Questions that Matter: An Eye-Witness Reflection on the 39th Jonestown Memorial Service

by Archie Smith, Jr.

“On November 18, 1978 The World was Changed Forever”—Anonymous

 “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”—Judah Halevi

 “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our fundamental human nature suggests that no one can possibly see the whole of anything. All points of view are partial, biased and limited, and driven primarily by self-interest. There are no neutral free standpoints available to anyone. This includes leaders and followers alike— Anonymous

When I arrived at the 39th Annual Jonestown Memorial Service – the one sponsored by Rev. Jynona Norwood – around 10:30 am on Saturday, November 18, 2017, the temperature was 59 degrees, and the weather was bright and sunny, almost cloudless. The service was scheduled for 11 am, although it didn’t start until 12:45. About 23 people were present, more than in 2016. Perhaps, more people came because it was a Saturday rather than a week day.

Once it started, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I wondered if I had unwittingly stumbled into a typical Peoples Temple-style worship? Much of what I heard was nonsense, and I felt talked down to. I heard a lot of “amen’s” and other expressions of approval of what the speakers said. What was I missing? There were attempts at manipulation – for example, we were asked to turn to the person next to us and tell them how much you love them (which I declined to do) – and complexities of the human situation gave way to simplistic explanations, global solutions and Black vs White analysis. Women, Asians, Latino, Muslims, people living with physical disabilities, or otherwise challenged were not mentioned. Feeding off each other’s need and standing as the solution and posturing was evident. But where was the message we could take away from the day?

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Is it the case that everything in our world is limited and comes to an end? If so, then there are sets of responses characteristic of our human nature. I name it here as audience correction.

 “Audience corruption,” occurs when someone in a position of power and leadership or influence shouts a slogan like, “I love you,” and asks audience members to turn and face one another and say the same words. The audience, in its turn immediately shouts back the same words. Hearers and listeners co-operate in a call and response process. Such a process is repeated enough times that it creates a shared and supportive set of beliefs and action.  The idea of “audience corruption” – a practice of conformity, group think or mind control through repetition and control –appear to go against certain democratic ideals. But is this not similar to what we already (and currently) sanction in the names of “leadership,” “news coverage,” “transparency,” “best practices”, “authority,” “big corporations,” and “giant media”? Seemingly, taking over and turning a profit, justifies whatever technology comes next, including the uses of biometrics. In such a world of most-anything-goes, we must join in the chorus with Aretha Franklin, “Who’s Zooming Who.”

A typical response in today’s world might be a repetition of, “if you look, you will see…”. The assumption may be that certain individuals are not looking correctly. But if they did look correctly, then they would see the same thing or believe the same as the leader. A one dimensional and subtly deceptive and unquestioned view of reality encompasses leader and audience.

Both leader and audience, spectators, hears and listeners become corrupted in this non-reflective, back and forth, convoluted process. The person who does not go along with the program, or is silent, may stick out like a nail. If disagreement with the official dogma is shown and noticed, then such persons are to be corrected, hammered down, distrusted, shunned and avoided, considered mentally ill, or shot!

Data that point to ambiguity, complexity and critical or discerning questions, or suggest a different direction is considered fake news, misinformed, or true. When enough people believe what is plain and simple and stated over and over again, the unquestioned statement parades as truth, because the leader and “the” people said so.

How does one function in such a morally ambiguous world, where you can make up the facts to suit your preference, significantly differ from Group think, “disinformation,” “fake news,” “alternative facts,” etc.? All are attempts to influence and control interpretations of realities. All attempt to achieve mind and behavior control, and determine outcomes. This can happen when one is isolated and living in a closed cosmos for a period of time. Only one authoritative voice is heard and followed, especially when powerlessness is coupled with a low or sagging self-esteem.

* * * * *

Martin Luther King warned over 50 years ago, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” The practice of the innocent reproduction of audience corruption matters! So do critical and challenging questions! At the 39th Jonestown Memorial, one important tribute to the murdered children, reiterated numerous times, was: “Living My God-Given Dream After 18.”

What I heard was: Children were innocent. “We must forgive Jim Jones, but we should not honor him!” the speaker said. The call to the audience was “Will you please say, ‘Innocence’?” Three times the audience shouted back, “Innocent!” Finally, “Remember me, I am innocent!” Many – but not all – in the audience shouted back “Innocent.” In this way voice was given to those who never reached age 18. But 39 years later, whose voice is it?

(Rev. Archie Smith, Jr., Ph.D. is a regular contributor to this website. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Still Unanswered. His complete collection of writings is here.)

Originally posted on September 25th, 2018.

Last modified on October 22nd, 2018.
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