WHAT DO SECTS PROVIDE?
Throughout history religious or political faiths have exercised great influence. They have moved armies and motivated people to build both cathedrals and concentration camps. Their success had had very little to do with whether they were true or not. The fact that thousands (or millions) believed in them made of them real historical and social forces.
Religious or political faiths (and the Jonestown events show that the boundaries may be hard to define) have several things in common. They can provide, for the emotionally or materially deprived, the lonely, the rejected (or - less often - the culturally alienated or intellectually confused) the security of human contact, the satisfaction of an activity that seems socially useful, and the self-generating warmth of knowing all the answers, i.e. of a closed system of beliefs. These beliefs diminish, in those who hold them, the awareness of failure' or of rejection - or the feeling of being useless. They are potent analgesics. And they offer positive objectives, either through instant political solutions in this world, or through solutions in the hereafter (pie in the sky). In a society which either callously disregards (or just bureaucratically forgets) the very existence of thousands of its citizens, claims to make existence meaningful evoke an echo. Sects (i.e. groups based on cults) may come to fill an enormous vacuum in peoples lives.
Most people are much happier in a situation where they are needed, wanted and accepted for what they are, not condemned and looked down upon for not being what they are not. We all like to act in a manner that is rational and that fulfils both ones own needs and those of others. The tragedy is that political and religious sects may convert these positive human attributes into their opposites: manipulation and authoritarian dogmatism on the part of the leaders, submission and the abdication of critical faculties on the part of the led.
SECTS IN HISTORY
Historically, cults and sects have usually flourished at times of social crisis, when old value systems were collapsing and new ones had not yet asserted themselves. They usually start as small groups which break off from the conventional consensus and espouse very different views of the real, the possible and the moral. They have attracted very diverse followings and achieved very variable results. Christianity started as a religion of slaves. In The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn shows how, many centuries later, the people for whom (the Medieval Millennium) had most appeal were neither peasants, firmly integrated into the life of the village, nor artisans integrated into their guilds. The belief in the Millennium drew its strength from a population living on the margin of society. The New England Puritans conformed at one time to the norms of a harsh age by imprisoning and torturing their own dissidents. They later became respectable. So did the Mormon followers of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
Marxism arose as a theory that would liberate a proletariat that had nothing to lose but its chains, and has ended up imposing chains on the proletariat. The followers of the Peoples Temple (mainly poor blacks and alienated young whites) have made history by inaugurating the mass revolutionary suicide. Cults can clearly mature into mainstream institutions. Or disintegrate into jungle horror stories.
A detailed analysis of cults would require an analysis of their rhetoric and ideology, and of the culture matrices in which they are embedded. The present appeal of cults is related to the major upheaval of our times. This is not primarily economic. Referring to the Jonestown events an American sociologist has written: The US consensus of values has broken down. There is, in some respects, an undermined authority in philosophy and theology. There is the demise of metaphysics. . . there is no "rock in a weary land" that gives people something certain to hold onto. So people reach out and grab at anything: an idea or an organisation. When traditional answers seem inadequate people are ripe for cults that promise prescriptions for a better life. Most cults offer three benefits: ultimate meaning, a strong sense of community and rewards either in this world or the next. When those prescriptions are linked to the authoritarian style of a charismatic leader you have an extremely powerful antidote to the cultural malaise of what sociologists call anomie (rootlessness, aimlessness). (Los Angeles Times, December 1, 1978.)
Specific ingredients to disaffection from established society had welled up in the 1960s and early 1970s. There had been the expansion of an unpopular war in South East Asia, massive upheavals over civil rights and a profound crisis of values in response to the unusual combination of unprecedented affluence on the one hand, and potential thermonuclear holocaust on the other. Revolutionary socialists - the whole axis of their propaganda vitiated by their erroneous analyses of capitalism and their distorted vision of socialism - had proved quite unable to make any lasting impact.
Predominantly black organisations such as the Peoples Temple have, moreover, deep roots in the very fabric of American society and of American history. Before the Civil War there had already been 3 separate attempts by US blacks to flee racial persecution. The first was initiated by a black seaman, Paul Cuffee, in 1815; the second by a black physician, Martin Delaney, in 1850; and the third by a black minister, the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, in 1855. All were designed to lead blacks to a world of peace and freedom by inciting them to make a mass exodus either to Africa or to the West Indies. The appeals proved most attractive to the most exploited and dispossessed. This separatism was often cloaked in religious cloth. But it was the bitter racism and socio-economic oppression experienced by the black masses in the post-Reconstruction South, rather than religious exhortation, that led so many blacks to support the cause of emigration.
This was also true of the largest mass black separation movement of this century, Marcus Garveys Back to Africa movement of the 1920s. Calling his movement Black Zionism, Garvey skillfully used symbols (flags, uniforms and other regalia) and highly emotional rhetoric to fire his followers. In the end thousands of enthusiasts lost money, suffered broken promises and became victims of outright fraud. Father Divine had been inspired by Garvey. And Jim Jones was inspired by Father Divine.
As Earl Ofari points out in an article in the International Herald Tribune (Dec. 9, 1978) the willingness of a sizeable segment of blacks to embrace movements that have run the gamut from "Back to Africa" to Peoples Temple stands as a reflection of their utter desperation. The lesson, surely, is not that cults hold a particular fascination for blacks but that the most deprived members of US society - those who see the least hope of making it within the system are the easiest prey for charlatans preaching that Paradise lies just over some falsely technicolored rainbow. This is clearly true: oppressed whites have also sought refuge in solutions of this kind. And it is a powerful rebuke to those trendy radicals (usually guilt-laden middle class individuals) who seem to think that oppression is good for you, that it somehow guarantees revolutionary purity.
LETTER IN LOS ANGELES TIMES Dec. 5, 1978.
In his column McCarthy says: Dont try to explain it. There is an explanation and there is a way to armor our children against fanatic leaders.
We must rear our children to value autonomy, to question authority, all authority. We must see to it that children trust themselves, not any cult, not any panacea.
We must foster independence as a goal, we must not lead children to believe anyone has all the answers. Father doesnt know best - whether the childs own or Jim Jones.
Florence Maxwell Brogdon,
Jim Jones was called Father or Dad by his devotees. The poor blacks of the Jonestown commune hadnt just given up their self to their charismatic father. Such were the physical, emotional and social deprivations they had grown up in that they had very little self to surrender. And that self, such as it was, seemed to them of little relevance in changing their circumstances or the world they lived in. Some young middle class whites in the commune were prepared to surrender their self in exchange for an emotional feedback they had lacked in earlier life. Others had already surrendered their self to their parents. In joining the Temple they had merely found a new repository for it.
But the twisted and manipulatory demagogues who lead various fascist and leninist cults are also - at least to begin with - pathetic individuals. They too are often the products of distorted backgrounds. They seek to blot out the intolerable parts of their life, first through the manipulation and later through the control of the lives of others. The needs of follower and leader feed insatiably upon one another. The relationship is symbiotic: each needs the other. Both seek instant, effortless, ready made solutions, rather than the achievement of understanding, which is a pre-condition for real action for change. Human beings often feel vaguely guilty about not knowing THE TRUTH. When a gifted, persuasive leader comes along who says he has it - and who presents it in a simple and easy manner (even if it is a delusional system) people will listen. They will accept some things about which they have reservations, because they perceive that the Leader has good answers about other things.
Arthur Janov, author of The New Consciousness and of Primal Man, points out that the surrender of the self, of judgment, of feeling, has taken place long before the outward appearances of a cult become bizarre. In an otherwise excellent article on Cults and the Surrender of Judgment (International Herald Tribune, Dec. 2, 1978) he fails however to stress the specificity of the Jonestown events. This wasnt a rational decision like the mass suicide at Masada. (3) It was not culturally motivated like Saipan. (4) It didnt even resemble the fate of the Old Believers. (5) What happened during those last grizzly hours in the Guyana commune was something historically new, a typical product of our time: the era of propaganda and of the loudspeaker, of brainwashing and of totalitarian ideologies.
ON TEMPLES: RELIGIOUS OR REVOLUTIONARY
Sects like the Peoples Temple - or certain revolutionary groups - offer more immediate solutions than the more abstract religions, or than the more rational and self-managed forms of political radicalism. They dont only offer a new super-family, a new group of people to hold onto, to support one. The main attraction is that the cult leader is real, visible, tangible. He may promote you - or shout at you, abuse you, even spit at you. His sanctity or political omniscience (and I say his deliberately, for most popes or general secretaries have almost universally been male) provide a spurious antidote to the malaise of rootlessness. Join me the Leader says (for most sects are actively proselytising agencies) for I am the one who knows'. Come to my Church (or become a member of my revolutionary organisation). For I am the one and only interpreter of the word of God (or of the course of history). Find with us a purpose for your useless life. Become one of the Chosen People (or a Cadre of the Revolution).
We are not saying that all revolutionary groups (or not even that all those we disagree with most strongly) are like the Peoples Temple. But who - in all honesty - can fail to see occasional disturbing similarities? Who does not know of marxist sects which resemble the Temple - in terms of the psychological atmosphere pervading them? (6) Surviving members of the Japanese Red Army Fraction or ex-members of the Socialist Labour League (now WRP) who got out in time need not answer these questions.
The less justified a man is in
Eric Hoffer in The True Believer.
(P.S. Same, no doubt, applies to women.)
In such organisations- the Leader may become more and more authoritarian and paranoid. If he has achieved institutional power he may kill, torture or excommunicate (Stalin, Torquemada) increasing numbers of his co-thinkers. Or he may order them shot like partridges. If he is a leftist authoritarian devoid - as yet - of the state power he is seeking, he will merely expel large numbers of his deviant followers. Deviance - above all - cannot be tolerated. Such men would rather live in a world peopled with heretics and renegades, and keep the total allegiance of those who remain. One even wonders whether (unlike most of their supporters) they still believe in what they preach - or whether the maintenance of their power has not become their prime concern. Jim Jones rantings about defectors and traitors is not unique. It is encountered in a whole stratum of the political left. Many radical leaderships boast of how they have coped with previous deviations. But however unreal the world they live in, the core of followers will remain loyal. The Leader is still the shield. Even in Jonestown anything seemed better than the other reality: the painful alternative of deprivation, material, emotional or intellectual.
Why didnt more people leave Jonestown? It was because they would again be left without hope. This was at least as potent a motive for staying as were the stories spread by Jones and his inner clique that there would be no point in seeking help in Georgetown, for the Peoples Temple had its agents there too. . . who would get them. Even when Ryan and his team visited the commune, only 14 out of over 900 members said they wanted to leave. To many, the figure seems trivial. To Jones it spelt catastrophe.
Many sects live in political isolation. This is a further mechanism for ensuring the control of the leaders. The members are not only rescued from their past, they are protected from their own present. Such sects refrain from anything that would bring their members into too close a proximity with the outside world. Recruitment is encouraged, but closely monitored. Members are urged to give up their hobbies and their previous friends. Such external relationship are constantly scrutinised, questioned, frowned upon, deemed suspect. United action with other groups - of a kind that may involve discussion or argument - is avoided, or only allowed to trustworthy leaders. The simplest course is to move, lock, stock and barrel, to the jungles of Guyana. In such an environment, after surrendering their passports and all their wordly possessions, the members would be totally dependent on the leaders for their news, their day-to-day needs, for the very content of their thoughts.
Open, non-authoritarian organisations encourage individuality and differences of opinion. But criticism impairs the pain-killing effect of cults - and the cohesion of sects. When a cult is threatened both Leader and followers may go beserk. The best analogy to this is the withdrawal reaction from a drug on which someone has become hooked. Criticism impairs the efficacy of such drugs. So does any suggestion that the Leader doesnt know, or that perhaps there is no hard and fast answer to certain questions.