Just read an article in the LA Weekly about Jonestown and how one family became involved with the People’s Temple and the younger generations of that family died there.
One thing I had only been dimly aware of before was how the People’s Temple in general and Jonestown in particular, posed as, (and in fact was, except for the little detail of being a completely authoritarian cult with zero personal freedom and a paranoiac, abusive leader) a leftist, progressive, socialist utopia, where everybody worked for the common good, took care of the needy, used their skills for the betterment of society, and, in Guyana, lived in harmony with the land and with indigenous people.
I was a child when it happened and remember hearing the words “Jonestown” and “Jim Jones” but it was only much later that I learned what it was all about.
In the particular article about this particular family, the the association between Jonestown and the American Left is intimate and complex: Phyllis, who joined the Temple, was the daughter of a Communist professor whose career was nearly destroyed in the McCarthy era, and she herself was ostracized in high school for being a Commie’s daughter. Though her parents were at odds with the People’s Temple from early on, recognizing it as a pernicious cult, she considered herself to be fulfilling their ideals by being part of it.
I’ve just been thinking about myself and the political spectrum lately, as I unsubscribed from the RSS feed of medialens.org after shaking my head over their dismissive little piece about Obama, which compared him to Tony Blair and tried to wake people up from the illusion of thinking there’s anything particularly good about his election. I’ve tended towards the farther left that sees Democrats as little better than Republicans in the past, but while that sounded reasonable in Clinton’s era, I don’t think that idea survives 21st century politics very well. We’ve found that Bush was a lot worse than the “Republicans who are just like the Democrats” and I dare hope we’ll find Obama much better than the “Democrats who are just like the Republicans.”
Anyway, back to the People’s Temple. One of the things that has always puzzled me about the 70s and 80s was the enthusiasm with which so many reasonable people embraced Ronald Reagan and turned their backs on all the progressivism of the years gone by. How could they want to retreat from that hope, from those ideals, into a simple-minded flag-waving time-warp back to an imaginary 1950s world? Didn’t they know better?
And then I think that at that time, what was in the back of everybody’s mind was Jonestown, and I can see how maybe people were ready to see poison in the hope and idealism of the left, and were ready to give the benefit of the doubt to something that had nothing, nothing to do with “all that.”