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"Drinking the Kool-Aid" is a figure of speech commonly used in the United States that refers to a person or group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination. It could also refer to knowingly going along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure. The phrase typically carries a negative connotation when applied to an individual or group. The phrase derives from the November 1978 Jonestown deaths, where members of the Peoples Temple, who were followers of the Reverend Jim Jones committed suicide by drinking a mixture of a powdered soft drink flavoring agent laced with cyanide. Although the powder used in the incident included Flavor Aid, it was commonly referred to as Kool-Aid due to its status as a genericized trademark.
On November 18, 1978, Jones ordered that the members of Representative Leo Ryan's party be killed after several defectors chose to leave with the party. Residents of the commune later committed mass suicide by drinking a flavored beverage laced with potassium cyanide.
Despite its reputation as a mass suicide, the events of November 18, 1978 were a murder-suicide. Those unable to comply, such as infants, and those unwilling to comply, received involuntary injections ahead of the main group. One survivor reported: "That man (Jones) was killing us. It was just senseless waste." Roughly 918 people died.
Present-day descriptions of the event often refer to the beverage not as Kool-Aid but as Flavor Aid, a less-expensive product reportedly found at the site. Kraft Foods, the maker of Kool-Aid, has stated the same. Implied by this accounting of events is that the reference to the Kool-Aid brand owes exclusively to its being better-known among Americans. Others are less categorical. Both brands are known to have been among the commune's supplies: Film footage shot inside the compound prior to the events of November shows Jones opening a large chest in which boxes of both Flavor Aid and Kool-Aid are visible. Criminal investigators testifying at the Jonestown inquest spoke of finding packets of "cool aid" (sic), and eyewitnesses to the incident are also recorded as speaking of "cool aid" or "Cool Aid." It is unclear whether they intended to refer to the actual Kool-Aid–brand drink or were using the name in a generic sense that might refer to any powdered flavored beverage.
It is most likely that both were used in the mass murder-suicide. Jim Jones had previously had many rehearsals for the event in which the drink contained no poison, which led to cult members believing the drink was harmless on the day that it did contain poison.
Journalist Chris Higgins has speculated that an earlier usage of drinking Kool-Aid popularized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was the reason that later references to the unrelated Jonestown deaths specifically focused on Kool-Aid. The book was about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and a series of Acid Test parties using LSD in the mid-1960s.
According to academician Rebecca Moore, early analogies to Jonestown and Kool-Aid were based around death and suicide, not blind obedience. The earliest such example she found, via a Lexis-Nexis search, was a 1982 statement from Lane Kirkland, then head of the AFL-CIO, which described Ronald Reagan's policies as "Jonestown economics," which "administers Kool-Aid to the poor, the deprived and the unemployed."
In 1984, a Reagan administration appointee, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, was quoted as criticizing civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan Jr., and Benjamin Hooks by making an analogy between allegiance to "the black leadership" and blind obedience to the Jonestown leaders: "We refuse to be led into another political Jonestown as we were led during the Presidential campaign. No more Kool-Aid, Jesse, Vernon and Ben. We want to be free."
In 1989, Jack Solerwitz, a lawyer for many of the air traffic controllers who lost their jobs in the 1981 PATCO strike, explained his dedication to their cause in spite of the substantial personal financial losses he incurred by saying "I was the only lawyer who kept the doors open for them, and I thought I'd get a medal for it... Instead, I was the one who drank the Kool-Aid."
Australian band TISM's 1990 album Hot Dogma contains the track While My Catarrh Gently Weeps with the lyric "and the townsfolk? Well... never forget,/always be the one to hand out the Kool-Aid", referring to Jonestown.
The widespread use of the phrase with its current meaning may have begun in the late 1990s. In some cases it began to take on a neutral or even positive light, implying simply great enthusiasm. In 1998, the dictionary website logophilia.com defined the phrase as "To become a firm believer in something; to accept an argument or philosophy whole-heartedly."
The phrase has been used in the business and technology worlds to mean fervent devotion to a certain company or technology. A 2000 The New York Times article about the end of the dot-com bubble noted, "The saying around San Francisco Web shops these days, as companies run out of money, is 'Just keep drinking the Kool-Aid,' a tasteless reference to the Jonestown massacre."
The phrase or metaphor has also often been used in a political context, usually with a negative implication. In 2002, Arianna Huffington used the phrase "pass the Kool-Aid, pardner" in a column about an economic forum hosted by President George W. Bush. Later, commentators Michelangelo Signorile and Bill O'Reilly have used the term to describe those whom they perceive as following certain ideologies blindly. In a 2009 speech, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham stressed his political independence by saying, "I did not drink the Obama Kool-Aid last year."
In 2011, columnist Meghan Daum wrote that the phrase had become "one of the nation's most popular idiomatic trends," while bemoaning its rise in popularity, calling its usage "grotesque, even offensive." She cited, among others, usages by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who said that he "drank the Kool-Aid as much as anyone else about Obama", and Us Weekly magazine, which reported during the short marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries that "Kris is not drinking the Kardashian Kool-Aid."