Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #037. First published in the St. Cloud Times Aug. 24, 2010

"There is nothing that is not political. Everything is politics."

These uncompromising words are spoken by Ludovico Settembrini, a character in the 1924 novel, "The Magic Mountain," by Thomas Mann (1875-1955). Mann's book is a compelling portrait of the chaotic and precarious condition of Western society between the two world wars. Settembrini carries the torch for reason, for the legacy of the Enlightenment, but has no illusions that reality fits tidily into philosophical abstractions.

It's a long way from Mann's fictional sanatorium in Switzerland to Minnesota, and it's a long time from 1924 to 2010, but recent events have put me in mind of Settembrini's observation, and not happily.

Supreme Court ruling

Anybody could have guessed there would be toxic fallout from the Supreme Court's January decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which, overturning a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act, allows corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections.

I find the court's contention that a corporation is to be treated as though it were an individual person ludicrous, but that's what five justices said, and we're stuck with the consequences.

In an unavoidable response to the decision, the Minnesota Legislature revised state statutes to permit corporations to make independent expenditures "expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate."

Target, a Minnesota icon with an estimable record of civic engagement and public service, has learned the truth of Settembrini's remark and, even more, of the earthier aphorism of Chicago newspaperman F.P. Dunne (1867-1936): "politics ain't beanbag" — except, we might add, when the beanbag is a grenade.

Target Corp.'s contribution of $150,000 to MN Forward, which is vigorously supporting the gubernatorial candidacy of Republican Tom Emmer, ignited a firestorm of criticism, including boycotts, primarily from the gay and lesbian community.

Because Target has been among the friendliest of employers for GLBT folks, and is a leading sponsor of Pride Festivals, open backing of a candidate whose views are decidedly gay-unfriendly came as a rude shock.

In solidarity with my GLBT friends and relatives, I share their dismay.


The problem with Target's action goes deeper, however.

Bewildered by the backlash, CEO Gregg Steinhafel said the decision to make the contribution was based solely on "business objectives."

Here is his biggest mistake. He has much too narrow a notion of "business objectives," as though Emmer's extreme policies are the ticket to Target's success.

Business is not exempt from the truth illuminated by Martin Luther King Jr., that we're all "in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

Steinhafel should talk to some of the small-business owners I've met while door knocking this summer. They know that taxes are an issue, but there is so much more to "improving the state's job climate" (to quote Steinhafel) — the adequate funding of our common life, whether roads or education or health.

What Steinhafel means by "business objectives" reflects the shortsightedness that has infected our whole society — concern for the immediate payoff, the quarterly report. Lower my taxes today, my profits go up today. Let somebody else care about tomorrow, when the consequences of our underfunding of education, our allowing roads and bridges to deteriorate, and our failure to protect the health of everyone will be their problem, not ours.

Business interests aren't restricted to the bottom line. They are shot through with human relations — employees, customers, shareholders in "an inescapable network of mutuality."

Some businesspeople get this. I thought Target did, until it decided to go stridently partisan.

Given what I've said thus far, it may come as a surprise to learn I believe Target is wise not to try to undo the damage with a contribution to gay-friendly causes. The company statement demonstrates understanding of Settembrini's point: "We believe that it is impossible to avoid turning any further actions into a political issue and will use the benefit
of time to make thoughtful, careful decisions on how best to move forward."

Target hasn't sought my opinion on how best to move forward, but I'll offer it anyway. Steer clear of all independent expenditures, even for candidates I support. Not everything that's permitted is prudent.