“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is an expression that I find distasteful. It now seems to be said humorously or ironically to mean adopting an idea or a practice after having given in to peer pressure. It is said almost lightheartedly, and when said this way, it seems to make obscene fun of its origins. The expression, of course, comes from a mass suicide-murder when over 900 followers of Jim Jones took a cyanide-laced drink, reported to be Kool-Aid, or were otherwise murdered. In fact, according to a new book, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guin, it was not Kool-Aid, rather a cheaper knock off, Flavor Aid, but “Drinking the Flavor Aid” never caught the popular mind.
I also learned from this book that Jim Jones was not merely a demagogue, who, for whatever his reasons, betrayed his followers. He hated racial and economic inequality and did much to fight segregation. He and his followers instituted successful programs to feed the hungry and fight addiction. Their scholarship programs aided many, and Jonestown in the Guyana jungle was a settlement that was close to being self-sustaining until Jones’ paranoia brought it down in that horrific way. Guin states, “Jim Jones was undeniably a man of great gifts, and one who for much of his life and ministry, achieved admirable results on behalf of the downtrodden.”
Guin posits that most demagogues appeal to selfish instincts to get followers—I will get you more or I will protect you from enemies. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, preaching socialism and racial justice, was different. “Jim Jones attracted followers by appealing to the best in their nature, a desire for everyone to share equally. . . . Most members sacrificed personal possessions, from clothing and checking accounts to cars and house for the privilege of helping others. They gave rather than got. . . . They hoped everyone would emulate them.”
The tragedy of Jonestown was, of course, shocking, seemingly unique, but in fact it was an extreme example of a theme in American history. Americans have been regularly attracted to movements that, to outsiders, have unusual beliefs and followers who often do bizarre things. New York’s burnt-over district in the early nineteenth century, for example, spawned many religious and social movements that had beliefs then seen as outlandish. Some had a lasting success and formed the roots of modern Mormonism and for Seventh Day Adventists, but there were many others largely or completely forgotten. Utopian communities were also formed. Perhaps the best remembered, because of its silverware and the city that bears its name, is the Oneida Community, which practiced communalism not only in property, but also in marriage and child rearing. (Some of my forebears may have been influenced by such a utopian movement. I know little about my ancestors, but an aunt once produced a family tree of my mother’s side of the family. I took it with a grain of salt—the chart had the family arriving on the second or third ship after the Mayflower. My reaction was that the passengers on the Mayflower have been well documented, but I had my doubts about the knowledge of who were on ships coming twenty or thirty years later. I also wondered about my relatives’ pride in this supposed fact. My reaction: “You mean the family is white, Anglo-Saxon (isn’t that redundant?) Protestant, been in this land of opportunity over 400 hundred years, and is still poor! What is the excuse?” But I became more interested when I saw the nineteenth-century entry for a family in upstate New York who had a daughter named “Freelove Dewey.”)
Western and upstate New York in the early 1800s was not the only era and locale to spawn cults. Certainly there were many in the second half of the twentieth century that produced Jim Jones. There was the Manson family, the Love Family, the Hare Krishnas, Reverend Moon’s Unification Church, fundamentalist and polygamous offshoots of Mormonism, Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, various New Age movements, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, white supremacist groups, the Michigan Militia, End Times people, Lyndon LaRouche and many, many others. Stories of mind control and brainwashing as well as other claims of atrocities by many of these movements led to the deprogramming movement, often involving kidnappings and imprisonments, to “rescue” sons and daughters from various cults.
I may not understand the appeal of many of these groups, but what are seen as fringe beliefs and ideologies clearly have had appeal throughout our history. These movements often seem to attract outsiders who feel that the larger societies disdain them. They feel that their group or their identity is under attack, and that, therefore, they need to protect themselves and withdraw from the rest of the world. But the withdrawal is seldom complete, and this often brings out some sort of need to lash out at society. Jim Jones’ movement had many of these characteristics as he encouraged paranoia about how others wished to prevent Peoples Temple members from living the way they wanted to.
Of course, we still have people today attracted to fringe beliefs for Americans. (Check out the pro- and anti-Sherry Shriner protagonists.) We have living in our country those who voice allegiance to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Isis, and some of them do dastardly things. We don’t understand them. They are outsiders to us (we are reluctant to call them Americans). But aren’t they really a continuation of a long strain of our history? Should we really be surprised that some in this country, feeling estranged, have been attracted to an ideology that many of us think is dangerously alien and that a few of those people do despicable things? Hasn’t that always been the case?