Saturday, October 18, 2008

Arbiters of Kool

30 years after the infamous mass suicides, does the spirit of Jonestown live on?

On November 18, 1978, 908 members of Peoples Temple, a Disciples of Christ congregation founded by Jim Jones, drank poisoned fruit drink and died. They carried out their "revolutionary suicide," as they called it, with impressive efficiency. Months before, Peoples Temple leaders had collected the potion's ingredients and tested them for maximum lethality with minimal discomfort. On the night of the event, Jones assembled his followers — then mostly located in a socialist utopia in Guyana known as "Jonestown" — to deliberate on whether the time for revolutionary suicide had come. Dissenting views were aired but ultimately rejected. The decision reached, the residents of Jonestown formed a queue. First infants had the poison squirted into their mouths. Then older children and adults drank. As they died, Jones urged his followers not to scream but to face death with dignity. The citizens of Jonestown lay down one by one, dying in each other's arms.

Surviving members of Peoples Temple confirm that the event had been rehearsed. On "White Nights" — Jones' term for a state of emergency within the community — Jones would assemble his congregation and tell them that they were in danger. Members would then testify on the need to commit revolutionary suicide. Finally, cups of flavored drink said to be poisoned would be passed out and drunk. On the last "White Night," the poison was real.

Jones' extreme loyalty test has entered the lexicon as "drinking the Kool-Aid." (By most accounts, the actual drink was Flavor-Aid.) To "drink the Kool-Aid" is to acquire an irrational loyalty to a particular figure or movement, often to the exasperation of one's friends and comrades. By now somewhat hackneyed, the phrase remains a vivid image of ideological blindness. It also — together with the media's tendency to describe Jones as a weird cult leader — makes it all too easy to dismiss Peoples Temple as a bunch of brainwashed freaks.

In reality, Peoples Temple was firmly a part of mainstream cultural, religious, and political life. It enjoyed the support of prominent figures from Harvey Milk and Angela Davies to Rosylynn Carter and Walter Mondale. The mainline protestant denomination Disciples of Christ ordained Jones as a minister back in 1964. San Francisco mayor George Moscone even appointed Jones Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. If Peoples Temple was a cult, it was one that was not only accepted but prominently admired.

Moreover, the teachings of Peoples Temple are entirely familiar to us — indeed, in some cases, they are ubiquitous today. To this day, Jones' defenders praise his vision, even as they ultimately condemn the idea of revolutionary suicide. Some even say that Peoples Temple held out unique hope for mankind. Years after the event, some survivors expressed regret that they did not die with the others, and described their years in Peoples Temple as the happiest of their lives.

Jones' teachings included the following:

Racial harmony. Jones preached that all races could live together in harmony. He even adopted several black and Korean children into his own family. Long before "diverse" became a euphemism for "non-white," Jones made sure to recruit a sufficient number of representatives of every race. Peoples Temple, he boasted, was a "rainbow family." Every summer, Jones took his followers (located in the 1970s in San Francisco) on bus tours around the country. The tours showed Peoples Temple as a joyful, racially integrated community. It seemed to many that Jones had finally realized the dream of racial equality. One follower wrote on the last White Night, "His hatred of racism, sexism, and mainly classism, is what prompted him to make a new world for the people."

Gay rights. Jones, who had sex with both men and women, thundered against society's prejudice against gays. In the early 1970s, he began actively recruiting lesbian and homosexual members. When interviewed, gay members spoke gratefully of how Jones and Peoples Temple welcomed them for who they were. In San Francisco, Peoples Temple contributed speakers and volunteers to a variety of gay rights causes. Harvey Milk, the celebrated San Francisco politician, even wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter in Jones’ defense.

Much of Jones' teachings on sexual ethics seem outmoded today. Contrary to contemporary thinking, for example, Jones taught that everyone had homosexual inclinations. Here, Jones’ views echoed those of sex research pioneer Albert Kinsey, who plotted homosexual-heterosexual orientation on a linear scale from zero (exclusively heterosexual) to six (exclusively homosexual). If the Kinsey scale is correct, then, as Jones taught, a pure heterosexual is rare indeed. The gay rights movement today argues that homosexuality is a congenital condition affecting only a minority of the population who deserve our tolerance and protection. In Jones' today, however, it was often argued that homosexuality affected the entire population and should not be seen as abnormal. Peoples Temple was simply following a conventional script for sexual progressives of the time.

Happy-clappyism. Of all the elements of Peoples Temple theology, its self-conscious niceness, informality and celebration of difference are the most familiar to us today. Jones discouraged traditional courtesies, and asked that he be called "Jim" or even "dad" rather than "Pastor Jones." His followers insisted on how happy and welcome they always felt. Here, they said, nobody judged you. Everyone was accepted just for who he was and everyone's contribution was valued. Members tirelessly expressed their love and affection for one another. At social events, they shared their gifts with each other, whether for music, dance or storytelling. The most frequent adjective that they used to described the Peoples Temple community was "beautiful."

Suicide notes written during the last White Night strike a militantly happy-clappy tone. One wrote:
Where can I begin — JONESTOWN — the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed, JIM JONES — the one who made this paradise possible...

No one was made fun of for their appearance — something no one had control over. Meanness and making fun were not allowed...

Jim Jones showed us all this — that we could live together with our differences, that we are all the same human beings...

What a beautiful place this was. The children loved the jungle, learned about animals and plants. There were no cars to run over them; no child-molesters to molest them; nobody to hurt them. They were the freest, most intelligent children I had ever known.
And another, evidently describing the ongoing deaths:
These are a beautiful people, a brave people, not afraid...

People hugging each other, embracing, we are hurrying — we do not want to be captured. We want to bear witness at once...

Hugging & kissing & tears & silence & joy...

Touches and whispered words as this silent line passes. Determination, purpose. A proud people. Only last night, their voices raised in unison, a voice of affirmation and today, a different sort of affirmation, a different dimension of that same victory of the human spirit.
Other elements of Peoples Temple ideology are more controversial but still not unusual.

Socialism. Jones taught that all should share their wealth and work for the common good. Like all socialisms, Jones’ had its own distinct flavor. It was, first of all, agrarian. In Guyana, Peoples Temple ran a largely self-sufficient farming collective. Second, Peoples Temple socialism emphasized care of the elderly. Able adults worked tirelessly while the aged had all of their needs met. Third, it was pro-Soviet. Jones hoped to move the entire community to the Soviet Union and attempted on the last day to transfer all Peoples Temple assets to the Soviet Communist Party. Finally, the Peoples Temple celebrated labor. The work at Jonestown was back-breaking and never-ending.

Jones' socialism worked. Peoples Temple was no short-lived hippie commune where free-riders took advantage of others' labor. In Guyana, Peoples Temple members had carved sustainable farming community out of the jungle. Facilities were clean, produce healthy and abundant, housing sturdy and reasonably comfortable. Congressman Leo Ryan — whose investigative visit to Jonestown precipitated the massacre — was favorably impressed. After witnessing a vibrant welcome celebration, replete with soul music, dancing, laughing, and embracing, he related how so many of them had called Peoples Temple "the best thing that happened to them in their whole lives." The pavilion burst into a jubilant applause.

Charismatic preaching. Early in life, Jones showed a gift for preaching. Today, with the controversies over the "religious right" still raging, a white preacher with a charismatic style is considered dangerous and right wing. Historically, however, white charismatic preachers have been just as home on the left. William Jennings Bryan could whip audiences into a frenzy preaching women's suffrage or the need for an income tax. Jones drew from this tradition. Theologically, he had no use for the Bible or the creeds. For him, Christ was socialism; anti-christ the exploitative capitalist system. He took the intimate, communal life of the early church as a paragon of exemplary Christian life. The spiritual trappings of Christianity could be used to recruit and inspire but were subordinate to Peoples Temple's earthly goals.

Fear of reaction. Jones believed that the CIA and other anti-communist agencies constantly threatened his community. He viewed a confrontation between Peoples Temple and the U.S. government and its surrogates as inevitable. The only question, he preached, was when. Over time, Jones interpretation of events became increasingly paranoid. Nevertheless, Jones’ belief that the CIA actively frustrates all successful socialist experiments has a respectable pedigree. To this day, many argue that the CIA orchestrated the Jonestown deaths in order to destroy a progressive community.

Finally, there is the concept of "revolutionary suicide," which followed naturally from the other elements of Peoples Temple ideology. Jones wanted to create a harmonious society free of meanness and conflict. The goal proved elusive. To maintain zeal, he increasingly blamed outside forces for Peoples Temple's struggles. Ultimately, the congregation concluded that the world simply could not tolerate the beautiful community that they had created. Rather than re-assimiliate into "fascist" America, the members of Peoples Temple chose instead to accept death on their own terms. Revolutionary suicide was nothing but a happy-clappy form of eschatology.

We flatter ourselves that since Jones’ vision found a place for murder-suicide, the whole of it was outlandish. All too many ideas, including innocuous ones, can be mixed in a lethal ideological cocktail. Perhaps most of all, what the Jonestown massacre has to teach us today is the strange arbitrarinessof ideological systems.

Nonetheless, that very arbitrariness teaches at least a negative lesson. Some of Jones’ ideas are so mainstream that we hardly even think to question them today. Just like the members of Peoples Temple, for example, many insist today, as if it were a moral obligation to do so, that we can all live together in harmony just so long as we learn to celebrate rather than despise our differences. Realistic, disillusioning theories of how the world really works are deemed too "offensive" to be considered. Orthodox social teaching today could be lifted straight out of a Jim Jones homily.

But happy-clappyism will no more cure our problems than it did the problems of Peoples Temple. Jim Jones assembled perhaps the most highly motivated people ever to try to celebrate differences and learn to live together with love. They failed. For one thing, to maintain their happy-clappy fervor, Peoples Temple had to demonize the non-happy-clappy Other. Peoples Temple's hatred for the racist, capitalist outside world ultimately turned murderous. Nor did Peoples Temple eliminate jealousies, possessiveness, or cruel hierarchies internally. Strikingly, Jones and his inner circle consisted of upper class whites, even as the majority of members were lower class blacks. Whites in Peoples Temple plainly derived profound satisfaction from their ability to live with other races. The ultimate picture is quite familiar: white elites in Peoples Temple used the their black compatriots as symbols of their own moral superiority. African Americans in Peoples Temple ultimately paid for whites' status obsessions with their lives.

Contemporary happy clappyism will not end, as in Peoples Temple, in revolutionary suicide. It does, as in Peoples Temple, blind us to reality. America is now imbrued with the same poisonous sentimentality that was the pride of Peoples Temple. A few brave souls spit it out but the rest keep drinking.