We are approaching the 40th anniversary of two shocking events that most people are unaware are linked: the assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by disgruntled Supervisor Dan White in November, 1978, and – ten days later – the ghastly, bizarre murders and suicides of 918 cult followers at Jonestown, which constituted the largest loss of civilian life in American history (until the terrorist attacks of the morning of Sept. 11, 2001) and the largest mass suicide of the modern era.
These dark episodes have been brought back into the light in an investigative new page-turner titled Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco by Daniel J. Flynn, also the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, A Conservative History of the American Left, Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas, and Why the Left Hates America.
I interviewed the author via email about his just-released book, recently reviewed at FrontPage Mag here.
Mark Tapson: Your book dispels some widely-held myths about both the murder of Harvey Milk and the Jonestown mass suicide. For example, Milk swiftly became a martyr for the gay community after his assassination, and the media helped promote this. What is the truth about Milk and about why Dan White targeted him?
Daniel J. Flynn: Looking to make sense of a senseless crime, gay activists immediately advanced a narrative that Dan White killed Harvey Milk because of his homosexuality. I interviewed White’s campaign manager, chief of staff, and business partner, a gay man, who rejects this thesis. As I detail in Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco, White occasionally supported liberal causes, including some gay-rights measures, and generally thought of Milk as a friend during his short time on the board —particularly in the first few months. Harvey Milk’s homosexuality had as much to do with his murder as George Moscone’s heterosexuality had to do with his death.
Dan White murdered Harvey Milk because he believed that Milk had aggressively lobbied San Francisco Mayor George Moscone to prevent the supervisor from reclaiming the seat he had resigned from on the board. Moscone initially refused, in a very public way, to accept White’s resignation. But after Milk and others persuaded him to go back on the words he had uttered to the media Moscone decided to appoint someone more inclined to vote his way on the board. In other words, a petty man nursing a petty grievance lashed out against the two men he believed most responsible for denying him the $9,500-a-year job back from which he had recently resigned. He should have blamed himself. Instead, he blamed others—and sought revenge.
White felt betrayed by Milk and Moscone. Perhaps more importantly, he came to feel that in abruptly resigning he had inadvertently betrayed allies—their identities, importance, and the nature of their dependence on White which I will leave for a fuller explanation in the book. That’s part of the untold story. Another untold part of the story involves White’s history of violence. Out of my interviews came several shocking revelations and accusations involving White on this front. As Dianne Feinstein, White’s mentor on the board of supervisors, reflected long after the fact, “This had nothing to do with anybody’s sexual orientation.”
MT: Another myth stems from the favorable media coverage then and now about the Peoples Temple, which turned the Jonestown horror into a cautionary tale about the dangers of evangelical Christianity. What’s the truth about the Peoples Temple?
DF: Jim Jones used the forms of Pentecostalism, particularly phony faith healing, to lure people into his services. He was so good at it that one very intelligent Temple member I interviewed insisted that Jones possessed supernatural powers. Others conceded that much of it was an act—but not all. Once Jones hooked the people drawn by the healing and prophecies and extrasensory perception, he preached from the gospel according to Karl Marx. Jonestown did not celebrate Christmas, hosted no religious sermons, and confiscated Bibles until Jones distributed them for bathroom use. Jones, though not the most trustworthy authority on his own history, reflected on what catalyzed his entry into the ministry: “I decided: How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.”
Despite the explicitly atheist and anti-Christian outlook of the group, the media painted the Jonestown carnage as the act of cultists or religious fanatics. The New York Times described Jones’s preaching as “Christian fundamentalism,” while the Associated Press described his followers as “religious zealots.” This telling proved politically convenient but false.
Peoples Temple left millions of dollars to the Soviet Union. Books by neither Matthew nor Mark nor Luke nor John inspired their last act. A book by a guy name Huey did. Jones explicitly outlining the group’s aversion to Christianity and embrace of Communism—“even if we were Judeo-Christian, even if we weren’t Communists” he reasoned to his followers—on the death tape did not prevent journalists from conveying the idea that Christian cultists killed themselves. Even today, the spate of cable-television documentaries on Jonestown downplay the socialism that Jim Jones emphasized. Some recent authors stress the left-wing causes as a means to rehabilitate Peoples Temple. Whether by obscuring the group’s raison d'être or highlighting it as a way to offset their evil end, chroniclers of the event have not come to terms with the political element—really the group’s central focus—of Peoples Temple and how it led to Jonestown, a project aiming for full equality that ultimately achieved it.
MT: Tell us how cult leader Jim Jones became a darling of the San Francisco political establishment, and how, after Jonestown, those same politicians engaged in some revisionist history about their relationships with him.
DF: Willie Brown, for instance, called Jones “a highly trusted brother in the struggle for liberation” in a letter to Fidel Castro prior to the Peoples Temple leader’s visit to Cuba, where he met with an exiled Huey Newton. To San Franciscans, he described Jones as a combination of MLK, Mao, Gandhi, and Angela Davis. But in his 2008 autobiography, Basic Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco and speaker of the California assembly described Jones as “an obscure but charismatic San Francisco religious cult figure.” As though a detached observer rather than one of Jones’s most devoted boosters, Brown noted that “the enormity of the tragedy involving his followers makes one wonder how politicians and police failed to notice his sinister hold on people.”
Jimmy Carter, whose wife and sister knew Jones personally, avoided any mention of Jones or Jonestown, one of the most significant events of his presidency that deeply involved his State Department, in his memoirs.
Many powerful people ran to Jim Jones’s side in San Francisco. After Jonestown, they ran from him and acted as though they never knew him. And maybe they didn’t really know him. The sheer numbers of those promoting Jim Jones, and their famous names, will come as a big shock for readers of Cult City.
MT: You note that Hollywood’s take on Harvey Milk, starring Sean Penn, omitted any mention of Milk’s connection to Jim Jones. But in real life, how did Milk and Jones use each other to further their ambitions?
DF: Jim Jones provided Harvey Milk with a printing press, gave him hundreds of campaign “volunteers,” yielded the Peoples Temple pulpit to him, and provided free publicity to him in the Peoples Forum newspaper. When Milk’s lover Jack Lira took his own life, Jones instructed his followers to send condolence letters from Jonestown. He noted Milk’s standing as one of the group’s most devoted supporters. The handwritten notes, written from a singular set of talking points and directed by Temple leaders, conveyed a welcome should Milk visit or even live in Jonestown. When Milk oversaw a fair on Castro Street, the Temple provided really talented, professional-level entertainers from their ranks. The strange pair enjoyed a warm, mutually-beneficial relationship.
In exchange for this support from a powerful political organization, and in appreciation for Jim Jones’s stand in favor of gay rights, Harvey Milk acted as an uncritical booster of Peoples Temple. He lobbied the presidents of the United States and Guyana on the Temple’s behalf through letters that portrayed Jim Jones as a saintly figure. He praised Peoples Temple in his newspaper column. He spoke at Peoples Temple, including at a rally after the publication of damning allegations buttressed by proof in New West magazine in an article that Milk sought to suppress. Even when the Temple became too hot for other politicians to touch, Harvey Milk stood by it—until the very end.
Many San Francisco homosexuals, though appreciative of Jones’s support on gay rights, viewed him as an egomaniac and a kook. Strangely, the more people wrote about Milk in the years since his assassination, the less they recalled this aspect of his time in politics. No Jones figure even appears as a character in the Oscar-winning biopic starring Sean Penn. Given the enormity of the crimes of Milk’s ally, this omission glares.
MT: Are the lessons of this story specific to its time and place – San Francisco after the Summer of Love – or is there a cautionary tale in it for us as well?
DF: Do not outsource your thinking to your ideology or your guru. People who promise heaven on earth often wind up making life hell. Do not justify the means by the ends. Learn to differentiate between people who share your politics and people who share your ethics. Do not turn your political views into a religious faith. I think those stand as five pretty clear lessons from Jonestown that apply beyond it.
Certainly a unique time and place, San Francisco in the 1970s, gave rise to Peoples Temple. The Symbionese Liberation Army, Zebra Murderers, Zodiac Killer, Black Panthers, Weather Underground, and New World Liberation Front were a few of the better-known crazies terrorizing San Francisco in those years. Peoples Temple probably appeared somewhat mainstream when juxtaposed to all that. Beyond this, after sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll fell short as gods, many looked to religion—particularly new religions—to fill the void in their lives. Radical politics and hard drugs made many soft. Those who lectured others to “question authority” often failed to heed their own advice.
The two events that I focus on in Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco—the Jonestown suicides and the Milk-Moscone assassinations—put an exclamation point on a chaotic, scary era.