Drinking the Kool-Aid

Quick quiz. What’s wrong with this Monday’s Doonesbury?

[Mike Doonesbury and Kim are watching the news on television.]

Announcer: Today, the White House moved to further shore up its deeply unpopular war policy…

Announcer: In what is being termed surge protection, leading GOP lawmakers were invited to a private reception.

Announcer: Light refreshments were served.

[Dialogue coming from the White House.]

Bush: Another glass of Kool-Aid, Senator?

Senator: Sure, why not?

I’ve commented on this before, briefly, elsewhere. But I’ll repeat myself, because I think it’s important.

I don’t know how clearly many people remember this anymore, but the phrase drinking the Kool-Aid entered our pop culture as a reference to the massacre at Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978. Jonestown was a communal farm established in the jungle in Guyana by a preacher named Jim Jones and about 1,000 members of his People’s Temple—an interracial, evangelical church which had become a major presence in the politics and culture of the San Fransisco Bay Area after Jones and many of his followers relocated to northern California in the mid-1960s. The church’s doctrines combined charismatic religion with a radical form of socialist liberation theology, and in San Francisco Jones won praise from the city press and Leftist politicians. But within the church, Jones had grown increasingly authoritarian and paranoid as he became more powerful in the outer world, and in the late 1970s reports began to reach the press of harassment and violence against former members. After Jones and his followers relocated to Guyana, the utopian community in Jonestown soon descended into little more than a prison farm, with beatings, confinement, and torture used to keep members from leaving the community.

In November 1978, California Representative Leo Ryan traveled to Guyana with a group of reporters and concerned family members to investigate the situation at Jonestown. Several residents at Jonestown approached Ryan to beg him to take them back to the United States. On Jones’s orders, Ryan and four others were murdered at the airstrip on before they could leave, and after the murders he and his lieutenants decided to order a ritual mass suicide for everyone at Jonestown.

Jones’s lieutenants killed several of the elderly members of the congregation by injecting them with poison in their sleep. (About two-thirds of the population at Jonestown were children or senior-citizens.) After they were killed, two buckets of grape Flavor-Aid were prepared and laced with Valium and cyanide. The drink was brought into the assembly hall and passed around in paper cups. Babies and children were the first to drink, with the mixture squirted into the throats of the youngest children with a syringe. The poisoned drink caused convulsions, unconsciousness, and death within about 5 minutes. After the children died, some of the adults began to commit suicide by drinking the Flavor-Aid themselves. It is not known how many of the parents knew that the drink was poisoned before they gave it to their children; some may have killed themselves partly out of guilt after realizing that they had killed their own children. In any case, those who refused were forced to drink the poison or shot to death by armed guards.

The Guyanese authorities learned about the massacre from Jones’s legal advisers, who were not members of the Temple and did not participate. Relief workers discovered the bodies of 913 of the inhabitants lying dead in the jungle. Among the dead were 276 infants and children. The ghastly massacre is still often misleadingly referred to as a mass suicide in the press and reference sources.

Please remember that all those punchlines and snarky little throw-away epithets about how the devotees of some cause you dislike are drinking the Kool-Aid are actually jokes with the senseless deaths of nearly 1,000 people less than 30 years ago, for their punch-line.

Jokes like that suck.

16 replies to Drinking the Kool-Aid Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Anonymous

    Why? Which subjects are appropriate for humor and which aren’t, what are your criteria for judging, and why do you think other people should adopt them?

  2. Richard Fye

    Though it remains a bad joke, I believe the original partaking of the kool-aid predated Jonestown by quite a number of years years with Ken Kesey, ‘the Bus’ and the Dead all hyper-hyped by Tom Wolfe in ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. Quite a different light is cast.

  3. Rad Geek

    Anon,

    Why? Because it’s nasty.

    I’m afraid I don’t have a general theory of appropriate humor or a set of impersonal principles to offer you by way of explanation. But maybe it would help to ask yourself what sort of person it takes to find something to make light of in the living hell at Jonestown, or the senseless deaths of several hundred people, including the outright murder of about 300 children, mostly by their own parents.

    Richard,

    While it’s true that there was at one point a phrase that referred to drinking the Kool-Aid that had to do with the Merry Pranksters and Ken Kesey, I don’t think that’s where the contemporary usage comes from. I’m pretty sure the use of the phrase to describe self-destructive fanaticism and willful self-delusion is a reference to the Jonestown massacre, and that’s the use that both Trudeau in this comic, and most of the people who use the phrase to make some snide little remark about the perceived delusions of their partisan opponents, are employing.

  4. Anonymous

    The sort of person who doesn’t believe that the attitude one adopts to the event can reverse the suffering and death that was caused? The sort of person who finds the the salvaging of some sort of humor an appropriate response to tragedy, because the alternative is depression?

    I’m not sure what sort of person you think it obvious you’re referring to. I can’t think of any answers that aren’t so obviously strawmen that I wouldn’t presume to put them in your mouth.

  5. ac bookie

    wow. I use that phrase all the time and never knew the true history behind it. It’s pretty sick stuff.

  6. Rad Geek

    Anon,

    I think you’re making excuses rather than offering reasons.

    There’s absolutely nothing that I can do to undo the massacre at Babi Yar, either, but I don’t think that anyone would think even for a moment that those events were appropriate fodder for a rhetorical flourish about the follies of Republican partisans, or anti-war demonstrators, or promoters of some rival XML vocabulary, or whatever. Speaking generally, just because refusing to do X won’t resurrect the dead doesn’t mean that doing X won’t still be callous or disrespectful toward the dead.

    As for depression, you bloody well ought to be depressed when you think about what happened at Jonestown. It was a horrible thing. That doesn’t mean that you’re under some obligation to think about what happened at Jonestown all the time, but I don’t see what virtue there is in bringing it up if you don’t intend to think seriously about it. Besides being emotionally callous, that’s also just linguistically careless.

    If you’re still wondering what sort of person I think it takes, what I’ve said so far may help explain what I mean. More directly, I think that these kind of jokes generally require dehumanizing the victims of the horrors that they refer to in order to seem even remotely funny. Whether that willingness to dehumanize is momentary and compartmentalized, or a more pervasive vice, depends on the breaks.

  7. Jeremy

    Charles:

    Though I appreciate that you’re trying to remind us to be compassionate in a culture that can be glib and flippant about suffering in the world, you might be taking this a bit too far.

    I’ve used the term “drinking the kool-aid” many times. My understanding was always that it referred to San Francisco in the mid-60s, when LSD spiked kool aid was served freely at concerts. The idea was that you had to drink the kool aid to “get” the music and get in the groove.

    That meaning predates the Jonestown massacre certainly, so in that sense it’s a bit unfair to hold people to one context when they may mean another. But furthermore, everytime I’ve heard and used the expression, I never meant it to mean “let’s all commit suicide”. Rather I (and I believe Trudeau) mean that the speaker wants others to arrest their critical faculties and simply go along with the speaker’s policies or ideas without question or doubt.

    I realize there’s some overlap there, and I also realize you may simply be unaware of the other connotation. And, I have to admit that I’ve made some pretty dark jokes in my lifetime that probably aren’t tasteful. But I don’t think I can be fairly accused of dehumanizing anybody, nor can Trudeau. At least not this time :-)

  8. Jeremy

    OK, I admit it: I didn’t read the comments completely before I posted mine. Still, I hope the Wiki entry documents my case a little better.

    Anyway, Charles, what’s your opinion on dark humor as a way to deal with tragedy? I think it’s too simple to dismiss any humorous invocation of tragedy as simply unacceptable (not that that’s your position, but it’s the logical extension of it). The reality is that the human experience is sometimes a bit more complicated, and for the living to cope with horrible events, I’m in favor of whatever mechanisms they need invoke to maintain sanity and perspective.

    There’s probably healthy and unhealthy forms, but we’re never going to get the formula correct. Thank God for those immortal letters: IMHO.

  9. Jesse Walker

    Comedy = tragedy + time.

    Unfortunately, in this case the joke has already been reduced to a cliché, so the Doonesbury strip is lame as hell. But should’t be offensive, except perhaps to the ghost of the young Garry Trudeau.

  10. Rad Geek

    Jeremy,

    For what it’s worth, I used to make joking references to kool-aid drinking, too, but I later thought better of it. My aim here isn’t so much to scold people as to encourage them to think about things differently.

    As to your question, I don’t have any general beef with black humor, but I think there are specific features of Jonestown jokes that make them both callous and unfunny on reflection.

    For example, I don’t buy the cathartic defense in this specific case. Maybe that’s what happens with some black humor, but drinking the Kool-Aid jokes aren’t really used to cope with the horror at Jonestown; they casually invoke the horror at Jonestown in order to make a point about something else.

    Similarly, the humor isn’t used (as it is in, say, Dr. Strangelove) to mock the follies and the vices of the powerful, or (as in, say, Candide) to encourage the audience to sympathize with and identify with the protagonist/victims as limited and fallible human beings. Rather, the joke functions to distance the speaker from the suicides and murder victims at Jonestown, and to dismiss them as a bunch of marginally human crazies.

    I also think that even in the best of cases, black humor ought to be something that makes you uncomfortable. Things can be both funny and discomforting at the same time; but I don’t think that this is one of those cases. If anything, the effect of the joke is not to discomfort the intended audience, but rather to reinforce their comfort in their prejudices against both the cultists at Jonestown and also against the primary target of the joke.

    Jesse,

    Aside from my complaints, it’s certainly true that the strip is also leaden and hamhanded. But anyway, I don’t think that matters are as simple as you claim. There are lots of different ways to use horrible events in humor; some of those are sensitive and others callous; and some events are much harder to joke about than others. Hundreds of murdered children are, or ought to be, one of the harder things to joke about.

    Generally speaking, I think that many people tend to be a lot more callous than they might otherwise be when the victims of the event are easily distanced from both the joke-teller and the intended audience. One of the ways that people distance themselves from their fellow human beings is by projecting irrationality, stupidity, or insanity onto the butts of their jokes. But that sort of scorn borders on meanness even in the best of cases, and it ought to be viewed with an awful lot of suspicion when really horrible suffering and innocent victims are thrown into the mix.

  11. heather reddy

    as i said on the phone, i am switching immediately to “swilling the hemlock.” cause socrates really was off his gourd. all learned, compassionate people, take heed!

    p/s: you totally crack me up with your “general theory of humor” talk.

  12. netzoo

    I still always think of this as a reference to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters of the ’60s, as glorified in Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

    There were some people they hoped “wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid,” because they might not be prepared to enter an altered state of reality.

    I would think of the Bush Administrations Kool-Aid as radically altering one’s perception of facts/reality as opposed to leading to mass death, as Jonestown’s laced Flavor Aid did.

  13. murphzero

    The idea that a joke should be removed from public discussion because it might be offensive is juvenile.

    Yes, knowing the backstory of Jonestown makes it a bit harder to laugh - but people make jokes about worse subjects every day. We are not far from a time when 9/11 will be lampooned or otherwise turned into humor.

    The answer to speech is more speech. Criticizing people who speak out is well and good, but no subject and no criticism should be beyond the reach of humor.

  14. Roderick T. Long

    Perhaps the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” could be replaced with “downloading the meme.”

    (Sorry.)

  15. Rad Geek

    murphzero,

    The idea that a joke should be removed from public discussion because it might be offensive is juvenile.

    Why? I think it’s juvenile to insist on doing things you know are likely to be offensive to other people in order to have a laugh, if the people who are thus offended have a legitimate beef with the joke.

    But just so we’re clear, I’m not claiming that Jonestown references ought to be dropped because they are offensive to unspecified third parties. I’m claiming that they ought to be dropped because they are wrong. The issue has to do with morality, not etiquette, and the problem is that the jokes are callous, not that they are rude. Contrary to the now-popular opinion, insensitivity in the name of humor is no virtue, and a certain degree of humanity, let alone compassion, about the murder of hundreds of children or the senseless deaths of nearly 1,000 people, is no vice.

    … people make jokes about worse subjects every day.

    People do all kinds of things. Do you have something specific in mind? If so, what reasons do you have for thinking that the common usage in that specific case has something to recommend it?

    The answer to speech is more speech.

    Yes, I agree. What do you think I’m doing here, if not answering speech with more speech?

· December 2007 ·

  1. Tony

    Can anyone help me by telling me why those killing happened? I am doing essay about Jonestown and my lecturer in Politics doesnt want to know what happened but why so if you could help, i know the subject is not the same all you guys are talking about…Please answer me

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