The Enduring Legacy of Jim Jones


At age 70, I finally realize that most people are attracted to someone who talks—guys, gays, girls, it doesn't matter. Mankind as a social animal wants to be talked to. The myth of the strong, silent type winning over a crowd does not hold water, in my experience. If you want my attention, you have to talk to me. If you talk to me, I will listen. I may not believe you; I may even hold you in a degree of contempt, but I will continue to listen.

The more you talk, the more likely that people will stop and listen. It's that simple. We even have a name for the type of person who stands in front of a camera and runs his mouth—a talking-head. The phenomenon of a talking-head has been around at least since the late 1960s, when a comedian, Pat Paulsen, running for the Presidency of the United States, spent several minutes talking out of both sides of his mouth.

The Reverend Jim Jones, who took his thousand followers into the jungle of Guyana to set up his idea of paradise, that he named Jonestown, talked up a storm. Tim Reiterman writes in Raven, his masterful story of Jones, that Jones talked irrepressibly. Jones always chaired leadership meetings. The meetings went on for hours because Jones's rants only ended when he tired out.

He did not even take the time to go to the bathroom. Someone held a jar for him to pee into, so that he could keep talking. This insight should remind us of our limitations—that someone can control people just by talking forever.

I have listened to the man preach. No one can deny that his voice, his will, could fill an auditorium with his psychic energy. He just wore people down with his distorted reality. He defined reality to his followers. Reiterman said that Jones preferred Christians because they expected the subordinate relationship to a preacher and readily submitted to his spoken word in a church setting.

The real lesson for Christians is that, if you criticize them enough, they become more compliant and submissive. By the time Jones put them down for the tenth time, they would do anything for him to assure him of their loyalty. It should remind Christians of the verse in the Gospel of Matthew 7:15, about wolves clothed as sheep. But Christians have a special problem with Jones. The wolf came to them posing as an authority figure.

But the lessons of Jim Jones are really lessons for the Left. What happens when you turn over to a man the responsibility for your life? What happens if he starts doing things for you that you should do for yourself? Should it surprise anyone that Jones took advantage of his followers, who allowed themselves to depend on him. His followers turned over to him their social security checks, pension checks, property deeds, and anything else they had, and said to Jones, "Take care of all this for me." They even called him "Father."

Not only did Jones recognize himself as a socialist, but he also sought affirmation from important leftists in the U.S. and abroad. On page 281, for instance, Reiterman writes:

 The endorsement of the Temple by political radicals was a two-way bonding process. Figures
 such as the communist Angela Davis and Laura Allende, sister of the late Chilean leader,
 (Salvator Allende) validated the Temple as a social movement to those on the Left, while their
 presence and support validated the Temple to its own members. Besides Davis, the church
 proudly numbered among its friends actress Jane Fonda, Black Panther Hey Newton, American
 Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks.

He had psychological problems and took advantage of his followers. It is the reason that no one but an idiot wants a socialist leader. All of these ignorant people in Jonestown—older Blacks—who had grown up in a society that was closer to slavery than to freedom, gave Jones control of their lives. They let Jones run their lives—like slaves, or any other paternalistic relationship.

Jones understood the psychology of a socialist state very well. He had to break down his followers to make them equal—rid them of their superior notions, drain them of their individuality, and stand them up to accuse them. Tim Reiterman writes on page 161 about leadership meetings:

 Sessions started with verbal sniping, skipped into verbal brutality that brought people to tears,
 and gradually plunged into the sphere of physical violence. The residual effects on the larger
 society needed to be ripped away like dead skin. . . . It took repetition and confrontation to
 crush ego problems and jealousy games, to excise the ugly scar tissue of racism and sexism . . .
 and to replace it with the healthy muscle of egalitarianism.

Basically, Jones attracted to him people who had a herd instinct and did not think for themselves. He taught his followers to suspect and loathe the people who could stand alone and do their own thinking; but the truth is more complex. A socialist leader does not have to teach his followers anything. The followers already see a man who stands alone as a put-down of themselves. Their collective envy and hatred gets transmitted to the leader, who just gives them what they already want—the justification to demonize anyone who makes them feel inferior.