It probably seemed safe enough. The people advising the first lady may not even have taken a poll or run a focus group. After all, who could possibly be opposed to . . . water? Even Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity drink the stuff. Not enough, probably. Which might, come to think of it, explain a lot. Still, a campaign to get Americans to drink more water, with the first lady as the face and chief spokesperson—what could go wrong? No controversy. No politics. Just clean, pure water.
But, of course, everything but everything is political in this age, which might account for the state of both politics and everything else. They have tainted each other. But that is for another day. The matter at hand
is water. Clean, pure water.
The first lady’s campaign would urge all Americans to drink more of it. How much more? Or, indeed, how much? Surely there is a number toward which we should all aspire. A volume of water that is optimum, stated in quarts or pints for the more conservative elements of the population, and liters for the enlightened.
But, to the annoyance of some, the first lady and her campaign would not be pinned down. The goal was simply “more.” However much you are drinking now, you could always choke down a little more. It is, after all, only water. What could go wrong?
Well, there have been rare cases of people dying from drinking too much water, but they were, in most instances, athletes or soldiers or people otherwise engaged in extreme activity. For ordinary people, living ordinarily, too much water is one of those rare things one does not have to worry about. When you are approaching the threshold, you stop being thirsty. One of nature’s wonders.
Still, there has to be an optimum amount of water that one should consume. And if so, then shouldn’t the first lady and the people engineering her campaign be pushing it the way they have the “hour of play” that should be part of every child’s day? Something between, say, a thimble and a painter’s bucket. But the spokespeople had no such number. So another question came up: Is this a campaign to get people to substitute water for those sugary drinks that are a cause of obesity?
Oh no, the first lady’s mouthpiece said in answer to that question. This was not “about” that at all. It was simply an effort to get people thinking about water and drinking more. There were executives from the companies that make the dreaded sugary drinks on the podium during the ceremonies to kick off the campaign. Which
is called, by the way, “Drink Up.”
One wonders how long it took for the team to come up with that one.
If the goals of the “Drink Up” crusade are unclear and the aim is to be as inoffensive as possible (sounds sort of like our Syria policy), then the means, material, and personnel committed will, conversely, be massive.
According to one account, we will be seeing “Drink Up” logos on some 300 million packs of bottled water, more than half a billion bottles of water, 200,000 packages of reusable bottles, and more than 10,000 reusable bottles in the next year. Social media will be mobilized to propagandize the consumption of “more” water. And, unless Providence should suddenly show mercy on the Republic, celebrities of all varieties will be enlisted in the campaign to get Americans to “Drink Up.”
It is enough, almost, to turn you against water; to stimulate the sort of reaction George Orwell described in reviewing a poet: “His great fault is lack of variation—a quality that one might, perhaps, call wateriness, since it gives one the feeling of drinking draught after draught of spring water, wonderfully pure and refreshing, but somehow turning one’s mind in the direction of whisky after the first pint or two.”
And it isn’t just the politics (Michelle Obama’s “Drink Up” initiative being political in the largest possible sense) but the culture. We have designer water, and people buy it by the brand. There are elegant names and logos and, of course, extravagant claims. For instance, there is Fiji, which comes in a distinctive square bottle and calls itself “Earth’s Finest Water.” Because, you see, it is “Perfected by Nature; Untouched by Man.”
It doesn’t take much of that to get you thinking along Orwell’s lines.
Fiji lost some of its sheen when a Mother Jones piece revealed offenses against the environment and close relations with a military junta . . . but, you know, it is such good water and the bottle is so cool looking. Still, if one cannot get beyond the blemished Fiji reputation, there are many other designer waters to choose from. More than 3,000, according to one source.
Of course, sometimes the stuff in the container is just plain old water, drawn from the same reservoirs that supply the taps of people too shabby and unenlightened to buy their water at Whole Foods. And then, there are those who are concerned for the environment, which they believe is threatened by bottled water (and just about everything else, it sometimes seems) since it must be transported and this requires the burning of fossil fuels. And, by definition, it must be . . . well, bottled. Those containers are plastic and they are not always recycled and, thus, end up in landfills.
So at some campuses, bottled water is no longer sold at the usual outlets. But there are refilling stations where students, who carry their own water bottles, can replenish in order that they may “Drink Up” and do better in class since, as the first lady says,
When we’re properly hydrated our bodies perform better than when we’re even just a little bit dehydrated. Water gives us the focus we need in our school and in our work. . . . It can even help reduce headaches and fatigue.
The evidence for claims like this may be thin to nonexistent, but this bothers only a few soreheads who have a fetish for facts. So . . . “Drink Up.”
There was a time, of course, when water was not so abundantly and diversely available and we did not have the wealth or leisure to turn out celebrities whose job it was to encourage people to “Drink Up.” Water was something you needed to kill the thirst and stay alive. But drinking the wrong kind of water was worse than a faux pas. It could be lethal. Still is, all over the world. People had to learn how to find water and make it safe. It took some doing and some brains.
It can make you thirsty just imagining the lives of seafaring men during the days of sail. They left with water in barrels that would be replenished only by rainwater until they made shore. On long voyages green things and swimming things appeared in the casks. And, if the winds were not fair, water would be rationed and the crewmen would get by on a cup or two a day of this vile stuff and be glad for it.
I learned, some years back, of a solution to one of these problems. I was in the Okefenokee Swamp, where the water is all stained dark from vast amounts of rotting vegetation. This makes it acidic. Someone told me how the sailing men would go far up the St. Mary’s River, which drains the swamp, in order to fill their casks with this dark, acidic water because nothing would live or grow in it while they were at sea.
Ah, swamp water. The stuff of life. You wonder why they don’t bottle it and sell it in earthenware jugs with alligators and cattails on the label at boutiques everywhere.
Just not cool, I suppose.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.