Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Review: 'Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco' by Daniel J. Flynn

Massachusetts author Daniel J. Flynn has been honored for his previous books – Why The Left Hates America, Blue Collar Intellectuals, A Conservative History of the American Left, The War On Football and Intellectual Morons. He is a senior editor of the American Spectator and has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, City Journal, and National Review. Now he has published his most controversial book to date – CULT CITY: JIM JONES, HARVEY MILK, AND 10 DAYS THAT SHOOK SAN FRANCISCO.

In this book, very obviously augmented with hours of research and investigation, Daniel presents a horror story more frightening than any contemporary film, and in doing so he brings into focus the real personalities of two men whose names will never be forgotten. One of the many reasons the book is so impressive is Daniel’s writing style, as is evident in the opening chapter – ‘The advertisement billed the December 2 benefit gala as “A Struggle Against Oppression.” Scheduled speakers included rising Assemblyman Willie Brown as the master of ceremonies and funnyman Dick Gregory as the keynote. Supervisor Harvey Milk and other movers and shakers of an oft moved and shaken city crammed their big names into a small font on the flyer. For the bargain of $ 25— and “tax deductible” at that— influence seekers could seek to influence the mighty of a great American city. In addition to mingling with such power brokers as Brown and Milk, they could corner Sheriff Eugene Brown, physician and newspaper publisher Carlton Goodlett, and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver at San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency. And doing well meant doing good. The dinner’s proceeds subsidized the Peoples Temple Medical Program. The Hyatt ballroom remained empty on December 2, 1978. Two weeks earlier, the small staff of the Peoples Temple Medical Program had mixed cyanide with Flavor Aid and administered the poisonous, sugary elixir to hundreds of people in faraway Guyana. The smiling seniors and racial rainbow of children touting the wholesomeness of the agricultural commune in the fundraiser’s promotional literature rotted in piles in the steamy South American jungle. On an airstrip in nearby Port Kaituma, five people, including Congressman Leo Ryan, lay dead, gunned down by Peoples Temple assassins. Others, including future congresswoman Jackie Speier, State Department official Richard Dwyer, and San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman, nursed bullet wounds. In Guyana’s capital city, a former Harvey Milk campaign volunteer slashed her children’s throats. The Reverend Jim Jones, the darling of the San Francisco political establishment, orchestrated the murders and suicides of 918 people on November 18, 1978. The man-made cataclysm represented the largest such loss of civilian life in American history until 9/11 and the largest mass suicide of the modern age. Nothing before or after struck Americans as so bizarre. The event shocked the world. But the small world surrounding Peoples Temple predicted it— loudly and repeatedly. Not every utterance from Jonestown’s namesake, after all, proved as cryptic as the one block-quoted on the “Struggle Against Oppression” promotional literature: “We have tasted life based on total equality and now have no desire to live otherwise.” …Just nine days after the live-action horror movie in Guyana, another tragic event shook San Francisco: Supervisor Dan White murdered fellow supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in City Hall. As with the Jonestown massacre, myths cloud our understanding of these assassinations. In life, the assassin served as a protégé of future U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein, a public-employees union activist, and a friend and occasionally an ally of Harvey Milk. He represented blue-collar San Francisco Democrats as a blue-collar San Francisco Democrat. But after murdering fellow Democrats Milk and Moscone, the surely disturbed Dan White morphed into a “disturbed right-wing supervisor.” White’s victims experience a similar treatment of revisionist history. Moscone and Milk, tightly linked to Peoples Temple in life, strangely became untethered from the group in death. Moscone probably owed his election as mayor to Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. As thanks, the mayor appointed Jones to an important city post, making him chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. Harvey Milk became one of Jones’s most effusive advocates….This book confronts the noble lie. Jones did no wrong in life. Milk proved infallible upon death. The politician and the preacher, a saint and a devil in their afterlives, walked the earth as human beings.’

This style of prose and reportage magnetizes the reader, now able to learn facts not legend. The synopsis provided by Daniel shares the highlights of the drama: ‘The untold story of the intersecting lives of the Reverend Jim Jones and Harvey Milk—marking the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre and Milk’s assassination November 1978. The Reverend Jim Jones, the darling of the San Francisco political establishment, orchestrates the murders and suicides of 918 people at a remote jungle outpost in South America. Days later, Harvey Milk, one of America’s first openly gay elected officials—and one of Jim Jones’s most vocal supporters—is assassinated in San Francisco’s City Hall. This horrifying sequence of events shocked the world. Almost immediately, the lives and deaths of Jim Jones and Harvey Milk became shrouded in myth. The distortions and omissions have piled up since. Now, forty years later, this book corrects the record. The product of a decade of research, including extensive archival work and ¬dozens of exclusive interviews, Cult City reveals just how confused our understanding has become. In life, Jim Jones enjoyed the support of prominent politicians and Hollywood stars even as he preached atheism and communism from the pulpit; in death, he transforms into a fringe figure, a “fundamentalist Christian,” and a “fascist.” In life, Harvey Milk outed friends, faked hate crimes, and falsely claimed that the U.S. Navy dishonorably discharged him over his homosexuality; in death, he is honored in an Oscar-winning movie, with a California state holiday, and with a U.S. Navy ship named for him. His assassin, a blue-collar Democrat who often voted with Milk in support of gay issues, is remembered as a right-winger and a homophobe. But the story extends far beyond Jones and Milk. Author Daniel J. Flynn vividly portrays the strange intersection of mainstream politics and murderous extremism in 1970s San Francisco—the hangover after the high of the Summer of Love. ‘

This is an extraordinary book, copiously annotated and indexed, is a must read for all caring people. The truth is out and we must cope. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, October 18

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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