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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Boldly Going Nowhere

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Johnson Cult

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.

Lavongai is a 460-square-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 column 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. It seems like there's a lot of that going around these days.

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 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 hyperdimensional trance where I 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. Basically, the ghost does all the work.

"Freedom is something that dies unless it's used." Hunter S. Thompson

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

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Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He can be contacted at bret@centurytel.net.