Drinking the Kool-Aid
"Drinking the Kool-Aid" is an expression used to refer to a person who believes in a possibly doomed or dangerous idea because of perceived potential high rewards. The phrase often carries a negative connotation. It can also be used ironically or humorously to refer to accepting an idea or changing a preference due to popularity, peer pressure, or persuasion. In recent years it has evolved further to mean extreme dedication to a cause or purpose, so extreme that one would "Drink the Kool-Aid" and die for the cause.
The phrase originates from events in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978, in which over 900 members of the Peoples Temple movement died. The movement's leader, Jim Jones, called a mass meeting at the Jonestown pavilion after the murder of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and others in nearby Port Kaituma. Jones proposed "revolutionary suicide" by way of ingesting a fatal powdered drink mix laced with cyanide and other drugs which had been prepared by his aides.
The phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" as used to describe either blind obedience or loyalty to a cause is considered offensive, by some, to relatives of the dead, and survivors who escaped Jonestown: seventy or more individuals at Jonestown were injected with poison against their will, and a third of the victims (304) were minors. Guards armed with guns and crossbows had been ordered to shoot those who fled the Jonestown pavilion as Jones lobbied for suicide.
As a point of fact regarding the phrase itself, it is not known with certainty which of two grape powdered flavor mixes, Flavor Aid, Kool-Aid, or both were used to concoct the poison in Jonestown; the commune had both among their supplies. Most sources surmise that Flavor-Aid was primary flavor ingredient used. Shortly after the tragedy, manufacturers of both products addressed the matter by pointing out whether their company's particular drink mix was or was not used was irrelevant: a cyanide-laced poison had been created and used to kill people, and their or either respective product was misused as the vehicle to do so.
On November 18, 1978, Jones ordered that the members of Representative Leo Ryan's party be killed after several defectors chose to leave with the party. Residents of the commune later committed suicide by drinking a flavored beverage laced with potassium cyanide; some were forced to drink it, some (such as small children) drank it unknowingly. Roughly 918 people died.
Descriptions of the event often refer to the beverage not as Kool-Aid but as Flavor Aid, a less-expensive product reportedly found at the site. Kraft Foods, the maker of Kool-Aid, has stated the same. Implied by this accounting of events is that the reference to the Kool-Aid brand owes exclusively to its being better-known among Americans. Others are less categorical. Both brands are known to have been among the commune's supplies: Film footage shot inside the compound prior to the events of November shows Jones opening a large chest in which boxes of both Flavor Aid and Kool-Aid are visible. Criminal investigators testifying at the Jonestown inquest spoke of finding packets of "cool aid" (sic), and eyewitnesses to the incident are also recorded as speaking of "cool aid" or "Cool Aid." It is unclear whether they intended to refer to the actual Kool-Aid–brand drink or were using the name in a generic sense that might refer to any powdered flavored beverage.
Given that both were available and are functionally very similar, it is hard to distinguish whether just one or both brands were used. The group had engaged in many "dry runs" using unpoisoned drink.
In December 1978, Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin told a convention of the American unit of Pax Christi that American planning for nuclear war and preparations for civil defense was "the Kool-Aid drill without the cyanide."
According to academician Rebecca Moore, early analogies to Jonestown and Kool-Aid were based around death and suicide, not blind obedience. The earliest such example she found, via a Lexis-Nexis search, was a 1982 statement from Lane Kirkland, then head of the AFL-CIO, which described Ronald Reagan's policies as "Jonestown economics," which "administers Kool-Aid to the poor, the deprived and the unemployed."
In 1984, a Reagan administration appointee, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, was quoted as criticizing civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan Jr., and Benjamin Hooks by making an analogy between allegiance to "the black leadership" and blind obedience to the Jonestown leaders: "We refuse to be led into another political Jonestown as we were led during the Presidential campaign. No more Kool-Aid, Jesse, Vernon and Ben. We want to be free."
In 1989, Jack Solerwitz, a lawyer for many of the air traffic controllers who lost their jobs in the 1981 PATCO strike, explained his dedication to their cause in spite of the substantial personal financial losses he incurred by saying: "I was the only lawyer who kept the doors open for them, and I thought I'd get a medal for it... Instead, I was the one who drank the Kool-Aid."
The widespread use of the phrase with its current meaning may have begun in the late 1990s. In some cases it began to take on a neutral or even positive light, implying simply great enthusiasm. In 1998, the dictionary website logophilia.com defined the phrase thus: "To become a firm believer in something; to accept an argument or philosophy whole-heartedly."
The phrase has been used in the business and technology worlds to mean fervent devotion to a certain company or technology. A 2000 The New York Times article about the end of the dot-com bubble noted, "The saying around San Francisco Web shops these days, as companies run out of money, is 'Just keep drinking the Kool-Aid,' a tasteless reference to the Jonestown massacre."
The phrase or metaphor has also often been used in a political context, usually with a negative implication. In 2002, Arianna Huffington used the phrase "pass the Kool-Aid, pardner" in a column about an economic forum hosted by President George W. Bush. Later, commentators Michelangelo Signorile and Bill O'Reilly have used the term to describe those whom they perceive as following certain ideologies blindly. In a 2009 speech, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham stressed his political independence by saying, "I did not drink the Obama Kool-Aid last year."
In 2011, columnist Meghan Daum wrote that the phrase had become "one of the nation's most popular idiomatic trends," while bemoaning its rise in popularity, calling its usage "grotesque, even offensive." She cited, among others, usages by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who said that he "drank the Kool-Aid as much as anyone else about Obama," and Us Weekly magazine, which reported during the short marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries that "Kris is not drinking the Kardashian Kool-Aid."
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Along the muddy path that served as a sidewalk for much of the commune, other reminders of the life and death that were Jonestown lie half buried in the fertile soil. A pair of woman's eyeglasses, a towel, a pair of shorts, packets of unopened Flavor-Aid lie scattered about waiting for the final cleanup that may one day return Jonestown to the tidy, if overcrowded, little community it once was.
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