DON’T DRINK THE KOOL AID – THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

“He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.” — Old English proverb, dating to the 14th century.


There has been yet another upsurge of interest in Jonestown in recent weeks. Which is not surprising given the current state of disunion in this country and elsewhere. Jim Jones and Donald Trump share many traits … and more importantly, so do their followers.

This is the most popular piece I ever wrote. It wasn’t a big hit when I first posted it, but it continues to collect views every day, year in, year out.

It is a cautionary tale, a warning for people who believe talk is harmless. To all who blindly follow, keep that long spoon handy.


If you are my age or near it, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. Even if you are younger, if in 1978 you were old enough to watch TV news, you could hardly forget it. Now that fundamentalism is enjoying a rebirth with well-known political and religious leaders (who ought to know better) urging others to murder or mayhem, it’s probably a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing can lead.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened and time hasn’t made it less so.

The Road to Jonestown

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow.” It usually carries a negative connotation. The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else — darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional Methodist minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” known in short as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to be a reference to “the people of the world.” While Jones called it a church, it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune. Initially, it combined a hodgepodge of Christian references that Jones used in his diatribes … supposedly sermons.

It was never a real church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult. It required a level of commitment and financial support from members plus a degree of obedience that’s the defining quality of a cult.

Read the whole story: DON’T DRINK THE KOOL AID – THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

VIN SCULLY, JACKIE ROBINSON AND A LOSS OF INNOCENCE – by GARRY ARMSTRONG

A friend is taking me to a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park today. It’s the middle of April but the weather still has a Norman Bates quality. So, I’ll layer up, topped off with my retro Brooklyn Dodgers tee-shirt and hope for the best. It’s Jackie Robinson day in the Major leagues and everyone is wearing the fabled #42.

red sox 42 jackie robinson day

April 15, 2016 – Fenway Park

April marks the beginning of the new baseball season where hope springs eternal for all teams. The haves and have-nots. It’s also the time we open the cookie jar of old memories, mentally racing around the bases to those days when we listened to our boys of summer on the radio.

Vin Scully was a 20 something rookie broadcaster, calling his first season of Brooklyn Dodgers games.

The Korean “conflict” dominated the radio news which preceded the important stuff, BASEBALL. The Brooklyn Dodgers were “America’s Team” in 1950. Vin Scully was a new breed of sports broadcaster. He mixed in stories about President Truman’s desegregation of our Armed Forces and “discontent” about the integrated Dodgers’ team.

Scully used phrases like “Goodnight, sweet Prince”,  after Jackie Robinson turned in another memorable game amid jeers from rabble-rousers. It was curious to this young fan who dreamed of becoming a team-mate of Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese and Duke Snider. I’d wear Dodger Blue with pride, I promised myself.

Vin Scully’s word portraits of the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers often seemed at odds with the tabloid accounts of the New York Daily News and Daily Mirror. Their sports sections only talked about the games, the heroes and the goats. I only glanced at the front pages, boring stuff about politics and social upheaval.

I thought it would be wonderful if they played baseball all year round and the stories would always be about the Bums and those dreaded New York Yankees. Heck, it would be terrific to listen to Vin Scully and not those other people talking about grown up stuff. Scully even mentioned things we were studying in school and made them sound exciting. I’ll never forget his referring to April as “the cruelest month”. I’d steal that line a zillion times.

Years later, opportunity opened the door to several meetings with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and other fabled Boys of Summer. Campy was always friendly and outgoing, eager to share stories with a newbie reporter. He would say, “Life is good, young fella..you gotta appreciate it”. Jackie Robinson would often glare at Campy as he wove the stories of good times with the Dodgers. Sometimes, he would interrupt Campanella with a sharp, “Enough, Roy. Enough of that fiction.”

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Robinson would turn to me, his eyes blazing and seemingly angry. “Life isn’t a ball game, young man,” he once said.  Then, he gently patted me on the shoulder, noting that I was a good conversationalist and listener.  It was a bit confusing. It happened that way several times.

People like Campy, Peewee Reese and even a reluctant Duke Snider would share that Jackie Robinson was a very complicated man on a mission.

This week, PBS is running Ken Burns’ two part portrait of Jackie Robinson. It goes beyond myth and legend to examine Robinson, the man. The man from Cairo, Georgia was so much more than the athlete who broke baseball’s racial barrier. The inner turmoil, anger, frustration and multiple health issues took Robinson from us way too early at age 53.

This week, Vin Scully is also being honored as he begins his 67th and final year as the voice of the Dodgers. Scully, at 88 and counting, still sounds like that young story-teller I listened to in 1950.

1950. So long ago. A time of innocence for many young boys like me.

ORIGINS AND FAMILY

A few years ago, I briefly had access to Ancestry.com. I traced my family back to the census of 1910, at which point, it ended. I could have pursued it further using other Jewish ancestry sites, but I knew where they would take me.

On my father’s side, the trail would end in Minsk around the turn of the 19th century. On my mother’s side, the trail would go cold in Tarnow, Poland at approximately the same time.

Bonnie and friend on the dirt path

We were neither important nor prominent. Not rich, famous, or especially learned. Regular people, trying to stay alive and out of the Czar’s army. Put food on the table. Occasionally have a belly laugh with friends and family.

Even if I could trace back another hundred years, it wouldn’t answer the real questions about where we began.

When Genghis Khan invaded what is now Russia and eastern Europe, how many babies were left in the wake of the Golden Horde? How many were left by Crusaders as they pillaged, raped, and plundered all the way from Britain to Jerusalem?

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So many invasions, ejections, wars, migrations. How can anyone with even a trace of European or Asian ancestry think they are pure anything — other than human? Assuming current thinking on the origins of mankind are at all accurate, we all came from somewhere else in the beginning. Asia or Africa. Both, perhaps.

Or, somewhere else entirely?

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Thinking about this brings me back to the current sad state of geopolitical mass hysteria and stupidity. We are — all of us — family. If we could trace our roots far enough into the mists of time, we would find each other. Cousins, even though many times removed.

We are one people. Despite skin color, eye-shape, and other “race” and “ethnicity” surface markers, we are enormously more the same than different.

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So how come we hate each other so much? Why? What makes us want to hate one another? Why build walls instead of bridges?

THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE – NOVEMBER 18, 1978

Another year, another anniversary. It seems, given recent events, especially timely to remember where hatred leads.

Terror, born in hatred and nurtured by evil, doesn’t always come from somewhere else. We grow our own bad guys, too. It’s why I cringe at the over-simplified “meme psychology” that currently dominates media. Education doesn’t cure evil. Nor does sending in the Marines. Evil will always be us. We need to recognize it for what it is. Even when it smiles and makes pretty promises.


It happened — or perhaps culminated — on November 18, 1978. Which makes today the 37th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, one of the most bizarre, horrible events of the 20th century

If you were old enough to read or understand television news in 1978, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. With religious fanaticism and radical fundamentalism enjoying a groundswell of popularity — even among people who ought to know better — it’s a good time to remember where exhortations of violence can ultimately lead.

THE ROAD TO HELL

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance for “to blindly follow.” It carries a negative connotation.

The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else — darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.

Jonestown_Newspaper-900x600

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” which became known simply as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to refer to “the people of the world.” Jones called it a church, but it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune based on a hodgepodge of Christian references and paranoid conspiracy theories.

The Peoples Temple was a cult requiring total obedience and commitment from its members. Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac.

He had positive attributes too. Jim and Marceline Jones were in favor of racial integration. They adopted kids from varying backgrounds. They were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, one Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own. Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana.

jim_jones jonestown

Before you get dewy-eyed about this, know this story climaxes with the murder of the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested that afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California. Before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give lend legitimacy to his bizarre opinions. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much small and overcrowded. The possibility of starvation was never far.

jonestown-map

Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.

HELL BREAKS LOOSE

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” — after the Congressional party. These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — cyanide and other drugs — for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.

THE KOOL-AID CONNECTION

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid, a beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never interested in escape. His answer was death. Lots of it. He pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is as creepy as you’d expect.

Finally, it was time for detailed instructions which — still baffling to me — the followers did as instructed. I will never understand why.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually more than 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. A handful of survivors — mostly those who were away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place — survived.

Jonestown massacre

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred a gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and no doubt wanted something quicker.

DON’T DRINK THE KOOL-AID

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor-Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind.

So, although Kool-Aid and Flavor-Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.

A PAINFULLY DIFFERENT HISTORY – POSTWAR, TONY JUDT –

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
by Tony Judt – Audiobook

Reading PostWar was a project, an immersion experience during which I first unlearned, then relearned everything I knew of modern European history. It was worth the effort. This is a long book — 960 pages — crammed with so much information I had to read it twice before I felt I had the beginning of a grip on the material.

Tony Judt was an historian with controversial opinions. He made no pretense of being a neutral observer. Not that any historian is truly neutral. Every historian has an agenda, a point to make. Whether or not he or she puts it up front is a matter of style, but there is no such thing as historical neutrality. If an historian is writing about an era, he or she feels strongly about it. All history is changed, shaped, slanted by the historians who write it.

Mussolini (left) and Hitler sent their armies ...

Dr. Tony Judt believed the role of an historian is to set the record straight. He undertakes the debunking and de-mythologizing of post World War II European history. He lays bare lies that comprise the myth of French resistance, the “neutral” Swiss, the open-minded anti-Nazi Dutch — exposing an ugly legacy of entrenched antisemitism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

Although Judt follows a more or less chronological path from World War II to the present, he doesn’t do it as a strict “timeline.” Instead of a linear progression, he follows threads of ideas and philosophy. Tracing cultural and social development, he takes you from news events through their political ramifications. You follow parallel developments in cinema, literature, theater, television and arts, not just the typical political and economic occurrences on which most history focuses.

After two consecutive readings, I finally felt I’d gotten it. Postwar changed my view of  the world, not just what happened, but what is happening.

Tony Judt and I were born in 1947. We grew up during same years, but his Old World roots gave him an entirely different perspective. He forced me to question fundamental beliefs. What really happened? Was any of the stuff I believed true? Maybe not. It was hard to swallow, but he convinced me. I believe it.

If you are Jewish (I am and so was Judt), and lost family during the Holocaust, this will stir up painful issues. The depth and breadth of European antisemitism and collusion in the destruction of European Jewry is stomach churning. Pretty lies are easier to handle than ugly reality.

It’s easy to understand why so much of what we know is wrong. That’s they way we were taught. If we took the courses in school, we learned the “official version” of how the world was made.

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 cover

Even though I know more history than most civilians, I didn’t grasp the impact of these post WW 2 years — until Postwar.

I assumed, having lived these decades and followed news, that I knew what happened. I didn’t. What is reported by media barely scratches the surface.

The transformation of Europe from the wreckage of war to a modern European union is far more complex and far-reaching than I knew. These changes affect all of us directly and personally. I will never see the world the way I did before reading Postwar.

I read Postwar on paper, then listened to the audio version. It’s available from Audible.com. I recommend it to anyone with easily tired eyes because it is a very long book, no matter how you read it. The audio version has excellent narration. It a fine platform for the author’s conversational writing style.

Postwar is analysis and criticism, not just “what happened.” The book is an eye-opener, worth your time and effort, an investment in understanding and historical perspective. It’s never dull. After reading it, you will never see our modern world the same way.

FINALLY UNDERSTANDING MOM

I don’t remember how many times my mother told me this story, or how many times I have told it to you. It bears retelling.

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My mother, like many young women of her generation, had wanted to attend high school. And college. But the family was poor, and there were many mouths to feed. In the end, she had to quit school after seventh grade to take a job. She worked as bookkeeper. At 14, my mother was respectable. Also naïve and innocent.

The first place she worked was a music publishing house on the Lower East Side where she had grown up. She was there for seven or eight years and finally decided to get a better job.

Immigrant children had trouble breaking into the workforce. Of course, my mother had the additional burden of being female at a time when women were not considered equal. There was no “political correctness” to protect them.

My mother was blond and green-eyed. At 5 foot 7 inches, she was tall for her generation. Her English was better than most of the family since she had been born “on this side” of the Atlantic and had all her schooling in New York.

She was ushered into a room to be interviewed for the job she wanted. A few questions were asked. A form was handed to her and she filled it out. When she came to the box that asked her religion, she wrote Jewish. The interviewer looked at the application, said: “Jewish, eh?”

He tore the application to pieces and threw it in the trash in front of my mother. She said that from that day forward, she wrote Protestant so no one would ever do that to her again.

Finally, I made a leap of understanding. I connected this anecdote to an aspect of my mother I never “got.”


Mom1973PaintMy mother wanted me to get a nose job. When I turned 16, she wanted me to have plastic surgery to “fix” my nose.

“It’s not broken,” I pointed out.

“But don’t you want it to look ‘normal’?” she asked.

“It’s looks fine to me,” I said. I was puzzled. My sister took her up on the offer. I continued to say “no thanks” and my nose is the original model with which I was born.

Since the last time I told this story, I realized my mother wasn’t hinting I wasn’t pretty. She was asking me if I wanted to not look Jewish. Remarkably, this thought never crossed my mind. Until a few weeks ago.

I know many children of Holocaust victims refused to circumcise their sons because that’s how the Nazis identified little Jewish boys. I know non-white mothers frequently sent their light-skinned children north hoping they could “pass” for white. But never, until recently, did it occur to me my mother was trying to help me “pass” for non-Jewish.

I never considered the possibility I was turned down for a job because I was, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “too Jewish.” I always assumed it was me. I failed to measure up. I was too brash. My skills were insufficient.

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I told Garry about my revelation. It was quite an epiphany, especially at my advanced age. I needed to share. It left me wondering how much I’d missed.

I told him I’d finally realized my mother’s persistent suggestion to “get my nose fixed” was an attempt to help me fit in, to not look so obviously Jewish. I had never considered anyone might not like me for other than personal reasons. I said I thought perhaps I’d been a little slow on the uptake on this one.

Garry said, “And when did you finally realize this?”

“Yesterday,” I said.

“Yesterday?” he repeated. Garry looked dumbfounded.

“Yesterday,” I assured him.

He was quiet and thoughtful. “Well,” he said. “You’re 68? That is slow. You really didn’t know?”

I shook my head. I really didn’t know. Apparently everyone else got it. Except me.

NAMES CAN EVER HURT ME: ON BEING POLITICALLY CORRECT

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”

It’s an old childhood chant, a miserably inadequate defense against bullies and bigots when one is small and powerless. It was oft-repeated, not only by we, the little victims, but by parents, teachers and other wise counselors. It was supposed to comfort us.

It didn’t because we all knew for a certainty it was untrue.

Names can and do hurt. The hurt caused by a cruel name goes deeper than any mere cut or bruise to the body. Psyches heal but slowly. Sometimes they never heal.


Horrible words. Can you still tell me — with a straight face — that names can’t hurt? Will you give me all your arguments that “political correctness” is stupid? That anything which makes it illegal or socially unacceptable to spew hate is too restrictive of free speech? Really? Your free speech? It’s not my free speech. I don’t talk that way and I don’t hang around anyone who does.

Do you actually believe it? Or did you read it as part of some rant on Facebook?

Of course names hurt. They’re intended to hurt. They have no other purpose on earth but to cause pain. These words carry with them the ugliness of generations of haters. It has been argued by otherwise respected bloggers that if a member of a minority (in your opinion) does you wrong, you have every right to strike back any way you can.

I disagree. Racial and ethnic name-calling epithets are never justified. By anything.

hate speech is not free

Is it the word or its intent that hurts so much? Both. Words have power.

“The pen is mightier than the sword.”

But wait a minute. I thought words could never hurt me? (Oh yes they can, yes they do.)

Words bring with them the weight of history. A hate word carries the ugliness of everyone who has spoken it. Each time these words fly into the air, their potency is renewed and reinforced.

It’s time to stop forgiving bigots, stop letting them off the hook. Those hate-filled monologues by drugged and drunken celebrities were no mere slips of the tongue. They were not caused by drugs or drink. You could fill me with all the drugs and booze in the world and you’d never hear that from me. Because it’s not in me.

People who talk hate never do so by accident. It isn’t because of their environment, upbringing, or environment. It’s a choice they made. They know exactly what they are saying and why. It isn’t a joke. It isn’t funny. It isn’t okay.

Excuses are not repentance. Don’t give bigots a second chance. Be politically correct. It’s not merely political correctness. It’s also the moral, righteous, decent, civil, and humane way to behave.