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The Devil’s Milkshake

The water’s just fine!
A group of officials, including Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, stand in a kitchen holding water glasses.

You’ve seen it before. An industrial disaster poisons a town’s food or water supply. Residents get angry. Public officials try to dispel that anger through a public act of self-sacrifice, of reassurance. They convene a press conference, whereupon some hapless courtier brings forth a chalice of the supposedly poisoned material. And then, in front of God and the television cameras, the public official imbibes.

Examples from recent history abound. In 2019, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe ate possibly irradiated rice balls from Fukushima to demonstrate the progress made toward rebuilding the prefecture since its 2011 nuclear meltdown. In 2013, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper claimed he drank fracking fluid to assuage his constituents’ concerns around natural gas drilling. (Not “tasty,” he said.) And, most famous of all, in 2016 Barack Obama took a sip of (filtered) water from the lead-poisoned water supply of Flint, Michigan, to prove it was safe. (“This is not a stunt,” he noted of the stunt.)

Officials are already lining up to drink the forbidden poison issuing from East Palestine, Ohio. When a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed there earlier this month, producing an airborne toxic event of hazardous chemicals, concerns about the water inevitably arose. Enter one Troy Nehls, a Republican congressman from Texas, who became the first intrepid soul through the breach. On February 16, Nehls—who was inexplicably in Ohio, some fourteen hundred miles away from his district—posted a video to Twitter to get word out that the water was safe. To prove it, Nehls slurped it up. This was promptly followed by a video from Ohio lieutenant governor Jon Husted, wherein a group of public officials huddled together and threw back shots of supposed tap water like they were freshman college students out on the town.

But Nehls and Husted were just the undercard features. On February 21, following reports that Norfolk Southern had funded preliminary tests declaring the water totally safe, Ohio’s Republican governor Mike DeWine and a merry caravan, including an EPA official and a congressman, stalked around East Palestine with news cameras, gamely drinking from residents’ taps. (“That’s good,” the EPA official gushed. “That’s really cold coming from the tap.”) The photos and videos from this danse macabre mirrored Husted’s, but on a grander scale—half a dozen people standing around, toasting and clashing cups together like they were at a medieval banquet. If these dizzying trends hold, it’s probably a matter of time before Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, or even President Biden, follows suit.

Years ago, I surveyed the literature looking for a name or term to describe this phenomenon of consuming potentially tainted materials. After all, it seemed to be increasing in frequency, and I’d even started witnessing it at the level of local politics. But if there was a name, I couldn’t find it. So I gave it one: the Devil’s Milkshake.

The point of the Devil’s Milkshake is to arrest further complaint. 

The Devil’s Milkshake is bipartisan. Neither Democrats nor Republicans hold monopoly on it. Which means it can be multiple things, depending on who wields it. To some, it’s cynical political theater, meant to make the politician look invincible and brave. To others, it can be a genuine—yet transparently phony—attempt at showing solidarity. And to others still, it abets a kind of mass hysteria, in which public officials feel increasingly pressured to outdo each other for attention and admiration.

The Devil’s Milkshake can also be an effective way for a public official to shirk any commitment to doing something about the conditions that gave rise to the disaster in the first place. One time I was at a town hall in Martin County, Kentucky, where the water system has been degraded by years of coal mining, corruption, and neglect. Residents were getting sick, and they’d convened the town hall to demand action from the local government. But instead of committing to any substantive action, one local official ran to the front of the hall and demanded a glass of that sweet local tap, so he could drink it right there on the spot, and thus prove that nothing needed changing. A few awkward minutes passed, wherein the crowd grew uncomfortable with the prospect of witnessing a man poison himself in public. So they talked the official down. To this day, Martin County’s water is still unsafe to drink.

It’s likely the Devil’s Milkshake is a modern phenomenon. After all, medieval rulers used to employ taste testers precisely in order to avoid being poisoned. But historical examples are nonetheless difficult to track down because the phenomenon has been heretofore unnamed. So I’ve had to crowdsource its history. It’s clear, reviewing this data, that public officials have had to tweak, refine, and workshop the spectacle; it developed over time through a process of trial and error.

A PhD student at Indiana University, Justin Hawkins, sent me what is perhaps the earliest historical example. In the 1850s, New York City was in the middle of an adulterated milk scandal. Across the country, thousands of infants were dying every year from milk cut with “swill”—excess mash from nearby distilleries, whitened with plaster and drained of nutrients. Tammany Hall sent an Alderman named Michael Tuomey to investigate. But Tuomey vigorously defended the dairy owners and their milk supply. While visiting one dairy, Tuomey threw back some whiskey with the farmers, concluded the milk was perfectly safe, and slandered anyone who thought otherwise as “prejudice[d].” But, as Hawkins points out, it’s unclear whether or not Tuomey’s stunt was performed before a crowd. This highlights a crucial ingredient in the Devil’s Milkshake formula: for it to be a proper Devil’s Milkshake, it must be performed in public, or at least in front of cameras.

The second criteria of the Devil’s Milkshake is that one must actually go through with it. This example came to me by way of a researcher friend, Jack Norton. It’s the story of New York governor Hugh Carey who, in 1981, volunteered to drink a big glass of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from a contaminated state office building in order “to satisfy the unions” that the building was safe. Carey, however, was warned that doing so might actually make him sick, and so he reportedly did not follow through. He nonetheless displayed a curious willingness to put his body on the line for the sake of scoring political points.

Occasionally, the Devil’s Milkshake can be fobbed off on the inferiors or family members of the elected official trying to harness its powers. To illustrate this, we turn to our cousins across the pond. In 1990, four years after the fatal mad cow disease was discovered in Britain’s beef supply, the nation’s agriculture minister, John Selwymn Gummer, carted his four-year-old daughter before news cameras and tried to feed her an “absolutely delicious” hamburger. Six years later, researchers confirmed humans could be infected with the degenerative neurological disease—and in 2007, the daughter of a Gummer family friend died of it. Perhaps Gummer’s logic was that of a hostage taker: if his audience saw his craven recklessness, they, too, might be willing to put their lives on the line to make beef sales go up.

But perhaps the grimmest example of the Devil’s Milkshake is that of Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori and his fisheries minister, Felix Alberto Canal Torres. This story was sent to me by Twitter user @JimmyFalunGong. In 1991, cholera was spreading throughout Peru by way of raw fish, resulting in massive profit losses to the Peruvian fishing industry. In order to get the industry back on its feet, President Fujimori and Minister Torres chowed down on some raw fish live on television, hoping to encourage the public to do the same. Unfortunately, the epidemic wore on for months, eventually killing over three thousand people, and Minister Torres reportedly wound up hospitalized with cholera, no doubt acquired from the raw fish.  

The Gummer and Fujimori-Torres debacles show that, from the very beginning, the Devil’s Milkshake was always just that: a deal with the devil. A gamble. One that, if successful, could pay enormous dividends. But, if unsuccessful, could be very embarrassing. Perhaps that’s why nowadays, the Devil’s Milkshake is most likely just a stage trick. When that aide brings out the chalice, whatever’s inside almost certainly isn’t poison. It’s something harmless that is meant to look poisonous. (Someone on Twitter even pointed out that the officials taking shots of East Palestine’s water in lieutenant Governor Husted’s video had neglected to hide their bottle of Smart Water.) Besides, even if President Obama really did drink lead-poisoned water in Flint, his stunt missed the point: prolonged, chronic exposure is what leads to severe impairment, not a single sip. Race, class, and geography are the major determinants of environmental harm. Most people know this, which is why many Flint residents viewed Obama’s theatrics with skepticism.

Yet I would argue that leaders like President Obama are, like the constituents they seek to deceive, fully aware of this structural truth. It’s what makes the Devil’s Milkshake so strange. The stunt seems to be a tacit acknowledgement by the ruling class that they know the general public doesn’t trust them. (Only 19 percent of Americans believe they can trust the government “most of the time.”) Its recent proliferation must be seen as proof of a ruling class desperate to uphold the illusion of democracy. It is the last gasp of a dying order, drinking and eating its way to the grave, restrained or unwilling to fix anything, and thus doomed to play act a fantasy before klieg lights and newscasters. The dizzying amount of Devil’s Milkshake footage issuing from East Palestine only proves their desperation: these people could not be more unlike you. In fact, the only thing you have left in common with them is the fact that they, too, still have to eat food and drink water to stay alive. That’s it. The Devil’s Milkshake is a measure of the gaping chasm between you and them.

The public has by now seen so many of these large-scale pollution events they well understand no one will be held accountable.

The sad thing is that, sometimes, the water or food in question is actually safe to consume. Watersheds can be hard to wrap your head around. A lot of hysterical and paranoid information leeched into the ether following the East Palestine toxic event. People upstream from the Ohio River worried that they, too, were at risk of exposure. Were boil water advisories fifty miles southeast in Pittsburgh related to the derailment—even though local officials said otherwise? Were birds dying in Kentucky because of the crash? All these places probably are under threat, but from other things entirely: chemical plants, microplastics, algae blooms, air pollution, you name it.

The public has by now seen so many of these large-scale pollution events that they well understand no one will be held accountable; that the clean-up will be, at best, half-assed; and that we’re just going to bide our time until the next one occurs. (Indeed, in the weeks since the East Palestine incident, a commercial tanker truck full of chemicals crashed outside Tucson, killing the driver and releasing a plume of nitric acid into the air; a train derailed in Texas, killing one; another train carrying coal derailed in Nebraska; and on and on.) People, naturally, have lost trust in their leaders to keep them safe. No amount of poisonous water consumed by governors, congressmen, or EPA officials will restore that trust.

This is why the Devil’s Milkshake is ultimately an insult to your intelligence. The point isn’t to give you actionable information about what’s going on. If it was, public officials would just do that, instead of histrionically parading around in front of the cameras to show off the sacrifice they’re making. Nor is the point to rebuild trust in institutions. After all, these figures could just fix the problems, and make our natural and infrastructural environments responsive to crises and safe to navigate.

No, the point of the Devil’s Milkshake is to arrest further complaint. To recycle anger back into “acceptable” forms of discourse and mechanisms of accountability. To move on, forget it ever happened. It’s almost as if, through this act of symbolic consumption, a public official telegraphs their willingness to die for corporate America’s sins. That, because they’re willing to literally metabolize the issue, it’s been addressed, processed, and fixed.

The problem with this is that no one ever forgets. People remember it all. Not just the fear and terror of seeing a black pillar of smoke towering over their community. Not just the health scares and medical bills, the family members and friends and pets dying before their time. Not just the agonizing mystery of it all, of wondering which recent toxic event is responsible for their debilitating sickness, or if they’re crazy for even having that thought.

They’ll also remember the most terrifying, mind-bending thing of all: that their leaders sacrificed them at the almighty altar of profit, and then mocked them for daring to question it. They’ll wake up in the middle of the night, their minds retracing the choreographed ritual of power known as the Devil’s Milkshake, their gleeful leaders sending up veritable toasts to the fact they were getting away with it all. And this remembering brings on a final realization: that the next time may be even worse.