Trapped for several hours in an auto shop in Fayetteville, I had no choice but to hear the panic on the TV. It was a reminder that this pandemic has never been mainly a health crisis but always, mainly, a psychological crisis.
As of Sunday, some 320 Arkansans were recorded to have died from the coronavirus. In 2017, with a smaller population, more than 1,600 Arkansans died in accidents. As of Sunday, some 135,000 Americans had died from the virus. The flu of 1918 killed about 675,000 Americans in a population nearly 70 percent smaller than it is now.
Pandemics are historically common. This one isn't major.
But one couldn't know that from the shrieking on the TV, or from the train of destructive "responses" we've witnessed: Hundreds of thousands of businesses ruined; more than 20 million Americans unemployed; several million students disappeared from school rolls; the imminent demise of private schools and colleges; more drug abuse and domestic violence; $4 trillion added to the national debt and piled onto the shoulders of the young; and a string of assaults on civil and personal liberties. All in the name of "safety" and "caring."
As the TV screeched, I wondered how a reasonable people had fallen into such a state of self-mangling, how a free people had become so conformist, how the progeny of the liberators of western Europe now wallowed in anxiety, taught their children to do the same, and mounted moral blackmail campaigns against dissenters.
So I reached out to Hue Fortson, who had been a leader in the Peoples Temple of California and the Jonestown community in Guyana that sprang from it. Its founder was Jim Jones, a one-time preacher turned political radical.
Jones attracted followers because he identified real problems and offered some practical solutions. But he was also a charismatic sociopath, and his movement ended in profound self-mangling -- specifically, in the murder-suicide of more than 900 people.
Hue Fortson lost a wife and baby at Jonestown. He's certain that if he hadn't been in San Francisco on Temple business when the tragedy unfolded, he also would have drunk the poison-laced Flavor-Aid. Now he's a pastor, and it's startling to hear a kind and interesting man make that confession.
I contacted Pastor Fortson not because I think something like what happened at Jonestown in 1978 is at our doorstep. But it's a conceit to think that the psyches of the people there and our own are different, and anyone who cares about perspective, a sense of proportion and liberty has to be alarmed at what's happening even here in Siloam Springs. In any case, you'd be unwise to dismiss Pastor Fortson, who appears in the powerful documentary "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple." Part of my discussion with him is posted online under the title "A Jonestown Survivor Reflects on Social Stress in the United States."
Pastor Fortson is himself in an age group endangered by the virus. But he sees greater problems. He sees leaders stoking fear and employing coercion to gain power over populations. He sees government working to make people dependent on itself -- something facilitated by the sudden shuttering of churches. He notes that physical lockdowns have led to mental lockdowns, psychological exhaustion, and a population riper for control. He sees a people more socially isolated and more open to manipulation than ever. He sees mass conformity. He sees spiritual emptiness and the widespread worship of unworthy idols like celebrity, ideology and social media attention.
The liquid that killed the 900 in Jonestown came from a single vat. Thinking about life generally, I asked Pastor Fortson what it would take for a person to have the courage to kick over the vat. He said that people need to have deep spiritual lives. We live within communities, yes, but we need to possess an inner independence rooted in something true and eternal.
In the absence of such an anchor, people are more easily persuaded. And in the name of compassion or justice, relatively minor and manageable problems can be whipped into something extreme.
-- Preston Jones is a Siloam Springs resident and history professor. The opinions expressed are those of the author.