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To Freedom-Fry a Moscow Mule
On the impotent rage of the booze-addled American consumer
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As you’ve probably heard by now Russia has invaded Ukraine and America’s psychotic pundit class as well as defense industry-loving lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are mad at President Joe Biden for not matching President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear readiness escalations.
It is the Fingers newsletter’s considered position that saber-rattling/nuclear brinksmanship is extremely bad and we should not do it. But this is not a newsletter about geopolitics, it is a boozeletter about booze. Specifically, today, it’s a boozeletter about vodka, and even more specifically, about the misdirected, maybe-well-intentioned, and culturally revealing scramble to remove the Slavic-born spirit from liquor shelves and the national vernacular.
That’s right folks: we’re giving vodka the Freedom fries treatment. In order to grasp just how impotent, gormless, and deeply American this all is, some brief history is order, because the United States has been down this road before.
To wit: during World War I, with anti-German sentiment running high, Americans became very red-assed about German words or even saying the word “German” out loud due to patriotism and nationalism and the hallmark smooth-brainedness that grips this nation’s body politic to this day. Accordingly, the early-20th century hooters ‘n hollerers of these United States decided to make some revisions to the lexicon:
upon America’s entry into the conflict, German-Americans began to be ostracized and villainized. Sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and German measles became known as “liberty measles.”
Not that the pandemic has gone, y’know, well, but can you even imagine how much worse it would’ve been if Trump had decided to start calling it the “liberty virus” instead of the “China virus” to own President Xi? I would rather not, actually. Moving on.
Perhaps you don’t recall the whole liberty cabbage thing because you aren’t 120 years old. Understandable! But as Americans it is our inalienable right to rename things that upset us based on whichever half-baked imperative of empire we happen to be obsessed with at the moment, so naturally this whole saga repeated itself again.
In 2003, as our big, beautiful, and since-rehabilitated warmonger George W. Bush and Dick “Thomas Friedman Thinks Joe Biden Should Split the 2024 Ticket with My Daughter, Lol @ These People” Cheney launched incredibly bloody and mostly pointless War on Terror, Troop Respecters across the country began referring to French fries and French toast as “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” to show our Gallic NATO frenemies that we were big mad they wouldn’t support the United States’ invasion of Iraq.
Restaurateurs, customers… everybody was in on the semantic shift, even Congress, where our large adult lawmakers banned “French”-labeled foods from the Congressional cafeteria. At the time, French’s Mustard (named for an eponymous American inventor) was so panicked it actually hired a PR firm to explain to everyone that if the United States wanted to do some war in Iraq they as a mustard company would not stand in the way. “The only thing French about French's Mustard is the name,” the brand said in a release at the time.
This of course brought an immediate and decisive conclusion to that particular conflict because as we all know Words Matter™. Or not, because despite what Seether and/or Eminem say, words are not weapons. Luckily, thanks to our well-oiled military-industrial complex, we’ve had something far more powerful than mere language at our disposal: actual weapons! The pen may be mightier than the sword, but is it mightier than some motherfucking M1 Abrams tanks? Exactly. Shock and awe, mission accomplished, we stuck a boot in their ass. Thanks for nothing, frogs!
Return now to the present day. Of course the U.S. is sending actual weapons1 to Ukraine, which is all well and good (or all unwell and bad, depending on your appetite for forever war, pinko.) But Americans at home are itching to get in on the fight however they can. One thing Americans do better than anybody else is to buy shit, and the one thing we can do even better than that is to performatively not buy shit.
Hence why we are now seeing boycotts on Russian vodka sweep across the country, and why social media is awash with righteous pledges to pour Moscow Mules and White Russians down the drain and to only serve Ukrainian beer. Many of these bans are coming from private small (and large, in the cases of Total Wine and Kroger) business owners, but in at least 10 states across the country so far, lawmakers have also used the state monopoly on retailing liquor to block Russian-made products from store shelves.2 Yeah, sex is great, but have you ever pretended to be a principled small-government/free-market conservative in order to withhold resources from poor people, then gleefully use state power to manipulate commerce for political points-scoring?
None of this will amount to much. First and foremost, because: consumer boycotts are notoriously hard to pull off! They require organizational infrastructure, operational competence, and ideological cohesion, and the American drinking public (to say nothing of the general population) possesses none of these things. To win a boycott, you’ve also gotta have a specific, well-defined corporate target, which “Russian vodka, generally” is not. Neither is “French stuff.” A 2016 University of Virginia study found that at the height of the pre-Iraq “freedom fries” boycotts, sales of 850 French and French-perceived products fell just 0.4% at 1,110 U.S. supermarkets. The dip accounted for $43 million in lost sales revenue, which sounds like a lot until you consider that a) that loss averages out to a one-time $50,000 sales ding per brand, which is neither insignificant nor devastating; and b) only 80 of those 850 brands were actually French. Ah. Hmm.
Similar consumer misconceptions are muddying the water—er, the vodka—19 years later. Both Stolichnaya and Smirnoff have issued full-throated statements of support for Ukraine and condemnation of Russia, because despite the brands’ names and Russian roots, neither’s popular vodka is produced in that country. In fact, Russian-made vodka accounted for just 1.3% of all vodka sold in the U.S. in 2021, per the Distilled Spirits Council trade group. Imports of the spirit from Russia are down 79% since 2011, thanks to the quasi-Russian brands owned by international conglomerates, domestic craft competition (Tito’s et al.), and slowing category growth. As such, those liquor store owners dumping bottles of Stoli and Smirnoff have more cultural kinship with Sean Hannity fans who destroyed their own $200 Keurig machines in 2017 to punish the company for pulling its ads from the Fox pundit’s show than they do with, say, the three-decade Coors boycott. These are emotional performances of ignorance, not tactical economic pressure.
But such is the nature of the American consumer. We have virtually no control over our country’s politics or foreign policy because they’re both controlled by global capital. Battered with media braying for a nuclear showdown, hypnotized by the drums of war, we long for a convenient, bloodless way to enjoy the primal thrill of our national pastime—which is and always has been armed conflict, sorry baseball—from the comfort of our own homes. Boxed out of actual participation by sclerotic caricatures of responsive democracy, we find ourselves enraged by our own impotence, but given our national allergy to class consciousness3 we are incapable of identifying its source. So instead we turn our bloodlust to the one arena where we possess some scintilla of agency: the marketplace. We vote with our dollars, we rename our products, we dump out our vodka. Is it Russian-made? Does it matter?
No, it does not.
📬 Good post alert
📝 How to (maybe!) successfully pitch journalists (sometimes!)
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to an undergrad PR/communications class at Rutgers University yesterday about how to pitch journalists more effectively. They asked incredibly smart and thoughtful questions, and also pretended to understand my tortured Devil Wears Prada analogy.4
For a bit of comic relief, I tapped some colleagues and sifted through my own inbox to find examples of things that they shouldn’t say to journalists5 for various professional reasons. An abridged list:
“I saw you wrote about this thing, why don’t you write about MY thing?”
“Can you tell me your coverage area so I can better tailor my pitches to your interests?”
“What are you currently working on?”
“Would you be willing to update this article with a mention of my client?”
“I need to review your story before it’s published.”
“That was off-the-record.”
It was lots of fun! Thanks much to the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and professor Mark Beal for having me. If you’d like me to come speak to your class/company/organization about journalism and/or The Devil Wears Prada, get in touch!
Oh, and speaking of ways not to pitch things:
🧾 The Settle-Up
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Canada made the same move at its own state-run liquor stores last week. I don’t know much about the culture of consumer jingoism amongst our neighbors to the north, but any Canadians with perspective to share on what these bans mean to drinkers up there, I’d love to hear from you!
I lifted this phrase from my pal and fellow journalist Paul Bowers, who writes the indispensable Brutal South newsletter. I highly recommend you subscribe; I do!
I consider myself the sassy Stanley Tucci character of the beverage-alcohol beat, on account of a) being bald, and b) being more than one stomach flu away from my ideal goal weight.
For all the PR people reading this who have said stuff like this to me, don’t worry, it’s probably fine when you do it.