In Commentary this month, George Russell has an article (subscription may be required to read) that’s ostensibly a review of new history of Jim Jones. But it’s much more of a reminder, as the title of his article suggests, of the root causes of one of the great holocausts of the 1970s: Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978:
It is one of the virtues of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown (Free Press, 320 pages)—a fascinating if sometimes ill-organized exhumation of the Peoples Temple cataclysm—that its author, Julia Scheeres, strips away the romantic nihilism of the preacher’s last message to reveal what lay at Jonestown’s horrifying core. Jonestown is a ghastly monument to a psychopathic madman—but he was a Marxist madman, who had long since spurned the Bible in favor of cosmic revolutionary struggle. “Stop your hysterics,” he urged his screaming flock as they shuffled toward the casks of poison. “This is not the way for people who are socialists or Communists to die.”
Scheeres, whose deep sympathy for the ordinary, hapless members of the Peoples Temple seeps through on almost every page, does them a huge favor in demonstrating that Jonestown was not a ghoulish failure at building the kingdom of heaven on earth. It was a North Korea fashioned for lost American souls.
“For some unexplained set of reasons, I happen to be selected to be God,” Jones declared in 1973, at a time when he was still being hailed as an apostle of social justice in California. It is closer to the truth to say that Jones was a self-selected Kim Jong-il—a narcissistic psychopath who created a totalitarian slave-labor camp in the name of anti-imperialism and rejection of “fascist” America, and who threatened Götterdämmerung whenever his craziest self-aggrandizing fantasies were thwarted. Eventually, Götterdämmerung came.
Jones was, in other words, a more deviant than usual by-product of the subcultural political madness of the Vietnam era.
As Russell notes, “909 people died at Jonestown, 304 of them minors and 131 of them under the age of 10. Only 631 of them were ever identified. Popular culture almost immediately memorialized the horror as a collective expression of death-dealing Christianity turned in on itself.”
That’s how I remember the story being reported in news back then, which for most people consisted of three commercial TV networks, a couple of big city newspapers, and a pair of news magazines. Jonestown, particularly for those who caught the story in a three or four minute network TV news report, was immediately presented to the world as a religious cult gone wrong, sort of a super-sized Manson family tragedy, no way infused with politics, particularly of a leftist variety.