Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown – CIA, MK-Ultra, and More (1)


Note from the editorial staff:
The term “conspiracy theory” is often used in a pejorative sense, so that the disclosures of criminal hidden facts and scenarios, which are as real as possible, would seem ridiculous. At the moment, there is an explosion of alternative versions that seek to explain tragic events with a major impact on society or the global situation. Although some of these are obviously fanciful or exaggerated, many of the versions that were initially cataloged to be so-called „conspiracy theories,” later turned out to be shattering realities. The article below insists on numerous attempts to provide explanations that remain in the category of conspiracy theories, without underlining the major importance of conspiracy reality. We have chosen to present it to you, however, as it contains a number of interesting aspects that we believe are worth knowing.

By Rebecca Moore

As I was describing this article to a colleague during a taxicab ride at a conference, I noticed that our driver was listening intently. When we got out of the cab, I asked him what he thought. He said it was “interesting.” Coincidentally or not – in the world of conspiracism there are no coincidences – the same driver picked us up later that evening. I asked what he knew about Jonestown; he said that he had been in the Air Force in November 1978, and had been in contact with people who participated in the evacuation of the 913 bodies of Peoples Temple members who died there.

The CIA was definitely involved in Jonestown, he said, but things got out of control when the congressman was killed. The discussion then turned to Waco, the Branch Davidians, and the government conspiracy there, and to Timothy McVeigh, who was then awaiting execution for the Oklahoma City bombing. Our conversation with the cabbie revealed what we more or less already knew: that the official accounts of the murders and suicides which occurred in Jonestown, Guyana have generated belief in a number of conspiracy theories. This article discusses what these theories are, and why they have arisen.

On 18 of November 1978, residents of the Peoples Temple agricultural project assassinated Congressman Leo Ryan, and killed four others at a remote airstrip in the northwest corner of Guyana. At their settlement a few miles away, Temple leader Jim Jones assembled more than 900 followers who then ingested a mixture of potassium cyanide and tranquilizers in a fruit punch, either voluntarily or by force.

Initial accounts were conflicting. It was not clear if weapons had been involved. The reported number of those who died kept increasing as more and more bodies were uncovered. The appearance of the dead – laid out in neat rows – raised questions about how they died. Was it suicide or was it murder? The quantity of psychoactive drugs at the settlement seemed to indicate the possibility of widespread behavioral control or modification. In addition to the sheer magnitude of the numbers, the utter incomprehensibility of parents taking their children’s lives generated shock and disbelief. Skepticism thus arose concerning reports on the exact sequence of events.

At the same time, conspiracy theories about Jim Jones, about the assassination of Ryan, and about the nature of the agricultural project itself took root shortly after November 1978. Within weeks, political activist Dick Gregory claimed that CIA-FBI forces killed the people in Jonestown in order to use their bodies to smuggle heroin into the U.S. In 1979 an organization sponsored by the Church of Scientology began to circulate reports that a CIA agent had been present in Jonestown at the time of the deaths (according to the Alliance for the Preservation of Religious Liberty). In addition, Joe Holsinger, Congressman Ryan’s Legislative Assistant, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Operations in 1980 that the CIA had a covert operation in Guyana. Those comments would later serve in part as the source for a number of conspiracy theories. A report dated 20 of July 1980 by Information Services Company notes connections between the CIA and Jim Jones as well as CIA interest in Guyana politics. The document connects the Hughes-Ryan Amendment of 1974, which required prior review of CIA and National Security Council operations, with the death of one of its co-sponsors at the Port Kaituma airstrip (Information Services Company).

In the twenty-three years since the deaths in Jonestown, conspiracy theories have blossomed in number and sophistication. Time has not adequately answered the initial questions. Rather it has spawned new questions, with new and surprising answers. These answers comprise what I would call a canon of conspiracy theories. Some are more plausible than others. Some are better researched. All of them attempt to explain the mysteries and ambiguities which available narratives fail to address.

This article focuses on some specific conspiracy theories about Jonestown after first discussing the nature of conspiracy theories in general. The Jonestown theories fall into three main categories: those produced by professional conspiracists who tend to see conspiracies everywhere; a sub-grouping of the professionals, which comprises Internet conspiracy sites; and those theories developed by non-professionals which concentrate primarily on Jonestown. What these theories demonstrate is that in the absence of a credible narrative – that is, a believable reconstruction of what happened in Jonestown and why – alternative explanations arise. The conspiracy theories attempt to make sense of what appears ultimately senseless: that parents willingly killed their children and their elders, and that they willingly chose a rather painful death. Instead of accepting this possibility, the conspiracy theories provide alternatives which blame conspirators for the deaths. The theories argue for coercion, either through external violence or internal “brainwashing” enforced by a few individuals. Furthermore they reject the possibility that Jonestown residents made a rational choice in terminating their collective project through what they considered mercy killings and suicide. Indeed, the presupposition of most of the conspiracists is that Jonestown residents did not make a choice. This view challenges most popular and scholarly accounts of the events of 18 of November 1978.

Conspiracy Theories

The title of this article, “Reconstructing Reality,” may suggest that I have a clear and accurate picture of what the reality of Jonestown was. I do not. At issue here is not the truth or falsity of these conspiracy theories, but rather their nature and purpose in explicating the Jonestown tragedy. As David Brion Davis notes, “The phenomenon of counter subversion might be studied as a special language or cultural form, apart from any preconceptions of its truth or falsity”. I plan to examine the phenomenon of conspiracism in light of Davis’ observation, rather than to refute any theory.

The word “conspiracy” works much the same way the word “cult” does to discredit advocates of a certain view or persuasion. Historians do not use the word “conspiracy” to describe accurate historical reports. On the contrary, they use it to indicate a lack of veracity and objectivity. I am not using the word “conspiracy” in this derogatory sense, but rather in a descriptive way to mark those views which depart from popular or scholarly explanations of what happened in Jonestown.

A number of writers have identified a rise in conspiracism in the twentieth century in general and in the post-war United States in particular. Richard Hofstadter calls it the “paranoid style” which sees a huge sinister conspiracy “as the motive force in historical events”. In other words, nothing happens randomly or according to chance. All events are connected and stem from a specific cause or causal agent. Dieter Groh notes the problems in attributing causality to agents of history, which include the “underestimation of the complexity and dynamics of historical processes,” and “the faulty belief that one can ascribe in a linear manner the results of actions to certain intentions”. He sees yet another problem with the argument for causality, which is the inability to demonstrate a “causal nexus” between two or more historical events.

Despite the failure to actually certify causality, conspiracists are nevertheless able to marshal an incredible number of facts – or “factoids” in the words of Daniel Pipes – to support their assertions. Hofstadter calls it an “obsessive” accumulation of evidence, and in fact finds the plausibility of conspiracism “in this appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent application to detail”. Conspiracists pay careful attention to sources; the good ones use footnotes, sometimes extravagantly. There is a genuine type of scholarship in the citing of references, and indeed references are not the problem. It is the conclusions which the conspiracist draws from the sources that are problematic. The conspiracist finds causality here, determines linkages there, and constructs an impregnable edifice out of myriad facts and details.

When I say impregnable edifice, I mean that such theories are difficult to disprove. The good ones are logically consistent, very plausible, and frequently “equipped with everything associated with a scientific paradigm as understood by modern history of science”. But unlike academic hypotheses, particularly in the field of history, conspiracy theories leave no loose ends. Absolutely everything is accounted for, fitting together into a single jigsaw puzzle. The conspiracist begins with the completed puzzle, however, rather than its pieces, or in Timothy Melley’s phrase, “the master narrative”. Although Melley says that conspiracies are “hermetically sealed,” I would assert that conspiracy theories are also hermetically sealed, due to a worldview which abhors both coincidence and ambiguity.

What is the appeal of these master narratives? Analysts of conspiracy theories offer several explanations. Melley says that the rise in conspiracism in post-war America stems from “agency panic,” that is, the “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control – the conviction that one’s actions are being controlled by someone else, that one has been ‘constructed’ by powerful external agents”. Groh sees them as coming from individuals’ sense of injustice. “The world is no longer as it was and as it should be,” he writes. “It is unhinged, turned upside down”. Because things are not the way they’re supposed to be, people search for the guilty: who is responsible? This view is quite evident in African American culture, according to Patricia A. Turner, who documents the history of conspiracy and contamination motifs in Black American folklore. Arie Kruglanski sees conspiracy theories as a form of scapegoating, related to the search for the guilty party. Frequently the scapegoats are foreigners, aliens in our midst. The presence of the “other” creates “the need to integrate one’s image of society in one cause,” according to Serge Moscovici.

I would add to these analyses the clarification that it is the marginalized people of society who tend to believe in conspiracy theories. They might be materially marginal, which is to say, poor, and seeking an explanation for their poverty. Or they might be ideologically marginal, which is to say that they believe their (correct) views have been pushed aside by powerful outside forces. This explains how Ross Perot, a billionaire, believes that political forces tried to disrupt his daughter’s wedding, how bankrupt farmers in the Midwest believe that Jewish bankers are foreclosing on their farms, and how urban African Americans of different socio-economic classes believe that government scientists are promoting AIDS in their communities. The marginalized believe that someone is benefiting at their expense. In fact, the question “who benefits” is key to understanding the popularity of conspiracy theories, and the answer reveals the universe of good guys and bad guys.

Almost by definition, conspiracy theorists exhibit dualistic thinking, the us-versus-them mentality. How could one consider compromising with conspirators? The idea is unthinkable. Those running the conspiracy seek power and fortune at the expense of everyone else. They are inherently evil. “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms – he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values,” says Hofstadter. One’s adversary is an enemy, rather than a mere opponent, and thus is capable of almost any depravity.

Read the second part of the article


April 17, 2019


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