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Kool-Aid, Cults & Coronavirus

When living becomes treacherous

Video: #WorkFromHome

The coronavirus pandemic is simultaneously the only thing I feel compelled to talk about, and a subject to which I can't possibly do justice. Undoubtedly, your eyes, ears, and minds are already overflowing with COVID-19 rhetoric - from news anchors, Twitter threads, vloggers, bloggers, and even nibbles of comic relief from the Tik Tokkers (is that how you say it?). Everyone, everywhere is talking about it. So I'll talk about something else. Well, sort of.

Whenever I wrangle clips for a video, I consider their context and origin. I don’t want to misappropriate the material; and sometimes, I discover hidden significance. This time around, with one piece of content in particular, I got far more than I bargained for.

The first song I used in the video is "Go Outside" by Cults - many of you have probably heard it before. Initially, my rationale for choosing this song was simple – it brings to life the tension between going outside to seek new experiences and staying inside to feel comfortable and safe (E.g. social distancing). But then after dialing in on the lyrics, I came upon a little Easter egg - if you listen closely, around 0:25 in the video, you'll hear a muffled voice saying:

“ . . . to me, death is not a fearful thing, it's living thats treacherous."

Given the parallels between this sampled quote and the pandemic (which I’ll dive into in a bit), it seemed I had found the cherry on top. But then, thanks to, I discovered who that voice belonged to: Reverend Jim Jones.

If you're like me and the name didn't immediately ring a bell, I'll fill you in. Jim Jones was perhaps the most influential cult leader of all time. After migrating his cult Peoples Temple to a jungle encampment called "Jonestown" in Guyana, South America, Jones committed one of the greatest atrocities in our cultural memory. On November 18, 1978, he convinced his 900+ of his followers to a cyanide-laced punch, resulting in the largest mass suicide to date. Since then, the incident’s legacy has largely been reduced to the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid,” which refers to those who blindly and foolishly follow something.

Many, especially the survivors, are infuriated with the proliferation of this phrase. Understandably so; not only is it insensitive to those involved, but its usage suggests the victims were all foolish - blindly following a madman to their death. Some argue this event should actually be considered a mass murder instead of a mass suicide, and that Jones’ followers acted primarily out of love - protecting loved ones and prioritizing the collective over themselves. But as is often the case in cults, their love became hopelessly entangled with fear, indoctrination, and power.

In Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, author Tim Rieterman characterizes Jones' deluded amplification of the concerns of the time: “In his grand castle of paranoia, justifiable concerns about thermonuclear war exploded into a doomsday scenario." The story of Jonestown reminds us that the slope between sensible caution and mass hysteria is all too slippery.

So what does all this have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? Before I learned up on the backstory, Jones' quote seemed to reflect a common attitude towards the current pandemic - it’s life, not death, that’s treacherous. For most of us, personal death is not the most immediate concern. Rather, it's the worries about living through it all – Are my loved ones staying healthy? How can I avoid infecting others? How will I deal with the social isolation? Will I have a job in a month? What am I going to eat? Will I have enough toilet paper? It's the living that's treacherous.

The horrible legacy of Jim Jones doesn't automatically nullify his statement about life and death; if it did, Cults wouldn't have sampled it in their song. But context matters, especially when it involves a massive death toll. Living becomes more treacherous than death when those around you can't be trusted to act symbiotically, generously, and unselfishly.

So, it seems we have two viruses to combat – one on the molecular level, the other on a social level. We are justifiably concerned about health, isolation, the economy, and so on. But our concerns should not devolve into hysteria. Using hand sanitizer is one thing, but stockpiling it with the intention of price-gouging others is unacceptable. When one person panics, or capitalizes on panic, it permeates. Living becomes treacherous.

All of this is a roundabout (and gloomy) way of saying: it's possible to be smart and safe without drinking the hysteria Kool Aid. I promise the video will lighten the mood. Enjoy, stay healthy, and I’ll see you next time.

Side note - if you’re still curious about the Jonestown incident, check out the music video for “Go Outside.” If you the story doesn’t already give you goosebumps, this video surely will.

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