The futures of Jonestown

by John R. Hall

(John R. Hall, author of Gone from the Promised Land, is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of writings may be found here. He may be reached at jrhall@ucdavis.edu.)

Copyright © John R. Hall 2018. All rights reserved.

A tasty historical chestnut has it that when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked in the 1970s about the impact of the 1789 French Revolution, he replied, “Too early to say.”

This was probably an answer based on a misunderstanding, but as it suggests, the relationship between time and history is important. There are four reasons. First, as events recede into the past, the emergence of new eyewitness accounts declines. Second, the discovery of new documents and the opening of previously embargoed archives may shift understandings of events, sometimes in radical ways. Third, processes of “collective memory” and “commemoration” can stabilize (or contest or shift!) understandings of events.[1] Fourth, the societal conditions under which people understand historical events will shape the interests and interpretations of both scholars and the wider public. Disagreements about events like the French Revolution are an inherent feature of historical consciousness. Whether Zhou Enlai meant to or not, he pithily demonstrated that “history” is not simply a matter of compiling a narrative that takes account of all the facts.

The history of Peoples Temple and its escalating conflict with the opponents who came to call themselves the Concerned Relatives is “polysemic,” that is, open to dramatically different interpretations. The reasons are not obscure: the November 18, 1978, killing of Congressman Leo Ryan and others at Port Kaituma, followed by the murders and mass suicide led by Jim Jones at Jonestown, Guyana, were unprecedented and ghastly, and they bore a potent stigma and deep trauma that enveloped not only those close to the tragedy but to America as a nation.[2] Even people remote from these events became disoriented by feelings of remorse and anger. From the outset, survivors from various camps grappled with the stigma and trauma in their own lives, and their public recollections and the offerings of popular media and scholars cannot easily transcend the disjunctures between memories and truth, self-justification and recrimination. Under these conditions, contradictory understandings persist and even become amplified, as the past is reconstructed in a realm where history and myth share stories and forge constructions of identities.[3] Today the shelf of books, articles, TV programs, and movies about Peoples Temple, Jonestown, and the Concerned Relatives is a very long one: a “historiography” – a whole history of histories – could be written about how these events have been understood over the last 40 years.

What, then, of the future of Jonestown, not as a place, but as a place in history and as a collective imaginary? To ask this question is to mimic the “futurologists”[4] who began to emerge in the Cold War era of the 1950s and ’60s, around the time Peoples Temple was established and began to grow. Like the futurologists, we may propose “scenarios” meant to track future possibilities based on projections of present trends and assumptions about developments to come. But let’s be honest: writing future history is a bit like writing projective science fiction (which had a number of fans among the futurologists). And the past presents similar difficulties. There is an old joke from the Soviet era: “The future is certain,” they used to say. “It’s only the past that is unpredictable.”[5] So with Jonestown, what is certain about the future is that its past is unpredictable. Jonestown’s history does not have a future, it has futures.

Among the four conditions of history that I raised at the outset, the declining emergence of new first-hand accounts about Jonestown bears little comment other than to note that many people could still come forward with new, fuller, or revised stories.[6] As for collective memory about Jonestown, it deserves a far more detailed treatment than would be possible here. I will thus focus on the two other conditions – the implications of as-yet-unexamined documents and archives, and how future conditions of historical knowledge might shape narratives about Jonestown.

What, then, about new information? Even by the 1980s, when scholarly analyses of Peoples Temple and Jonestown began to appear, the archive, if assembled in one place, would have been enormous. Almost four decades later, the California Historical Society has an entire row of stack shelves devoted to Jonestown materials, and this website contains an extensive and growing online archive of documents and sound recordings (and many transcriptions) that includes the vast majority of materials publicly-released by the FBI and other sources.[7] To be sure, some of the materials both within and between these two archives are duplicative: the same documents emerged through different pathways of provenance – the FBI, the State Department, Peoples Temple court-appointed receiver Robert Fabian, and others. But even discounting duplication, Peoples Temple has become the best documented apocalyptic religious movement ever, and the consolidated archive includes materials from many sources and points of view. Consequently, analysts often have been able to crosscheck information and accounts to determine their points of agreement and disagreement. And, as an exploration of this website will attest, Peoples Temple and Jonestown have been the subjects of multiple and rich veins of scholarly, personal, and other accounts.

Yet not all relevant materials find their ways into archives immediately; some never do. Writing history can be something like the work of archeology, trying to envision a mosaic or pot when some of the pieces, even big ones, are missing. The challenge is to bring a subject into view as a whole under conditions of incomplete knowledge. Thus, when new information becomes available, historians scramble to consider whether and how it shifts narratives and interpretations. Such developments are particularly important when existing archives are not only partial but also distorted, that is, when they provide a great deal of information about one aspect or issue and very little about another.

What information about Jonestown exists today that has not yet found its way into publicly accessible archives? And how might it shape our understandings? To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous formulation, there are unknown unknowns: if they ever become known, they may surprise us. In the meantime, because of the multiple possibilities of interpreting Jonestown, the possible existence of unknown unknowns leaves a great deal of room for conspiracy theories (such as the claim that Jonestown was a CIA thought-control experiment, or that the body bags of those who died there were used to smuggle heroin into the United States in order to blunt the revolutionary aspirations of oppressed Blacks). Cataloging such narratives built on unknown unknowns would be a worthwhile enterprise, but the enterprise would be a chapter in the history of conspiracy theories rather than a chapter in the history of Jonestown itself.[8]

Leaving aside the unknown unknowns for a moment, there remain Rumsfeld’s known unknowns – materials we know exist, the import of which remains unknown.[9] Here, there are significant troves of materials. Some of them – 27 boxes of the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee’s records – have become available in the US National Archives within the last two years (for a summary of contents, see this National Archives inventory). Although we can glean a general idea of what is in the boxes, so far, they remain known unknowns. Certainly there will be substantial duplication, but there apparently is important new material as well. Previously confidential and classified appendices not included in the US House of Representative’s International Relations Committee’s published report now reside in Box 23 of the publicly-accessible National Archives.

The topics of the appendices … include the tactics of Jim Jones; conspiracy against Jones and the People’s Temple; opponents and media intimidated, public officials used; awareness of danger, degree of violence; … the role and performance of the U.S. Department of State; and others (Attachment 1: 1).

Other National Archives boxes also contain materials of considerable interest, including: CIA intelligence on Peoples Temple; some House of Representatives Intelligence Committee materials; a large set of State Department documents and cables; transcripts of interviews with a variety of individuals, mostly government officials, Congressional staff, journalists, members of the Concerned Relatives, and Jonestown defectors; Congressman Leo Ryan’s staff member Joe Holsinger’s audiocassette interviews of members of the Concerned Relatives undertaken in the summer of 1978, just months before Ryan’s trip to Guyana; and more general documents about “cults” that found their ways into the committee’s purview.

The National Archives, in short, include a potentially substantial array of new kinds of information. Given the Congressional committee’s mandate to investigate the assassination of Congressman Ryan, they mainly focus on the events and actions leading up to the murders and mass suicide. No doubt ambitious journalists will dive into these archives and find what they will proclaim as newly-discovered documents proving what “really” happened.

Beyond the newly-available National Archives materials, there will be a need to address other known unknowns. We already know that certain information – passport applications held in the National Archives for example – remains embargoed for 50 years and thus will not be available until after the 50th anniversary of Jonestown. There are more than a few other documents (and unredacted versions of documents already made public) in the files of various US government agencies, including the State Department, the FBI, the CIA, the FCC, and perhaps others. And then there are those unknown unknowns. We obviously don’t know what these are, and we may never find out. But we can certainly wonder, for example, what information might be held by media organizations and journalists, the Government of Guyana, or people directly connected to Peoples Temple or the Concerned Relatives.

Perhaps we eventually really will get a much more sharply focused and deeply textured understanding of events in the period between the Temple’s “tax crisis” in late 1976 and the fateful Ryan expedition that culminated in the murders and mass suicide.[10] Today’s known unknowns plus unknown unknowns have special potential to revise accounts of the Peoples Temple migration to Guyana; preparations in Jonestown for the Ryan expedition and the murders and mass suicide; and the organization of the Concerned Relatives, both independently and in relation to journalists, politicians and government agencies, and the then-emerging broader anticult movement. Overall, any truly comprehensive new account will depend upon the careful and thoughtful work of a scholar (or realistically, a team of scholars) willing to undertake the painstaking and difficult work of detailed research in an archive that is already enormous. Even if such a research project were to be launched immediately, its completion before the 50thanniversary of the murders and mass suicide in 2028 seems unlikely.

Yet no matter how many new materials become available and how scholars and journalists are able to deepen our knowledge of events, we already have seen in the past 40 years that understandings of Jonestown depend on what central questions are asked by scholars, journalists, and the wider public, and which of the many facts they bring to bear in constructing their narratives. As Zhou Enlai seemed to observe, these will shift according to historical contexts.

Taking a page from the futurologists of the past, it is possible to generate “scenarios” based on alternative assumptions about future conditions and then speculate about what Jonestown might mean in those different futures. Two broad scenarios come to mind.

In the first one, based on a reaffirmation of progressive modernity as a reigning ideology of the public sphere, the academy will persist in something like its contemporary form, and historians, religious studies scholars, and sociologists will continue to plumb the archives while increasingly locating Jonestown as a product and even synecdoche of its cultural moment and social tensions, fitting it within broader arcs of latter-20th century history brought down to a future present.

In this scenario, Peoples Temple will be seen as an organization that straddled the cusp bridging, on the one hand, the old modernity of the Great Depression, the old Left, World War II, Communist movements, the Cold War, and, more specifically, the “Pentecostalism of the poor,” versus, on the other hand, the new (post- or “liquid”) modernity initially marked in the midst of an emergent “Great Society” social-welfare state by the Civil Rights movement, the New Left, protests against the Vietnam War, and the counterculture. As for the Concerned Relatives, they might be shoehorned into a parallel narrative about the rise of antimodernist white nationalism originating in developments like the “Red Scare,” the anti-fluoridation movement, and conspiracy-theory right-wing politics of the 1950s and early ’60s, amplified by the spread of suburban white evangelical Christianity and the countermovement that emerged against the counterculture in the late ’60s, all finally turbocharged by cultural anxieties about youth rejecting both their families and the American suburban utopia that their parents had so proudly worked to establish after World War II.

In this new history, Jonestown might come to be seen as a harbinger of mainstream conservative American Othering of the counterculture, the New Left, and progressive movements more generally, eventually spreading to resentment of a liberalism decaying under its embrace of a more conservative neoliberalism and embrace of globalization.

The specific contours of this new cultural history of Jonestown will depend in large part on whether deep American cultural divide and transnational authoritarian movements of white nationalism of the present day are displaced by the reaffirmation of a (new) modernity recommitted to progress. If so, Jonestown probably will become an increasingly remote historical event subject to fading collective memory that continues to fix it most widely as the source of the phrase, “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Jonestown as history will ever further give way to “Jonestown” as one or another pop culture permutation of an iconic story, the retelling of which will serve as a mythical amulet of collective consciousness, meant to ward off evil.

The second scenario hinges on the alternative, more dystopian assumption of a continuing transition from democratic capitalism to a world economy dominated by authoritarian and autocratic state/corporate crony capitalism. Here, the apocalypse at Jonestown oddly resonates with people drinking the Fox News Kool-Aid and electing a right-wing, racist populist who ironically shares many of the faith-healing and propaganda techniques once employed by Jim Jones. Now, history slouches toward a global apocalypse wrought at its source by an economic and political establishment that lacks the desire to deal with its institutional logic’s consequences – ever deepening social inequality; irreversible climate change and its devastations on the ground; ethnic conflict; mass migrations met with intensified state efforts to control borders; the continued decay of the public sphere in the face of censorship and the suppression of political dissent; and the emergence of new poor people’s movements, anarchically organized counter-economies, and underground enclaves of diverse utopian and survivalist persuasions. Even then, as the manifesto of the Dark Mountain Project starkly anticipates, “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths that lead to the unknown world ahead of us” (Kingsnorth and Hine, 2009).

This latter scenario would have been the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago. Now, it is hardly implausible. Instead, it is simply an exaggerated sketch of developments already upon us. Jonestown would then serve not as an amulet but a harbinger, a revelation… of what?

Our life chances and how we experience the world depend very much on who we are and how we are situated in the myriad networks of social life. In the second scenario, the futures we make of Jonestown will depend on how we take our places in a world wracked by hegemonic capitalism, class and ethnic inequality, propaganda bubbles, resurgent nationalism, and relentlessly unbridled extra-institutional political conflict that – yes, let’s say it, for all his hideous depravity and charismatic failures – Jim Jones obliquely and perversely anticipated in his sermons and his rants. This is a world the shapes of which, it is disconcerting to acknowledge, we can actually foresee. The figure of Jim Jones has often been treated as a scapegoat; the organization he and his followers forged, a dystopian nightmare; the maelstrom of conflict between Peoples Temple and the Concerned Relatives, a cautionary tale. Yet it is worth recalling that in the deep history of the ancient Jews, the figure of the scapegoat, banned from society, bore the burdens projected onto it by those who sought to rid themselves of stigma (Hall 2004: 294-311). If only history could be managed by such ritual. As Congressman Ryan spoke at Jonestown on the evening of November 17, the sign above the stage in the pavilion behind him quoted philosopher George Santayana’s well-known precept: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The question about Jonestown remains open: how will we remember the past in the future?

 

References

Andersson, Jenny. 2018. The Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post Cold War Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friedman, Jonathan. 1992. “The past in the future: History and the politics of identity.” American Anthropologist, New Series 94: 837-859.

Hall, John R. 2004 [1987]. Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History, 2nded. with a new introduction. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Hall, John R., Mary Jo Neitz, and Marshall Battani. 2003. Sociology on Culture. London: Routledge.

Kingsnorth, Paul and Douglas Hine. 2009. Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. Oxford, U.K.: The Dark Mountain Project, http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/, accessed 31 August 2018.

Lukes, Stephen. 1985. Marxism and Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saito, Hiro. 2019. “The changing culture and politics of commemoration.” Pp. 648-56 in Laura Grindstaff, Ming-Cheng Lo, and John R. Hall, Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology, 2nded. London: Routledge.

Schwartz, Barry. 2019. “Culture and collective memory: comparative perspectives.” Pp. 639-47 in Laura Grindstaff, Ming-Cheng Lo, and John R. Hall, Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology, 2nded. London: Routledge.

Sciortino, Giuseppe. 2019. “Cultural trauma.” Pp. 135-43 in Laura Grindstaff, Ming-Cheng Lo, and John R. Hall, Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology, 2nded. London: Routledge.

Turner, Patricia A. 1993. I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

Notes:

[1] For the sociology of collective memory, see Schwartz 2019; on commemoration, see Saito 2019, and, on commemoration of controversial events, Hall, Neitz, and Battani 2003: 243-45.

[2] On trauma more generally, see Sciortino 2019.

[3] For an account of future history and identity, see Friedman 192.

[4] On futurology, see Andersson 2018.

[5] Joke quoted in Lukes 1985: 146.

[6] On a recent new account by a participant, see my review of Tim Stoen’s 2015 book (retitled in 2017), https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=67307, accessed 4 September 2018.

[7] See “About Jonestown,” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website, https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=18, accessed 4 September 2018.

[8] Pat Turner (1993) has written a more general study of rumor in African-American culture.

[9] My sincere thanks to Fielding McGehee for providing up-to-date information about newly released material in the National Archives and the state of play concerning other, unreleased materials, discussed below.

[10] On the “tax crisis,” rather than subsequent journalistic exposés precipitating Peoples Temple’s mass migration to Jonestown, see Hall 2004: 198ff.

Originally posted on September 30th, 2018.

Last modified on October 28th, 2018.
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