Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bad Days in American History: November 18, 1978

On this date 31 years ago, 909 people committed mass suicide at Jim Jones' compound in Guyana.

Any time 900 people die from one cause, it's a bad day. But I think this is an especially bad day because it represents some of the worst trends in American culture--religious extremism, mass violence, apocalyptic messaging. Those consistent threads in our history were exacerbated by the late 1960s and 1970s--too many drugs, too much instability, too many people thinking they needed to find themselves. Jones was hardly the only manifestation of someone taking advantage of this. Any number of gurus in the 60s and 70s popped up, some of which caused problems well into the 80s, such as the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, who took over an Oregon town and starting trying to kill local residents when the government began cracking down.

I see Jim Jones, Rajneesh, Manson, and so many of these other lunatics as shining symbols of what I call The Worst Generation. The Worst Generation talks all about The Greatest Generation, but it's not that the WWII generation were that great, it's that the baby boomers were so terrible. It's been all about them since the 1950s and continues to be today. Their concerns trump all others, including national problems. Their constant search for who they are led to all sorts of annoying things during these years--37 minute Jerry Garcia solos, communes in New Mexico, the New Age movement, Hare Krishnas' Jim Jones. And then later, deciding to make money and going to Wall Street, buying huge mountaintop mansions in Colorado ruining views for everyone, voting in Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush, bankrupting the country for their own desires, etc., etc.

Perhaps I overstate the case. But I think it's a reasonable outline of the history of the last 40 years.

As for Jones in particular, he was a real interesting dude. Former commie, was hauled in front of the Senate during McCarthyism to answer about his politics, including his mother's friendship with Paul Robeson. He was freaked out, like a lot of other people, about the seeming inevitable coming nuclear holocaust, which is what led him to South America in the first place. He worked in the civil rights movement in Indiana, helping accomplish a lot of integrationist goals. He and his wife were the first white couple in Indiana to adopt a black child, in 1961. Later in the 60s, he began his cult, moving to San Francisco in the 70s, where his supporters helped elect San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (boy, that was left out of the film biography of Harvey Milk!). In fact, let me quote his Wikipedia page here--I know it's Wikipedia, but this stuff is pretty well cited.

In September 1976, Willie Brown served as master of ceremonies at a large testimonial dinner for Jones attended by Governor Jerry Brown and Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and other political figures.[46] At that dinner, while introducing Jones, Willie Brown stated "Let me present to you what you should see every day when you look in the mirror in the early morning hours ... Let me present to you a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein ... Chairman Mao."[47] Harvey Milk, who spoke at political rallies at the Temple,[48] and wrote to Jones after a visit to the Temple: "Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave."[49][50]

Well, that's pretty interesting! Wonder what Willie Brown would say to that now?

By 1977, it was all falling apart, as Jones' cult of personality had led to accusations of sexual abuse and tax evasion. He and many followers fled to Guyana. The next year, California congressman Leo Ryan went to Jonestown to investigate human rights abuses. He found plenty alright, but Jones had him killed before he left for the U.S. Seeing the end was near, he had everyone kill themselves.

Interestingly, three of Jones' adopted children survived because they were playing for the Jonestown basketball team against the Guyana national team at the time of the suicides.