The Original Kool-Aid Drinkers

Editor’s note: The following is a brief segment from Mr. Flynn’s column at The American Conservative on the 33rd anniversary of the murder/suicides at Jonestown, Guyana.

Surreal doesn’t convey the fictional quality of hundreds of happy children obliviously awaiting their deaths watching “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” or their Kool-Aid executioner just two years earlier enjoying a private audience with the soon-to-be president’s wife. Jonestown retains this dreamlike state decades after it has decayed into the jungle. Rebecca Moore, Julia Scheeres, and other writers seek in the 21st century to raise the 20th-century dead. Could we have misunderstood the people of the Peoples Temple the way they misunderstood the god of the Peoples Temple?

Jim Jones killed more African Americans than the Ku Klux Klan. Julia Scheeres, in her new book, A Thousand Lives, juxtaposes the preacher with Rosa Parks and the students who held a lunch-counter sit-in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s. Jim Jones called blacks his equals. He let them join his church. He even adopted an African-American boy. Then he imprisoned, enslaved, and ultimately murdered hundreds of African-Americans at his Guyanese concentration camp. He started off with the best of intentions, the text leads readers to think.

Scheeres gleans the wrong lessons from Jonestown. But her conclusions do not stem from false premises. A Thousand Lives doesn’t contain a thousand errors. Chiding Jones for exaggerating when the truth about racism proved bad enough, she ironically one-ups the Pentecostal Marxist by pointing to “examples from real life,” such as the police killings in the late ’60s of 28 Black Panthers—a story thoroughly debunked more than 40 years ago in an exhaustive Edward Jay Epstein New Yorker piece—as a supposed truth the minister might have invoked. On the next page she mistakenly cites 1975 rather than 1977 as the year of Temple supporter Harvey Milk’s election to the San Francisco board of supervisors. But the book’s factual claims are otherwise fairly solid.

Take, for instance, the author’s rebuff of the temptation to label a Bible stomper a Bible thumper. In the foggy aftermath of the 1978 rain forest annihilation, some Americans chalked up the bizarre South American suicides as Christian fundamentalism run amok. This narrative, to the extent that it persists, can’t survive a reading of A Thousand Lives.

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