“In order to talk – or even think – about almost anything, it is necessary to use metaphors,” writes linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. “Metaphor is not just a matter of words, but a major mode of thought.”
When Americans and others talk about “drinking the Kool-Aid,” they partake of metaphor often without acknowledgment. “Most of the time we are not even aware we are doing it, since most metaphorical thought is automatic and below the level of consciousness,” says Lakoff.
Thirty years after than 900 human beings died at Jonestown after drinking poison mixed into a fruit drink concoction – mistakenly referred to as Kool-Aid, it was actually a powdered fruit concentrate from Great Britain called Flavor Aid – “drinking the Kool-Aid” has come to mean “swallowing the company line,” in one definition, or “blindly going along with the majority without voicing one’s opposition” in another.
For many Americans born after 1978, or those too young to have conscious memory of that time, “Jonestown” is a word without particular meaning, or perhaps it refers to towns in Pennsylvania and Texas. However, “drinking the Kool-Aid” is embedded in today’s popular vocabulary. It is on its way to becoming what George Orwell, in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” called a “dead metaphor.”
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness.
For readers of this online journal, I realize that the Kool-Aid metaphor is not dead at all, but a phrase that evokes with extreme vividness the fleshly children, elderly, families, and struggling individuals who participated in the final “White Night” ritual in Guyana. Some readers may visualize their family members and friends on the boardwalk near the vat, an oversized tin bucket in which death awaited those who had years before chosen to participate in a communal experience of living, a scene transforming before their horrified or numbed or depressed or resigned or resistant bodies into a communal experience of dying, on a humid afternoon in November 1978.
For today’s Jonestown community – American and otherwise, scholars and artists and journalists in addition to Peoples Temple extended family and friends – drinking the Kool-Aid remains a literal and visceral description of an unfathomable moment in recent history.
Unfathomable, yet wholly and horribly real.
“Since our metaphors often hide important aspects of reality,” writes Lakoff, “we need to know what they are.”
What then does the Kool-Aid metaphor eclipse?
It disappears 909 lives of accumulated experience and wisdom. It conceals yet another example in a long line of America’s utopian experiments-turned-dystopia, in which ends cannot justify means. It hides what we, collectively, as a culture of diverse peoples of the 21st century, wish to forget.
In the pavilion at Jonestown, above the bodies of the dead and Jim Jones’s empty throne, photographers captured the sign reading “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana’s celebrated dictum regarding our duty to study history. The irony of this statement crowning the hundreds of corpses is not lost on any viewer of these images.
And yet, endlessly, we forget the past, and repeat it.
(Annie Dawid’s novel of Jonestown, Paradise Undone, awaits a publisher. Her author’s page on Amazon is here. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is at http://www.anniedawid.com/.)