Jonestown movie posterThe other day I saw the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, the story of the rise and spectacular fall of Jim Jones and his quasi-socialist experiment in constructing an alterative society first in Northern California, latterly in a remote outpost in Guyana.

An interview with the director and some clips from the film are available on YouTube.

The film features many interviews with former members of the Peoples Temple, not least with some of the few survivors of the events of November 17 and 18, 1978. It also has a wealth of archive footage: of services in San Francisco, and of the visit of Congressman Leo Ryan whose visit to the Jonestown colony precipitated the final crisis and mass suicide.

Ryan, very much a hands-on politician, went down to Guyana to investigate reports of abuses. At first the visit went well from the perspective of Jones and his followers. There’s an extraordinary moment in which Ryan addresses a meeting of the community and declares “whatever the [questions and criticisms] are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life.” This statement is followed by thunderous, overwhelming, and evidently spontaneous applause. The tumult of noise simply doesn’t stop. Ryan tries to say more, but is evidently taken aback, embarrassed but also somehow pleased, by the sheer force of the affect he has conjured up.

Now imagine being Jim Jones and receiving such a response on a regular basis.

The screening I attended was followed by a discussion led by a particularly clueless psychologist who repeated all the usual clichés about cults and brainwashing. What was striking was the way in which his discourse simply mirrored that of so-called cults: establishing a clear line between “us” and “them,” and warning us that “they” might seem superficially attractive and rational, but were in fact deeply dangerous and deceitful.

Watching the documentary itself, however, revealed the continuities between the Peoples Temple experience and the atmosphere of the time. Jim Jones emerged at the intersection of a potent cocktail of political radicalism, religious fervor, racial utopianism, and a general questioning of all norms.

Jones’s extraordinarily liberal racial politics were particularly evident, and clearly also long-standing and deep-held. One of the film’s interviewees was Jones’s adopted son, Jim Jones Jr. (he happened to be away from Jonestown the night of the massacre), who points out that he was the first African American child to be adopted by a white family in the state of Indiana. Other interviewees comment that, as far as they were concerned, Jones was not a white pastor: his empathy and understanding for the African American experience was almost instinctual, innate.

The film was particularly effective in conveying the appeal of the Peoples Temple: the way in which it offered an affective community, a dose of ecstasy, an amalgamation of Freedom Ride and hippie commune and underground cell. No wonder at least one former member comments:

a part of the film made me long to be back there in Peoples Temple. [. . .]

I wish that I could again experience the warmth of that Peoples Temple family and see the look of joy on the faces of my children as they interacted with that great big family. Back then I knew that I was a part of something that was going to make a difference in this world, and I was so happy that my children were going to be a part of it. I knew then that my life had purpose, and that I had done the right thing for me and for my children. I was glad that my mother [. . .] was also a part of this.

(Other responses are here).

But then there is the sense of disappointment, the tragedy that something, somewhere, went wrong. Somehow paranoia took over, the multitude turned bad:

I wanted November 18, 1978, to have been an ordinary day in the life of Peoples Temple, the day after November 17, the day before November 19 and so many days after.

It is all inside my head, too much inside my head. I find myself wanting to scream “Let’s have a do over. Let’s not have anyone die. Let’s not have Jonestown and Peoples Temple be what people say to describe a cult.” But if you have a do-over, where do you start from?

How it hurts to have to remember that it is all gone.

For more, see the film’s website, this YouTube montage, as well as Rebecca Moore’s indispensable Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.


My institution has taken the notion of a “trek” as the organizing metaphor for its mission statement and medium to long-term goals, appealling thereby to a previous “refoundation,” a 1922 student-led demostration “now known as the Great Trek”.

UBC Great TrekStrictly speaking, the university had been founded in 1908 with the passage of the relevant Act of establishment and incorporation. Shortly thereafter, a site for the new university was identified: Point Grey, a promontory on the outskirts of the city. But when in 1915 the university opened for business, it was in the city itself, as construction continued at the promised site of Point Grey. Then in October 1922, some 1,500 students made their way from downtown to Point Grey, occupying and hanging banners from the still incomplete buildings, “as a symbolic gesture to lay claim to the unfinished campus”. It is this demonstration that came to be known as the “great trek.” And in 1925 the Point Grey campus finally opened.

But to call this a “trek” is curious terminology. Indeed, if the word was used in 1922 to describe student claims to Point Grey, it would antecede by almost twenty years the OED‘s first reference to “trek” being used outside of Africa.

For “trek” is a South African word, and any mention of a “Great Trek” in 1922 could only invoke the Boer founding myth of the Great Trek of 1835 to 1838. This was “a landmark in an era of expansionism and bloodshed, of land seizure and labour coercion”: up to 12,000 Afrikaners, Dutch settlers living in the Southern Cape under British jurisdiction, hitched their wagons and headed North and East in search of their very own “promised land.” These “Voertrekkers” thereby also sought to secure the white dominance and racial separation that they felt British policies were underminding.

Battle of Blood RiverThe Trek’s key episode was the Battle of Blood River, in which 3,000 Zulu warriors were killed at the cost of only slight injuries to three of the Boers. The Trekkers took this as “a sign from God that they were indeed a chosen people”. In 1949 the Apartheid state inaugurated the Blood River monument at the site of the battle, and the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, symbolic legitimation for a nation built on the myth of racial superiority incarnated in the trek and its triumphal massacre.

Surely then these same resonances of a chosen people’s resistance to a colonial authority felt to be insufficiently expansionist would also have been in the air in 1920s British Columbia?

Point Grey has been, we are also told, “home to the Musqueam band since ‘time immemorial'”. At the turn of the twentieth century, to identify the land as some rural Arcadia full of natural splendour and the requisite peace for higher education and learning was necessarily also to erase an entire history of indigenous population and colonial dispossession.

But the repressed always returns. The decidedly unusual choice of the term “Great Trek” marks the coincidence and commonality between the aims and desires of two sets of white colonizers, each anxious to construct for themselves the idea of a “promised land” in the face of indigenous resistance on the one hand, and what was felt as bureaucratic accommodation on the other.

One might also wonder what metaphoric or symbolic work the term’s contemporary resurrection accomplishes.


Princess Diana in AfricaI had the good fortune this week to read a wonderful book proposal about development work, and more specifically the “desire for development,” particularly among white women in the North.

The focus is on Canadian aid workers in sub-Saharan Africa, and the ways in which their investment in their work (and even their resistance) enables their self-constitution as moral subjects. The manuscript includes the following marvellous quotation about the ways in which the assumption of global difference constructs and confirms a sense of moral purpose in Canada above all:

A Canadian today knows herself or himself as someone who comes from the nicest place on earth, as someone from a peacekeeping nation, and as a modest, self-deprecating individual who is able to gently teach Third World Others about civility. (Sherene Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights 9)

This is another approach to the problems I’ve mentioned before inherent in the self-proclaimed mission to teach “global citizenship”.

The manuscript also notes something that surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have, that “there are likely more expatriate development workers operating in Africa at this point than there were ever colonialists in the era of empire” (cf R L Stirrat, “Cultures of Consultancy,” Critique of Anthropology 20.1 [2000]: 31-46).


Stranded by Continental Airlines in Houston for 24 hours, I decided to take the bus downtown from the airport hotel in which they’d put me.

Given that buses were the spark and focus of so much of the civil rights movement, what’s striking now is that, yes, African Americans have won the right to sit at the front of the bus. But that’s because they are also sitting at the back and in the middle: essentially, whites have abandoned public transport altogether in a city such as Houston. And this despite, or rather because of, the fact that it’s astonishingly cheap ($2 for an all-day pass, though you need to top that up on express buses in the evening rush hour… see below).

So from an explicit divide drawn through the middle of the bus, we now have an implicit, and so invisible, line drawn between transport users and the suburban commuters in their trucks and SUVs.

Interestingly, however, there were no Latinos on the buses I took. And this despite the fact that in many ways Houston is a bicultural city: all signs and announcements are in Spanish as well as English, and on the street at least I heard Spanish probably more than English. Just about every service worker I encountered, from the check-in agents at the hotel to the guys leaf-blowing the streets, to the bus driver and the cleaners at the airport… they were almost all Latino.

But on the return journey to the airport, it was a white guy who gave me a dollar on seeing that my pass no longer worked. Perhaps an act of racial solidarity among the bus-borne minority.

Rothko ChapelMeanwhile, I went down to the Rothko Chapel, which I first saw almost two decades ago. I still feel rather underwhelmed, but it was good to return and to re-experience the underwhelment. I also stopped by the Jung Centre. Most of the other museums were closed, it being a Monday.

Even so, I should apologize to my friend Ivonne, Houston native and very much a booster of her home city. The place is far better than I remember it. The public transport works, or at least it worked for me. There’s plenty to do. I even managed to find a few decent bars. And it’s not its inhabitants fault that the place is so damn hot and humid.

Though perhaps my good feelings towards Houston are also because in the interim since my last visit I have seen cities such as Dallas, a better example of the disaster that American cities can become.