“Your conscience Socialism is God. God is Socialism, and I am Principle Socialism and that’s what makes me God.” That was the Rev. Jim Jones, darling of Democrats such as Rosalynn Carter, Walter Mondale, Jerry Brown and others. San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk even praised Jones’ People’s Temple after the November 18, 1978 mass suicide in Guyana.
In the ensuing 40 years a lot of nonsense has been written about Jones and Milk, played by Sean Penn in the 2008 Milk biopic, winner of two Oscars. Fortunately, in Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days that Shook San Francisco, Daniel Flynn blows away some major myths surrounding this pair.
Jones believed “the Bible is the root of all our problems today” and sought to “infiltrate the church” to spread the socialist evangel. He was also a racist who called Medgar Evers a “house nigger” and Duke Ellington an “Uncle Tom.” That proved no obstacle when Jones moved his flock to California. His People’s Temple congregation included some Black Panthers and Jones became the darling of the California Democrats.
Assemblyman Willie Brown, mentor of Senator and presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, compared Jones to Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. In a letter to Fidel Castro, Willie Brown called Jones a “close personal friend and highly trusted brother in the struggle for liberation.” New Left icon Tom Hayden hailed Jones’ “high standard of ethics and morality,” and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner named Jones “Humanitarian of the Year.”
Admirers included governor Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally and congressman Phil Burton. San Francisco mayor George Moscone appointed Jones commissioner of the city’s Housing Authority. For his part, Jones delivered the votes and supported groups such as the murderous Symbionese Liberation Army which, he said, “moved us a little closer to change.”
Jones moved his flock to Guyana and some saw his Jonestown compound as a more egalitarian society, free of racism, homophobia and such. Flynn calls it a “concentration camp” and notes that Jones piped in harangues by Angela Davis. In 1979, Davis won the Lenin Peace Prize, twice ran for vice-president with the Communist Party USA, and is now a high-profile attacker of President Trump.
As Flynn also shows, the State Department undermined efforts of Americans to rescue their relatives. Envoy Dick McCoy provided the Temple hierarchy with lists of Jonestown inhabitants that relatives wanted to set free. So as the New York Times noted, Jones boasted extensive government connections.
Jones ordered the suicide of more than 900 followers and his goons murdered Congressman Leo Ryan and four others, leaving current Rep. Jackie Speier wounded. After all that, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk refused to condemn Jonestown outright. “Guyana was a great experiment that didn’t work,” Milk said. “I don’t know, maybe it did.” Like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, the conservative Flynn has been on to this guy from the start.
Born in on Long Island in 1931, a year after Jones, Milk served in the Navy from 1951-55. Contrary to claims that the Navy drummed him out for being homosexual, Milk was honorably discharged. Milk worked as a schoolteacher, stockbroker and camera shop proprietor, and in San Francisco he recast himself as a political leader.
As Flynn notes, “Milk’s taste in men veered toward boys,” including Jack Galen, who was only 16 to Milk’s 33. Even so, Milk was never outed, “as a pederast.”
Milk was attracted to Jim Jones who, Flynn recalls, “used the pulpit to extoll homosexuality.” So Milk became one of Jones’ most eager advocates, writing, “Such greatness I have found at Jim Jones’ People’s Temple.” Jones responded with support for Milk’s campaigns but nothing about Jones emerges in the Milk movie.
Blue-collar Democrat Dan White, a former policeman and firefighter, voted with Milk to support gay issues. Supervisor White has been portrayed as a right-wing anti-gay bigot but as Flynn explains, “this isn’t true.” And it wasn’t true that White killed Milk because he was gay.
Flynn cites supervisor Dianne Feinstein, who said “this had nothing to do with anybody’s sexual orientation. It had to do with getting back his position.”
As Flynn laments, “myths prove harder to kill than men.” Those who praised Jim Jones went on to great fame and in 2009 POTUS 44 awarded Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A U.S. Navy ship now bears the name of this pederast.
For Flynn, the lesson of Jonestown is to rely on the brain, not ideology, to think. He ends the story with the Jonestown placard: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That George Santayana reference, and the valuable lessons of Cult City, are worth pondering as the November election approaches.
Leftist Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are now hailing socialism with revivalist fervor. Conservative Republicans find themselves called “evil,” and targets of vicious smears, as in the attack on Brett Kavanaugh, and violence, as in the attack on Steve Scalise. As the Democrats’ demonology surges, someone could get killed.
Some may recall that this happened before, but nobody can remember what they didn’t know in the first place. For all but the willfully blind, Cult City will an asset of lasting value.