The Right Coast

April 27, 2005
Jonestown Ideals
By Maimon Schwarzschild

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is staging a play about Jim Jones' "People's Temple" in San Francisco, and about Jonestown in Guyana, where more than 900 people died in 1978. The play is evidently sympathetic to the leftish climate in which Jones operated, if not to Jones himself. (The play's website offers queasy New Age language about how the show "emphasizes moving forward rather than looking back", with a "quest" to "find healing"...)

Last week the New York Times arts section ran a story on the production, headlined "Beyond Kool-Aid: Looking at Jonestown and Its Ideals".

Jones's radical rhetoric won him approval from prominent Democrats in the 1970s, including Rosalynn Carter, Jerry Brown, and then-Congressman Willie Brown. None seemed to notice that Jones, even then, was (a) crudely exploitative of the mostly poor people whom he recruited into his cult-like "church", and that he was (b) crazy. Jones' flock died horrible deaths in Guyana, but Jones' political patrons lived on comfortably, not in Guyana. The chic politicians in question never expressed any serious remorse, and presumably felt none. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre might do well to explore the radical chic that helped make Jones and the Guyana massacre possible. It's a very safe bet that this play will not do so. There has been little enough liberal introspection or remorse about the decades of "progressive" fellow-travelling with Communist regimes that massacred tens of millions. Think of Jonestown as the same sort of thing, in miniature.

UPDATE: Willie Brown was of course a California State Assemblyman in the 1970s, never a US Congressman. (Hat tip to Peter Connolly of Washington, DC.) Brown was one of many liberal Bay Area politicians to whom Jones provided busloads of his members whenever volunteers were wanted. As the New York Times noted last week,
When Willie Brown Jr, a former Mayor of San Francisco who was a powerful state legislator at the time, introduced Jones at an event, he called him a combination of Martin Luther King Jr, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and Chairman Mao.
Brown's references to Angela Davis, a grim Communist Party stalwart, and to Chairman Mao, were evidently intended as praise. (The Times now demands a fee for the full text of this story online, unfortunately.)

As for Rosalynn Carter, Jones brought a bus of supporters to an event at which she appeared, and was rewarded with a private telephone conversation with her. A Guyanese cabinet minister at the time of the massacre, Kit Nascimento, said that one reason the Guyanese government had approved the establishment of the Jonestown settlement was that Jones had submitted letters of reference, including one signed by Rosalynn Carter, that "complimented Jones and his followers for their activities in California".