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Babe you OK? You've barely touched your NATO Lager
On coalition beers and conspicuous political consumerism
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Geopolitics: it’s complicated! Russia invaded Ukraine, which is bad. Germany is dependent on Russia for natural gas, which is bad. Here in the U.S., Congress recently voted to send $40 billion worth of weapons and aid to Ukraine while hand-waving the concern that should be obvious to anyone who lived through the past two decades worth of American proxy wars: there’s really no way to make sure all those Javelin anti-tank systems wind up where they’re supposed to. Hmm, also seems bad. But hey, at least our large adult arms dealers are making record profits.
Meanwhile, Russia’s brutal invasion of the Ukraine continues apace, pushing regional fence-sitters to choose sides between Putin and his coalition foes in the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. Fine, you say, but what’s all this got to do with booze? Ah, so glad you asked.
The Associated Press reports that Olaf Brewing, a small outfit in Savonlinna, Finland, has begun selling a beer in support of the country’s efforts to join NATO to shore up its security against its increasingly belligerent easterly neighbor. The brewery’s CEO told the AP Thursday that the lager—named “Otan olutta,” which is a bilingual pun combining the French acronym for NATO and the Finnish phrase “I’ll have a beer”—boasts “a taste of security, with a hint of freedom.” (This is also a solid critique of NATO as a policy failure, but I digress.) Whether Finland and its fellow Scandinavian applicant Sweden are actually accepted into the alliance remains to be seen; as of writing, Turkey is blocking their membership, potentially in order to horse-trade for American F-35 fighter jets, which it has been banned from purchasing since buying a Russian missile system in 2019. Geopolitics: it’s not complicated, because it’s always about weapons!
More interesting, for our purposes at least, is how Olaf Brewing’s new NATO lager fits into the broader trend of using booze as an international lingua franca to distill multifaceted flashpoints of global statecraft into easily digested bits of sides-taking flair for the terminally online. Math may be the universal language, but alcohol is second only to like… maybe sex work when it comes to universal units of consumptive cultural commerce. Virtually every society has a history, cultural, and politics of booze, and over the past two decades, the global proliferation of a) consequential discourse on social media platforms and b) small craft producers run by freewheeling, press-hungry entrepreneurs with no corporate media training have coalesced into this moment. That a random craft brewery hard by Finland’s border with Russia can make a stunt beer demanding NATO membership and command dozens of headlines in the international press is remarkable enough on its own, and a testament to booze’s border-crossing comprehensibility. That we’re all like “yep, makes sense, retweet” is utterly bizarre, and shows just how effectively national identities and political ideologies can be projected onto beverage-alcohol products, then flung onto a timeline thirsty for novel ways to signal their sympathies.
Effectively, and profitably. “[O]ur sales email has been flooded with orders from Finland and from abroad […] and people are driving long distances within Finland to buy it,” Olaf Brewing’s CEO told The Washington Post. Can’t fault ‘em for trying to make a buck! (Or maybe you can? I’m honestly not sure, and passing ethical judgement on this particular instance would require an understanding of NATO history, Finnish culture, and Russo-Finnish relations well beyond your fearless Fingers editor’s paygrade. Finns, weigh in!)
Zooming out a bit, I do think that the commercial aspect of stunts like NATO beer is what makes them so uncanny, at least to my American eye. Rather than ol’ Thorstein Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption,”1 this feels more akin to conspicuous political consumerism. While the former is vapid and douche-y in a drinking context, the latter seems downright pointless, and potentially even harmful for the way it flattens complicated, high-stakes social and military conflicts into salable, drinkable partisan party favors. We see this all the time in the U.S.! From DtC wine companies shamelessly pandering for the pinot budgets of Reagan-nostalgic boomer consumers, to random bars smarm-baiting themselves onto the nightly news by pouring pints for troops slain during the hasty U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan, to the nation’s booze retailers and dipshit lawmakers whipping themselves into a misdirected Freedom Fry-esque froth to boycott vodka at the outset of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, American drinking culture is full of reasons to eye beverages and rituals that emerge at the intersection of politics, conflict, and profit with hearty skepticism, if not outright cynicism.2 As democracy crumbles stateside, and the global balance of power convulses to an extent not seen since the end of the Cold War, it’s pretty fucking weird to see those grave real-life developments packaged up to be shared online and sold for recreational consumption. Geopolitics is complicated, after all, and drinking was never supposed to be.
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Coincidentally, our boy Thorstein was Norwegian, making this is a very Scandinavian edition of the boozeletter. Huh!
That’s not to say American drinkers are informed skeptics invulnerable to lowest-common-denominator online performance; one look at Pravda Beer Brewery’s Untappd page will disabuse you of that fiction right quick.