A Day of Atonement for Jonestown

It was a beautiful event commemorating Jonestown on November 18. If you click on the picture above, it should take you to the video. I’ve already characterized Jonestown in a previous blog entry as among the worst incidences of white supremacist genocide in our country’s blood history, perhaps comparable only to the Trail of Tears which killed 4000 Cherokees. This conclusion is based on the results of the Jonestown tragedy, 918 killed, 70% of them black. Results reflect intentions.

But this understanding doesn’t explain what happened. Calling People’s Temple a cult as People Magazine did recently doesn’t explain anything either. Of course it was a cult. So is the Catholic Church, with its own bloody history.

To diagnose Jim Jones pathology doesn’t explain much either. Yes he was a megalomaniac. Yes those amphetamines took their toll. Yes he was a demagogue, but those are a dime a dozen.

That he called himself a “communist” invites comparison to Stalin I suppose. The Temple bequeathed several million dollars to the CP of the USSR – think of how that money might have been used to alleviate poverty in San Francisco, or Guyana for that matter. But there was a warlike “rationality” to Stalin’s killing. People killed in war, well that’s just normal, nothing weird or incomprehensible about that.

The puzzling thing about Jonestown isn’t Jim Jones. It’s his twenty or so hard core of whites who went along with his madness, who couldn’t find the decency to just shoot the mf when he started pouring the cyanide.

According to Tim Reiterman’s book, Raven, Jones’ inner circle went along with Jones faked cures and authoritarianism because they believed, as he did, in the Machiavellian principle that “the end justifies the means.”

Guess what? It doesn’t. Any revolutionary movement arising out of the current political chaos needs to understand this.

So what “end” did this core group of whites have in mind when they perpetrated the massacre? Probably not the “end” which actually occurred – the traumatization of black communities setting back the civil rights movement many years. The “end” Jones and his inner circle had in mind was some kind of demonstration of desperation, perhaps akin to the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest the U. S. invasion of Vietnam.

Why did so many people go along with this treacherously wrong-headed plan? According to reports, about half the people took the poison themselves, the other half, including 300 children, forced. A rebellion might have gotten some people killed, but not 900.

I think it was the profound disappointment that people found in Jonestown. They emigrated there in pursuit of a utopian dream fueled by love and found conditions resembling a Nazi concentration camp. Moving to Jonestown had been a last desperate hope. The collapse of that hope devastated people. And the prospect of a collective death must have appealed to them. Moving to another plain, Jones described it. Even he abandoned any pretense of Christianity in favor of atheism, he kept the belief in an afterlife.

We need to honor the people who died so tragically. And as the next phase of the struggle for justice and equality unfolds, we need to remember that the end does NOT justify the means. In fact, in building international solidarity, the ends are the means.

Judy Bebelaar and I will be reading from our books on Thursday, November 29. She will read from And Then They Were Gone and I’ll be reading from White Knight. 

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2 thoughts on “A Day of Atonement for Jonestown

  1. I agree, the ends do not justify the means and ends are the means. And we need to break down the components… I cannot name them or weigh them even in part, but “going along with” is one. How did gender socialization factor in? Nothing to return to “desperation” is another, as are “collective death” in the name of solidarity and “forcing” children. How right to warn and try to understand revolutionary movements of our time. I’m interested in how looking the other way and not facing smaller versions of these tragedies in daily interactions set us up for the big ones. Then there are cascades. Wishing you well!

  2. Thanks for you cogent comments, Kay! Those who don’t learn from history bla bla bla. We do need to understand all the incomprehensible events, from Jonestown to the collapse of the USSR (with nary a shot fired!)

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