18 November 2008

On The 30th Anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre

To-day marks the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, in which a little over 900 people, who were members of the San Francisco-based People's Temple, either committed suicide by drinking a cynanide-laced, imitation Kool-Aid brand soft drink called Flavor-Aid, were injected with poison, or were shot by members of the People's Temple security force at the settlement in western Guyana, at the behest of the church's leader, the Reverend Jim Jones.

The settlement had been established in Guyana two years prior to the massacre, as a refuge from what Jones and the People's Temple's members considered to be a ruthlessly racist and fascist-minded America, and it was hoped by those same people that a new, egalitarian, socialist society could be successfully founded and run there.

Because of media and US government investigations into the Temple's finances and other practises, as well as allegations by former People's Temple members of various forms of abuse by the church's leadership, all of which culminated in a visit by Congressman Leo Ryan to Jonestown a few days before the massacre, which ended when Congressman Ryan, the staffers accompaning him, and a number of news media personnel, were gunned down by People's Temple security personnel,as they waited for an airplane to take them back to the US, at Kaituma airstrip, only a few miles from Jonestown, on 17th November, 1978.

In the fear and paranoia already running rampant among Jones, the people immediately around him, and among many of the ordinary church members, Jones made the decision that, in light of what had happened to Ryan and the other members of his party, it would be best for the settlers at Jonestown, himself included, to commit an act of “revolutionary suicide against the conditions of an inhumane world,” as Jones himself put it in his address to his followers that day, rather than, and most especially in the case of the People's Temple's children, being subjected to potential interrogation and torture by American troops, whom Jones imagined would be dispatched to Guyana once news of Ryan's death had got out.

That, along with a high-ranking People's Temple leader, who killed herself and three children in Georgetown, Guyana's capital, that same day, is what happened 30 years ago to-day.

The temple dissolved itself very shortly thereafter.

But, the cultural after-effects linger to this day, especially in the many popular culture references to the Jonestown Massacre(at least two theatrical and television films giving a fictionalised depiction of the People's Temple and the Jonestown Massacre have been made, and there have been any number of depictions of fictional cults based on the People's Temple that have appeared in many more films and television programmes since then), especially in the phrase, “Drinking the Kool-Aid”, which means an unthinking willingness to swallow what beliefs a given belief system has.

However, there were real people who died in Jonestown and in Georgetown on 18th November, 1978, and who died, not necessarily because they were a bunch of wackos with bizarre beliefs.

That's the most superficial and wrong-headed take on the Jonestown Massacre, I think.

The People's Temple, especially what it became in the early-to mid-1970's, was an outgrowth of, first, the idealism and hope for change brought about by the civil rights movement of the 1950's and '60's, and, second, of the despair, fear and cynicism brought about by the Viet-Nam War, the political, social and cultural conflicts born of that war, and the revelations in the early and mid-1970's about Watergate, the CIA's dirty deeds in many parts of the world as revealed in the Church Comission report of 1975, and many other similar events.

Many People's Temple members, leaders and led alike, had begun as activists and supporters of the civil rights movement, the anti-Viet-Nam War movement, and other, similar contemporary movements, or, at the very least, had the experience of being African-American or Latino and poor in a country that barely tolerated their existence before and during that period.

In that regard, they were actually quite similar to many Americans who lived through that period, who had felt that initial rush of optimism that America and the world could be changed for the better, and who saw those hopes dashed, not just once, or twice, but again, and again, and again.

Some of the People's Temple's contemporaries continued on in their involvement with the Democratic Party or various civil rights, feminist and other organisations; others still went farther left-ward, whether to the various political sects like the Bay Area Maoist Alliance(to-day's Revolutionary Communist Party),and a few even went so far as to join urban guerrilla groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army, to-day most famous for kidnapping Patty Hearst in 1975, and most of whom were killed in a shoot-out with police in Oakland, California in 1976.

Others yet, simply dropped out of politics entirely, and either went into self-improvement belief systems like Gestalt or Esalen, or tried to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives.

Cynicism and boredom, along with a feeling of doom throughout much of general American culture, thanks to the ever-present shadow of nuclear anihilation in the middle part of the Cold War years(please remember that this is around the same time that the survivalist movement got its start), were the hallmarks of the day in American culture.

Every major institution that most Americans had been raised to believe in and trust had been shown wanting in the 1960's and '70's, and, when combined with Nixon's two electoral victories in 1968 and 1972, and the Watergate scandal that toppled his presidency in 1974, I think that a fair number of Americans, People's Temple members included, could understandably become very, very cynical about the American political and social systems, and their capacities for any meaningful change.

Most Americans who felt that way, however, didn't take the People's Temple route, just as they didn't take the Weathermen's or Symbionese Liberation Army's route, either.

Nonetheless, those People's Temple leaders and members, even with the extreme version of those beliefs, weren't alien creatures dropped down from another planet, lunatics just released from an insane asylum, nor vicious criminals out of a comic book or thriller novel, like the Executioner series then popular and widely sold in supermarkets and other such stores in 1970's America.

They were people who, in their disappointment, frustration, rage, and fear at what had happened in America in the 1960's and '70's, and who were afraid that America would become even more viciously reactionary and racist, ended up following a man who had a set of beliefs in the ideals of equality and socialism, which later on ended up evolving into a declared belief in communism.

However, this same man, the Reverend Jim Jones, was also paranoid, and, as time went on, and the Temple's members and resources grew, one who let the power he had over the member's lives and resources corrupt him in ways great and small.

Jones and his flock didn't just wake up one morning and decide, “You know what??? To-day's a GREAT day to kill ourselves!!! Whaddya think???”.

This was the end of a process of years of feeling persecuted and hounded, and, in the last two years of the Temple's existence, those feelings would certainly seem to have had at least some objective backing by the US government's, and media, investigations into the church's financial and other practises, all of which culminated in Congressman Leo Ryan's ill-fated visit to Jonestown in November, 1978.

I am, by no means, defending Jones's, or the People's Temple's, beliefs and practises.

From what little I know of them, there was much going on within the church that was indefensible, at the very least.

What I am trying to do is explain, however badly on my part, how and why the People's Temple's leaders and members felt the ways they did, and their rationale behind the suicides and murders that took place in Jonestown and Georgetown, Guyana on 18th November, 1978.

I had no family, friends nor acquaintances whom I lost there on that day.

I've no intimate, nor, as far as I know, even distant, connections to the People's Temple and its members.

I was just a little over a month older than 14 on that day, and was living with my mother, father, and two of my sisters in a trailer outside of Reno, Nevada, when this happened.

This was simply another tv news story to me, and, when the television movie starring Powers Boothe as the Reverend Jim Jones appeared in 1981, it was another tv film, albeit one I thought, at the time, that was quite well done, to me as well.

It wasn't until seeing a documentary on the People's Temple and the Jonestown Massacre on PBS two years ago that I became interested in the People's Temple and the Jonestown Massacre, and it was in the course of noodling around for information about both on-line that I came across this site, “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” at http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/, that I began acquiring what little sense I have about the People's Temple, its leaders and members, what happened throughout the church's existence, and how it came to its grisly end.

There are documents, textual, pictoral and audio, on there, and on other sites linked to it, from a variety of viewpoints, including those who were People's Temple members, defectors from the Temple, and many others, including some from a perspective not generally given at all in accounts of the People's Temple and the Jonestown Massacre-the Guyanan perspective.

To those who would say, “So who cares what the Guyanans thought about this???”, I would rejoinder that the settling of Jonestown, and the Jonestown Massacre, happened in Guyana, on Guyanan soil, and that it was Guyana Defence Force troops who first came into Jonestown after the massacre, and saw what had taken place there.

Therefore, this event is as much a part of Guyanan history as it is American, and any viewpoint that doesn't take this into account is incomplete, at best.

It was on this site that I began to see the People's Temple members as they were, fellow Americans and fellow human beings with whom I had this in common-we had been through, from very different angles, yes, many, if not all, of the same historical circumstances and events.

What particularly struck me was coming across, in the photos section of the web-site, photographs of children and teen-agers, many of whom either would be my age, or just barely older or younger than I am to-day, and realising that, for them, there never would be a growing-up.

That stopped, along with their lives, at an agricultural settlement in western Guyana on 18th November, 1978.

They didn't deserve to have this happen to them, whatever the beliefs, follies and crimes of their elders, and none of these people, whatever their role in the People's Temple, and whatever their deeds or mis-deeds, deserve simply to be dismissed as a bunch of nuts who threw their lives away for nothing.

Yes, they threw their lives away for a paranoid, frightened leader who had long ago succumbed to the temptations of egotism and arrogance that power, even a relatively small-scale power such as Jones had, over the lives and destinies of others; a man who, in his frightened foolishness, ordered murderously foolish deeds, including the mass suicide-murder of himself and his followers.

They were wrong, and wrong-headed, to follow such a man.

But, they weren't mere nuts.

They were human beings, as full of grace and graceless, as you and I.

Their death was a sad, needless one.

Jones, in life, preached a form, of egalitarianism that later became socialist, and finally, communist, in form.

But, at the end of the day, he didn't practise what he preached very well. Not at all.

So, in closing, I would say this to my friends and colleagues on the Left.

Don't always take someone for the genuine article because he or she has a fine rap that gets all of the brothers, sisters and comrades jumping up and down for joy.

Watch his or her actions, and especially the way in he or she treats those around him or her, carefully.

If there is too much of a conflict between the fine words used by this person, and the shabby ways in which he or she treats those around him or her, walk away from them, and have nothing more to do with them.

Encourage others to do the same, as well, especially if the leader involved has knows what he or she is doing is wrong, and has absolutely no intention of changing his or her ways.

Jones wasn't the first, nor the last, leader who used socialist ideals and beliefs, just as other politicians and leaders have used their respective ideals and beliefs, to justify the worst offences of which they were capable.

But, we can, and must, avoid letting people of Jones' calibre lead others down the garden path to no-where, and we must avoid succumbing to the same temptations that power, especially unbridled power, can bring.

To those readers who are not on the Left, I would say this, please remember that people,even idealistic, well-intentioned, reasonably intelligent people, are quite capable of making decisions and taking actions that, in the end, result in sheer horror.

To me, these are the lessons of Jonestown.

Others are free to draw their own conclusions from this, but these are the ones I take away.

Here Endeth The Lesson, and Be Seeing You.

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