Wednesday, February 15, 2017

ANS -- Build your vocabulary: reverse cargo cult

This is a small part of a post by Doug Muder from a week ago.  I thought it was interesting.  I am also including part of the comments section because there's an interesting bit there too.


Build your vocabulary: reverse cargo cult

Build Your Vocabulary was briefly a regular feature of the Sift, but it's been dormant for a while.

One constant topic on liberal social media is the question: "When will Trump's voters realize they're being lied to?" A scary answer I ran across this week is that many of them already know and have known from the beginning. These core Trump supporters are what is known as a reverse cargo cult.

cargo cult is when people ritualistically build things they associate with success, believing that success will be drawn to them in some magical way. The metaphor is based on an only partly true story about primitive Pacific islanders after World War II, who supposedly built imitation airstrips out of primitive materials in hopes of luring back the cargo planes of the war era. Richard Feynman extended the idea metaphorically to "cargo cult science", referring to groups that establish institutes and publish journals in order to magically turn their unscientific beliefs into science. It now applies to all sorts of magical thinking.

In a reverse cargo cult, you build the trappings of some kind of success like a cargo cult would, but you don't believe it will work and aren't trying to fool anybody into thinking it will. The deception goes in the other direction.

[The builders] don't lie to the rubes and tell them that an airstrip made of straw will bring them cargo. That's an easy lie to dismantle. Instead, what they do is make it clear that the airstrip is made of straw, and doesn't work, but then tell you that the other guy's airstrip doesn't work either. They tell you that no airstrips yield cargo. The whole idea of cargo is a lie, and those fools, with their fancy airstrip made out of wood, concrete, and metal is just as wasteful and silly as one made of straw.

The reverse cargo cult idea was invented as a way to explain the propaganda of the late Soviet Union, which didn't fool anyone any more; everyone knew the government was lying. But now the purpose was to make the people disbelieve everything, including the reports they heard of prosperity and freedom in the West. Russian cynicism became a point of cultural pride: Russians knew they were being lied to, while those foolish Westerners believed what they saw on their TVs.

Something similar is happening among Trump supporters: So what if there was no Bowling Green massacre, no millions of illegal votes, no record-breaking crowd at Trump's inauguration? Liberals tell their own lies about things like global warming and white male privilege. The difference this batch of Trump supporters sees is that they are in on the joke, while their liberal friends actually believe what they're told. The in-the-know Trump folks are entertained by Breitbart and InfoWars, while naive liberals take seriously the things they read in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

The point of official lies and alternative facts and fake news isn't that people should believe in them. It's that they should come to disbelieve everything politicians say and regard all news as fake. There is no cargo.


A century ago, Peoria, Illinois was the archetypal Middle-American city. Vaudeville performers asked "Will it play in Peoria?", meaning "Can you tour this act across the country?" Groucho Marx asked it in A Night at the Opera, and during the Nixon administration, top aide John Ehrlichman once reassured a reporter that a proposal hated by policy elites would "play in Peoria", meaning that Middle America would like it.

Peoria is a factory town, and the factory is Caterpillar. CAT has 12,000 employees in Peoria, and used to have more. Tuesday, CAT announced that it was moving its headquarters to Chicago, which is about 2 1/2 hours away by car. Immediately, the move affects just 300 jobs. But that includes all the top executives, who are probably among Peoria's best-paid people. So the city's overall quality of life is bound to take a big hit. Those 300 will also be deciding what happens to the remaining 12,000 jobs in the coming years, so as they lose their identification with Peoria, I'm not optimistic about the city's future.

CAT justified the move by claiming that it will be easier to recruit top executive talent to Chicago rather than Peoria. You have to wonder whether CAT's main American rival (John Deere), which is headquartered in another middle-sized Illinois city (Moline), is thinking the same thing.

Trump won largely by exploiting the plight of America's hollowing-out countryside. He focused on the manufacturing jobs going to Mexico and China. But executive jobs moving to the big cities is another piece of that problem, and I haven't heard even a suggestion of what to do about it.


Comments:  [Some of]

Justin Siemaszko On February 10, 2017 at 10:26 am

As a youngish executive track professional from a small town but now living in DC myself, I 'd like to offer a bit of insight on what would make high end talent leave the cities:

We need somewhere to go that is tolerant. That's the biggy.

We have close friends of all colors, religions, & sexual orientation. When my wife and I consider leaving the city, our first concerns, parallel with "Are the schools good?" are "Can our friends visit? Will we be forced into a bastion of racists & ignorant bigots? Can we live here with our non-white spouses? Will we be able to socialize with ANYONE?"

The answer is universally "no." Many/most of us have first-hand experience of just how under-educated, intolerant, and sometimes hostile middle america is. Many of us left because we spent 18 years getting the crap beat out of us in small towns. Most of us have made new friends as adults bonding over the abuses we suffered back home, whether that's in Montana, New York, or Alabama.

To contrast, in NYC, LA, SF, DC, Chicago, etc., we are not only accepted, but we thrive socially. We feel like welcome members of diverse communities of smart people from all over the world. No one cares what our religion is (unless we're pushing it on others) or what color our skin is, or how much we like football. It doesn't really matter how many good restaurants, schools, yoga places or bars Peoria has to offer if we can't go to them with a gay friend. We aren't guessing about this, either. It's no straw man. Most of us have lived and seen just how bigoted the "other" parts of the country are, and we don't really want to spend the rest of our adult lives surrounded by the people we moved away from in the first place. And those of us that thought that maybe things were getting better had our blinders pulled off by the last election. Personally, I was horrified at how openly racist and aggressive people from my highschool have become, via Facebook posts… and to begin with I had already screened out most the bullies, etc. These were the more average kids, they represent the norm.

In short, the only thing that will draw us out there consistently is a massive cultural
move toward tolerance and education. I doubt we'll be there in 100 years, let alone within my generation's lifetime… but that's what Peoria needs to make us consider the move.

  • busterggi On February 10, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Isn't it amazing that the 'heartland' is the area that is actually heartless?

    • Larry Benjamin On February 11, 2017 at 9:12 am

      This is why I don't like the term "American heartland." It implies that there is a "real America" populated by "real Americans," usually implying rural areas inhabited mostly by white people. I would submit that the real "heartland" is where America's culture comes from – New York City with its domination of finance, publishing, and theater; Los Angeles and Hollywood; and the Bay Area with information technology. These places are the "American heartland" because they have been instrumental in shaping the view of America held by the rest of the world, in its most positive sense.

  • weeklysift On February 11, 2017 at 6:53 am

    Justin: Thanks for that testimony. I think a lot of small-town white Christians would find it shocking that they are considered scary and their neighborhoods considered unsafe. Many have a one-way filter in which it makes perfect sense for them to be afraid of non-whites or Muslims when they are in the big city, but it just sounds crazy that anyone might be afraid of whites or Christians in small towns.

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