David Russell Mosley
5 October 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Dear Friends and Family,
Today as I was on Facebook, I came across a rather funny video lampooning “hipsters” and the “artisanal” movement. You can find it here. In the video we see two men, an owner and an apprentice, who run an artisanal firewood shop with pieces of firewood costing upwards of $1200. The satire was really quite spot-on, but I couldn’t help but wonder what more was underlying it. Of course artisanal firewood is ridiculous, especially the way the video portrayed it. It reminded me of the hilarious video from the television series “Portlandia”, Dream of the 1890s. You can watch it below.
The video looks at “hipster culture” and sees it for part of what it is, namely a desire to go back to a simpler way of living, without necessarily leaving behind all the true advantages of our present time. This video too is somewhat satirical, as if having funny facial hair were as essential to this way of life as making things from scratch. Which of course it isn’t, though it is an added bonus for the follicularly robust such as myself. But both videos are now, for me, place in the context of this one from Budweiser.
Viewed in this light, the satirical video on artisanal firewood takes on new meaning for me. Perhaps rather than a good-natured ribbing given to some of the oddities of the artisanal and hipster movements, it’s a satire against being artisans of any sort. Perhaps some of this comes from the relationship between the artisanal movements of recent decades and the hipster movement which has been alive since at least the 1950s with both the greasers and beatniks. Perhaps something about the present ironic nature of many “hipsters” has led to a general degradation of any attempts to create things on one’s own or on a micro-level.
The Budweiser video wastes no time in suggesting that craft-beer is merely for the pretentious and not for the person who simply likes a good glass of beer. They act as though the brewers of craft-beer are simply looking to put together odd flavors and act as though they taste good when, in reality, they do not. And this is true of some craft-beer, believe me, I’ve tried (Banana Bread Beer is disgusting). But does this in turn mean that mass-produced beer where the primary fermenters are corn rather than the traditional barley or wheat is by nature better? Or, does Budweiser begin to realize that people are actually beginning to prefer good, solid craft-beer, especially when they can find it locally made, to their mass-produced alcohol that only tastes good ice cold, because it tastes of nothing?
So the big corporation tries to pretend it is the friend of the working-class (because its cheap) and not the affluent millennial hipsters. Even the artisanal firewood video makes this point when we see the $1200 price tag on a single piece of firewood and a well-dressed white woman comes in to buy it. According to these videos, the artisan is a charlatan, by his beard and leather apron he makes himself appear as a working class man, but he isn’t since he caters to the bourgeois. But are really to believe that the big corporation is friend to the proletariat? Now it’s true that many artisanal items, including the organic, are often beyond the price range of many such as myself. For the artisanal this is usually because of the labor required to make the item or items that would normally be machine made. For organic food it often also has to do with paying for the title organic. Now David Cooney over at Practical Distributism reminds us that we need to start re-thinking price when it comes to our purchases (often the long-term price of cheaper items is higher than the short-term price of those of better quality). I’ll let you read his essay for his arguments.
My emphasis in this letter is rather on the need for craft, for micro-productions. Not only are these often more economic in the long run, since they will last longer, but they are usually more sustainable. A leather company that hand makes it’s goods will not go through nearly so many cows as an industrialized one. A micro-brewery will not require industrialized farming to grow the necessary ingredients to make delicious beer which in turn means that the land used to grow those ingredients can be better cared for, will require less water, etc. Now it’s true that I currently don’t buy as much as I’d like from small producers in my area, nor do I create much. These are the plagues of the underemployed, that price must factor in when you don’t make enough to support your family without extended family assistance. Still, we do what we can. However, if more small, artisanal-style, businesses could and did open, it would eventually be easier to buy from them, perhaps not easier than buying from the big box stores, but easier than it is currently. This will never happen, however, unless at least three conditions are met. First, the big corporations will either have to stop abusing the craft industry or else we will have to disabuse people of the false conceptions big corporations are spreading. Second, we as consumers have to change the way we think about buying. We have to stop thinking only in terms of short-term costs and start thinking in terms of long-term costs. Third, we may have to petition our government for certain deregulations that make it more difficult for small businesses than for large ones. Big business can afford certain costs related to many regulations that small or individually owned businesses cannot. These regulations should not favor the big over the small.
So I return to these videos. Two clearly meant as satire and, I hope, satire that is friendly, that is self-effacing because the people creating the satire are the people who believe in these ideas, if not their oddities. The other is much more malicious. It seeks to make us think big business is our friend and the craftsmen are pretentious snobs and therefore our enemies. Let us not buy into that lie.
A final note, if we want to see the changes in society put forward by distributism (and admittedly many of my correspondents do not), we need to stop eschewing the millennials and hipsters and bring them into our folds. Hopefully we can rid them of the chaff of irony and help them keep that kernel of craft.