Sometimes I consume media that makes factual claims. Sometimes I look up some of these claims to see how much trust I should place in said media, in a series I call epistemic spot checks. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on how useful this is. Focusing on evaluating particular works instead of developing a holistic opinion on an entire subject does feel perverse to me. OTOH, sometimes non-fiction is recreational, and I don’t think having some of my attention directed by people I find insightful and trustworthy is a bad thing, as long as I don’t swallow their views unquestioningly. Additionally, there’s a pleasant orderliness to doing ESCs, like the intellectual equivalent of cleaning my house. It’s not enough in and of itself, but it can free up RAM such that there’s room for deeper work.
I started listening to Darryl Cooper’s Martyr Made last year as part of a deep dive on cults, but kept going because I found him incredibly insightful. After listening to the 30+ hours of the God’s Socialist sequence, I Googled around and found a few accusations of racism against Cooper. I didn’t believe the accusations then, and I still don’t. People can go through the motions of saying what other people tell them to, but they can’t fake what Cooper does, which is to approach every human being as someone worthy of respect and compassion, whose actions are probably reasonable given their incentives. I value that a lot more than proper signaling.
Some time later I found an archive of Cooper’s deleted Twitter logs, and, uh, I get where people are coming from on the racism thing. I still absolutely believe in his respect and compassion for everyone except members of the USSR leadership (and even then, he’ll say very nice things about the intentions of early communists). However, the thing about doing that genuinely instead of choosing a side and signaling allegiance is that it doesn’t compress well to 140 characters, and he said a bunch of things that were extremely easy to round to terrible beliefs. I might also have mistaken him for racist, if all I had was his Twitter. But given the podcasts, I am very sure that he respects-and-has-compassion-for every human being.
[Between when I started listening and when I published this Cooper returned to Twitter, which I have mixed feelings about. Namely “I think this is bad for him intellectually and emotionally” vs. “He’s talking to me! Hurray!”]
I’m not a big fan of emotion in my history podcasts. Martyr Made is an exception. Cooper goes hours out of his way to make sure you understand how something felt, without ever coming across as dishonest or manipulative. Some of that is that he often uses himself as an example and is very upfront about his flaws. Some of that is the aforementioned respect and compassion seeping into everything he does. Some is good writing.
For example, God’s Socialist is nominally about Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, but Cooper doesn’t believe Jonestown makes any sense unless you understand the 60s, hippies, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Power movement. The prologue consists of a description of various race riots/race wars, the contemporary and just-pre-Civil-Rights-movements, and easily 15 minutes on his interactions with some homeless people in his neighborhood. For the last of these, he observes that though he’s occasionally kind, he mostly just ignores the individuals in question, and that sometimes he thinks that on Judgement Day the only thing that’s going to matter is how he failed to really help those men- whatever he did, it was for the wrong motives and much too little. I wrote a bunch of angry notes about how virtue ethics was bullshit while listening to this part, but by the end it became clear that he wasn’t making a call to any particular action, it was just an honest accounting of suffering in the world. He was walking me through it because he felt it was necessary to understand Jim Jones, whose first acts as an adult were taking care of people most of society was stepping over.
All of this is to say: Martyr Made is one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction in the world. I’ve learned so much from it both factually and emotionally, but I felt vulnerable talking about that until I was absolutely rock solid on the author’s epistemics. I finally had time to do an epistemic spot check on the start of God’s Socialist (still my favorite sequence in the series), and I’m extremely relieved to announce that he nailed it, although just like my ESC of Acoup, it is not so amazingly perfect that the follow up wasn’t worth doing (and I assume Cooper would agree with that, just like Bret Devereaux did).
A word on ESCs: there’s a range of things it can mean to check someone’s epistemics. Sometimes it means checking their simple concrete facts. You would be amazed how many problems this catches. Another is to check leaps of logic: they can have their facts right but draw wildly incorrect inferences from them. Finding these requires more cognition, but is also fairly easy. Cooper did great on both of these, which was not surprising. My concern was always that his facts were literally true but unrepresentative. Accurate-in-spirit representation is one of the hardest things to judge, especially about really contentious issues like racial violence where second opinions are just another thing to fact check. What I can say is that everything I checked I was either able to concretely verify, or was extremely consistent with what I was able to find but was open to other interpretations, because it’s a contentious area with motivated record keeping.
The God’s Socialist sequence of Martyr Made is 30 hours long. I have ESCed the prologue, which is 90 minutes long, and some especially load-bearing claims I remembered from later in the podcast. I also happen to have already read one of Cooper’s most quoted sources, The Warmth of Other Suns (affiliate link), back in 2014. 2014 is a long time ago and I didn’t ESC Warmth at the time, but what Cooper quoted was generally in accordance with my memory of it, on both a factual and model level.
Without further adieu…
Claim: A 2007 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on Latino-on-Black violence in Los Angeles (1:02)
He reads this report very nearly word for word. All the differences I caught were very minor wording issues that didn’t change the meaning. I also checked some of SPLC’s claims
SPLC: “Since 1990, the African-American population of Los Angeles has dropped by half as blacks relocated to suburbs”, “Now, about 75% of Highland Park residents are Latinos. Only 2% are black. The rest are white and Asian.” (8:17)
This was shockingly annoying to verify because I could find stats by year for LA county but not LA the city, and the county includes the suburbs. I did verify that:
- In 2000 (seven years before the SPLC report came out), Highland Park was 72.4% Latino and 2.4% black (source).
- Note that if you read the Wikipedia article it says 8.4% black, but it cites my source above. This is plausibly an issue of how to assign mixed-race people (since Wikipedia’s percentages add up to >100%), or the ongoing confusion about how Latino is an ethnicity, not a race.
- However, that particular neighborhood was already 2.2% black in 1990, although it was a little whiter and less Latino (source).
- An LA time article also describes South LA shifting from an approximately 1:1 ratio of Latino and Black residents to 2:1 (Highland Park is in northeast LA).
Claim: A number of specific incidents of Latino-on-Black violence in Los Angeles, and some nebulous statistics
I Googled several of these as they came up and they always checked out, although LA’s a big city and Cooper is looking over a long time period, so it would be easy to cherry pick.
Cooper also gave some statistics on hate crime. However, these were always either for a particular neighborhood (too small, data liable to be noisy), or not quite as damning as his tone suggested they were. I found some statistics that came out the same year this episode did that support the general concept that Latino-on-Black violence happens, but I don’t trust the LAPD’s truthseeking on hate crimes.
Which is to say, Cooper’s claims are well sourced and completely consistent with the available data, but the data is poor and his opinions are more controversial than he acknowledges. I’m sure someone with different motivations could use the same data to make the opposite case, or a different one entirely. Here’s an article published the same year as the SPLC report, calling the claims ridiculous. My tentative take on this is that racial tensions were high and spilling over into violence, but the claims that “all black people in LA were greenlit” (meaning, gang members had the okay from leaders to shoot them) and “all black people in Latino neighborhoods in LA were greenlit” are clearly insane; the murder rate would be much higher if that were true.
Claim: Quote from Warmth of Other Suns: “In 1950, city aldermen and housing officials proposed restricting 13,000 new public housing units to people who had lived in Chicago for two years. The rule would presumably affect colored migrants and foreign immigrants alike. But it was the colored people who were having the most trouble finding housing and most likely to seek out such an alternative.” (23:00)
This quote is accurate, but my memory of it wasn’t: I had in my notes that this proposal was enacted, and only rechecked the recording when I couldn’t find any such record and wanted to see if he cited a source. His source, Warmth of Other Suns, cites a 1950 newspaper article that I couldn’t find online (it probably exists in ProQuest’s Historical Newspaper archive, but I lack access despite trying ProQuest via multiple libraries).
Claim: Description of the Cicero Riots of 1951 (31:00)
Everything he says is in accordance with the Wikipedia article: it was a horrific multi-day riot and lynching episode triggered by a black family moving into a white neighborhood.
Cooper doesn’t mention this, but fun fact: according to Wikipedia, the landlord allowed the family to move in not for any noble anti-racism or even free-market motivations, but to punish the neighborhood for fining her for something else.
Claim: Southern white people did not want black people to leave during the Great Migration, because they needed them as labor (35:00)
Warmth of Other Suns says the same, although that’s not independent confirmation because it’s at least one of Cooper’s sources as well. Wikipedia agrees.
Claim: Northern union leaders were resistant to black migrants because they reduced labor’s power (43:00)
I could not find a smoking gun on this, which makes sense because labor is not going to want to admit it. However I found a number of articles, modern and contemporary, on companies bringing in black workers from the south as strikebreakers, and it would be extremely weird if that didn’t upset union leaders.
Claim: Jim Jones began as a dynamic and promising civil rights movement leader, branched out into communism (1:05:20)
Claim: Jonestown residents were mostly poor and black, and disproportionately children (1:17:00)
Note that this was not true of the leadership of Jonestown, which was overwhelmingly white. Cooper gets into this later in the sequence.
Claim: Jim Jones led successful efforts to integrate businesses in Indianapolis (memory)
This claim came later in the sequence. It and the similar claim below were very significant to me and a number of changes in my own models rest on them, so I expanded the scope of the project to include them.
There are many sources repeating this claim, including Wikipedia, some book, and r/HistoryAnecdotes, and none denying it. I am a little suspicious because everyone seems to agree on exactly how many restaurants he integrated, but no one names them. They do name a hospital, but it seems like maybe “integrated” means “he accidentally got assigned to a black ward (because his doctor was black) and refused to leave”. But it’s not surprising that restaurants he integrated either no longer exist or don’t want to be remembered as “the place that excluded minorities until forced to change by the guy who later led America’s largest simultaneous suicide”.
Claim: Jim Jones helped members of his racially-integrated church tremendously (memory)
I found many secondary or tertiary sources saying this and no arguments against, but the only primary sources I could find joined the church in California. I couldn’t find any reports from people who joined while the church was in Indiana. That doesn’t seem damning to me; it’s kinda hard to tell people your lights got turned back on by Jim Jones before he was famous. This interview with a woman who joined in California and narrowly escaped the mass suicide confirms everything it can: she was a true believer in a bunch of good things but also kind of a joiner who ping-ponged between organizations until she found peace with People’s Temple. Another CA joiner talks about joining because her sister needed a rehab program and was recommended to People’s Temple’s program.
Claim: Jim Jones adopted multiple children of color (memory)
True. The Jones family adopted three Korean children, one part-Native American child, and one black child, who they named James Jones Jr (they also had one biological child and adopted a white child from a People’s Temple member. There are also some People’s Temple kids of unclear paternity).
I recognize that transracial adoption is contentious and actions that were considered progressive and inclusive 60 years ago are now viewed as bad for the children they were supposed to benefit. I also get that lots of adoptive white parents were unprepared to deal with the realities of racism, or harbor it themselves, and that harmed their kids. The whole mass suicide thing casts some doubt on Jim Jones as a parent too. Nonetheless, a white man naming his black son after himself in 1961 was an extraordinarily big deal for which he undoubtedly paid a very high price, and from all this I have to conclude that fighting racism was extremely important to early Jim Jones.
Overall all of the claims were at least extremely defensible. I wish Cooper acknowledged more of the controversy around his interpretations, but I also appreciate that he comes to actual conclusions with models instead of spewing a bunch of isolated facts. I also wish he provided show notes with citations, because he’s inconsistent about providing sources in the audio.
Doing this check reinforced my belief that having one source for any of your beliefs is malpractice and processing multiple sources is a requirement, however I will very happily continue to have Cooper as a significant source of information, and if I’m totally honest I’m not even going to check all his work this extensively.