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Epistemological Primitivism V: Cargo Cult

March 10th, 2010 by Jim May · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

At PajamasMedia, Amit Ghate shows off a fairly straightforward application of principled thinking as he tackles the common, yet artificial distinction between “force” and “violence”, first noted by Ayn Rand during the ’60’s.

The comments, as usual, are full of the usual pragmatism that shows up when an Objectivist op/ed shows up at PJM.  They are usually of this sort — a conservative who chides the writer for “errors” which are merely artifacts of his own incomprehension.  (The most advanced of these are the ones that dimly recognize that principled thinking is afoot, but chide the writer for burdening his point with “amateur philosophy”.)

What suddenly jumped into my head was the realization that this sort of thing exactly parallels a well-known phenomenon from history, which not only concretizes the “epistemological primitivism” I’ve been writing about, but is an instance of it: the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific.  (Ironically, the reason why it was fresh in my mind was because I’d read some comments on conservative blogs recently, aptly applying the label to some Leftists.)

From the Wikipedia article:

“A cargo cult is a type of religious practice that may appear in traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices, believing that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors.”

Lacking any kind of grasp of the nature of what they saw, including its causal origins, the islanders imagined that by re-creating the accidental surface details of American military personnel — i.e. what they could perceive — they could somehow enjoy the full benefits of their presence once more.

That isn’t merely an apt description of how conservatives view the U.S. Constitution — and liberty itself; it’s precisely the same phenomenon (even down to “traditional”,  “Deities” and “ancestors”).

The only difference, is that the ignorance of the South Sea natives was not deliberate.

6 Comments so far ↓

  • Katrina

    Which leaves me wondering why on earth Objectivist writers are wasting their time on PJM.

  • Bill Brown

    It’s a good question, Katrina. I certainly can’t speak for them, but I suspect that their intended audience isn’t the rabble that frequently comments on these types of sites. I think they’re aiming at the casual reader who is sympathetic to the conservative movement but not lockstep in its grasp.

    This is the same type of person who attends Tea Party rallies but isn’t affiliated with any of the organizations that are trying to co-opt the movement. I think it’s no coincidence that these PJM writers also are the ones that spoke at the rallies.

    I believe that their reluctance to join the conservative causes is due to some unease, which they may attribute to an aversion to “extremism” but which really amounts to a rejection of unprincipled fundamentalism. Perhaps the efforts of Ghate, Brook, et al. might help them to understand how to reject conservatives explicitly and see that they’re truly no friends of liberty.

  • Ashley


    What is the airstrip the conservatives build to bring about the cargo-liberty? Do you mean their oft appeals to religion or God as the source of rights? I ask because even the founding fathers mixed in general appeals to faith with the idea of natural rights.

  • Jim May

    Ashley: what makes conservatives “cargo-cultish” is that they revere the Constitution as a given, with no desire to grasp the principles that underlie it.

    As for the Founders’ appeals to faith, there are many references to “creators” etc. but that reflects the era they were in; in those days, atheism was one of those things that some people thought, but didn’t dare say lest they lose standing in society. Deism was the place to hide for such men. Their religious references were superfluous to their achievement, and their arguments stand unaltered if shorn of supernatural references.

  • Matt

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    –Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of The Future”, 1961 (Clarke’s third law)”

    The same is true for any thug who encounters a philosophy not backed by a thug swinging a club.

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