Language corner: drinking the Kool-Aid

June 4, 2017

Last week in my piece about the prevalence of pseudoscience in the world of professional sport I used the expression drinking the Kool-Aid. I was going to put an asterisk after the expression, but I forgot. This was probably a good thing as it has lot to unpack – this will be the subject of this week’s blog.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as to “demonstrate unquestioning obedience or loyalty to someone or something.” They also furnish us real-world examples

…his real ire is directed at the news media for drinking the Kool-Aid and not being tougher on the president

In other words: everyone had drunk the New Economy Kool-Aid.

If you can’t see the bias in almost every news organization, then you’re probably drinking their Kool-Aid.

Kool-Aid is a brand of flavoured drink mix manufactured by Kraft Foods. Invented by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, it is usually sold in powder form, in either packets or small tubs. Working out of his mother’s kitchen, Perkins was able to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, a liquid concentrate. The resulting powder was much cheaper to ship, and so Kool-Aid was born. This powder is generally mixed with sugar and water and served in a pitcher. Kool-Aid has other uses too – dyeing your hair and cleaning pots and pans, washing machines, silverware and toilets.

I have to say it doesn’t sound particularly appetising, but how did it become associated with following blindly? This is where the story takes a dark turn. It is to events to in a jungle in Guyana nearly four decades ago that we need to go. The terrible happenings are known as The Jonestown Massacre. I am currently reading The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. The author also wrote an excellent biography of Charles Manson, which was the basis for the You Must Remember This podcast series about the cult leader. I am still on the early part of Jones’s life.

The Reverend Jim Jones, a communist and an infrequent Methodist minister, who founded his own church in the late 1950s, the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, which was generally shortened to the “Peoples Temple.” He had a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity, Marxist dogma, racial integration and paranoia. The latter led him to preach about an impending nuclear apocalypse, for which a specified a date July 15, 1967, after which there would be a socialist paradise on Earth. This didn’t happen, but this is not usually a problem for cult leaders and their followers.

Concerned that the Peoples Temple might lose its tax-exempt religious status in the U.S. and paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community, Jones moved the Temple to the South American nation of Guyana. One of the reasons it was chosen was because its socialist policies. They had been building a settlement there since 1974. Jonestown, AKA the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project occupied nearly 4,000 acres. Many members of the Peoples Temple believed that Guyana would be a paradise or utopia. But, it was not a great place to establish a settlement. It was isolated, the soil was of poor quality and it had limited fresh water. By 1978 the population was around 900, many of whom were African-American.

In November of that year U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat, visited Jonestown to investigate alleged human rights abuses at the Temple. Accompanied by members of the media and concerned family members, Ryan met with a number of Temple members who sought to leave. Eventually the entire Ryan party and the Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip to board the planes that would get them out of this hell-hole. But Jim Jones had sent armed Temple members, known as the Red Brigade to prevent this. They opened fire killing Ryan three members of the media party, and one of the defectors. Eleven others were injured and fled into the jungle.

The murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones immediately called a meeting, of which there is a chilling audiotape. Jones suggested that the settlement would soon come under attack from U.S. intelligence agencies. He offered Temple members these choices:

  1. stay and fight the invaders,
  2. escape to the Guyana jungle or the USSR,
  3. commit “revolutionary suicide” (in other words, mass suicide as an act of political protest).

They had already tested the third option in the past. He had given members small cups of liquid, which supposedly contained poison. They followed the orders. Jones then revealed that there was no poison in the drink, but one day there would be. He has, indeed, been stockpiling cyanide and other drugs for years. Now the Temple members were creating a cocktail of chemicals including cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine and chloral hydrate (both sedatives), and Flavour Aid — a grape-flavoured drink similar to Kool-Aid.

First mothers squirted poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. They were given their dose. Eventually 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped Jonestown. These were residents who were away on errands or when playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place. Jim Jones did not drink the poison, preferring to shoot himself. He would have seen the horrible deaths, which involve foaming at the mouth and convulsions. Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills leaving their assets to the Communist Party of the USSR.

Curiously, it was Flavour-Aid and not Kool-Aid that was used to make the deadly cocktail. I suppose that it is the most famous brand.  Be that as it may many people object to the use of this expression. One such person is Jackie Speier, then a 28-year-old aide to Congressman Ryan. Having been shot five times, Speier lay bleeding for 24 hours before she was discovered by rescuers. She now holds Ryan’s seat in Congress. She is not a fan of this expression:

“There was nothing about it that was a suicide … They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.”

 Last night in London we saw another example of murderous psychopaths who use religion as a justification for their perverted ideologies. Will we never learn?

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On the Mental Floss website they mention Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a non-fiction account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they drive from California to New York in their party bus. The stoned hippies want to promote the use of LSD and they make a cocktail of acid with Kool-Aid.  This is the acid test of the title. The book’s description of one man’s bad acid trip is perhaps the first negative use of the expression:

… There was one man who became completely withdrawn … I want to say catatonic, because we tried to bring him out of it, and could not make contact at all … he was sort of a friend of mine, and I had some responsibility for getting him back to town … he had a previous history of mental hospitals, lack of contact with reality, etc., and when I realized what had happened, I begged him not to drink the Kool-Aid, but he did … and it was very bad.”

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