The Sacrament, a new suspense film closely based on the 1978 Jonestown massacre, illustrates the extremes to which leftism corrupts and the ends to which its philosophy can ultimately lead. The fictional movie turns out to be more accurate than many documentaries and news articles in its treatment of Jim Jones’s radical left-wing politics — a topic that is inescapable when (honestly) broaching the subject of Jonestown.
The 1978 massacre at Jonestown, Guyana, was the largest mass suicide in recorded history and the largest single-day mass killing of American civilians prior to the 9/11 attacks. Some 909 members of Jones’s “People’s Temple” cult were murdered or (in an unknown but probably large number of instances) were forced to commit suicide by drinking a poison-laced fruit drink. The popular phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” to describe herd mentalities originated with the Jonestown massacre.
Yet the Jonestown massacre itself is only dimly known to contemporary Americans, and the details of the event are often ignored by news and academia. It is, after all, an inconvenient story, in which a Communist community, led by a committed Marxist and ’60s Bay Area radical, came to a horrifying end.
Following the mass suicide, the mainstream media spun the story into one of religious fanaticism rather than leftist fanaticism. Had a right-winger persuaded followers to join him in retreating from society and building their own enclave, then held them prisoner and ultimately persuaded or forced them to take their own lives in some sort of revolutionary act, Jonestown would be taught more widely in schools than Abe Lincoln. Instead, when Jonestown is addressed, the Marxism of the People’s Temple is whitewashed and the story is packaged as one of a religious cult gone awry, or as a warning against the perils of organized religion.
This deliberate obfuscation happened immediately. As a contemporaneous (1978) Accuracy in Media report made clear, “The ideology of Jonestown was communism, not Christianity, but the media have obscured rather than explained that fact.”
AIM explained, “Our media have concealed, misrepresented, or downplayed the key element in the philosophy of Jim Jones,” rightly noting that Jones was, contrary to the misleading media reports, “a long-time dedicated Marxist communist who admired totalitarian communist dictatorships such as the Soviet Union and Cuba so much that he built one of his own in Guyana.”
Even weeks after the event, AIM found there was not a single article in the mainstream press that delved into Jones’s Marxist beliefs and connections. Instead, despite his views and his well-known admiration for Castro’s Cuba and the Soviet Union, reporters went out of their way to avoid labeling Jones a Communist. Some in the media, such as Walter Cronkite, even reported on Jones as a “fascist” — any “ist” as long as it wasn’t a Communist.
Yet Marxist he was, and so was his group. Jonestown life was nearly identical to that in Communist nations: Inhabitants were essentially prisoners (prohibited from leaving the settlement and punished if caught trying to leave); no private ownership of any goods was allowed; no communication with the outside world was allowed; hard labor in the fields was mandatory, as was attendance at Jones’s lengthy, Castro-like sermons; armed henchmen spied on and intimidated others who dared step out of line or complain; family structures were deliberately destroyed, with Jones encouraging adultery or assigning husbands and wives to separate living quarters; residents were poorly fed and overworked, while Jones himself lived in luxury; and, of course, in keeping with Jonestown’s Marxism, there was almost no religious observance, making the media’s description of Jonestown cultists as religious fanatics, over more than 30 years, all the more dishonest.