In 1978, our impression of Jonestown was a place run by a paranoid madman whose rantings were out of touch with reality. People were overworked, underfed, and mistreated; they heard filtered world news over a p.a. system, depicting the US as no place to return to. Jim Jones painted himself into a corner that led to the finality of death. And on November 18, my community, Peoples Temple, was gone.
In 1979, my impression was uneasy as I tried to settle back into our “great society.” Surely things weren’t so bad, not like Jonestown. Our democracy was designed to grow and change, based on checks and balances, etc. Things would get better. So, I continued on, wiser (hopefully) and lonelier (certainly).
In 2005, reading Edith Roller’s Jonestown Journals, listening to Guyana tapes of Jim Jones in meetings and hearing him read the news, my impressions of 1978 became more mixed. Jonestown was mostly good folk, willingly working very hard – to define a new life, to become self-sustaining, to build a place for a rainbow family with beautiful children, to celebrate diversity, to not be cornered or hidden away, bullied for our beliefs. Only a minority had felt a complete dislike of Jonestown, and much of that had come from a leader’s growing incoherence. As for me, I recalled what life in Jonestown had been like in my summers there, and I knew that was what most believed in as well, what attracted and held us to the Temple.
In 2005, my impressions are increasingly uneasy. Our “great society” seems to be a country driven by an insanity of power and paranoia. “Freedom” and “democracy” are spoken as words of hollow hype, empty and out of touch with a reality of the needs of people.
Where is sanity when our leaders:
- portray preemptive war as peace?
- seek and disregard the directives of the United Nations?
- hold their actions above the judgment of the world court?
- dismantle environmental safeguards and civil rights protections?
- promote and propagate fear?
- pass laws and appropriate monies to “protect” and then can’t respond to disaster?
- borrow billions to spend billions daily on war?
- give tax relief to oil companies who enjoy windfall profits?
- put corporate interests before people’s needs?
What kind of corner are we being painted into now? And where does it lead? The answer is in a quote. Although the first part is widely misused, the full quote leaves no misunderstanding:
“My country right or wrong, if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right. -Senator Carl Schurz (1829-1906), US Senate Feb. 29, 1872.
But that’s not all Senator Schurz said that day. “The American people,” he continued, “should be specially careful not to permit themselves to be influenced in their decisions by high-sounding phrases of indefinite meaning, by vague generalities, or by seductive catchwords appealing to unreasoning pride and reckless ambition. More than ever, true patriotism now demands the exercise of the soberest possible discernment.”
In 2005, my reclaimed self from 27 years ago tells me that we need to be that kind of patriot: to speak up and demand our leaders follow governmental process, to insist that our representatives neither confirm unacceptable nominees nor pass legislation that dismantles safeguards. The more we sit by and yawn, or posture and then give in, or wait for a new administration, the more we give away our power to ensure that things “if right, be kept right; and if wrong, be set right.”
How people respond to help each other in time of need – such as 9/11 or the Tsunami or Katrina – gives me renewed faith that right ideals don’t have to be lost to power or greed. My lesson from Jonestown is: How to be mindful in navigating our journey together, with individual need valued as much as community need. We were on the road to it once. It can be done.
(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)
(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)