Monday, June 12, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown

One of the joys of used bookstores is finding some gem caught on the shores of the sell-stream. In this case, it was Raven: The Untold Story of Reverend Jim Jones and His People: By Tom Reiterman & John Jacobs

The Jonestown massacre was almost thirty years ago. Yet the lessons from the book are just as fresh, showing that the psychos are always with us.

The phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" has caught on to describe willful rejection of reality to embrace a soothing lie. (For the record, it was grape Flavor Aid. Truth is important.) And that is what Jim Jones did. The echoes of his obsessions are part of national discourse today. Even though Jones lured people in with socialistic and communist ideals, the main points of his philosophy are with us now in the rantings of the Republican Right.

Because it doesn't matter what goals grifters claim to have. Grifters are about the grift.

Jim Jones had mental problems, and coped with them by using his charisma and psychological knowledge to pull other people into his fantasy world. There's nothing inherently wrong with fantasy worlds, or getting people to join them. The whole Star Trek phenomena has not only provided employment for thousands of creative workers, but provided millions more with a way of thinking about the world that fosters scientific and humanistic goals. Even for the people working on dioramas in their basement, it provides creative energy and a social framework.

However, Jim Jones' fantasy world only pretended to be about other people's welfare. It was really about Jones' welfare. While the first steps into the Temple were benign, carefully orchestrated events, everyone was soon confronted with a moral conflict that would determine their future path. They would be asked to do bad for good.

The end justifies the means. This is probably Jones' most repeated excuse, which he used to justify deceptive faith healings, financial scams, and physical, mental, and sexual abuse of his followers. In turn, his followers would use this to excuse their own immoral behavior in the service of the Temple. In a way, this was the biggest lie of all. It has a distinct way of turning on the practioners, until the ends become subsumed in the means and they are indistinguishable. For the love of humantity, there's a reason ends and means are different concepts! Use them accordingly.

This deliberate blurring of idealistic goals and the goals of Jim Jones in the minds of followers led to the insane acts committed by people who joined the Temple to be Good. From the outside, it looks properly twisted. From the inside, justification was exercised on a daily basis, and just like our deltoids, any muscle constantly exercised gains power and grows. Even to the extent that it pulls the body out of shape and lets other muscles atrophy.

Once a person has accepted "the ends justify the means," any act, no matter how heinous, is now justifiable. That's one heck of a slippery slope, straight down with no handholds.

That's how it happens.

Lessons from Jonestown II: The Investment
Lessons from Jonestown III: The Breakdown
Lessons from Jonestown IV: The Small Box

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