Drunk any Kool-Aid lately? Or maybe you accused someone else of doing it? If so, congratulations, you’re right in step with one of the nation’s most popular idiomatic trends. A snappy, fruit-flavored way of referring to someone who unquestioningly embraces a particular leader or ideology, “drinking the Kool-Aid” has become a staple of self-righteous public discourse.
Bill O’Reilly is fond of the expression, as is Washington Times columnist Marybeth Hicks, whose new book “Don’t Let the Kids Drink the Kool-Aid” warns that “frightening percentages of our kids” believe that Christianity is “just plain mean.” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was recently said to have drunk “the company Kool-Aid” when he finally joined Google+, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz admitted in a recent interview that he “drank the Kool-Aid as much as anyone else about Obama.”
Finally, in a sobering portent of the divorce announcement that shook the world earlier this month, Us Weekly reported that within just 72 days of their $10-million wedding, reality star Kim Kardashian and her husband, Kris Humphries, were “not getting along at all” because “Kris is not drinking the Kardashian Kool-Aid.”
Such intransigence may have cost Humphries his marriage, but in different circumstances it might have saved his life. That’s because, apparently unbeknown to just about everyone who uses the expression, “drinking the Kool-Aid” isn’t some kitschy nod to 1970s junk-food or the mind-altering effects of citric acid. It comes from an event that, until Sept. 11, 2001, marked America’s single greatest loss of civilian life in a non-natural disaster, the Jonestown massacre.
On Nov. 18, 1978, in a remote Guyana compound, more than 900 members of the People’s Temple followed the orders of their leader, Jim Jones, and drank powdered grape punch (actually the cheap Kool-Aid knockoff Flavor-Aid) mixed with chemicals that included cyanide and Valium. So in Jones’ thrall were his followers that they poisoned their babies and toddlers first, using syringes to squirt the liquid into the children’s mouths. In most cases, death occurred within five minutes.
Yep, sounds just like Obama lovers and Christ-bashing meanies and the Kardashians. An apples-to-apples comparison. Or, should we say (to cite an oldie-but-goodie Kool-Aid flavor) a Man-o-Mangoberry to Man-o-Mangoberry comparison. Not.
OK, I know figures of speech evolve (“rule of thumb,” for example, may have come from an old law allowing a man to beat his wife as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb). And some people will insist that “drink the Kool-Aid” stems not from Jonestown but from “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book about the psychedelic peregrinations of writer Ken Kesey.
Whether that’s true (and, come on, are we supposed to believe O’Reilly is smacking down his dissenting guests by suggesting they’re tripping out in a Day-Glo school bus?), I still feel compelled to suggest we ease up on this particular metaphor. There’s something grotesque, even offensive, about comparing public figures or members of opposing political parties or nonviolent activists to followers of a deranged, murderous cult leader. We’re not isolated in the jungle; we’re drowning in information. We’re also knee-deep in round-the-clock analysis and critique of that information.
Unlike cult members, who are programmed to abdicate anything resembling personal opinion, we revere personal opinion and individual action. Granted, that can lead some people astray, but despite all the griping about the manipulations of “lamestream” media and the conspiracies waged by (take your pick) big corporations or big government, we probably drink the Kool-Aid less now than at any time in history.
We’ve even got one political movement whose problem is not that it’s lead by zealots but by no one at all. Can you imagine the Occupy Wall Street crowd drinking poisoned Kool-Aid? Those hand signals they use would make them spill it everywhere.
Friday marks the 33rd anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. It’s not a round-number anniversary; there aren’t likely to be a lot of memorials or mentions in the news. But maybe it’s worth marking the occasion by trying not to say “drink the Kool-Aid” for at least a day. After all, there’s no dearth of overused figures of speech out there — just think outside the box.