“In the [San Francisco] Bay Area you can see the young beset and preyed upon by vultures, wolves, and parasites: dope peddlers, pimps, lechers, perverts, thugs, cult mongers, and ideological seducers. Everywhere you look you can see human beings rot before they ripen.” So wrote a trenchant and prophetic Eric Hoffer in 1968, 10 years before what author Daniel J. Flynn calls “10 days that shook San Francisco.”
Those days, and the subsequent shock that followed, unfolded this time 40 years ago, November-December 1978. Americans nationwide, well beyond the strange confines of San Francisco, struggled to absorb one of the weirdest set of circumstances in their nation’s history. It was then that a surreal pair of deaths took place: the bizarre Jim Jones and his cult, which produced the murders and mass-suicide of 918 people at a remote jungle outpost in South America, and the murder a few days later of San Francisco’s openly gay elected official Harvey Milk.
What was the connection? Both Jones and Milk hailed from San Francisco, and both admired one another. And that wasn’t all.
Totally neglected then and still today is the reality that Jim Jones was nothing less than a darling of San Francisco’s perverse political establishment. Yes, that bears repeating: Jim Jones and his seduced cult of infamous “Kool-Aid” drinkers had been embraced by, and were renowned among, the San Francisco political left.
Jones’s Peoples Temple was praised in its heyday not only by Harvey Milk but by the likes of Huey Newton, Jane Fonda, Angela Davis, and a long line of progressive luminaries. California political legend Willie Brown compared Jones to Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein. Governor Jerry Brown met with Jones. And the interest in Jones was not just limited to California country. Jones met with Vice Presidents Nelson Rockefeller and Walter Mondale and future First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
In this riveting book, which begins by chronicling the toxic milieu of San Francisco cultural life between 1968-78—a haven for everything from Haight-Ashbury acid-droppers to Charles Manson, the Weather Underground refugees, Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan, the Zodiac killer, the Symbionese Liberation Army (that’s a short list)—author Daniel Flynn provides a truly remarkable historical service. Flynn has researched and written one of the most revelatory books of 2018, a wake-up call to conservatives and liberals alike. He lays waste to many historical misunderstandings and ideological sacred cows concerning both the Jim Jones cult and the Harvey Milk hagiography. Almost everything you thought you knew about the religious-ideological underpinnings of these events is wrong.
First and foremost, the political left has strived to frame the wrongdoers and (better word) evildoers in these crimes as right-wingers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Harvey Milk, for instance, who has been canonized in death with Oscar-winning films, a California state holiday, and even a U.S. Navy ship christened in his name by President Barack Obama, was not the victim of a “homophobic” right-wing shooter looking to kill a gay man. In fact, Milk’s assassin was a blue-collar Democrat who often supported Milk on gay issues unusual even for San Francisco at that time. His killer, Dan White, was a government worker, a public-employee union activist, and what Flynn describes as a protégé to future U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. He was not, despite the media’s framing, a “disturbed right-wing supervisor.”
But the worst depths of disinformation have concerned the Jim Jones cabal. Here, the misinformation and misunderstanding has been outright extraordinary.
Flynn begins his book with a haunting scene: an empty ballroom at the San Francisco Hyatt Regency on December 2, 1978. The room was empty because the would-be beneficiaries were dead, literally gone. The people of the Rev. Jim Jones Peoples Temple a few weeks earlier had drank a fatal admixture of cyanide and Flavor Aid in a sugary elixir administered to hundreds of them in faraway Guyana. Also left dead there on an airstrip were five individuals, including Congressman Leo Ryan, assassinated by Peoples Temple gunmen while they were trying to flee.
They weren’t the only ones not in attendance. Also absent from the December 2 gala benefit for the Peoples Temple Medical Program, billed as “A Struggle Against Oppression” in promotional flyers, were would-be emcee Willie Brown, a household name in California politics and the state’s most famous liberal politician, and comedian Dick Gregory, scheduled to give the keynote. Also missing, after having placed his name as a supporter on the promotional flyer, was San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk.
“We have tasted life based on equality and now have no desire to do otherwise,” the Peoples Temple had glowed in its promotional literature for the event. They were so equal that they headed south, where, on November 18, 1978, they all shared their “Kool-Aid” drinks equally, and death equally.
Equality was a big thing to the Rev. Jim Jones and his sect. They were all about equality—the most radical form of it, actually. They were so into equality that they were communists. Yes, communists. And the right reverend and his followers weren’t Christians either. “In the chaotic aftermath of the carnage, the Temple’s aggressive communism and evangelical atheism got lost in the translation from the Guyanese jungle to bustling urban newsrooms,” observes Daniel Flynn.
That’s for sure. The nation’s premier newspaper-of-record, The New York Times, found this fit to print: “Mr. Jones had preached a blend of fundamentalist Christianity and social activism.” The Associated Press told the world that Jones and his disciples were “religious zealots.” CBS’s trusted anchor Walter Cronkite tried to frame the reverend as a radical right-winger: “a power-hungry fascist.”
The political left had its handy narrative. But there was one big problem with this particular narrative: it was wrong. It was completely wrong.
Jones and gang were not only not fundamentalist Christians and right-wingers; they were fundamentalist atheists and left-wingers. They were not about the Bible; they were about the Communist Manifesto. They were not about America as some sort of Reaganesque “Shining City on a Hill;” they were about the USSR as the utopian Motherland.
“The supposed religious fanatics of Jonestown had hosted a Soviet delegation, taught Russian to residents in preparation for a mass pilgrimage to the place Jim Jones dubbed the group’s ‘spiritual motherland,’ and willed millions of dollars to the Soviet Union,” writes Dan Flynn. Jones commonly denounced “Fascist America.”
As for religious leanings, the Peoples Temple acolytes worshipped not Jesus but Jim.
“When I say Goddamnit,” affirmed the Rev. Jones, “I guess I can damn it, because I’m God.”
Jones denounced the “stupid Skygod” of the Christians. “They sang songs about Jim rather than Jesus,” writes Flynn. “Jonestown celebrated December 25 as Revolution Day.”
“Peoples Temple goons confiscated Bibles reaching Jonestown from the United States,” reports Flynn. What did they do with those Bibles? They treated them like toilet paper—literally. “When the jungle community ran out of toilet paper, Jones distributed Bibles for bathroom use—a practice hitherto unknown among fundamentalist Christians.”
Speaking of which, Jones was no Moral Majority Bible-thumper. Not only did he not denounce homosexuality but extolled it from the pulpit when others (even in California) did not dare go there. Surely that was another reason he acquired admirers in the likes of Harvey Milk.
The big shocker, of course, is that we don’t know any of this. Ask almost anyone who remembers the Jonestown-Guyana disaster and they will tell you that this information is new to them. Jones and crew are portrayed in cultural lore as what happens when a group of religious fanatics (assumed to be “fundamentalist” Christians) follow their fanatical leader off the proverbial cliff. And yet, notes Flynn, “Jonestown, a jungle citadel of evangelical atheism and militant socialism, strangely became a cautionary tale about the dangers of evangelical Christianity.”
That was not the situation here at all. Strange, alright. Very strange indeed.
As for Dan Flynn connecting Jim Jones to Harvey Milk, well, surely, many liberals will protest, that must be an unfair smear. Not at all.
In his research, Flynn found that “Harvey Milk became one of Jones’s most effusive advocates.” Milk wrote glowing letters of recommendation for Jones and lobbied prominent civics leaders on behalf of the Peoples Temple, almost sounding like a Jones publicist. Eerily, Milk even commended Jones to the prime minister of Guyana: “Such greatness I have found at Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple.”
The Jonestown tragedy birthed in Guyana, states Flynn, was first conceived in California, and one of the “midwives” was Harvey Milk, who depicted “Jim Jones as a saint, Jonestown as an Eden, and the Temples’ opponents as loathsome.”
Flynn sums up cuttingly but deservedly: “Before Peoples Temple drank Jim Jones’s Kool-Aid, powerful people in San Francisco did. Harvey Milk imbibed most enthusiastically.”
Dan Flynn deserves tremendous credit for exposing and blowing up the outrageous myths surrounding the deaths that occurred 40 years ago in the Jim Jones and Harvey Milk tragedies. No one ever again should be able to get away with blaming these terrible incidents on “right-wingers.” If you hear anyone on the political left trying to do so, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.