Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Drinking the kool-aid

It's no secret that I've worked in a variety of political environments over the years. And like every other field of human endeavor, there are certain expressions and terms used by veterans of those situations that have special meanings.

When I talk to other people who have worked in those places, we can fall into a kind of verbal shorthand. So, if you overhear us, you might hear us talking about somebody "drinking the kool-aid".

No, we do not mean they have downed a glass of ice-cold inexpensive non-carbonated soft drink that comes in powder form.

What we mean is somebody who has adopted a particular point of view, or supports a person, completely and utterly. They have lost all perspective on the world and their judgment has become both predictable and unreliable. More generally, the term means adopting a religion with suicidal zeal and comes from the 1978 Peoples Temple cult suicide tragedy in Guyana where almost a thousand people died. Many were urged to drink cyanide-laced kool-aid at the behest of their leader, a lunatic named Jim Jones.

I'm not talking about anything quite that dramatic here. But you know the kind I'm talking about. You find that mindset in extreme political partisans or people who have jobs with those weird cult-like organizations like Amway or IBM.

Well, it happens regularly with people who work in or near political offices - both staff and media.

Let me give you an example of what I mean: back in the mid-90's, I had occasion to meet a friend of mine who was working for Brian Tobin. Tobin had just taken office and was still pretty new and untried as Premier. I won't mention my friend's name here but suffice it to say that he was a bright guy who was well educated both here and abroad. While he was still relatively young at the time, he had built up enough experience to get some sense of the world. He was a sharp and clear thinker and definitely not the sort of guy (you would think) who would lose himself in blind, mindless uncritical enthusiasm for some idea, thing or person.

Yet that day he looked me in the eye and told me with a totally straight face that, once Tobin got the hang of the job, there was no doubt in his mind that history would recognize Tobin as the greatest premier this province ever had.

I chuckled - who wouldn't??

Then I realized that he was dead serious and a shiver went up my spine.

My friend had drank the kool-aid.

I was always paranoid about this kind of thing happening to me because I never wanted to lose my ability to maintain a reasonable and objective point of view. If that happened then it would affect my ability to make decisions and provide sound advice to those who relied on me for that.

In hindsight, I can't say that I never let the kool-aid touch my lips but I did try the best I could. I depended on good friends to keep me grounded in the real world.

But I knew lots of people in my position who never cared and were perfectly satisfied to be happy warriors in the cause of 'The Boss'. I'm not sure why some people fall into that hole while others don't but I know they do - nobody's perfect and everybody's human.

In those kinds of jobs, it's all too easy to lose your mental footing. Political history is full of wayward aides and other staff who made horrible mistakes, offered terrible advice or said ridiculous things in the quest for their boss' favor.

Right now I can think of several local politicians whose worst tendencies are reinforced, instead of discouraged, by the advice provided by their staff. Look in the local paper and you can probably guess who they are: they shoot from the hip, make hasty decisions that lead to dead-ends and they spend more time backtracking than going forward.

Part of the problem is their own lack of internal good judgment or political compass. The other thing that leads them astray is uncritical flattery and the monotone point of view they receive that tells them everyday that what they do, whatever they do, is always the right thing to do. After a while they believe it.

That's why it's important to speak truth to power, regardless of cost

And don't think for a moment that there isn't enough kool-aid to go around. A morning, afternoon or evening of talk radio can cure you of that thought. And I don't just mean the callers, either. Listen to the news and read the local papers and you can pick out the stories where the journalists too have partaken in the sugary drink, at least for that day. Nobody is immune all the time.

Don't drink the kool-aid.

No comments: