Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, And 10 Days That Shook San Francisco
In reading this rather unpleasant but deeply interesting book, I was struck by the question of whether the ten days that the author writes about with a large amount of setup actually did shake San Francisco nearly enough. I think that San Francisco was shocked by the murders in Jonestown and also by the assassination of Harvey Milk as well as San Francisco’s Mayor, but I don’t think that the city’s mistaken understanding about these matters shook them, because if they had been shaken they might have reflected a bit differently on their politics and thus avoided a well-earned reputation for having among the most corrupt politics and among the most ugly and unpleasant cities of the United States as a whole, a reputation that exists to this day, including concerns about homelessness, the political stranglehold of the Democratic Party over this and many other failing cities, and the dependence of politicians on various corrupt political techniques and operators like Jim Jones. All of this suggests that San Francisco deserves to be thought of as being the home for cults that include leftist Christianity of a sort that encourages a messianic belief in the state or in political leaders who adopt left-wing agendas and support corrupt left-wing candidates. For too long people have thought that the danger from religion in politics only comes from the right, and this book disabuses the reader of such mistaken notions.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and it is divided into fifteen fairly short chapters that deal mostly with the context of how it is that the death of Jim Jones’ revolutionary leftist cult and Harvey Milk were in fact connected by their shared fashion for leftist politics and dark sexuality. The author discusses the origins of Jim Jones and Harvey Milk as coming from other places and seeking in San Francisco a place for reinvention, showing how both were able to build up power in part through each other’s encouragement, and how Jim Jones and his believers were a key part in the political coalition that Harvey Milk used to gain power within the corrupt city politics of San Francisco. Eventually, of course, Jim Jones was driven by increasing paranoia into exile and then when faced with the threat of intervention from the United States (and perhaps, in his mind, Guyana), he encouraged a brutal act of revolutionary suicide among first the children and then the adults among his followers. Harvey Milk, on the other hand, found himself viewed as a betrayer by a fellow city politician who resigned from office and tried to unresign unsuccessfully and ended up rather murderous about his frustrated ambitions and being exposed as a quitter, ending with a commitment by the author not to sanitize the facts, unlike so many media accounts which have failed to see the connections between revolutionary leftist religion and corrupt Democratic city politics in San Francisco (and perhaps other places like Portland).
In many ways this book is a strange one that seems both to invite as well as to complicate comparisons between the heady times of the late 1970’s and the contemporary political situation. Harvey Milk is shown as being a man who combined a superficial charm and a high degree of political ambition with some disturbing qualities concerning emotionally arrested development and the sort of behavior that would have invited blackmail as well as criminal charges for his fondness for exploiting vulnerable underage boys, some of whom became suicidal after being with him. Likewise, the incestuous relationship that Jim Jones had with the leftist establishment of San Francisco is not something that contemporary politicos and members of the press are keen on reflecting because of their belief that murderous cults must be right-wring rather than left-wing, as Jones’ cult was. Likewise, the murder of Harvey Milk and of San Francisco’s mayor was again not an act of right-wing political violence but rather the anger of someone who in many ways had been an ally of Milk before the personal and political relationship in San Francisco’s city government turned hostile. There are so many ways that this book defies the common understanding of Jim Jones and San Francisco politics, but no obvious relevance to contemporary times except to note that the press lies and that things are remembered amiss because there are agendas in place to mislead people about the more unsettling truths that must be hidden to protect people’s reputation even in death.