Paul Kengor: Remembering original 'Kool-Aid drinkers'
“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”
That phrase, of course, has become a popular line of derision toward those who blindly follow a leader or easily swallow whatever spoonful of nonsense is fed to them.
But, ask people under the age of, say, 50, and they likely will not know the origins of the phrase (not without a quick Google search). Truth be told, it isn’t anything to joke about.
It was this time 40 years ago that Americans turned on their evening news and absorbed the grisly details of the bizarre Jim Jones cult, which produced the shocking murders/mass suicide of 918 people at a remote jungle outpost in faraway Guyana. The members of Jones’ Peoples Temple had ingested, collectively, a fatal admixture of cyanide and Flavor Aid in a sugary elixir.
Thus, don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Don’t blindly accept, cult-like, whatever you’re told.
And, yet, the misconceptions about who Jones and his followers truly were is remarkable, as shown in Daniel Flynn’s fascinating new book “Cult City,” focused on the surreal San Francisco milieu that helped produce, protect and even praised Jones throughout the 1970s.
Totally neglected then and still is the reality that Jones was a darling of San Francisco’s leftist political establishment. Jones’ Peoples Temple was hailed in its heyday by San Francisco gay icon Harvey Milk, by radicals Huey Newton, Angela Davis and Jane Fonda, 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. Outside California country, Jones met with Vice Presidents Nelson Rockefeller and Walter Mondale and future first lady Rosalynn Carter.
Almost everything you thought you knew about the religious-ideological underpinnings of Jones and gang is wrong.
First and foremost, members of the Jones sect were not fundamentalist, right-wing Christians. They were militant socialists and atheists. They were not about the Bible; they were about “The Communist Manifesto.” They were about the USSR as their utopia.
“The supposed religious fanatics of Jonestown had hosted a Soviet delegation,” writes Flynn. They had “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.”
Jones denounced what he called “Fascist America.”
The Peoples Temple acolytes worshipped not Jesus, but Jim. “They sang songs about Jim rather than Jesus,” writes Flynn. “Jonestown celebrated December 25 as Revolution Day.”
“When I say G—damnit,” affirmed Jones, “I guess I can damn it, because I’m God.”
Jones denounced the “stupid Skygod” of the Christians.
Peoples Temple goons treated the Bible literally like toilet paper. “When the jungle community ran out of toilet paper, Jones distributed Bibles for bathroom use,” says Flynn, “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) dared not.
Alas, the big shocker is that we don’t know any of this.
Flynn deserves tremendous credit for exposing the outrageous myths surrounding the Jonestown tragedy. No one ever again should get away with blaming this terrible incident on fundamentalists. If you hear anyone do so, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.