Historical Notes: Jonestown, once a horror, now a joke

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The Independent Culture
JONESTOWN IN 1978 shocked and appalled me. When I saw the pictures of the bloated bodies of 913 people, 274 of them children, without much insight into Jim Jones and his American followers I readily attached responsibility for the painful deaths of those children by cyanide to the country's politicians of the day. Somehow a rampant political corruption had reaped the whirlwind of this massacre of the innocents. The country's symbolic death at the hands of a corrupt leadership had been rehearsed for the world to see and all that remained was a second less newsworthy calamity of the death of the nation.

The leadership of Jim Jones and the fate of his followers mimicked that of the larger national picture. Guyana, 600 feet below sea-level, would be devoured by a tidal wave of corruption and rebellion against it, and there would be pictures, many graphic pictures, but no authority with the will to prevent it.

Twenty years later, the reality is different. In retrospect I view Jim Jones as an accident waiting to happen. He could have been anywhere. Guyana was merely a backdrop for his Hollywood apocalypse flick. His followers became fodder for his megalomaniacal delusions of persecution and self- aggrandisement, right here on earth but, if not on earth because he is denied by curious government agencies, then in some conjured, other-worldly place. The majority of his disciples were poor, powerless and invested a high premium in an hereafter having been betrayed by a life of struggle and need in the here and now in Seventies America still licking its wounds from Sixties desegregation battles and Vietnam.

These poor blacks (and a few whites) were ripe pickings for Jones. His brand of charismatic biblical rhetoric became a tonic for the poor; relief and retreat from a hard-graft reality of bills and a struggle to make ends meet and nothing to answer a spiritual hunger but want and more want, greed and no way of matching that need.

The Bible is the foundation of the resilence of the American poor rather than any unionism or socialism or racial solidarity. Jones knew how much a poor black family invested in a belief that somewhere, other than here on mean old earth, a place existed where men and women of all races and classes lived on the same plane, believing that access to that harmonious plane was earned not by wealth and influence but by simple devotion to the idea of an after-life. He preached to their vulnerability and gained his flock of hundreds willing to uproot and relocate in a country they had probably never heard of before.

What is the legacy of Jonestown? These days you can take your pick of fundamentalist thought gone awry. Some popularised notion of an inner life worthy of discovery and virtually a guarantee of contentment whatever the material reality. Who knows. What is certain is that Guyanese do not talk about Jonestown. In fact Jonestown is even a joke, a foreign experiment failing spectacularly on Guyanese soil with little to do with Guyanese themselves; a satellite project, another imperialist dream turned into a nightmare, the excesses of Western-bred indulgence with the idea of God and paradise reaching a logical conclusion: Conrad's Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness, gone mad, except that Kurtz's darkness, which is Jones's, is somebody else's daylight, the everyday-ness of all Guyanese.

If Guyana was ever a sight for the last of this century's romantic engagement with an ancient, pure and instructive landscape, then Jones's presence in the Guyanese interior so close to the rainforest of the Amazonian basin certainly exploded that notion. The power of man to exert a destructive influence on his environment is equalled only by his capacity to turn that destructive potential against himself.

Fred D'Aguiar is the author of `Bill of Rights' (Chatto, pounds 7.99)