Tuesday 17 April 2007

Is Unionism a Cargo Cult?

A 'cargo cult' is an unorthodox pseudo-religious movement, generally associated with the isolated islands of Melanesia and New Guinea in the post World War II era. In cargo cults the native inhabitants are so over-awed by the material wealth of outsiders (which appeared from the sky as 'cargo' on airplanes), for which they can see no obvious explanation bar the supernatural. The native inhabitants believe that this wealth is associated with the (to them) weird rituals, such as sitting in a control tower, or speaking into a box (i.e. a radio), and so on. In order to try to get hold of a share of this magical wealth the native inhabitants often mimic the behaviour of the wealthy outsiders. The term 'cargo cult' is invoked as an English language idiom, to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance. Symbols they associate with the outsiders tend to be incorporated into their rituals as magical artefacts.

Famous examples of cargo cult activity include the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, offices and the fetishisation and attempted construction of western goods, such as radios made of coconuts and straw. Believers may stage 'drills' and 'marches' with twigs for rifles and military-style insignia and 'USA' painted on their bodies to make them look like soldiers, treating the activities of western military personnel as rituals to be performed for the purpose of attracting cargo.

The concept of the cargo cult is also used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony takes place but goes unrewarded due to a flawed model of causation.

Does any of this sound familiar in the Northern Ireland context?

...the imitation of the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance …

The pathetic attempts by the UUP recently to mimic iconic 'British' things in their election campaigns: double-decker buses, fish and chips, and the disastrous 'Simply British' slogan?
The whole long and torturous history of Project Ulster, with its carbon-copy institutions, insignia, titles, rituals, and so on; its superficial adherence to 'British democracy' while having no real understanding of what democracy really was; its superficial adherence to 'British justice' while running a police state that even South Africa's apartheid regime was envious of!

… the incorporation of symbols they associate with the outsiders into their rituals as magical artefacts …

The flags, the flags, the flags!

The raising of archaic 'British' artefacts into objects of ritual by the Orange Order – those bowler hats, what on earth is that all about? Nobody in England wears a bowler hat, not has done for half a century, except on the stage.

…the setting up of mock airstrips, airports, offices …

Stormont, with its 'Prime Minister', 'Lord Chief Justice', 'House of Commons', the whole shebang – they set up a whole toy-town version of a real government, with bicameral legislature, executive, judiciary, the lot … for a corner of Ireland containing barely 1.3 million people!

… the fetishisation of the admired outsiders objects …

The flags, the flags, the flags!

And of course, let's not forget their childish upset when Patton took away the 'Royal' part of their police force's name!

The obsessive interest in Britain royalty (an aberration shared by many people outside Northern Ireland, of course); so much that two of Belfast's main bridges, side by side, are called 'Queen's Bridge' and 'Queen Elizabeth Bridge'. A kinder person might say that this displays a profound lack of imagination, but I am not that person.

… the staging of 'drills' and 'marches' with twigs for rifles and military-style insignia and 'USA' painted on their bodies …

The Orange Order has been the biggest and most obvious manifestation of unionism's cargo cult since Stormont was abolished in 1972. The Orange Order spends a ridiculous amount of time marching around in formation, wearing 'uniforms' that represent the Britain of yesteryear, and waving the symbols of their devotion. In a bizarre twist of the 'USA' bodypainting, many Orange supporters do even paint their faces with the flag of their admired mother country!

… the ill-considered effort and ceremony taking place but going unrewarded …

Untold millions of hours, and uncounted sums of money, are wasted by the unionist natives trying to persuade their British patrons that they are 'just like them', and that they should be seen, not as a strange tribe in a foreign land, but as true brothers in Britishness. And yet, one of the constant refrains of unionism is that its efforts are not appreciated by the real British. Older unionists, remembering the Second World War will say 'how can they abandon us after all we did?', while others see betrayal in every compromise made by the British government, in every meeting with nationalists, in every opening to the south.

Unionist angst over its ultimate betrayal by Britain leads towards ever more desperate attempts to 'prove' their Britishness, seemingly unaware that their very cargo cultism is one of the most striking proofs of 'otherness' possible.

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