Kurt Mitman | Summer of our discontent
Sorry to be Kurt | Why I won't be dumping Russian vodka
August 29, 2013, 10:22 pm·
Sorry to be Kurt
The gay and lesbian community has been dumping Russian vodka this summer to protest a curtailment of rights in that country. But are those efforts going down the drain along with the vodka?
Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed several anti-gay bills into law. One essentially criminalizes any pro-gay publication as propaganda. Another allows gays, lesbians or allies to be arrested and detained for up to two weeks. Finally, Russian-born children can no longer be adopted by gay couples or in any country that allows gay marriage.
As far as I can tell, these developments went largely unnoticed in the U.S. until a polemic op-ed by Harvey Fierstein was published in The New York Times calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Subsequently, Queer Nation called for a worldwide boycott of Russian vodka, and the #dumpstoli meme was born.
So why vodka specifically? Well, Russia is famous for its vodka and anyone who’s listened to drink orders at Woody’s knows that gays have a proclivity for it.
But the notion of pouring out already purchased Russian vodka is a bit silly. Parties where people buy Russian vodka only to then pour it out are absurd — the money has already gone to the manufacturers.
While the boycott has succeeded in raising awareness, the philosophy of it is misguided —the logic employed by the supporters is that you stop buying Russian vodka because that will squeeze the Russian government and coerce it to change its policies. Let’s think about that for a second.
Exports of vodka account for a miniscule fraction of Russian GDP — more than half of which comes from natural resources. Is it realistic to think that Putin or members of the Duma are going to care about the boycott?
The people that end up getting hurt are the owners of Russian vodka companies. Yes, some of these people are rich and may have some influence in Russia. But past experience has shown that having wealth does not exempt you from potentially dubious prosecution in Russia. Is it fair of us to demand that Val Mendeleev, the CEO of Stolichnaya Vodka, put his freedom on the line to protect his company and speak out for gay rights?
Even if Val Mendeleev were anti-gay — and based on a recent open letter he wrote, there’s good reason to think he isn’t — I wouldn’t support the boycott of Stoli.
As a gay man I don’t mind eating at Chick-fil-A even though the chairman S. Truett Cathy gives money to anti-gay causes. Do I agree with him? Of course not. But I fully support the freedom in our country that allows him to waste his money on whatever cause he wants — even if it’s one that potentially would have a negative impact on my life.
On top of that, we don’t know the political views or causes supported by the vast majority of brands or producers that we buy products from. How do I know that the proprietor at a mom-and-pop shop doesn’t devote his spare time to taking away my rights?
So when should we be using our “dollar votes” to exert influence?
Boycotts should be reserved for when the production or manufacture of the product itself involves something that we object to. The classic example would be the boycott of tuna that was fished in a way that killed millions of dolphins. The boycott successfully changed the purchasing practices of the three largest tuna companies in the world. Another clear example would be manufacturing that involves child labor — boycotting products produced with child labor could force the companies to reconsider their labor policies.
Of course we should do something about the loss of rights in Russia. But instead of dumping vodka, maybe we should be trying to get President Obama or Secretary Kerry to engage with Putin on the issue, instead of shutting down lines of communication. Until then, I’ll still drink my Stoli and chow down at Chick-fil-A and be happy that I live in a country where we have the freedom to do so.
Kurt Mitman is a 7th-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” appears every Friday.