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US politics, kool-aid, Obama and a little linguistics

I assure you that this post is about linguistics just as much as it is about American politics.

“…the students go and, sort of, drink the kool-aid of a wonderful speech…”

This short quote is from Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell who was trying to convince a group of college students to support Hillary Clinton as the US Democratic nominee opposed to Barack Obama. (You can see a clip of the quote in context on youtube.)

If you are like me, bored and semi-politically aware, you would have noticed this phrase popping up everywhere. It’s not only on the lips of US governors and sultry Russian etymologists; but also on blogs, in newspaper articles and even as part of a book title. There is also a pro-Obama website titled “obamakoolaid.com“.

Now, when I want to learn the meaning of a new word/phrase I encounter on the internet I usually go to Urbandictionary.com and it does have a good definition/explanation for: “drink the kool-aid

“…to indicate that one has embraced a particular philosophy or perspective.”

It’s not a new phrase; the Jonestown mass-suicide happened in 1978 and it was coined in 1987 (apparently by Marion Barry). What I am interested in, is when exactly it was first used to describe supporters of Obama.

You see, I have always been interested in memes (the “thought or behavior that can be passed from one person to another by learning or imitation” as coined by Richard Dawkins). Under what circumstance do they spread? How do they start? Why they take the form they do? This particular meme just seemed to be everywhere in just a short time and uniquely linked to only Obama’s supporters, not to those of Hillary, McCain, or to Dems and Pubs in general

I think I can figure out why it’s used; it’s a (not so) subtle way for Obama’s political opponents to take a swipe at his devoted followers by implying that their faith in him is cultish, overbearing, misplaced and founded on ignorance. Quite a powerful message for such a little phrase; whether it actually works in turning the supporters away from Obama is a different thing.

As you probably saw in the above video with Ed Rendell, the most common reaction to such a claim is disgust and indignation. Those Obama supporters who are politically aware get angry when their views are brushed aside and actions are compared to that of a cult; those who haven’t made up their mind start entrenching them. However, lets get back to it’s first usage in this political race.

Working on the assumption that it is an internet meme that spreads through contact with political pundits, I figured that its use could easily be traceable in the blogosphere. So, I tried doing a simple blog search on technorati.com, for the number of blogs that contained the phrase “kool aid” from September 7th to August 31st.

kool aid

Looking at these results one can clearly see that something happened at or around February 7; most of the references to “kool aid” were started shortly after that exact date. What was so special about the 7th? Well, it was a crucial turning point in the Democratic race, the immediate aftermath of Super Tuesday. That’s a pretty strong connection.

An excellent article by the New York observer published on February 18 pins this phrase squarely on “Hillary Clinton’s sympathizers” who’ve:

been pushing a new caricature of their opponent: the cultish figure who seduces the weak-kneed masses with vague and meaningless but oh-so-warm-feeling generalities.

That’s it, I think I’ve found it. All of this was just an organized political plot. This meme was started by Hillary’s camp, as a tool in a wider campaign to paint those who supported Obama for the Democratic nominee as part of a personality cult. Probably to make him look “uncool” or to generally keep people from wanting to learn more about him or his views.

Finally on an end-note, judging from the most recent results given by technorati it would seem the meme is losing speed and maybe people are moving beyond describing Obama’s supporters with the phrase “kool-aid”.

I guess that brings me to another question. Why does a meme die? Can it ever really die?

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September 1, 2008  Tags: , , ,   Posted in: Linguistics, world events