Cult Observer Archives

The Cult Observer

November/December 1987

Jonestown Remembered

November 18 marked the ninth anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy. For many of our young people, even those of college age, the event was too long ago and too far away to have great significance today. For the rest of us, however, there is a horrible memory of the nine hundred and thirteen bodies of those who obeyed Jim Jones’s command to drink the poison.

In view of next year’s tenth anniversary of that sad event, there has been introduced in Congress a resolution to designate a perpetual Cult Awareness Week. Is there a need for such consciousness-raising? There is, for while exploitation may always be part of the human scene, manipulation is the disease of the twentieth century, according to Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz in his Captive Mind. Jacques Ellul, in Propaganda, warns, in turn, that "the only truly serious attitude is to show people the extreme effectiveness of the weapon aimed against them." And a similarly earnest warning was offered recently by Bill Moyers in the program "Secret Government," which made clear that an Orwellian world is not safely remote.

During this program, Roger Wilkins expressed the conviction that when a very few people at the top of government claim that society has become so complex that "We will have to make the decisions for the rest of you," we are well down the road to dictatorship. The "Secret Government" audience also heard Colonel Oliver North proudly proclaim, "The President is my commander-in-chief and if my commander-in-chief ordered me to go into the corner and stand on my head, I would do that." Senator Inouye’s response probably fell on deaf ears as far as North was concerned: "When a military man receives an illegal order he is obliged to disobey it." Moyers concluded with the counsel, "An open society cannot survive a secret government."

The danger of Iran-Contra-like affairs is the greater when we are unaware of it. And as Goethe long ago warned, ""one are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.'"Among those unaware that they have surrendered their liberty today are the three million or so who have been caught up in the variety of destructive cults, all of which seem to center upon a charismatic figure who does the thinking for everybody.

Given that conformity and immaturity go together, we need to take a fresh look at our educational establishment to discover whether or not we are in some way responsible for the fact that our young people are so susceptible to political and religious charlatans. And our religious institutions have the delicate task of cultivating conscience without appearing to prefer a childish docility.

Because there are in this world evil men who will try to deprive our young people of their freedom and of truth, we often repeat the admonition, "Think for yourself?" It is not an easy thing to do. Perhaps Hannah Arendt’s way of putting it in The Life of the Mind may express it more persuasively: "For the need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of ‘wise men;’ it can be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew."

Walter Debold

Rev. Debold, who is a member of the faculty of Seton Hall College in South Orange, New Jersey, has written and spoken widely on cultism in society.

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