Another Lesson from Jonestown

by Phyllis Gardner

I have been doing research into the Tony Alamo Ministries, originally intending to write with one eye – at least as it relates to this journal – towards the idea of drawing some parallels and highlighting differences between it and Peoples Temple. I think of how many lives may have been saved by Alamo’s arrest and conviction on a variety of salacious sex crimes involving children.

As I continued my research, a friend suggested that I look at some of the research which the Southern Poverty Law Center had done on Alamo. While reading one article (unrelated to Tony Alamo), though, I was shocked when I came across what I believed to be a politically-motivated misrepresentation – as malicious as it was erroneous – of what a commentator had said on a television program. I know that SPLC is decidedly left of center, and the commentator who was the target is the opposite, but that did not excuse what appeared to be a purposeful distortion of the man’s position. In my email to SPLC about the “error,” I let them know that it caused my confidence in their other research to be shaken.

I was not prepared for the response I received from Mark Potok, a staff director of SPLC. Among other things, he suggested that SPLC was justified in misrepresenting the TV personality because, in their view, he had taken too long to make the correct point. Therefore the commentator was a fool, and that apparently made him fair game for whatever SPLC wanted to say about him.

“Go back to your TV, Phyllis,” Potok said, adding that the SPLC doesn’t want to help me with my research anyway, because they don’t consider me a real researcher.

I admit – although it shouldn’t matter – that I am a political hybrid. I vote with the more socially liberal minds on a majority of state and local level issues. On the national level, I have leaned to the more conservative position. My belief was – and still is – that the quality of our national security is what allows us the luxury of arguing about domestic issues. A true independent, I identify with both parties and with neither.

What made me shiver is that Potok’s tactic with me was strikingly similar to Jim Jones’ tactics with his followers. If you disagree, then clearly you are wrong. If you question, you are disloyal. If you object, you must be put in your place.

Had I been another sort of person, I would have bowed my head and walked away, ashamed for having spoken out. But I am stronger than that, and hope I always will be. I cannot help but think that, in part because of what I’ve learned from my research into Jonestown, I will speak up where I see the unacceptable, even if there are uncomfortable costs to be paid. Does this make me courageous? No, because my resolve, thankfully, has not been fully tested. I cannot honestly say what I might do – when I might give up – if I thought the price too high.

Part of what made Jim Jones successful in his quest to manipulate the minds of so many people was their willingness to accept what they were told and their fear of the consequences if they did not. In the course of my numerous conversations and interviews with Temple survivor Bobby Stroud, he usually responded to my questions that began “Didn’t you think…?” or “Didn’t you feel…?” with, “Well, sometimes, but we just didn’t think about those kinds of things. We just did what we thought we had to do to survive.” In retrospect – in terrible, terrible retrospect – the methods that most of them believed would help them survive, ultimately hastened them to their deaths.

Is that not the same flavor of problem that we have in politics in this country from both sides of the political aisle? All too often, they do and say what they think will get them re-elected, not necessarily what they think is right. They vote on massive stacks of legislation that they haven’t even read because they fear the political consequences of questioning the bumper sticker position of the leadership on it, whether they define “leadership” as their party, their constituents, or the donors. They trade favors and drown themselves in scandal. And they all know what they are doing, but no one will name it for fear of bringing the wrong kind of attention to themselves. They see what happens to the ones who question. They are branded as hateful zealots, stupid, or just plain crazy.

I love healthy debate. I don’t even have to agree with you to enjoy a spirited discussion. What I don’t enjoy – and none of us should accept – is personal attack posing as political discourse. As the example of Jim Jones teaches us, we should beware of those who attack you for challenging them. They are the most dangerous sort of people. Those who attack you for daring to disagree usually know that their own arguments are false – they attack with emotion because they cannot defend with facts. We who are students of Jonestown should mark this lesson as one not to be ignored.

(Dr. Gardner is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete collection of articles for this site appears here. She can be contacted at Phyllis.Gardner@texarkanacollege.edu.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on May 12th, 2020.
Skip to main content