seated ballet, by a man sitting down who has obviously learned more about body-language than most actors who have the liberty to stand on two feet.  Sometimes for a response,  he didn’t need to say a word, just moved his body or changed the expression on his face.

So what’s this incredible show about?  Well, basically, economics, which means money.  Ostensibly it’s about a group of people on the South Sea island of Tanna, in Vanuatu, who each year reenact the John Frum (“John from America”) ceremony, paying homage to the American G.I.s, who in World War II brought so many foreign objects to their island.  Then—after the war—they disappeared, as the soldiers took most of the objects (or “shit” as Daisey refers to consumer goods) along with them.  The reenactment makes them hopeful that the objects, the cargo, will return.  Before the G.I.s arrived, most of the islanders had renounced money, so it was probably no huge leap of faith that if consumer goods were dropped all over their island, why not worship John Frum and more goods would appear?  During the ceremony each year, American flags are displayed  everywhere and landing strips are built so the planes can return.

I am not making this up.  I first heard about the Cargo Cults twenty or more years ago.  Mike Daisey visited Tanna last February, observed the annual ritual, observed the practice of the people and turned it into an art form, a mad-cap roller-coaster ride into our own obsessions with consumer goods and money.  Except that we haven’t destroyed all of our money like the islanders did, because we can’t.  The people on Tanna have made John Frum into their religion; we’ve made money into ours.

Much of the play is about Daisey himself, especially an earlier part of his life when he first went away to an elite New England liberal arts college and was exposed to students much more affluent than he, worshipping their own prized possessions: elaborate stereo systems, whole walls of CDs, all the junk that university students cart to their dormitories each year.  Students appeared to regard their education as a step toward further acquisition of goods: “Our shit is awesome…the point of Western civilization.”

But the real focus of The Last Cargo Cult is not what I’ve mentioned thus far but our recent financial collapse.  The rest of the play is an extended analysis of American greed—everything that you read about in your newspapers and on the Internet virtually ever day—the abuses of bankers, Wall Street charlatans, and mortgage sharks, the source of our present discomfort.  Ideally, the current Woolly Mammoth production in Washington, D.C. ought to have a special performance reserved for members of President Obama’s economic team, Congress, and Senators.

Daisey begins his segue into our current economic mess by confessing that his own financial strategy is limited to his modest bank account and his mattress.  Money gets transferred from one to the other.  Then he asks what is a dollar worth?  Well, it’s the fundamental religion around the world today—nowhere more easily demonstrated than what is printed on the back of our currency: “In God We Trust.”  There’s nothing more than faith to back up what is increasingly being regarded as fiat money.  Money = liquid power.  As he argues, it’s at the center of all corrosive relationships between people (and I might add nations.)

On one occasion after giving a mini-history of money and banking and concluding with derivatives, he tells us, “It took me three months to understand what derivatives are.  I will never get those three months back.”  Nor will most of us see the return of the money we lost in our retirement accounts, our homes, and our stock portfolios.  Once the rational is no longer a part of our economic structure, the irrational people have won.  Finally, Daisey asks, “How could we know that a system without morals and ethics would be so unsafe?”

As the performance winds down, Daisey continues his relentless attack on our fiat financial system, calling it “financial terrorism.”  Money owns us, so we’ll no doubt be suckered into losing it again.  Then he asks the members of the audience directly about the monologue he’s just presented, “Did you get your money’s worth?”  And he adds, “You sit in darkness.”

There’s a final cut back to Vanuatu, where the chief tells Daisey, “You people are insane.”  Well, yes.  “Everything you have has a price but no value.”  Yet the cargo binds us all together.  “Someone will have to pay.  Someone always does.”

Daisey gave the pilot version of The Last Cargo Cult at The Woolly Mammoth last June.  Then he toured during much of the summer, giving versions of the play to regional audiences.  The current Washington production has only a couple additional weeks in its run but hopefully Daisey will take it on the road again.  Try to catch a performance wherever it appears.

The Last Cargo Cult
Washington, D.C., Woolly Mammoth, Jan. 11 – Feb. 7.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington,  D.C.

 

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 18, 2017
Gary Leupp
The Extraordinary Array of Those Questioning Trump’s Legitimacy (and Their Various Reasons)
Charles Pierson
Drone Proliferation Ramps Up
Ajamu Baraka
Celebrating Dr. King with the Departure of Barack Obama
David Underhill
Trumpology With a Twist
Chris Floyd
Infinite Jest: Liberals Laughing All the Way to Hell
Stansfield Smith
Obama’s Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change
Ron Leighton
Trump is Not Hitler: How the Misuse of History Distorts the Present as Well as the Past
Ralph Nader
An Open Letter to President-Elect Donald Trump
Binoy Kampmark
NATO and Obsolescence: Donald Trump and the History of an Alliance
Zarefah Baroud
‘The Power to Create a New World’: Trump and the Environmental Challenge Ahead
Julian Vigo
Obama Must Pardon the Black Panthers in Prison or in Exile
Alfredo Lopez
The Whattsapp Scandal
Clancy Sigal
Russian Hacking and the Smell Test
Terry Simons
The Truth About Ethics and Condoms
January 17, 2017
John Pilger
The Issue is Not Trump, It is Us
John K. White
Is Equality Overrated, Too?
Michael J. Sainato
The DNC Hands the Democratic Party Over to David Brock and Billionaire Donors
John Davis
Landscapes of Shame: America’s National Parks
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Politicians and Rhetorical Tricks
Chris Busby
The Scientific Hero of Chernobyl: Alexey V. Yablokov, the Man Who Dared to Speak the Truth
David Macaray
Four Reasons Trump Will Quit
Chet Richards
The Vicissitudes of the Rural South
Clancy Sigal
“You Don’t Care About Jobs”: Why the Democrats Lost
Robert Dodge
Martin Luther King and U.S. Politics: Time for a U.S. Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Jack Sadat Lee
I Dream of Justice for All the Animal Kingdom
James McEnteer
Mourning Again in America
January 16, 2017
Paul Street
How Pure is Your Hate?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Did the Elites Have Martin Luther King Jr. Killed?
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Clobbers Ocean Life
Patrick Cockburn
The Terrifying Parallels Between Trump and Erdogan
Kenneth Surin
The Neoliberal Stranglehold on the American Public University
Lawrence Davidson
Is There a Future for the Democratic Party?
Douglas Valentine
Who Killed MLK Jr?
Robert Fisk
The Foreign Correspondent in the Age of Twitter and Trump
Dale Bryan
“Where Do We Go from Here?”
David Swanson
The Deep State Wants to Deep Six Us
Dan Bacher
Obama Administration Orders Speedy Completion of Delta Tunnels Plan
Mark Weisbrot
Obama Should Make Sure that Haitian Victims of UN-Caused Cholera are Compensated
Winslow Myers
The Light of the World
Bruce Mastron
My Latest Reason to Boycott the NFL: Guns
Weekend Edition
January 13, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Gregory Elich
Did the Russians Really Hack the DNC?
Jeffrey St. Clair
The President Who Wasn’t There: Barack Obama’s Legacy of Impotence
Anthony DiMaggio
Ethics Fiasco: Trump, Divestment and the Perversion of Executive Politics
Joshua Frank
Farewell Obummer, Hello Golden Showers
Paul Street
Hit the Road, Barack: Some Farewell Reflections
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail