“Not everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid,” said my friend, calibrating the precise level of fanatic devotion practiced by her colleagues on an especially consuming project. Then I heard it on a TV program: the mother-figure of a somewhat suspect group offered glasses of red liquid to two bright-eyed teenagers: “Kool-Aid anybody?” “Don’t worry,” she said, watching them hesitate. “It’s just cranberry juice.”
That expression—”drinking the Kool-Aid”—now predates most of the people who have casually accepted it as a trope for blind obedience. I learned a lot about the beverage from Wikipedia. In its original form, for instance, it was named “Fruit Smack,” which sort of says it all. Evidently, the first usage of the phrase alludes to Ken Kesey’s and his fellow Merry Pranksters’ “Acid Tests,” whereby sips of LSD-laced Kool-Aid, then legal, were shared with all takers.
But it came into its current usage in 1978, when nearly 1,000 people—men, women, children—died in a mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, poisoned by a sweet, purple, cyanide-laced instant drink. They were led to that horrific end by the charismatic “apostolic socialist” leader Jim Jones. When I was a young activist in San Francisco in the seventies, Jones and his People’s Temple made up a highly visible, respected political force, known for turning out the troops on a moment’s notice for any cause associated with civil rights or economic justice. Jones’ congregation was deeply racially integrated, truly unusual for a culture of which Dr. Martin Luther King famously quipped, “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” For breaking this mold and for giving so much time and energy to progressive causes, People’s Temple came to be regarded as a little corner of paradise on earth.
By the time Jones’ many crimes and deceptions became public knowledge, he had moved his flock en masse beyond the reach of the American authorities. Among the sins that came to light were sexual abuse and brutal beatings of congregants, tax evasion, embezzlement of parishioners’ social security and welfare checks, and more. Jones’ message to his disciples was that society had become so hopelessly corrupt, the only way to stand up was to commit “revolutionary suicide.”
Jim Jones embodied what the historian Richard Hofstadter described in his still-fascinating 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American politics.” Here’s a taste:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
The Jonestown massacre took place on November 18, 1978, nearly 28 years ago. It horrified everyone who’d had any contact with San Francisco politics, casting a pall over the whole city.
Nine days later, my husband-to-be and I drove from our apartment in the Fillmore district to a large stationary store to buy announcements for our marriage, planned for the following week. Getting married was not at all the done thing in our social circle of political artists, so our idea was to do it quietly, announcing our marriage by mail once the deed had been accomplished. (The most frequent response, by the way: “Why would you do that?”) That was a period when punk culture was beginning to emerge in San Francisco, making for a great many macabre overlaps and intersections between real-world events and graffiti writers’ imaginations. All the freeway underpasses on our route had been decorated with fresh graffiti. “Guyana a-Go-Go!” is the slogan that sticks in my mind.
As we browsed the wedding announcement racks, the muzak abruptly came to an end. A loud, distraught voice replaced it: “We’ve just heard that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot.” It was hard to take in the news. A few days earlier, I’d met with the Mayor to talk about arts politics; I thought it must be a mistake. We hurried back to the our car and turned on the radio, learning that former Supervisor Dan White, a fractured avatar of the paranoid style if ever there was one, had murdered both men to avenge the loss of his office. Later on, there was more bad news. White was sentenced to only seven years in prison (and released in five) by a homophobic jury that bought his “Twinkie defense.” It seemed everything had gone crazy, but in our own little world, we decided to cast a vote for life. We were married in City Hall on December 1, the first day it reopened following the assassinations.
As Hofstadter wrote, “Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.” Indeed, it seems that every major misstep in contemporary American political culture is attributable to “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people.” Now we have a president who fits Hofstadter’s typology to a T. Yet today, more and more of us are refusing to drink the Kool-Aid. To help that trend continue, could you do me a favor? The next time you hear someone refer to “drinking the Kool-Aid,” please treat that person to a brief history lesson, to honor those who lost their lives to the ascendancy of the paranoid style—and to avoid further cycles of its repetition.