In the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict, Bucknell University, the liberal arts school where I work, lost no time in issuing a statement. We were told that America remained a terrifying place for its black citizens, and that George Floyd’s death demonstrated “the fear and anger that Black Americans experience as part of each day.” Chauvin’s trial, we were informed, was evidence of “how far we have to go.” Our campus was exhorted to “model inclusivity” and “take action.” We were instructed to “let a family member know that it’s never OK to stereotype people.” The goal of becoming “an anti-racist and equitable community” demands “continuous and permanent work.”
This statement was one of many that urged us to “be in community.” We were encouraged to attend “a community gathering to reflect on the Chauvin trial and its implications for the future.” We were told that students needed “a space to release, love, feel, and be in community . . . to create a space of compassion, respect, authenticity, courage, and community . . . [to] hold space for our community.” One often receives missives ending with this cheery closure: “In community and solidarity.”
Community, community, community: The campus usage has little to do with any defensible sociological definition of this concept. There was a time when the students and faculty of a college could be spoken of as an “intellectual community,” united in mind or calling. But today, academic departments are disparate, disconnected bodies, competing for funding and students, increasingly remote from any shared intellectual mission. The point of academic study in the contemporary university is not to understand the world but to change it, with special regard for the needs of those defined, accurately or not, as oppressed. Activism has replaced the pursuit of truth.
Does the pursuit of social justice establish the modern campus as a true community? The countless initiatives of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” fail to cultivate a shared sense of moral purpose and instead exacerbate divisions. The rhetoric of “community” serves as a powerful tool for our campus commissars. Those who do not unquestioningly join the cause are denigrated. Those who persist in the traditional pursuit of truth, who ask inconvenient questions, who demand proof for charges of social injustice, are bullied into compliance.
Since the first half of the twentieth century, utopian movements of the revolutionary left, inspired by the inventors of totalitarianism, have weaponized a perverted notion of “community.” They have given the concept a cultish meaning, depicting “community” as a unified, monolithic group under the charismatic, quasi-religious power of a great leader. In some of my courses, I discuss the propensity of many Western intellectuals to buy into such political totalitarianism. Among the materials I give to students is the harrowing audio of the final minutes of the religious cult Peoples Temple, or Jonestown.
Jim Jones founded Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in the early 1950s. He had earlier worked as a Methodist minister, and his new church emphasized faith healing and racial integration. In his spare time, he studied Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. In 1967 he moved his congregation to Northern California and began to sermonize about a new version of the Social Gospel, “Apostolic Socialism”: “If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.” He was active in left politics, winning praise from Willie Brown, Harvey Milk, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter. Peoples Temple soon shed its Christian trappings. Jones denounced the “Sky God” and offered himself as the way to salvation: “As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father. . . . As you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.” Most ominously, “There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to make heaven down here!”
The combination of religion, anti-capitalism, and race politics was not unusual for the day. Less typical was Jones’s megalomania. In 1977 he established a Peoples Temple settlement in Guyana, a “socialist paradise” where his authoritarianism would be less constrained. Around three-quarters of Jonestown’s more than one thousand residents were black. “What were these African Americans doing in the middle of the jungle with this white man?” asked a later documentarian.
Jones recorded the speeches he delivered over the public address system at Jonestown, including his rambling discourse on the final day of Peoples Temple. In that recording, one hears, in his lisping ranting, Jones’s paranoid view of the world and his fantasies about his role in its liberation. A particularly disturbing moment comes when, for the first time in the lead-up to the mass suicide he is demanding from his followers, a lone voice speaks against the insanity.
That voice belonged to Christine Miller, a sixty-year-old black woman from Los Angeles. She patiently and repeatedly asks Jones why he is leading everyone to their deaths. He has no real answer. He stalls and repeats her words, making time for others to jeer and attack her. “I have twelve hundred people’s lives in my hands,” Jones declares. “I’m going to tell you, Christine, without me, life has no meaning. I’m the best thing you’ll ever have . . . . I’m not talking about self-destruction. I’m talking about that we have no other road.”
The others form a mob and berate Miller. A man steps forward and says, “Christine, you’re only standing here because he was here in the first place. So I don’t know what you’re talking about, having an individual life. Your life has been extended to the day that you’re standing there because of him.” The crowd applauds. A woman shouts: “I think you’re afraid to die.” Another man calls out, weeping: “We’re all ready to go. If you tell us we have to give our lives now, we’re ready. All the rest of the sisters and brothers are with me.”
There follows a litany of twisted testimonies to “Dad.” Then Miller, on the verge of tears, falls in line: “Thank you for everything. You are the only. You are the only. And I appreciate you.” Another woman remarks: “I just want to say something for everyone that I see that is standing around or crying. This is nothing to cry about. This is something we could all rejoice about. We could be happy about this.” Another woman exclaims: “No other way I would rather go than to give my life for socialism, communism, and I thank Dad very, very much.”
Jones concludes with a lugubrious celebration of victimhood:
Death is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life. . . . Let’s be dignified. . . . Are we black, proud, and free, or what are we? . . . No, no sorrow. It’s all over. I’m glad it’s over. . . . We are free from the hands of the enemy. Hurry, my children. Hurry. . . . No more pain now. No more pain. . . . Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide; we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.
The concept of “revolutionary suicide” was not unique to Jones. Huey Newton, the Maoist founder of the Black Panthers, had written a book under that title. Newton cites Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian intellectual apologist for anarchist terror and violence, to the effect that “the first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man.”
When my university held a conference on Jonestown in 2013, its keynote speaker, Rebecca Moore, argued: “Peoples Temple was, first and last, an African-American institution . . . a political movement that emerged out of the matrix of Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s.” The genius of the organization, in Moore’s reading, was in its affirmation of “the positive need to fight, and even to die, for the cause.” The very essence of Peoples Temple was “framed in the vocabulary of martyrdom . . . [and] the members of Peoples Temple saw themselves as true martyrs in the cause of African-American liberation.”
Moore celebrated the “militant style” of the Black Power literature that had influenced Jones and Peoples Temple. She cited a play, Black Ice, which featured the assassination of a member of Congress: “At the end of the play, Martha shoots the congressman. The last line is, ‘You didn’t die very well!’ I never hear these lines without thinking of Congressman Leo Ryan.” Ryan was murdered by members of Peoples Temple on the day of the mass suicide.
The members of Peoples Temple killed their own children. Moore framed this atrocity by reference to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In that novel, the character Sethe slits the throat of her child to keep her out of slavery. “She had to be safe,” Sethe pronounces, “and I put her where she would be.” Moore concluded with an evocation of Langston Hughes, calling Jonestown “a dream deferred”:
Self-sacrifice was required to participate in the struggle. This self-denial encompassed not only martyrdom at the hands of the oppressors, but also self-murder, if the death promoted a larger cause or purpose. . . . The revolutionary suicide of Jonestown was the best weapon that the weak could use against the strong. The people maintained their integrity by dying what they hoped would be a noble death in a cause greater than themselves.
The expectation that one concur with a sympathetic treatment of revolutionary murder-suicide—or in some other woke insanity—is not the same as the demand that one take the lethal poison at Jonestown. But “drinking the Kool-Aid” became proverbial for a reason. It refers to a form of coercion wherein everyone must profess what the “community” professes, despite its patent absurdity.
In a healthy campus community, demands for uncritical adherence to dogma would provoke the rising of many Christine Millers—many voices challenging the radical measures imposed on curricula, the politically correct hiring and promotion procedures, the racialized student recruitment, and the ideologically fevered campus activities. But few speak up, and those who do face mobs who insist on their perverse version of “community,” which means conformity to leftist directives.
A few years ago, I was part of a small group at my campus who raised concerns about progressive censoriousness. We submitted a brief statement expressing our commitment to free inquiry, open debate, and the rejection of emotional appeals to silence arguments. In a faculty meeting, the statement and our motives were caricatured and attacked. One colleague cited his fear that our statement would give cover to conservative religious students who might disrupt his cosmology class with fundamentalist views about the origins of the universe. No one acknowledged that nothing like that had ever happened here, whereas campus radicals often characterize the reasonable perspectives of others as “white supremacy” and “fascism.”
The Jonestown analogy is inexact. Mass suicides are not being ordered on college campuses. But people are being bullied into submission. There are few Christine Millers, and their numbers are shrinking. More numerous are the faculty members who, though they do not shout down the questioners, remain silent, afraid to support them. The number of those who readily play the part of the mob steadily grows.
Campus life will not end in a disaster like that of Jonestown. But I would be lying if I said I never worry that I might be stripped of my calling, my passion, and my ability to support my family—simply for asking questions, as Christine Miller did. And it has been demoralizing to watch as those I once considered allies in the effort to preserve the liberal arts fall inexorably into conformity with the new totalitarians.
The same ideas that inspired the celebration at Bucknell of the memory of Jonestown are behind the institution’s ongoing transformation into a kind of Jonestown University. The twisted language of “community,” which has become dominant here, mercilessly drives what’s left of the life of the mind to its own death.
Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.