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Kool Aid Essay

Kool Aid Essay

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Published by Ben Havis

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Published by: Ben Havis on Oct 08, 2010
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Ben HavisEnglish 202Professor Smith 
The Electric Cold War Acid Test
The post-cold war era had many repercussions that reverberated through society, not the least of which was the transformation of the American middle class youth. Tom Wolfe was already a successful journalist when he plunged into the 1960s counterculture with his book 
The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.
The protagonist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters travel the country in a painted bus,exploring both their personal and collective selves using LSD and other psychedelic drugs. The 1960swere characterized by political upheaval, including the rise of counterculture as a reaction to theconservatism of the 1950s and the Vietnam war. The cold war escalated in the 1950s, and reached itsclimax with the very real threat of nuclear war between world superpowers in the 1960s. The politicalclimate that characterized the 1960s is mirrored by the life experiences of Ken Kesey and the MerryPranksters
One of the negative side effects of the LSD on the pranksters is a state of paranoia, whichechoes that of society in the Cold War era of the 1960s. One of the Merry Pranksters, Sandy, drinks a bottle of orange juice laced with “Unauthorized Acid” that Kesey was saving for later, “I took someacid...too much and it's going very bad” (97). However, Sandy's trip takes a turn for the worse when hetakes too much, as he finds himself unable to communicate with the other pranksters during this “badtrip”. Sandy's paranoia is evidenced when Wolfe compares Sandy to a popular comic book character,“he Incredible Hulk. Wolfe suggests that underneath the surface lies a dangerous and unstableindividual, “and suddenly Sandy jumps up and crouches into an ape position, dangling his arms andmimicking him--”(93). Sandy's paranoia suggests that despite the giddy surface of psychedelic colors
and emotion, a sinister undertone exists, mirroring the political climate of the late 1960s.Sandy's paranoia comes into play later on when he can't escape his delusions caused by theunauthorized acid. Kesey invents a game called “Power” that the Pranksters play which mirrors the balance of political power, during which Sandy is constantly tormented by delusions that the other Pranksters are out to get him, “he knows-- it is a very clever plot to get him out of the house” (116).Thoughts of delusions continues to go through his mind constantly, “what do they really think of him?What are they planning?”. During this game the Pranksters write out various “tasks” for each other on pieces of paper, with the obvious reward of Power, “Thirty minutes of absolute power in which your word was law”. However, still under the influence of LSD, he is unable to accomplish his task, as “asmall microgram of paranoia creeps back in like a mite” (117). The “Power” game exhibits the level of disempowerment felt by the youth of the American middle class, such as Sandy felt when he could notcomplete his task, leading to suspicion of authority figures.Sandy isn't the only one to suffer from paranoia; after Kesey goes on the run in Mexico, hesuffers from extreme paranoia that the police are going to come and take him back to the states, whichcan be compared to the atmosphere of paranoia that the Cold War fostered. While Kesey is spendingtime as a fugitive in Mexico where he is in hiding after violating parole, his paranoia continues to groweven though he is removed from the reach of law enforcement, such as when Kesey thinks to himself,“They know they've got you, fool, have known for weeks...they must have been watching a dreadfullong time before...they had something worth his size” (288). Later on Wolfe states,
“Even when he wasreeking with paranoia, he still seemed to have total confidence” (299), much like both the U.S. andSoviet Union, who allowed cold war tensions to escalate while presenting a front of total confidence totheir citizens. One example of this is the nuclear threats by Khrushchev during the 1960s whichincreased fear of Soviet nuclear capabilities, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Thisresults in underlying feelings of helplessness and paranoia in citizens of both nations, a lack of controlthat is represented by Black Maria when she had been “smothered under layers and layers of games she
couldn’t control” (299). Unchecked paranoia spawns dangerous feelings of helplessness anddetachment from society that actually cause paranoia to escalate.As Kesey escapes arrest from the Mexican police, he experiences episodes of paranoia similar to that experienced by the youth of society. As “Kesey began to feel like it was only a matter of time before they closed in”, as did the citizens of the United States in the 1960s as the paranoia regarding thecold war grew. Kesey states that it is not the Mexicans that he is worried about, but the FBI authorities,“the FBI bodysnatchers worried him”(328). By likening federal authority to the alien villains of the popular 1956 film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, Wolfe implies that the youth of the 1960s believed that the local police were out to steal the individuality of its citizens, much like in the film.This further supports the concept that the post-cold war era resulted in a generation disconnected fromauthority, with very little sense of control or membership in their society.“And that's what the cops and robbers game does to you”(27), Wolfe says in reference to thecops and robbers game. This aptly named “cops and robbers game” is one of the things Kesey and thePranksters worry about; with Kesey believing that the cops' game is meant to make you understandwhere they are coming from. This is analogous to the era of the 1960s which was characterized byincreasing tension between the police and anti-war protestors and demonstrators, eventuallyculminating in such violent events as the violent 1968 riot at the DNC. As Kesey states, “When you'rerunning, you're playing their game too” (27), depicting their increasing paranoia of being caught by lawenforcement as merely a game. He goes on to describe how fear of being caught prevents him fromhelping an injured child, “I knew I should...tell her not to move him but I didn't”. This parallels thelarger picture in which nations carefully guard their secrets, doing harm to both nations and preventingtechnological progress through similar paranoia. An observer states “
am suddenly experiencing
feeling”, describing how the phenomenon of paranoia is contagious when exhibited by leaders, such asKesey in the text, but also applicable to other world leaders of the time.

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