Summer is just around the corner, and we know what that means. It means drinking the Kool-Aid.
Back in the day, I was just like the kids in those commercials you may remember from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ’70s, hooting and hollering for Kool-Aid and knocking it back, glass after glass.
But November, 1978, changed the way I felt about Kool-Aid, after more than 900 members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple committed mass suicide at their leader’s behest (or mass murder, as some refer to that event), by drinking a flavoured drink mix laced with cyanide.
Since then, the phrase “to drink the Kool-Aid” has become so widespread and common in its usage that it is the first thing I think of when Kool-Aid is mentioned. Even before I think of the “Jonestown Massacre.” Certainly before I think about how I used to chug Kool-Aid by the gallon on hot summer days in the early ‘70s.
“To drink the Kool-Aid” now means specifically that one has mindlessly adopted the dogma of a group or leader without fully understanding the implications. But I confess to be put off by the way the phrase now means, even more generally, just to buy into an idea. Usually, if you’re using the phrase, you disagree with the idea in question. “I thought Bob was going to vote with me on the motion, but no, he drank the Kool-Aid, and voted with Sheila. D— him, anyway!”
Drinking the Kool-Aid has a negative connotation, that one is a blind follower of a mad plan, adhering to a bad dogma. Although I have had a boss say to me in a job, in urging me and other employees to follow a game plan: “We’ve all got to be on the same page, here. We all gotta drink the Kool-Aid!” To which I responded: “Don’t worry, Steve — I’m going to drink that Kool-Aid!” Kind of a disturbing conversation, when I think about it.
However upset I may be by how such a trivial phrase evolved out of such an horrific event, I still marvel at humanity’s ability to turn the tragic or macabre into everyday language, which can describe even the most mundane situation so much better in a short, terse phrase than the most sincere paragraph of words.
Something like: “By signing the contact, we agreed to cut our own throats.” Such horrible imagery, yet so succinct. There’s nothing can say it so well like gallows humour.
This something humanity is very good at — drawing out our darkness where we can see it, and making fun of it. Turning it into language. But at the same time, it can show a distinct lack of compassion. Understanding the path that would lead 900 people to commit mass suicide can’t be summed up in a simple phrase.
But there’s no understating our love of irony, and how it influences our language.
Speaking of irony, it was not in fact Kool-Aid that was spiked with cyanide and drunk at Jonestown — it was Flavor-Aid, a rival brand of powdered sweet drink (though some say there is evidence that there were packets of Kool-Aid used as well). So it hardly seems fair, that Kool-Aid should be so closely associated with this macabre, yet useful phrase. “I guess I’m on board with this crazy scheme — I drank that Flavor-Aid.” Doesn’t flow off the tongue as easily.
Literature has also contributed to the subversion of the term Kool-Aid in my mind. Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” profiled ‘60s counter-culture figure Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, and how they would conduct “Acid Tests” in the San Francisco area, putting the hallucinogenic drug LSD in Kool-Aid (unless they were using Flavor-Aid), and exploring the inner psychedelic universe.
The original meaning of Acid Test is to conclusively test of the success or value of something. This phrase is derived from a test for gold using nitric acid. However, Wolfe’s book forever linked the term “Acid Test” with “Electric Kool-Aid” in popular culture.
So for me, when I hear the term Kool-Aid, the first thing I think of is something that is spiked — with life-killing cyanide or with mind-expanding LSD. It has become part of my adult burden of consciousness.
But still, deep in my hippocampus is a strong memory from childhood of a large jug of Kool-Aid cavorting around, often bursting through fences at the urging of thirsty children, while everybody sings: “Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, tastes great! Wish I had some! Can’t wait!”