business news in context, analysis with attitude

We've had some discussion here on MNB in recent days about the extent to which a number of businesses - including PepsiCo, New Balance and GrubHub - have created controversy through political comments made in the wake of the presidential election.

Yesterday, an MNB reader passed along another example. Bill Penzey Jr. CEO of the spice company that bears his name, wrote on Election Night that the "open embrace of racism by the Republican Party in this election is now unleashing a wave of ugliness unseen in this country for decades. The American people are taking notice. Let's commit to giving the people a better choice. Our kindness really is our strength."

He got some feedback. in fact, lots of it. And so he returned to the internet this week with a clarification that also served to double down on his original comments:

"Since I ask you to read my emails, I feel it's only right that I read each of your replies. In sifting through those replies it was clear that, though not intended, a good number of people seemed to sincerely believe that in my statement I was calling all Republicans racists. In the emails of those Republicans who voted for someone other than the party's nominee, I sensed genuine pain at having the strength of character to not go along with what was happening, but nonetheless be grouped in with those who were. I apologize for writing something that caused you pain; that is not the person I want to be. You are your party's future, and you deserve my admiration and respect, and your country's as well.

"For the rest of you, you just voted for an openly racist candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. In your defense, most of you did so without thinking of the consequences of your candidate's racism, because for most of you the heartbreaking destruction racism causes has never been anything you or your loved ones have had to experience. But the thing is elections have their consequences. This is no longer sixty years ago. Whether any of us like it or not, for the next four years the 80% of this country who did not just vote for an openly racist candidate are going to treat you like you are the kind of person who would vote for an openly racist candidate.

"You can get angry at everyone else for treating you like you just did the thing you just did, or you can take responsibility for your actions and begin to make amends. If you are lucky and younger family members are still coming over for Thanksgiving, before it's too late, take a moment and honestly think about how your actions must look through their eyes. Simply saying 'I never thought he'd win' might be enough. But if you have the means, leaving a receipt from a sizable donation to the ACLU or the SPLC accidentally laying around where you carve the turkey, might go over even better.

"Or, just do what you do best and volunteer. Through our customers' support, we've given away a lot of our Penzeys Pepper, the Pepper with heart. More often than not, those we meet cooking and serving food to feed those in need are Republicans. You really are a good bunch, but you just committed the biggest act of racism in American history since Wallace stood in the schoolhouse doorway 53 years ago. Make this right. Take ownership for what you have done and begin the pathway forward."
KC's View:
The first thing I want to say here is that I think (though I'm not entirely sure) that this probably will be the last of these stories. I've received a number of emails this week from people who suggested (in civil and friendly tones) that MNB should get out of politics and "back to business." To be fair, I've probably received as many emails from people who have appreciated the stories and commentary about PepsiCo, New Balance and GrubHub and want them to continue for as long as appropriate. (I've also gotten emails from some people who think that we should genuflect at the altar of Donald Trump, some who think that everything that is wrong with the US is directly attributable to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, some who have lashed out at Trump as the embodiment of evil, and others who think it is all the media's fault.)

To me, this is very much about business, and therefore completely consistent with what MNB has done for 15 years. But I also don't believe in beating a dead horse, nor in engaging in circular discussions that simply rehash arguments. I'm not sure that's helpful to anyone.

Now, regarding this specific story...

Some folks will find the comments to be offensive and will immediately swear off the use of Penzey's spices. Others will make a beeline for one of Penzey's stores or its website. (The reader who forwarded me the comments would fall into the latter group.)

What Bill Penzey Jr. said, in my view, is the kind of thing that only a guy with his name on the door of a privately held company can say. I think what bothers me most about the comments is that they didn't seem helpful. He may want to say that he wasn't labeling all Republicans as racists, but if one believes, as I do, that enabling racism is as bad, then it is hard to escape the reality that this was exactly what he was doing. And, unlike the controversies that enveloped PepsiCo, New Balance and GrubHub, this one was deliberate. He didn't just throw wood on the fire. He threw gasoline.

This does not strike me as helpful. I'm not sure it is good for Penzey's company, and I'm not sure that it is even good for the public discourse. As I said when this whole discussion began a week ago, there are rough seas ahead ... I'm not sure anything or anyone is served by dropping depth charges into the water.

In Penzey's case, I think he was simplifying a situation that is anything but simple. There is a piece in the New York Times this weekend pointing out that there are parts of Wisconsin where the very same voters have cast their ballots for Barack Obama, Scott Walker (the Republican governor), Tammy Baldwin (the state's openly lesbian Democratic senator) and now Donald Trump. That doesn't sound like racism to me ... it sounds like people who are yearning for a solution to a problem. Whether any politician can solve that problem, or can make practical 21st century solutions politically palatable, is another issue.

I also wrote (I think several times this week) that "companies and corporate leaders need to be careful. Words matter. Deeds matter." The same goes for political leaders.

To once again quote from the Leonard Cohen song "Democracy" (which seems like a good place to end (probably) this discussion...

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on...

And now we'll move on. For the moment.