Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy
New York: Penguin, 1982
In 1997, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide. A joke at the time went like this: “Why did Heaven’s Gate kill themselves? They had to keep up with the Joneses.”
Jim Jones’ Jonestown community infamously drank strychnine-laced Kool-Aid in November of 1978, ending in the deaths of 900 people of all ages. Jones and his cult were — and still are — seen as an awful aberration of the sixties spirit, a warped misreading of that period’s social revolutions not unlike the Manson killings. But this characterization isn’t entirely accurate. Jones was simply a prophet of what was to come — in a macabre sense, he’s a spiritual forebearer of our current political and moral mess.
In a splendidly cold and insightful recounting, Shiva Naipaul wrote Journey to Nowhere in 1980. Naipaul, an Indian from Trinidad, was a brilliant journalist and author, brother to V. S. Naipaul, one of contemporary English literature’s foremost writers. Naipaul begins his journey in Guyana, in the hoped-for paradise of Jonestown, a new community free of class distinctions, racism, and human pettiness. Naipaul notes Guyana itself was also a new community, an ex-British colony under the dictatorship of Forbes Burnham, a black leader determined to create his own version of socialist utopia.
Naipaul notes the charms of Third World settings and their appeal to the West:
The jungle can entice. It can allure the romantic; it can charm the ghetto-bred, turning thoughts away from “racist” evils to visions of primeval innocence and rapture. Given a chance, it could become part of the ideology, part of the commitment to a new life.
But the Guyana Naipaul visited was run down. It was corrupt, and hostile to industry and initiative whenever it contradicted the semi-Marxist cant about New Guyana, a made-up society with a bogus history of rebellion and struggle. As it was, Burnham promoted graft and theft for his party. When an architect refused to change his estimates for a building, so Burnham would not see most of the funds funneled into graft, Burnham raged at him, calling him a “stupid black man.”
As a Guyanan journalist told Naipaul: “Burnham and the people who surround him actually believe that black people have a right to steal and cheat and rob in order to get rich.” In order to overcome the disgrace and agony of colonialism and racism, of course. It goes without saying that reporting the corruption and failings of this world of the New Guyana Man was a dangerous pastime.
Naipaul considered this flawed part of the world a perfect magnet for Jones.
Visiting the ruins of Jonestown, Naipaul noted its shabbiness and strange mixture of American instruments of progress combined with a hopeless dedication to faith.
But what faith? Jones was ostensibly Christian, but Jonestown, as was the People’s Temple, openly spouted Marxist ideals and dogma. Jones mingled Christian faith with revolutionary change. He was an admirer of Stalin and mingling his adulation with his own personality cult. He demanded unquestioning loyalty from his congregation, and formed an interrogation committee to purge disloyal members that forced self-incrimination in public gatherings and, if necessary, beatings.
Jones didn’t hide his views from the congregation. He flung his Bible on the floor, spit on it, doubted the Virgin birth, and thundered forth class warfare, constantly warning his congregation that America was mad with racism, that Nazis were ready to destroy them, always waiting in the shadows. Jones even wondered how safe Jonestown was. For a while, he considered taking his flock to the Soviet Union and contacted their embassy. The Soviets, while intrigued at a delicious propaganda coup over a Carter administration constantly berating the USSR for human rights violations, decided that currying favor with an unsteady flame like Jones could backfire, and settled on sending Jonestown propaganda leaflets and films about Soviet culture.
Naipaul soon left Guyana for San Francisco, the breeding ground for Jones’s temple. The People’s Temple originally began in Jones’ birthplace in Indiana, but the Midwest lacked the soil needed to grow it. Of course, there were also all those Nazis and KKK in Indiana just waiting for a chance to exterminate the faithful. Jones had drummed this into people’s minds, and once in California, behold! The Nazis and KKK followed him, always ready to begin genocide. A sickened Jones even thundered to his devout followers in a Jonestown surrounded by jungle and cassava, that, yes, Nazis and KKK were on their way to kill them there, too.
Years earlier Jones had visited Brazil, but not as one of the usual American missionary set. He adopted black children. Teaching the Bible took second place to his studying African cults popular among Brazil’s lower classes. From an early age, he was keenly devoted to racial mixing and this, combined with Marxism and the desire for a personality cult, led him to California.
In San Francisco, Naipaul found fertile ground for Jones’s visions: “America’s wilder dreams have always rolled to the Far West. Fantasies flourish best in a warm, sensual climate.” California was a place for American visionaries and eccentrics. By visiting former members of the People’s Temple and San Francisco’s social and political set, Naipaul saw a mirror of Burnham’s Guyana, with its ideological adoration of blacks and a swirl of ideologies praising — for want of a better word — irrationality. Naipaul examined these, including the esoterica of the upper classes. They were ecological fanatics wanting to save the environment and create a new entity named Spaceship Earth and transform themselves, with Jain-like purity, into a new, enlightened race; thoughtful, noble rebels determined to change human consciousness.
Naipaul met women who argued passionately that toilet training was the cause of racism and racism; feminists demanded the language itself be made “human,” with genders omitted and the personal pronoun banned.
The political class in San Francisco readily embraced Jones. He turned out crowds for rallies and helped win elections with multiracial crowds, cheerful older people, and dancing children. His donations filled their coffers, and it was chic and pleasant to be seen with this swarthy, black-haired man of love and justice who bore a passing resemblance to Elvis Presley.
An Elvis of the Left. How irresistible.
But California, Naipaul noted, also possessed an undercurrent of happy-faced conformity. People he met there admired California, praising their good fortune at having escaped the dull, cold, boring America east of the Rockies to a new world. They expected him to be enraptured as well, and this demand for admiration was tinged with totalitarianism: “If you are rash enough to keep silent or even, God help you, murmur a few words of mild dissent, you are done for. Conversation lags. Everyone becomes remotely polite. To be reticent about California is to insult your hosts and their friends.”
A strange, benign tossed salad of California life had been created; a happy paradise, hope of human betterment, an end to white racism, and the liberation of the self. There was Leftist thought as well, but Naipaul observed that the political rigors of Marx soon faded to self-liberation. “Don’t tell me what you think, tell me what you feel” was a common phrase.
Naipaul notes how, beginning in California, liberation came to mean personal and not social transformation. Sixties indulgence was seen by many as selling out revolutionary values. Naipaul disagreed. “The Me generation, as the seventies have been labeled, is not a betrayal of the sixties, a falling away from its ideals, but its predictable outcome.” Jones attracted people seduced by the gospel of change, who sought a new world they could escape to, free of the “old” life of middle-class morals and “racism,” and mix with the blacks and meld into one people. At the same time, the upper classes spent fortunes and time on meditation. Those that could afford it would find ways to seal themselves off from a corrupted world, to project their souls — and hopefully, their bodies — into that spanking-new Spaceship Earth that captured the imagination.
Naipaul noted how so much of this seeking and forsaking the old, stable (and boring, not to mention racist), life almost resembled a kind of virus:
They were absurd, these men and women; they were also, most probably, quite harmless — as harmless as the germs that go to make up a common cold. But a common cold, given a suitable twist of fate, can turn into bronchial pneumonia. In this hothouse atmosphere of pampered self-consciousness, ideas — or what passed for ideas — floated like viruses. They were a disease you caught: a contamination of the intellect.
In this world where ideas float like ghosts, Jones imposed himself. When the massacre came, politicians and social leaders naturally distanced themselves from him and many claimed he was an aberrant fixation. But Naipaul argues otherwise. “Jim Jones was a beachcomber, picking up the flotsam and jetsam washed ashore from the sixties shipwrecks. The ‘idealism’ on which he fed was not virginal but considerably shop-soiled, eaten up with inner decay.”
It was a Leftist world that rubbed uneasy shoulders with the Third World. Naipaul quotes the American Leftist I.F. Stone in his devastating analysis of American race relations:
The American Negro was condemned to live in Egypt, but it was an Egypt that had already built its pyramids and no longer needed slaves. Mechanization on the farm and automation in industry have at last set him free, but now freedom turns out to be joblessness.
Naipaul becomes harsher: “It would be more accurate to say that a technologically sophisticated society has no use for these people. They are redundant. They are good for nothing. . . the junk people, the human waste left behind by American history.”
Naipaul, like his brother V. S., was known for these bald statements. As V. S. remarked: “In London, I don’t see having an Arab piss on your doorstep as a praiseworthy multicultural experience.” Both men possessed an honesty lacking in the seventies, and, being Indian, could say things white people were forbidden to say.
The idealistic hopes of the sixties met the street corner despair of black America, and Jones offered a symbiosis of these worlds. If Jones could take black people off the street and make them useful, civic leaders of San Francisco were happy to let him carry on. Yet, Jones, while supposedly in love with blacks, purposefully made efforts to get them away from their own black congregations, offering them free lunches and a swimming pool. As one black minister bitterly said: “I can’t help thinking we black people can be very gullible.”
The bitterness was compounded as Jones denounced this black minister and others as “Cadillac-driving and chicken eating.” Jones seemed delighted pulling away hundreds of blacks from their own churches into his charismatic, Marxist, racially-mixed new order.
Naipaul stresses Christian fundamentalism had its part to play, for the basic Christian message of salvation, sin, and obsessions of apocalyptic destruction can easily be manipulated. Fundamentalism has no respect for human personality, because to be human is, by definition, to be sick.
A friend of mine is distressed at the radicalism sweeping the West. Wokeness, he says, is a new religion with all the traits of Calvinism, from absolutism, lack of humor, and hierarchies of perfection. Wokeness certainly has many elements of a radical religion, and its fanaticism again recalls sickness. Churchill noted Lenin’s 1917 journey from Germany “in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus” to foment revolution in Russia. Wokeness is a modern variant of both religious dogma and viral intolerance.
Naipaul’s chilling and brilliant diagnosis not only of Jim Jones, but the ideological and racial world that mixed into an uneasy shuffle and him possible, is a work that hardly dates itself. What has happened to America has been the Californiaization of its culture and politics.
The sickness of our society has come in no small part from this virus spreading throughout the country and beyond. President Macron of France warned Europe must guard against American domination of its culture, this mess of social justice, denunciations of racism, and the collapse of any agreed-upon social mores, even biological and sexual roles. (Naipaul, while in San Francisco, interviewed a prostitute ready to flee the city; too many men had that operation, becoming women. “It’s crazy, I tell you,” the hooker lamented. “A normal girl like me can’t make a living in this town.”) All the mental, sexual, and gender confusion Naipaul chronicled in his book has now become standard practice everywhere. The hothouse that spawned Jonestown is now safely ensconced in Washington, DC.
It’s worth noting that one of Jones’ friends was Willie Brown, who advanced from a radical in the city council and state legislature to kingmaker in the state. He was also mentor to Kamala Harris, who was his mistress.
Radio host Michael Savage predicted that a Biden presidency will soon become a Harris presidency, and Harris, a creature of the San Francisco political machine, the same one that so curried favor with Jim Jones, would usher in a regime like that city, transforming America into a national model of corruption, streets filled with human waste and drug addicts, police who can’t and won’t enforce the law, but will gladly silence anyone who opposes the government. It would become Marxist with a dash of degeneracy, overseen by a super-rich class who isolate themselves from the consequences of their political choices while they fulfill the emergence of Spaceship Earth.
Some wonder about plans heard of a great reset, with COVID as a catalyst for societal change. Presumably benign types like Bill Gates will offer a new vaccine, an end to global warming, and, yes, no more racism. Ever.
Now, we all live in Jonestown.
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