Friday, November 18, 2011

"Drinking the Kool-Aid"

I'm subscribed to "breaking news" email alerts for both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. I can't remember how or when that happened, but sometimes up to ten or twelve alerts come daily and, for the record, the LA paper is good for three to four times as many alerts as the NY paper. I don't know if that's because significantly more important things are going on on the West Coast than the East Coast or if it means that West Coasters are significantly more agitated about world events than their "laid-back" reputation would suggest. Shoot, maybe it's not something sociologically significant--maybe it's just the settings I selected when I signed up for the subscriptions.

In any case, I rarely click through to any of the stories and I can't remember exactly what caught my eye yesterday*, but once I was on the LA Times site, I was down the rabbit hole of current events and op-ed pieces and eventually read a piece by columnist Meghan Daum about the prevalence of the expression "drinking the Kool-Aid" to refer "to someone who unquestioningly embraces a particular leader or ideology."

Daum seems to think that very few people who use the expression realize its connection to the Jonestown massacre, which happened thirty-three years ago today. Jonestown was a settlement built in Guyana by followers of Jim Jones, a political and philosophical radical who orchestrated the outright murders (by gunshot) of five people, including a U.S. Congressman, and the mass "suicide" of 909 others.

All but a few of the deaths were caused by cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, which Daum calls a "cheap Kool-Aid knock-off." The fact that Flavor-Aid translated as Kool-Aid in the public consciousness surrounding this horrific event is a testament to brand recognition that I'm sure Kool-Aid has never been particularly grateful for.

If I'm reading her complaint correctly, Daum is upset that the expression "drink the Kool-Aid" and all its variations is often used in situations much less dire than the Jonestown massacre. One of her examples refers to an Us Weekly report that said Kim Kardashian and her temporary husband, Kris Humphries were not getting along because Kris refused to "drink the Kardashian Kool-Aid." Whether the author of the Us Weekly piece was aware of the origins of the expression or not is up for debate (perhaps he or she just liked the alliteration of Kardashian Kool-Aid), but Daum is apparently bothered by the comparison of something relatively innocuous with something literally lethal. She says, "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."

I see her point, but still disagree with her. For one thing, hyperbole is a time-honored literary and oratory device--we all use it, most of us on a daily basis, when we say things like "I have a million things to do" or "If I take one more step, I'm going to drop." No one thinks we're really going to, for instance, poke out our eardrums with a rusty fork rather than listen to the co-worker in the next cubicle griping about our boss for one more second. For the same reason, I truly doubt that most people using the expression "they really drank the Kool-Aid" to refer to Obama supporters are trying to draw a direct parallel between the President and Jim Jones, the maniacal dictator of his own deadly Utopia.

My other objection to Daum's rationale is that I personally think that unquestioning loyalty and blind faith are always dangerous, if not literally deadly. Of course, there are degrees of danger and one hopes that there is never another occasion of mob mentality and leader worship so lethal and of such magnitude that it can be compared literally to Jonestown, but that's what makes the expression so useful--it's a cautionary tale in a concise package. I don't use the phrase often, but when I do it is with full knowledge of its provenance. In fact, in my opinion, its provenance and its impact are inextricably linked.

For me, Daum's most persuasive argument against the expression is that it's overused. While I don't relish the thought of offending anyone, as a writer (and even simply as a human being) I would absolutely use a potentially offensive phrase if I felt I couldn't make a point as forcefully without it. But I'd rather staple Roget's Thesaurus to myself page by page than to use a watered-down cliche.

*This is false. Exactly what caught my eye yesterday was not a well-thought out article on the European financial crisis or yet another piece about the Occupy movement, but a piece about Jimmy Kimmel's "National Unfriend Day," which apparently is a movement encouraging people to whittle their Facebook Friends lists down to something more approaching their Real-Life Friends lists. I was reluctant to share this as it is a rather embarrassing glimpse into my shameful taste for inane celebrity news. As with most shameful urges, I don't engage in it often and I talk about it even less.


  1. That's an interesting article. I can remember as a preteen in the late 70s and early 80s, that if you mixed 2 sodas or drinks of any kind- it was called a "suicide". Sometimes we get names and nicknames from weird sources. Good luck on NaBloPoMo-We're over halfway there.

  2. "unquestioning loyalty and blind faith are always dangerous"

    That was exactly my thought as I began reading your summation of Daum's arguments.

    I'm also shamefully intrigued by silly celebrity gossip and try not to talk about it...much.

  3. A. Kim Kardashian *is* lethal.
    B. Daum should get over herself.
    C. Totally agree about both the "unquestioning loyalty" and the use of cliche.
    D. Unless, of course, the cliche is used in some sort of ironic, obviously self-aware way.
    E. No, I'm not defensive about my use of a Jim Jones reference on my blog's contact page.
    F. Not at all.

  4. Thanks, everybody, for stopping by and for the comments.

    SS--Heh. You are not alone in your defensiveness (or, er, lack thereof)--this post may or may not have been partially a result of my own defensiveness since I had used the phrase just the week before.

    By the way, I don't have a Twitter account--is there anything else I can do to get my packet of Kool-Aid?

  5. Well, if you follow the blog itself, you get to pick your favorite flavor.