Jim Jones and the Conspiracists

(The following article by Jim Hougan refers to two articles previously published elsewhere. The first is Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories About Jonestown, by Rebecca Moore. The second is Hougan’s original article, to which Moore refers, Jim Jones: A Parapolitical Fugue, by Jim Hougan. The reader is encouraged to read these two articles as well as this one appearing below.)

In an article that appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture, one of the editors of the jonestown report considers the role that conspiracy theories have played in the unfolding narrative of “Jonestown.”

It is a worthwhile endeavor to which few scholars could bring better credentials. Rebecca Moore is a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University. Her two sisters and nephew died at Jonestown and, together with her husband, Fielding McGehee, Dr. Moore has probably done more than anyone to explicate the Peoples Temple, while honoring the memory of those who died at Jonestown.

She is, in other words, both brilliant and good—which makes it all the more upsetting to find that she has cast a cold, if not unkind, eye upon an article that I wrote for Lobster. That this article should have fallen within her purview is, in and of itself, something of a surprise. Dr. Moore’s essay amounts to a survey of conspiracy theories, but my own article does not allege a conspiracy of any kind.

Accordingly, I found myself perplexed, and not a little appalled to find myself lumped together with the unfortunately-named Dr. Peter Beter in what amounts to a clusterfuck of “professional conspiracists.” (Besides Herr Doktor Beter and myself, our mad forum includes the redoubtable John Judge, Mark Lane and the Church of Scientology.)

To which, I can only say, Egad.

I would much prefer to be called “an award-winning investigative reporter” (which I am) than “a professional conspiracist” (which I decidedly am not). The two are very different occupations, I feel, and it is unfortunate that the good professor neglects to distinguish the one from the other in her article.

For the record, here is the distinction: an investigative reporter mines the public record for news that has not yet broken, revealing circumstances and events that are at once important and concealed.

A conspiracist does much the same, but his product differs from the investigative reporter’s in a very important way. That is to say, it is unverifiable. That is how we know it’s conspiracism, rather than reportage. The conspiracist’s story can never be verified. His (or her) most important sources are unidentified, unworthy of belief or simply unavailable to the public. (Some examples, respectively: “According to a high-ranking Pentagon official,” “according to Bruce Roberts, author of the Gemstone File,” “according to a secret CIA report,” etc.) Citations of this sort are the investigative equivalent of smoke and mirrors.

In the event, Dr. Moore defines a professional conspiracist as one “who see(s) all events through the hermeneutical lenses of conspiracy.” In the context of the Peoples Temple, she summarizes the conspiracists’ point of view, which holds “that people in Jonestown were murdered by U.S. government agents—either military or intelligence. These agents,” she continues, “committed the murders to conceal some other, more damaging information.”

Well, fair enough. The definition certainly describes the point of view of most Jonestown conspiracists. But I still don’t understand why I’m included among their number. Because I don’t believe that anyone in Jonestown was murdered by a government agent.

What I do believe is that, until 1970, Jim Jones was a government informant, working against black religious organizations such as Father Divine’s. (The evidence for this is laid out in the article I wrote for Lobster. Whether that argument is convincing or not is for the reader to decide. But the footnotes are there. The sources are respectable. And the documents I’ve cited are easily retrieved.)

That said, my belief that Jones was a government informant is probably not the reason that Dr. Moore corrals me in the conspiracists’ ghetto. After all, only a professional idiot would fail to question Jones’ bona fides. Even if we overlook his 201 file at the CIA and his strange association with Dan Mitrione (a notorious spook), it is a matter of blatant fact that our Hoosier’s lifework culminated in the violent deaths of more than 900 men, women and children of the Left. That this catastrophe occurred in what might be called “the age of COINTELPRO” seems to me a circumstance sufficiently out of the ordinary as to merit unusual scrutiny and skepticism.

So…if I don’t allege a conspiracy, why does Dr. Moore include me in the conspiracist’s camp? Perhaps because my article is conspiratorial in tone. That is, it retraces an extended and suspect hegira that Jones took to Mexico, Cuba and South America during the early 1960s. In the course of that trip, Jones is found to have met with CIA officers (in Brazil), and to have given anti-communist speeches (in Guyana)—a peculiar stance for a self-declared leftist such as Jones.

But the real reason that Dr. Moore battens me into the conspiracists’ hatch is, I suspect, my assertion that many of those who died at Jonestown were coerced into doing so. That is to say, they walked up to the poisoned vat for the same reason that a great many Jews walked to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. True, they moved under their own locomotion—but that is not to say that they acted under their own volition.

On the contrary. They were “under the gun.” Literally. And that means they were murdered. Because “enforced suicide” is an oxymoron.

That mass-murder was an integral part of the last White Night is, moreover, apparent from the forensic evidence assembled by Guyanese pathologist Dr. Leslie Mootoo. Mootoo’s medical investigation—on the basis of which he concluded that cyanide was forcibly administered to many of the people at Jonestown—was by far the most extensive conducted. Nor are Dr. Mootoo’s findings the only evidence of murder. There is the harrowing account of Stanley Clayton and other survivors. According to Clayton, he escaped from Jonestown by talking his way past a cordon sanitaire of armed guards whose purpose (he tells us) was to keep people in, rather than to keep imaginary invaders out.

Clearly, some of the Templars committed suicide. Just as clearly, others did not.

That this should be a controversial statement is owing to the different equities that various individuals and institutions have in the story. “Anticult activists,” for example, would have us believe that Jim Jones was a sinister genius who brainwashed his flock, such that they committed suicide upon command. The message? Don’t join a cult or it will turn you into a self-destructive robot. (Join us, instead. Now!)

Not surprisingly, the Church of Scientology repudiates this view. According to the Church, the Peoples Temple was a warm and fuzzy Org whose members were viciously snuffed out by a cabal of “anti-religious activists” in cahoots with government secret agents. The message? We are a persecuted 501-c3 organization battling for your right to breathe free.

Yet a third point of view is put forward by conspiracists such as John Judge, whose political agendas lead them to conclude that Jonestown was a mind-control experiment gone terminal. The message? Watch out for Big Brother.

* * * * *

My own findings are less absolutist, and so it would seem that they ought to be less controversial. Nothing that I’ve written about Jones’ background suggests the existence of a government conspiracy to destroy the Peoples Temple. On the contrary. What I’ve tried to suggest is that the mentally unstable and physically ill Jim Jones, while under pressure from Congress, the media and the Concerned Relatives, initiated the last White Night in what amounted to an act of vanity. Fearful that his deepest secrets were about to be revealed, with the result that he would be discredited in the eyes of his followers, Jones pulled the plug on his congregation and the world.

If I am right, this was the act of psychopath and, indeed, I would contend that it is only in the light of Jones’ psychopathy that “Jonestown” can be understood.

It may be that I am mistaken. There are some who still insist that Jones was a saint. But whether he was a devil, as I believe, or a saint, as others would insist, is something that should only be decided on the basis of evidence.

And that is where Dr. Moore lets us down. The message implicit in her survey is that “conspiracists” are wrong-headed—because they are conspiracists. Accordingly, the reader is encouraged to dismiss the conspiracists’ arguments without ever bothering to read them. Because, of course, “conspiracist” is a term of art. Among academics, it is a synonym for “nutter.”

This is obviously wrong-headed if the writer is guilty (as I am) of taking a heuristic approach to understanding events as strange as Jonestown.

But even if a conspiracy is alleged, I would argue that this in itself does not make—or should not make—the writer a “conspiracist.” Because conspiracies are quite real. They exist, and they sometimes have profound effects upon our lives. Diabolical plots by evil geniuses are as real as 9-11 and the Holocaust. So, too, are the bumbling cabals of politicians and intelligence operatives bent upon adventures such as Iran-Contra, Watergate and the Bay of Pigs.

Would Dr. Moore hold that the Nuremburg Trials were an exercise in conspiracism? Of course not. Would she deny that Hamas, al-Qaeda, the CIA, Enron and the Mafia are, by their very nature, conspiratorial? I doubt it.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that there is an epistemological divide between scholars such as Dr. Moore and well-intentioned sleuths such as John Judge. On the one hand, we have the “professional conspiracists,” who tend to see evil everywhere. And on the other hand, we have the “professional coincidentalists” who (let’s be clear about it) wouldn’t know a conspiracy if they found themselves framed for the murder of Beowolf.

The origins of this divide can probably be traced to an untimely coincidence of the 1960s. In 1964, the eminent historian, Richard Hofstadter, published an essay in Harper’s Magazine. Entitled, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Hofstadter’s piece inveighed against the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” of right-wing demagogues such Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society.

What made the article untimely was the fact that its publication coincided neatly with the completion of the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That report, which validated the FBI’s findings that the President had been murdered by a lone nut, was submitted to the Johnson White House on September 24, 1964. Exactly one month later, Harper’s hit the newsstands with Hofstadter’s article, attacking “the paranoid style.”

While Hofstadter did not mention the Kennedy assassination, his essay provided a convenient and respectable framework for subsequent attacks upon critics of the Warren Commission. Suddenly, it was intellectually disreputable—”paranoid” and unpatriotic—to question the edicts and findings of respectable institutions like the Warren Commission, CBS and The New York Times. Ambitious academics, desperate for tenure, took their cue.

Serious researchers like Harold Weisberg soon found it almost impossible to publish. And when a publisher was finally found, Weisberg and his colleagues were as often as not dismissed as “conspiracy theorists” by journalists and academics who made little or no effort to evaluate their research.

Nearly 40 years have now passed since Hofstadter’s article first appeared, and in that time the world has been plagued by terrorism, assassination, genocide and war. Parapolitical structures headquartered in caves have laid waste Wall Street, killing thousands of Americans. Constitutional protections have been suspended, superseded or exempted to death, while a new regime of surveillance unfolds in the heartland.

Surely, it is time that we put an end to the name-calling, and begin to follow the evidence. All of the evidence. Wherever it goes.