The End Game of Leftist Utopia: The Jonestown Massacre
An interview with Daniel Flynn, author of Cult City.
In your new book, Cult City, you unfold a very strange world. The San Francisco of the 1970s. It was a ferment of radical ideas and movements. Radical activists, conmen, and former left-wing terrorists rubbed shoulders with the establishment. The mayor of the city, the editor of its main newspaper, and gay activists held a fundraiser for the Rev. Jim Jones. And Jones used the veneer of Christianity to promote a violent, apocalyptic Marxism. That culminated in the gruesome mass suicide he orchestrated in Jonestown, Guyana. That claimed the lives of 913 people, in addition to five murder victims. One of those was U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan.
Can you tell us more about this world? How it planted the seeds for our current, “intersectional” left? Was San Francisco just ahead of its time?
San Francisco in the 1970s suffered from the hangover after the high. The Day-Glo sixties in the Bay Area experienced Haight-Ashbury, the Summer of Love, and the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park. The vibe changed with the Zodiac Killer. Then the Zebra Murders. The Symbionese Liberation Army, the New World Liberation Army. And other kooks, political and otherwise, long since forgotten. Because a political veneer covered criminality, some radicals became enamored with immoral and insane people. Jim Jones very much exploited this environment. Harvey Milk, Willie Brown, George Moscone, and others very much fell for Jones because of this environment. The party always comes at a price. San Francisco paid that price in the 1970s.
Gay liberation pioneer Harvey Milk has been virtually canonized by the culture. For many, he’s another Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Can you describe what you learned about Milk’s personal life? And his views? How did he reinvent himself over the decades?
Harvey Milk spent the fall of 1964 leafleting for Barry Goldwater with his 16-year-old runaway boyfriend. What part of that sentence offends you? His life served as a political Rorschach test.
“Reverend” Jim Jones, Communist Unbeliever
Please remind our readers who Jim Jones really was. How did he manage to combine the appearance of Christian revivalism and even faith healing with far-left politics? What were his real views on Christianity and the Bible?
“How can I demonstrate my Marxism?” Jones later recalled of his calling to the ministry. “The thought was, infiltrate the church.” Jones invented Peoples Temple by melding Pentecostal Christianity with Soviet Marxism. Growing up in rural Indiana, he experienced the former; attending Indiana University, he encountered the latter.
Jim Jones believed the Bible to be a massive lie. He authored a pamphlet, one of the only things he ever wrote, called The Letter Killeth. It attempted to expose the contradictions in the Bible. Preaching, he threw Bibles on the floor, stomped on them, and distributed them for use as toilet paper. He used Christianity to win converts. Once won, those converts learned that Jones rather than Christ represented God on Earth. Jones noted that socialism was God, and since Jones arrived as the most perfect human embodiment of socialism, that made him God.
Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco serves as a corrective to the self-flattering narrative told about Jones and Milk by academics, journalists, and others. In interviewing dozens of eyewitnesses to history, and relying on archived material, the book presents evidence and perspectives heretofore not seen.
Jim Jones, Public Slumlord
How did the media and liberal politicians treat Jones during his heyday?
San Francisco Mayor George Moscone placed Jim Jones on the city’s Housing Commission Authority. He quickly became chairman. That effectively made Jim Jones the largest landlord in San Francisco. When Rosalyn Carter campaigned for her husband in San Francisco in 1976, she had Jim Jones introduce her before speaking to a local audience. California Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, and other elected officials spoke at Peoples Temple services. Herb Cain was awarded a Pulitzer for serving as the “voice” and “conscience” of San Francisco. He served as a Fourth Estate booster of Jim Jones. Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey in the film Zodiac, similarly promoted Jones. So did Jane Fonda.
Aside perhaps from African American newspaper publisher Carlton Goodlett, Harvey Milk acted as Jones’s most zealous booster. He pleaded with Jimmy Carter to leave Jones alone after kidnapping allegations arose. Milk told Carter that Jones was “known in the minority communities here and elsewhere as a man of the highest character.”
Milk credited Jonestown to Joseph Califano, secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, with “alleviating the world food crisis.” With transforming criminals into productive, law-abiding citizens. And with creating “a beautiful retirement community” that “people of means would pay thousands of dollars to patronize.” He gushed to Guyana Prime Minister Forbes Burnham about Jones. “Such greatness I have found at Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple,” Milk wrote. His letters to Jones eclipse his letters to world leaders — which described a concentration camp as an Eden — in their sycophancy.
When public schools in California celebrate Milk’s birthday as a state holiday, or when the San Francisco Airport names Terminal One in Milk’s honor, the supervisor’s support for a mass murderer does not make it into the display.
Another Heaven on Earth Proves to Be Hell
What were conditions like in Jonestown, the socialist Utopia Jones built in Guyana?
People subsisted on a diet mainly of rice soup. One man I interviewed spoke of once eating chicken feet. Another woman I interviewed discussed eating fish-head soup as a reward for catching some fish. Meat was a rarity. Most worked long hours in the fields in the equatorial sun. A snitch culture pervaded. Offenders found themselves locked in dark boxes. Or thrown in deep pits. Some were pitted in punitive boxing matches with Temple toughs. Others were drugged into incoherence.
Residents lacked telephones, broadcast television, and transportation. In other words, what they knew of the outside world largely came from Jim Jones. He fostered a siege mentality by manufacturing assaults and planned invasions from shadowy outside forces. Several inhabitants described to me the worst aspect of it all: Jim Jones haranguing them on the loudspeaker for hours and hours at a time. Many things gave Jonestown a 1984, concentration-camp vibe. But perhaps nothing more so than the frequent, amplified hectoring.
Revolutionary Mass Suicide
What brought Jones to the point of decreeing a mass suicide?
I spoke to people who attended a “wine tasting” in 1975. At it, Jones informed those gathered of their imminent poisoning deaths. Nobody died. Anyone who reacted without the expected docility, he ridiculed. One Jones loyalist, an actress really, feigned protest and a Jones lackey feigned shooting her. People believed what they saw. Such events conditioned people: do not object, follow instructions. In Jonestown, he staged “white nights.” Those were prolonged, manufactured siege situations in which inhabitants faced death from the hands of invisible, merciless invaders. That further conditioned Jones’s followers.
Jim Jones preached communism. But the failure of his demonstration community made a mockery of his beliefs. Returning to the United States meant serious legal trouble, including possible kidnapping charges. The death of his mother and his dependence on narcotics further inhibited his judgment. People close to him described him to me as an extreme narcissist who came to view his followers as extensions of himself. When a small number of followers opted to leave with Congressman Leo Ryan, he felt ripped apart. This catalyzed “revolutionary suicide.” That’s an idea Jones borrowed from a Huey Newton book by the same name. It meant that the people of Peoples Temple would go down in history as protesting against capitalism by giving their lives. History did not interpret the events of November 18, 1978, so charitably.
An American Pol Pot
Would you compare what happened in Jonestown with what was happening at almost the same time, thanks to very similar ideas, in Cambodia under Pol Pot?
They both involved collective insanity fostered by a narrow-minded allegiance to Communism. And aided by leading figures running interference for the authors of the misdeeds. Noam Chomsky, for instance, infamously dismissed evidence of mass extermination in Cambodia. That appeared in a book review he co-wrote in The Nation. Harvey Milk, celebrity lawyer Charles Garry, California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally, and others depicted Jonestown as a paradise. Ideology deludes. Rather than believe the testimony of eyewitnesses, ideologues instead projected their fantasies upon Jonestown — and Cambodia.
The Social Gospel Gone Wild
In your magisterial A Conservative History of the American Left, you do something unexpected. You show how liberal Christians secularized their craving for the Kingdom of Heaven. Then turned it into Utopian politics. Can you cite a few examples of 19th century figures who built their own separatist communities? And how they went wrong? How does Jones fit into that tradition?
I found many parallels between the Oneida Community and Peoples Temple. And between Oneida founder John Humphrey Noyes and Jim Jones. The big splash made by Oneida came from one of its members, a troubled man named Charles Guiteau. He was unpopular with the ladies of the Oneida Community when it came time to partake in sexual communism. That was because of his odor and behavior. Guiteau went on to murder James Garfield, the president of the United States. Obviously, Jim Jones orchestrated a massive tragedy about a century later.
Both groups engaged in soul-crushing catharsis sessions. Each pursued a communism so pure as to mandate the forfeiture of even small, personal items. And each raised children collectively. Each relied on authoritarian, almost Godlike figures. In both instances, when the press investigated, the sensitive leaders fled from the country. Jonestown, which I never visited, exudes a natural beauty that many former inhabitants commented upon. The Oneida Community’s mansion struck me as one of the most beautiful homes in which I have ever stayed.
Conservatives and liberals want to believe that the American Left began in the 1960s and owed its existence to Karl Marx. A Conservative History of the American Left disagrees. I’ve written six books. You are observant to link this one with Cult City. The latter, a decade in the making, really grew out of the former.
Blaming Evangelical Christians
How did the media spin the collapse of a socialist apocalyptic cult into an indictment of fervent Christianity?
Peoples Temple bequeathed its wealth to the Soviet Union. Its group of armed thugs called the “Red Brigades” killed Congressman Leo Ryan. The Jonestown death tape features testimony from several on what an honor it was to die for socialism or communism. Yet the media depicted the dead as Christians rather than Communists.
A New York Times article, for instance, claimed that Jones “preached a blend of fundamentalist Christianity and social activism.” The Associated Press called the people of Peoples Temple “religious zealots.” Two people I interviewed noted that Jones confiscated Bibles from his followers in Jonestown. He only redistributed them when the community ran out of toilet paper. Do preachers of “fundamentalist Christianity” do that?
The Democratic Party Connection
One of Jones’ longtime allies was San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Now Sen. Kamala Harris, whom Brown gave her political start while they carried on an affair, is running for president. What should voters know about Brown, in light of that?
Willie Brown remains one of the most astute observers of the American political scene. At 84 and at five-foot-nothing, he struts about as an inspirational figure to all vertically-challenged males who hope to become ladies’ men. He succeeded when circumstances screamed “failure.” His gregarious nature makes him hard to dislike.
Unfortunately, for all his many positive qualities, Brown acted as a shill for Jim Jones. He publicly compared the American who’d kill more African Americans than any other to Gandhi and MLK. He urged Fidel Castro to extend a state visit to Jones, as though he possessed the stature of a world leader. Brown called the Peoples Temple leader “a highly trusted brother in the struggle for liberation” in a 1977 letter. Castro, possessing more sense than his American pen pal, declined to meet Jones when he journeyed to Cuba.
Daniel Flynn is author of six books, including A Conservative History of the American Left and Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco. He is also a Senior Editor of The American Spectator.