Jonestown’s Lessons for the 21st Century

by Tim Lisagor

06-18-lisagor

The tragedy at Jonestown belies a perceived belief in personal autonomy, and this discrepancy of truth and perception is why continued study is imperative. In previous essays, I wrote about Jim Jones’ control over the members of Peoples Temple. I evaluated his language to identify why so many were transfixed by his leadership. It may seem absurd to the uninvolved, those that claim freedom from such persuasion, but these claims are easy to state post tragedy. Even those sympathetic to the binds of community still may find such trust and faith incomprehensible, but they were not Peoples Temple members, and such assurance seems myopic and disrespectful to those who were.

In my analysis of the rhetoric and speech patterns of Jim Jones to identify the basis of his charisma, I suggested that it was not solely the content of his speech but also his delivery that drew members. His beliefs were attractive; he preached about equality at a time when America was systemically unbalanced. This message of equality was bolstered by an inclusive manner of speaking that transferred his power to those who followed him.

Beyond these considerations of rhetoric and language and what they teach us, what are the larger lessons we can learn from this tragedy? What are the issues which turn this late 20th-century historical event into a subject of relevance in the early 21st-century?

It is a hackneyed aphorism that the avoidance of history leads to the repetition of it – with the George Santayana articulation of it hung on a sign in the Jonestown pavilion – but this tenet is worth analyzing. Peoples Temple shares similarities with other communities, though not all communities share the same fate as Jonestown. The internet allows anyone interested to know the past, yet does this breadth of knowledge inhibit the repetition of tragedy?

The members of Peoples Temple both derived a personal identity and gained a relationship to a larger society based on their involvement in this community. Jim Jones and Temple members, through their involvement in politics, hoped to promote equality. Peoples Temple continued as a part of America, even though their tenets opposed many American policies. By contributing politically, members derived an identity: they were a church dedicated to promoting equality in their country. Current political campaigns foster a similar sense of identity. Labels of Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian provide stereotypical approximations of party members. A person may surmise that a member is pro-life or pro-choice, interested in social welfare or personal autonomy, for defense spending or cuts, all based on their political affiliation. This is a quick and relatively accurate method for determining a person’s beliefs, interests, goals. As with members of Peoples Temple, identification with a political party provides an identity that manifests personal values.

There is a sense of camaraderie and support derived from group inclusion. Members are validated and their beliefs reinforced. There is affirmation and a sense of purpose associated with membership. Feelings are strong motivators, but there is also a negative aspect to membership. Members may be disinclined to abandon such affirmation, which is understandable but problematic when the leaders of a group begin to promote antisocial ideas. Involvement in a community is an investment, and there is a need to justify that investment. Abandoning a group may force a former member to account for their dedication and effort. There are relationships that are difficult to end.

Membership in a political party poses similar demands on its members. A member may accept all party tenets without wholly evaluating the merits of such policy. They accept the party platform and may grow around the beliefs to retain this feeling of belonging. To abandon the party is to accept self doubt and relinquish a community.

When Peoples Temple moved to Guyana, it was with the intent to craft a independent society. Temple members not only relinquished an interest in changing America, they abandoned their identity as Americans to further their identity as residents of Jonestown, Guyana. This isolation fostered problems resulting from an absence of outside influence.

This is a key divergence between Peoples Temple and communities like political parties. Jim Jones decided to isolate the church from criticism of the uninitiated. He could redouble his rhetoric that was growing increasingly paranoid and aberrant. Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians continue to operate within the American political system. Vigilance and criticism from outside and inside a community seem imperative to keeping the community accountable.

* * * * *
I wrote in my previous essay about local and global ecologies, a local ecology being present, immediate conversations of a community and global ecologies being events beyond the immediate communication of a group. The two are interconnected like Venn Diagrams with varying circles of interdependence. The global ecology affects the local by creating a milieu that fosters community interaction. Like the weather, people react to the larger global ecology as it has a direct impact on their existence. Jim Jones exploited this connection by setting Peoples Temple apart from inequalities he identified in the global ecology. At the inception of Peoples Temple, he was not wrong. He identified racist policies that had excluded many of his followers. They identified Peoples Temple as a community free from segregation based on race. His message was correct; racism was present and impeded justice. He identified a pervasive problem in America and set his church apart.

Like Jim Jones, political candidates identify the interdependence between local and global ecologies to garner supporters. In incessant television pleas, candidates succinctly condemn opposing party policies. The current administration, it is said, spends too much, borrows too much, creates a debt that is insurmountable. The Republicans are accused of focusing too much on austerity and eliminating jobs for public servants: teachers, police officers, government employees. Each party describes the other as contributing to an untenable system that promises to cripple the country. Individual communities affected by the economy and government policies constitute the local ecology. Their actions ultimately affect the global ecology as politicians attempt to court their vote. Citizens want their needs addressed by their respective parties. In this manner, local communities influence the global ecology and determine the content of political platforms and the concomitant propaganda.

Jim Jones understood the need for local ecologies to feel powerful. He recognized the attraction of bottom-up influence, the feeling that Peoples Temple could effect change. Jones placed Peoples Temple apart from the current inequalities and described their attempts as exceptional. Members could feel involved in the progression of the country. They were apart but hoped to identify different and equitable policies. This rhetoric is familiar to any American forced to endure the months leading up to a political election. Individuals are empowered. They feel that their problems reflect the majority and that their vote will help decide the direction of the societal policy. There is little difference between the practical policies of each party, but through commercials, speeches, and propaganda politicians convey that the country’s continued prosperity rests on votes for their party. Like Jones, politicians transfer power to their followers. The election depends on their vote, their promotion of the candidate, and their debates within the local ecology.

Jim Jones eventually abandoned this bottom-up influence and isolated Peoples Temple. Understanding the threat of external and internal criticism, he moved the Temple to South America. The utopian design began to reflect the disordered psychology of its founder.

Jones and his followers abandoned the global ecology of America when they founded Jonestown. The local ecologies now consisted of smaller factions within Jonestown, the supporters and those who wanted to leave. Unlike modern political parties, there was little appreciation of debate and dissent. Without welcomed criticism and debate, Jones was allowed to devise a community based on his increasing paranoia and self-delusion. Jonestown became a unique community owing to this isolation and stymied local ecology. The tragedy at Jonestown was foreshadowed by the increasing isolation of Peoples Temple. To prevent future tragedies similar to Jonestown, it is necessary to maintain the interdependence between local and global ecologies by supporting continued debate within a community.

References:

Erickson, Frederick. Talk and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.

(Timothy P. Lisagor is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His previous writings may be found here. He can be reached at timlisagor@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 28th, 2013.

Last modified on November 14th, 2013.
Skip to main content