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.
But as Daniel J. Flynn warned at Front Page back in 2008, “Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid:”
On November 17, 1978, Jim Jones was a hero to American leftists. On November 18, 1978, Jones orchestrated the killings of 918 people and strangely morphed in the eyes of American leftists into an evangelical Christian fanatic. An unfortunately well-worn narrative, playing out contemporaneously in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, of socialist dreams ending in ghoulish nightmares, then, conveniently shifted to one about the dangers of organized religion. But as The Nation magazine reported at the time, “The temple was as much a left-wing political crusade as a church. In the course of the 1970s, its social program grew steadily more disaffiliated from what Jim Jones came to regard as ‘Fascist America’ and drifted rapidly toward outspoken Communist sympathies.” So much so that the last will and testament of the Peoples Temple, and its individual members who left notes, bequeathed millions of dollars in assets to the Soviet Union. As Jones expressed to a Soviet diplomat upon upon his visit to Jonestown the month before the smiling suicides took place, “For many years, we have let our sympathies be quite publicly known, that the United States government was not our mother, but that the Soviet Union was our spiritual motherland.”
Jim Jones was an evangelical communist who became a minister to infiltrate the church with the gospel according to Marx and Lenin. He was an atheist missionary bringing his message of socialist redemption to the Christian heathen. “I decided, how can I demonstrate my Marxism?,” remembered Jones of his days in 1950s Indiana. “The thought was, infiltrate the church.” So in the forms of Pentecostal ritual, Jones smuggled socialism into the minds of true believers–who gradually became true believers of a different sort. Unless one counts his drug-induced bouts with self-messianism, Jones didn’t believe in God. Get it–a Peoples Temple. He shocked his parishioners, many of whom certainly did believe in God, by dramatically tossing the Bible onto the ground during a sermon. “Nobody’s going to come out of the sky!,” an excited Jones had once informed his flock. “There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to have heaven down here!” Like so many efforts to usher in the millenium before it, Jones’s Guyanese road to heaven on earth detoured to a hotter afterlife destination.
The horrific scene in a Guyanese jungle clearing could have been avoided. Thousands of miles north, for years leading up to Jonestown, San Francisco officials and journalists had looked the other way while Jones acted as a law unto himself. So what if he abused children, sodomized a follower, tortured and held temple members at gun point, and defrauded the government and people of welfare and social security checks? He believes in socialism and so do we. That was the ends-justifies-the-means attitude that enabled Jim Jones to commit criminal acts in San Francisco with impunity. The people who should have stopped him instead encouraged him.
Mayor George Moscone, who would be assassinated days after the Jonestown tragedy, appointed Jones to the city’s Housing Authority in 1975. Jones quickly became chairman, which proved beneficial to the enlargement of the pastor’s flock–and his coffers, as Jones seized welfare checks from new members. One of the Peoples Temple’s top officials becoming an assistant district attorney, a man so thoroughly indoctrinated in the cult that he falsely signed an affidavit (ultimately his child’s death warrant) disavowing paternity to his own son and ascribed paternity to Jones, similarly enhanced the cult’s power base within the city. How, one wonders, did victimized Peoples Temple members feel about going to the law in a city where Jones’s henchman was the law?
The ability to instantly pivot 180 degrees — in some cases employing plenty of conscious or subconscious doublethink — has been a hallmark of the MSM for decades. Jonestown going from Marxist cult to religious cult when it made the 6:30 nightly news sounds eerily similar to how a pair of great tragedies, one from early 1960s, and one from last year were spun. In “Lee Harvey Oswald and the Liberal Crack-Up,” James Pierson’s lengthy 2006 article in Commentary that preceded his book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution (available in both Kindle and dead tree editions) the following year, Piereson noted how the media’s narrative for President Kennedy’s murder was essentially complete even as the facts behind his assassin’s motives were being made clear — and in the case of the New York Times, sometimes in the same newspaper. As Piereson noted, the cognitive dissonance between Lee Harvey’s Oswald’s Marxist worldview and the narrative that was rushed into production immediately after Kennedy’s death would have enormous ramifications to the state of the liberalism in the 1960s. It began the decade as a relatively sober ideology dedicated to fighting the Cold War and advancing democracy throughout the globe; it ended the decade an infinitely more confused and cynical worldview.
The MSM’s displacement in ’63 would be replayed all too many times up to the present day. (See also: Paul Krugman of the New York Times and others on the left instantly attempting to blame the Tea Party for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the death of Bush #41-appointed Federal Judge John Roll, and others in the Tuscon Massacre one year ago.)