Friday, August 27, 2010

Target Targeted

This brilliant bit of political theater has been getting a lot of attention among supports of GLBT rights and opponents of corporate financing of political campaigns. Reacting to Target's $150,000 donation to the political campaign a "pro-business" opponent of gay rights, this stunt is part of a small but vocal campaign to boycott Target stores:

Target Ain't People -- MoveOn ad @ Yahoo! Video

Some of my friends have asked why this contribution stirred such a reaction, and others have questioned the effectiveness of this video in particular and of the boycott movement in general. I have a few thoughts to share as a result of these very good questions. (See my Pride page to learn why I am so passionate about GLBT rights.)

First, regarding boycotts in general. These are actions intended to induce a change in corporate or government behavior by refusing to buy their products or products produced within their borders. Government examples have included at least two campaigns against the state of Arizona -- in the 1980s when it was the last state to declare a Martin Luther King Holiday and currently as it imposes a host of dubious immigration-control measures. It is difficult to say how many boycotts I have supported, though I think it is really only one: for years I did not buy anything made by Nestle, as part of a world-wide boycott related to its milk-marketing practices in developing countries. I was surprised to learn just now that the Nestle boycott continues.

I count Nestle because I really did strive to avoid their products, and let the company know why. Several aspects of that experience, however, have made me a reluctant boycotter, at best. I eventually learned that a company such as Nestle is too big for my trade or lack thereof to mean much, I also found that it had too many branches for me to keep track of, so I could not be sure when I was withholding money. More to the point, I learned that a lot of corporations do a lot of pretty terrible stuff, and that by diverting my business from one, I might be funneling toward one that is as bad or worse. I guess this is what eventually drove me toward fair trade and local food and shopping, where I have a chance of making positive purchases, rather than just trying to avoid negative ones.

Still, a few companies have earned my ire so that although I'm not exactly boycotting them, I cannot bring myself to buy from them. These include Coors (helps that their beer tastes awful), Dunkin' Donuts, and WalMart. In the case of the latter two, I like to hope that my writings have some impact, but I know that my funds are hardly missed.

A boycott of Target at this juncture is particularly problematic, because it would be aimed at punishing a single incident already in the past, rather than trying to affect ongoing or future corporate behavior.

My inability to darken the door of a WalMart is part of what makes the Target story so interesting for me. I prefer to shop locally, but WalMart has systematically leveled much of the retail landscape (apparently employing expert, if evil, locational geographers), so for many purchases, I do turn to box stores, and Target has impressed me as the less evil of my options. Its 100% approval rating from the Human Rights Campaign helped make the case, as did its charitable giving and related programs (modest, but far more than WalMart).

Which brings us to the case at hand: Target's contribution to the campaign of Rep. Tom Emmer, an anti-gay candidate for governor of Minnesota. The $150,000 donation caused HRC to drop Target from its Equality Buying Guide. This story answers the question of why the contribution has created a response that some might find disproportionate: because of its previous track record, the Emmer contribution is seen as a  betrayal. Our friends can hurt us in ways that our enemies cannot, after all.

Shortly after the story broke in late July, Target's CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized for the contribution. His response reads like one of those "I'm sorry you were offended" apologies, but in the full text of the apology he promises both a thorough review and some kind of summit with other business leaders in the fall, so the final outcome of this controversy remains to be seen. Stockholders were outraged by the contribution and are demanding reforms in the company's approach to political giving. Stockholders do not seem to be complaining so much about the particular politics of the donation; rather, they are complaining that Target did not account for the controversy that would ensue.

This is an encouraging sign that stockholders might effectively do what the Supreme Court would not: the court rules that direct contributions from corporations to campaigns are legally unlimited, but for many publicly-traded companies, shareholders may impose very real limitations. Target is trying to tread a middle ground of bipartisan political activity, but it remains the case that Target is not a person. The fundamental issue raised in the video at the top of this post is that humans have both rights and responsibilities, whereas a couple of key court decisions have allowed corporations to have just rights. In the logo for the film The Corporation, notice that the "suit" has both a devil's tail and a halo. The problem is not that corporations are evil, it is that they are amoral, which is not a good characteristic for entities with growing political power to have. As one of my friends pointed out, the current controversy is not about Target having power in the sense of actual control over policy. It has, however, been granted the same right of expression that the founders originally intended only for actual humans with a pulse.

Part of the ire surrounding the contribution comes from Rep. Emmer's association with -- and contributions to -- a more radically anti-gay Christian rock band. Bradlee Dean, the leader of You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, in turn, has suggested that Muslims who execute homosexuals are morally superior to Christians who do not. He later tried to back away from those statements, but clearly Emmer's association with Dean increases the level of concern people have about him. His own stated positions may be run-of-the-mill homophobic, but his close association with Bradlee raises concerns about radical -- even homicidal -- homophobia.

This story broke just as journalist Jeff Sharlet has been exposing the U.S. roots of murderous anti-gay movements in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. His work has recently been presented on NPR's Fresh Air and published in Harper's and elsewhere. It is tragically ironic that the "war on terror" has conflated Islam with Islamic fundamentalism, even as its most ardent exponents are Christian fundamentalists who have much in common with the most theocratic mullahs, ayatollahs, and Taliban.

Fortunately, leaders have emerged in Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi, where the Advocate has identified four strong organizations worthy of support.

1 comment:

  1. OK, I can't say the video struck me as substantively brilliant, but James' article seems to place a different core issue at the forefront. Rather than implying that Target's officers desire capital punishment for gays, this seems to suggest that the prime concern is the unbridled use of campaing contributions by major corporations with deep pockets. I have always felt that it would be better if every candidate received the exact same amount of funds to equalize exposure to the public.
    I also intend to look up Bradley Dean - I want to see what exactly he said! Thanks.


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