Principles of the American Cargo Cult

I wrote these principles after reflecting on the content of contemporary newspapers and broadcast media and why that content disquieted me. I saw that I was not disturbed so much by what was written or said as I was by what is not. The tacit assumptions underlying most popular content reflect a worldview that is orthogonal to reality in many ways. By reflecting this skewed weltanschauung, the media reinforces and propagates it.

I call this worldview the American Cargo Cult, after the real New Guinea cargo cults that arose after the second world war. There are four main points, each of which has several elaborating assumptions. I really do think that most Americans believe these things at a deep level, and that these misbeliefs constantly underlie bad arguments in public debate.

I. Ignorance is innocence

Complicated explanations are suspect

The world is simple, and there must be a simple explanation for everything.

Certainty is strength, doubt is weakness

Admitting alternatives is undermining one’s own belief.

Changing one’s mind means one has wasted the time spent holding the prior opinion.

Your opinion matters as much as anyone else’s

When a person has studied a topic, he has no more real knowledge than you do, just a hidden agenda.

The herd should be followed

The contemplative lemming gets trampled

Popular beliefs must be true.

No bad idea can survive.

People are generally smart.

Even if a popular belief doesn’t pan out, at least you’ll be in the same boat as everyone else.

II. Causality is selectable

All interconnection is apparent

Otherwise, complicated explanations would be necessary.

The end supports the explanation of the means

A successful person’s explanation of the means of his success is highly credible by the very fact of his success.

You can succeed by emulating the purported behavior of successful people

This is the key to the cargo cult. To enjoy the success of another, just mimic the rituals he claims to follow.

Your idol gets the blame if things don’t work out, not you.

You have a right to your share

You get to define your share.

Your share is the least you will accept without crying injustice.

Celebrate getting more than your share.

III. It’s not your fault

If it’s good for you, it’s good

Society is everyone else.

Good intentions suffice

You can always apologize.

There is no long term

Don’t miss an opportunity.

Consequences are things that happen to others

Only you can hold yourself accountable. Don’t let others make you do that.

If somebody starts the blame game, you can still win it.

There are evil people and institutions, and surely one of them is more responsible than you are.

You are not the problem

An ugly image means a bad mirror.

IV. Death is unnatural

You’re special

Bad things shouldn’t happen to you.

Pain is wrong

Life should not hurt.

It’s a Whiffle World.

Tragedy is a synonym for calamity

Bad things are never consequences of one’s own action or inaction.

There will be justice

Bad people get punished.

You, however, will be forgiven.

Principles of the American Cargo Cult.