The Peters principles – interview with Tom Peters – Interview
Virginia I. Postrel
The management guru as playground director, provocateur, and passionate defender of open societies.
Tom Peters dots his articles with exclamation points, ellipses, and WORDS IN ALL CAPS. He tends toward sweeping, barely supported statements (“Women are smarter than men,” he generalized in Forbes ASAP) and uses the word revolution a lot. His official bio describes him as a “gadfly, curmudgeon, champion of bold failures, prince of disorder, maestro of zest, professional loudmouth (as a speaker he’s ‘a spitter,’ according to the cartoon strip Dilbert), corporate cheerleader, lover of markets, capitalist pig…and card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
It’s all designed to get attention – for Peters and for his ideas – and it works. He is the best-selling business author in history and travels the world giving extremely lucrative seminars to corporate executives eager to be provoked and inspired. His 1982 mega-bestseller, In Search of Excellence, co-authored with Robert Waterman, launched a whole new genre of business books and created the modern business guru.
But there is more to Peters than the hype-meister and “spitter.” In person, he qualifies his generalizations with “to be sure” background, and his books are grounded in a solid knowledge of business practice and theory. He sprinkles philosophical phrases (Karl Popper’s “conjectures and refutations” is a favorite) and the ideas behind them in with the anecdotes, salesmanship, and (you’ve been warned – do not send us letters to the editor complaining about this) profanity. As befits a Stanford Ph.D. (in decision science and organizational behavior), he is well read in the scholarly literature, as comfortable citing UCLA strategy professor Richard Rumelt’s seminal-but-esoteric work on diversification or F.A. Hayek’s idea of the extended order as he is touting the latest pop business book.
As his bio suggests, Peters is also politically confusing – at least to those used to traditional left-right distinctions. An article last fall in Lingua Franca, a magazine aimed at professors, reported U.C.-Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield’s proposal “to instigate social change with an unlikely coalition: the middle managers who read Tom Peters, together with postmodern English professors, fighting side by side to make the world safe for radical democracy.” The coalition might work, but not in the leftist way Newfield imagines. (Newfield admits some worries about Peters’s devotion to Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit.) The literary theorists would have to learn to love the market. True, Peters’s work overturns Organization Man assumptions and emphasizes flexibility, flux, and diversity. But free markets are part of the same dynamic picture. Those postmodern virtues are, it turns out, pretty much what the Hayekian market looks like: “The corporation…as we knew/know it…is dead!” writes Peters in characteristic style. “The market as Hayek knew it and loved it is alive, well, getting better and hopelessly inexplicable! Long live…God knows what! Playground directors united! Ready. Fire. Aim.”
Reason Editor Virginia Postrel interviewed Peters at his Palo Alto office in May and in a follow-up phone conversation from his Vermont farm in July.
Reason: You have a tendency in your public life to state things very sweepingly, so you are criticized for hype and a whiff of charlatanism.
Tom Peters: Absolutely. It’s called sales. I have a great deal of difficulty, though I’m well trained academically, not being passionate about things. My problem is not that I see all 17 sides of any issue, but I’m equally passionate about all 17 sides simultaneously.
I think economics is about passion. Economic progress, whether it is a two-person coffee shop or whether it is Netscape, is about people with brave ideas. Because it is brave to mortgage the house when you’ve got two kids to start a coffee shop.
And business is about people. It’s about passion. It’s about bold ideas, bold small ideas or bold large ideas.
My entire adult professional life is one big effort to exorcise the demon of Robert McNamara. You, know, I went to Vietnam. I was not a war protester. I went to Vietnam twice, not once. But McNamara was the closest we’ve had to a serious, statist planner in this country. And he got away with it three times – once at Ford, once at the Department of Defense, and once with the World Bank. And my passion is the destruction of everything that McNamara stood for. My life is a passionate statement against statism – statism in the corporation, as opposed to in the nation, if you will. So that’s a piece of it.
Another piece of it is that, in a world that is overloaded with information, I attempt to provoke. A classic example of that: Two days ago I was in Orlando speaking to the annual convention of the international Mass Retailers Association. The chief operating officer of Wal-Mart was there, and the Circuit City people, and so on. I said, “In the last 25 years you in this room have created a genuine revolution: the Staples revolution, the Blockbuster revolution, the Home Depot revolution, the Wal-Mart revolution. I presume you are reasonably intelligent. Why are you sitting here complacently, not realizing that, though none of us realizes what it’s going to be, there will be another revolution? Do you think the next 25 years are going to be more mellow than the last 25 years?” I said: “There’s not a soul in this room who is behaving in a revolutionary fashion. You’re all history.”
And Don Soderquist, who is the COO at Wal-Mart, came up to me afterwards. He said, “That was great. You really pissed me off.” And I said, “Right, it was worth the trip to Orlando.”
Reason: What about younger, cynical people who say, “This is just a bunch of bull”? Not just you, but what you’ve started. That’s why Dilbert is huge.
Peters: Absolutely. The classic backlash. We of In Search of Excellence were the backlash to the MBA dogma of the 1960s and ’70s. Dilbert is the backlash to the management gurus of the last 15 years, starting with In Search of Excellence.
That’s life. It’s called conjectures and refutations. It’s very Popperian. Any time anything takes root, it leads to wretched excess. Fine.
Gurudom not only includes total assholes like Tony Robbins and myself, who I hope is only half an asshole, but also the gurus like the Henry Mintzbergs and the Gary Hamels, who are actually quite legitimate but have become gurus in their own right – Mike Porter and so on. The other part of that is the CEO as guru – Lee Iacocca started that. Twenty years ago the average educated American could not have named two chief executive officers in America, with the exception of the one who ran their company.
But I think the Iacocca thing, the Peters and Waterman thing, the Robbins thing, the [Ken] Blanchard thing, and the Hamel-Porter thing is a very specific reaction of a whole lot of people who are confused by all the shit that’s going down. When people are confused, they want people on white horses to lead them. Obviously it didn’t have to be me and Bob, and Blanchard and [John] Naisbitt and Porter and so on, any more than it had to be Iacocca and Ted Turner. But it had to be.
We are also talking about a boringly garden-variety uniquely American tradition that starts with Ben Franklin. We are the improvers. I heard it best stated on a morning show on television somewhere: The difference between the Americans and the Europeans is all Americans believe that problems have solutions. All Europeans believe that solutions have problems. And it struck me as a brilliant encapsulation. Emerson, Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, and Tony Robbins are boringly part of the same stream.
And, you know, Franklin was a phony. All his simplistic prescriptions. Tony Robbins, I knew Ben Franklin, and Tony Robbins, you’re no Ben Franklin. And that is true. He’s certainly no Emerson either. But, stretching a lot, if Tony Robbins is.the Ben Franklin of 1997, then Scott Adams [the creator of Dilbert] is the Mark Twain or Will Rogers of 1997, who was doing the same reverse-spin cynical stuff.
Reason: You said that your adult professional life has been an attempt to exorcise the demon of Robert McNamara. What would America or American business look like, pre- and post-exorcism?
Peters: Neither of us is naive. And I have said this when I am being honest: What McNamara did during World War II, like find out where our planes were, and what he did at Ford, which was find out how many cars we’ve made, were not silly. We had created these enormous organizations. If you’re a good conservative, you can call them hopeless socialist microeconomies in and of themselves – which they were. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, and so Tex Thornton and McNamara and Arjay Miller and all that gang of Whiz Kids did fabulously good stuff.
But then that McNamarian logic became essentially the de facto wisdom of the Harvard Business School, which set the pace for large American enterprise. And it set the pace for American enterprise in a very Republican – much more than a Democrat – way from 1950 until Ronald Reagan. It was a ridiculous situation, which was big company Republicanism vs. big labor Democraticism and neither of them worth a shit.
Reason: You wrote a Forbes ASAP column about Friedrich Hayek. What do you like about Hayek?
Peters: The spontaneous discovery idea. As I said in Liberation Management: The mess is the message. To me that’s the joy of Santa Clara County, San Mateo County, and all economies that work, Hong Kong for the next – whatever it is now – 15, 45 days.
I am not one of those people who tends to read books multiple times. But [Hayek’s 1988 book] The Fatal Conceit I find I can read over. I’ve probably read it, literally cover to cover, word for word, a half dozen times. Every 18 months or so I go back and read it again just to make sure my religion has not slipped in any way, shape, or form.
Reason: How would you describe that “religion”?
Peters: The only way I can describe it is go way back 18,000 years ago to In Search of Excellence. That book was organized around eight principles. And number one on the list was something that Bob Waterman and I called “a bias for action.” The whole notion of experimentation has always been at the top of my agenda. The economy – as you do see so absolutely vividly in a Silicon Valley or in the street markets of Delhi or Shanghai – is an unplanned experiment. The objective is to get as much shit going as you possibly can. And then, occasionally, out of that pops the 3Coms or the Netscapes of the world, or the Gaps, or the Banana Republics.
Reason: Not one experiment really. It’s the….
Peters: It’s the density. It is the critical mass. In Silicon Valley, it’s the combination of everything from the hippies of Haight Ashbury to the craziness of San Francisco, to the Berkeleys and the Stanfords interacting with the UCSFs and the San Jose States, plus the venture capital folks at 3000 Sandhill Road, and the good weather, and a lot of good bars, and health clubs. And that’s the part that’s almost impossible to copy. I mean, there’s no secret that is safe from a bar in Sunnyvale. And that’s a great deal of the secret to success. Despite the fact that we can all assume multiple identities and cross-dress in various chat rooms on the Web, I have some difficulty imagining pure insanity arising on the Web the way I think it does here.
Reason: Pure insanity is a good thing?
Peters: Absolutely. Anybody who is an entrepreneur is a person who essentially has impaired judgment. The odds of success are zilch. This valley is loaded to the gills with a whole lot of totally insane people who honest to God believe that they can be the next Bill Gates or the next [Sun Microsystems CEO] Scott McNealy. And that is genuinely stupid. In the great city of San Francisco, where I used to live, at 2 in the morning every other Victorian [house] has somebody who is writing the great American novel. And the city is not loaded with James Joyces or Virginia Woolfs. But entrepreneurship is about distorted views of reality.
Reason: You emphasize experimentation as trying lots of things, encouraging lots of ideas, but what about the other half of the equation, which is selection?
Peters: A lot of stuff goes on, some of it works. A jillion people send articles to your magazine. You publish some, you choose not to publish others. The same damn thing is true with companies that make it in Silicon Valley, or presumably Chicago or Pittsburgh. The essence of a successful enterprise, or economy, is its failure rate.
Reason: When you talk about corporate management, you talk about it in an anti-planning way. Yet part of the point of corporate management is to select from all the possible things that a company might do. It can’t do everything.
Peters: Without any question my favorite management book of the last 10 years is The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning by Henry Mintzberg. He says that a strategic planner should not be a planner. He should be a discoverer who pursues wildflowers in the fields, i.e., interesting ideas sprouting here, there, and everywhere. And then puts fertilizer on them. Essentially, a sensible strategic planner looks for experiments that have already started, and then makes some effort to nurture them.
Fortune did a beautiful piece recently on Cisco Systems. Cisco has an acquisition strategy which has nothing to do with traditional acquisition strategies. What they are doing is essentially buying bodies at an average of $2 million a head. In the same way, Hewlett-Packard has long been an acquirer. For years they’ve been buying companies, dozens of companies. But they buy companies with five people in them. That’s the Mintzberg theory.
There is a wonderful new book, The Living Company, by the former Shell planner Arie de Geus. He talks about tolerant pruning of roses vs. rigid pruning. He says that if you prune your roses rigidly, you may well get the biggest roses this year. But if you prune them tolerantly, you will get roses every year. That’s quite a lovely analogy. The fact that everybody said America sucked 10 years ago and now they say we’re great is part of that deal. We prune tolerantly, and all kinds of stuff goes on in our economy, which is not necessarily true of a large number of other economies. And out of it over the long haul comes more good stuff than out of any other alternative.
Reason: What makes a business good by your lights?
Peters: When Paul Weaver wrote a review of, I think it was Thriving On Chaos years ago in The Wall Street Journal, he said: What Tom says is that the good thing is also the most profitable thing, i.e., innovate like a son-of-a-bitch, serve your customers incredibly well, treat your employees like decent human beings and da, da, da – Milton Friedman rides to the rescue – you maximize profits. And so it turns out that a lot of stuff I was talking about in a very apolitical way is good – maybe even uppercase L – liberal stuff and makes very good lower-case c conservative profit-maximization logic. The open society to me is a term that can arguably be applied as effectively to an enterprise as it can he to a nation.
Reason: How would you describe yourself politically?
Peters: Several ways. The reality is big countries are going to have big governments. But I have fallen in love over the last 15 or 20 years with gridlock. I don’t give a damn whether it’s a Democrat in the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress, or a Republican in the White House and a Democrat-controlled Congress. When Washington is fucked up, it doesn’t do anything much. And that’s the best of all possible worlds.
My politics is totally screwed up. I have sometimes described myself as having economic views that are far to the right of Jack Kemp, and social views that are to the left of Jesse Jackson. Which makes me sort of a libertarian, kinda, in a way. But I am not a libertarian, because I don’t see how you can be a pure libertarian. I have much too pessimistic a view of humanity to believe that – I do believe that humanity fundamentally sucks. That people do phenomenally shitty things to each other in the absence of any control whatsoever.
Reason: So you really mean an anarchist when you say libertarian? Hayek was a libertarian.
Peters: I’ve never studied libertarianism. I know the only time I come close to studying it is when I get my California ballots and read the Libertarian Party position on any given proposition. And it is anarchist basically. It says you must get rid of all this stuff. And unfortunately I don’t have that positive a view of humanity.
Reason: In its political manifestations libertarianism, as with the L.P., sounds utopian. In its intellectual manifestations, if you actually read the seminal figures, it’s very anti-utopian. Hayek is no utopian.
Peters: No utopian, to put it mildly.
Reason: What do you mean by your social views are to the left of Jesse Jackson?
Peters: Rich [Karlgaard, editor of Forbes ASAP] did me, I felt, a disservice in the first piece he ever did on me in Forbes ASAP. He described me as being very pro-market but also a major donor to the ACLU. Which of course is technically correct, but the donation happens to be – and I think the record still holds today – the largest single donation ever given to the ACLU totally oriented toward First Amendment rights protection. I sincerely believe that Hayek should have added free speech to his list of the big three, along with contracts, property rights, and so on. Though he would argue obviously that these somewhat go hand and glove.
I do not support the old Republican Party, which I grew up with – the [Sen.] Mac Mathiases of Maryland and so on, who essentially were completely captives of big corporate America. I am attracted to the fact that the new Republican Party is small businessish in orientation. But if Ralph Reed and his heirs and assigns cease to exist tomorrow, my life would not be the worse for it. The subtle control of the Moral Majority in the school boards of America makes me want to puke.
I just find it so ironic that the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich is essentially a captive of a very statist view of moral controls, which is antithetical to the freedoms I believe in. [Technology writer] George Gilder believes a woman’s place is in the home. But he’s totally in favor of entrepreneurship. I mean, give me a break.
Reason: There are some signs that Silicon Valley may be going political again, and the last time this happened was….
Peters: When Bob Noyce [a founder of both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel] got religion and decided that Washington was where it was at for semiconductor manufacturing. I remember that very well. There was a five- or six-year period when the semiconductor association was far to the left of the farm lobbies. And it was just total madness. The good news is they failed. Only Laura Tyson [later chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers] believed that they had a good case.
Reason: So you agree that something is going on. I’m wondering whether it’s going to be any more intelligent than the last go-round.
Peters: Oh no. The obviously long-term answer is that Silicon Valley is the new Pittsburgh and Detroit, and it’s the law of economics that once you’ve arrived, you attempt to achieve monopoly status. Now that we have arrived, if you will, we will undoubtedly try our level-headed best to screw it up.
Reason: It does worry me, this flirtation with Al Gore. I don’t know what you think of Al Gore, but….
Peters: I want to love him because he’s a dear. I mean, every family should have a teddy bear. I’m not really sure he’s that smart. It’s a horrible thing to say and I would hate to see it in print and maybe I will, but that’s life.
Reason: I always want to shake the people in Silicon Valley who like him, because he was one of the first people to be a government patron of Jeremy Rifkin, and in many cases the only person. He wrote a glowing blurb for Algeny. Somebody who latches onto that is not a friend of technological innovation.
Peters: Here’s where I would argue my pragmatic, middle-of-the-road view: Reagan was pro-entrepreneurship, Bush was classic old Republican, pro-big business, and Bush really snubbed Silicon Valley. John Young [then CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who endorsed Clinton in 1992] is as good a Republican as you will find. And you have to really work hard to piss off John Young, because John is not piss off-able. I think Bush really did the Kennebunkport, Eastern establishment, fuck California, fuck Silicon Valley, who are these people, routine. So I’m sympathetic to the 1992 embrace that the Valley gave to Clinton and Gore. It’s good old-fashioned Psychology 101 as opposed to Economics 101: If you tell me I’m irrelevant long enough I’m going to eventually lash out at you. Clinton and Gore, for all of their misguided bits and pieces, embraced the California ethos.
Reason: It’s not clear that the Republican Party has gotten terribly much smarter about it.
Peters: Newt is still the classic Laundromat small business person. It’s a huge problem. All the jobs are not created by small businesses – all the jobs are created by a small number of small businesses that become growth companies. We have this terrible bifurcation between big business Republicanism or Democraticism and small business Republicanism, and it still doesn’t have anything to do with how the economy works. I adore the people who have the nerve to start Laundromats, too, but the truth of the matter is, they’re not the engines of the economy.
Reason: Although an economy in which the idea of starting your own company is celebrated will produce both Laundromats and Silicon Valley.
Peters: You’re absolutely, unequivocally, 100 percent with no rounding error right. That is completely true culturally, but they don’t create the goddamn jobs. The real key to me is whatever the hell it takes to have more venture capitalists than anybody else, who pour the money into the businesses that have made it past the first two years that actually have some serious promise, because that’s where the goddamn jobs come from.
Reason: Let me bounce some quotes off you. The first is from Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern. He writes about resistance to technological change: “The history of technological progress is the history of an endangered and much resisted species.” He goes through several reasons for this. But one of them is, he says: “For the producers themselves life in a technologically creative world may be quite different from life in a static economy. It is one thing to resist a once-and-for-all change in technology, quite another to resist living in a hectic and nerve-racking world in which producers have to run to stay in place and constantly spend effort and resources on searching for improvements.”
His argument is that eventually even the technologically creative people out of exhaustion go to government to slow things down.
Peters: I think it’s true. You turn out to be the needle in the haystack who hits the grand slam home run with the 3Com or Apple or the Hewlett-Packard. You work your ass off for 25 years. Your bank account is either $5 million or $105 million or more than that. And then you become a conservative. Age makes you a conservative. The fact that you deserve it for all that hard work makes you a conservative.
My half-baked reading of history is that we continue to go through these waves of entrepreneurial explosion followed by merger mania and consolidation. Out of that come big sluggish companies that eventually collapse under the weight of what they’ve created, and are killed off by the next wave of entrepreneurs.
I remember so clearly Jack Welch’s predecessor at G.E. – Reg Jones – was featured as much in Fortune as Welch is, for exactly the opposite reasons. Because Jones created a model of Galbraithean management in the 1970s that said: The chairman of a Fortune 100 company’s place is not in the home or the office; it is in Washington. And it was the model that I grew up with when I was going through Stanford – of business executive as industrial statesman. The wonderful news is that the Japanese, among others, took us out of our misery. And we ended up with a new generation of leaders.
Reason: There’s a great nostalgia now in political circles for the 1950s.
Peters: I have a term that I use in my seminars. I call it the “false-nostalgia-for-shitty-jobs phenomenon”: Oh for the halcyon days when I could sit on the 37th floor of the General Motors Tower passing memorandums from the left side of the desk to the right side of the desk for 43 years. It’s just total shit. It really is. Life was not as glorious as imagined.
Reason: A lot of critics of current economic dynamism say what they’re against is the pursuit of economic efficiency at the sacrifice of other values. My sense of it, particularly in your work, is that this is not primarily about efficiency. Efficiency comes along, but you have cultural goals. What you’re doing is fostering creativity, openness, learning, diversity, playfulness….
Peters: Life is play. When Hayek says the economy is a discovery process, that means the economy is play. It means [Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison trying to stick his pecker out farther than Bill Gates’s – excuse the crude analogy.
Silicon Valley’s a playground. That’s the beauty of it. It’s the most serious part of the economy, and it is silly. It is purely silly. I mean, we have these guys with thick glasses like [current Hewlett-Packard CEO] Lew Platt, but the beauty of the Valley is total maniacs like [Advanced Micro Devices founder Jerry] Sanders and [Cypress Semiconductor CEO] T.J. Rodgers and Ellison….
Reason: T. J. Rodgers will be so upset that you compared him to Jerry Sanders.
Peters: I know, but it’s fair, totally fair. My builder in Woodside tells me T. J. Rodgers has special drawers built into his closet to organize all his socks.
Reason: Yes. I’ve seen his closet. He gives tours when people come to his house.
Peters: He’s proud of it! They are both so frigging weird that they don’t even know how weird they are. To me it’s a compliment to put him in that Sanders league. It’s the freaks of Silicon Valley, and he’s a freak. And freak to me is a good word, not a bad word.
Don’t you think that a place like the Valley or Hollywood is home to a shocking degree of immaturity?
Reason: Places like that depend on having both a great deal of individuality and a kind of discipline.
Peters: Play has discipline. You watch a kid playing doing something in sand at the beach, and that is discipline with a capital D.
Reason: It has discipline, but it has discipline that’s related to the task itself and not to some external ideal of discipline. One of the real problems, I think, is that a lot of intellectuals have learned everything they know about capitalism from Max Weber and his descendants, so all they know is the bourgeois work ethic. They don’t appreciate the element of play that drives the discovery process.
Peters: Only Hayek and [historian Fernand] Braudel get it. With all my love for Hayek, I would give Braudel even more credit. Braudel let himself go and described everyday life and the transactions associated therewith.
Reason: I sent you the Weekly Standard article, “Cosmic Capitalists,” by David Brooks. He compares efforts to reinvent business along less hierarchical lines to the French Revolution, a sort of hubristic overturning of all that has gone before: “It used to be that this modernist ethos, this desire to be free of history, to leap out into a brave new future flourished only in politics, where it created the disastrous Marxist utopias” and Various forms Of the arts. “And, now it’s the cosmic capitalists.” He’s talking about you.
Peters: When I read that thing, Virginia, I was of two minds. Obviously, the Gilders, and perhaps the mes of the world, are hopelessly caricaturizable, to coin a phrase that should never be coined. But I took the article mostly to be flattering. I understood that it was meant to be the worst kind of trashing, but I soft of chuckled my way through it because the answer is, hey, that’s pretty much what is going on.
Reason: And, yet, you say The Fatal Conceit is your favorite book.
Reason: And Hayek spent his life fighting this desire to be free from history, as opposed to progress by trial and error.
Peters: But I think that is semantics. I think that what is happening now [in business] is pure, raw, unmitigated Popperian conjectures and refutations.
I happened to be blessed by being trained by a University of Chicago methodologist, and everything to him was level-of-the-analysis issues, and why it is totally reasonable to be libertarian at a macro level and a Marxist central planner at the micro level. Why it’s OK to be Virginia the autocrat running REASON, who is nonetheless writing about a society which lacks, at the macro level, exactly the controls which, at the micro level, allow her to do her job well, But that’s all level-of-analysis stuff.
Reason: That’s what Brooks got wrong when he said changing from elevators to escalators at Procter & Gamble is like the French Revolution. Well, no, it’s not. That would be like saying that starting The Weekly Standard to compete with National Review is like the French Revolution – why not preserve the status quo?
Reason: Another thing Brooks says is, “Businessmen used to like to describe themselves as warriors but now artists are the role models of choice.” What do you make of the critique?
Peters: It’s total bullshit! I mean, would you call Scott McNealy an artist? Not by a long shot. Larry Ellison may well sit on Zen Buddhist rocks, but he is a warrior out of the Rockefeller mold, to put it mildly.
Reason: I thought of Larry Ellison when I read that, because the Japanese model is the samurai, who is an artist and a warrior.
Peters: There is no reason not to encompass both. Steve Jobs is perhaps the most competitive human being I have ever met in my life, and yet I would argue one of the most artistic human beings I have ever met in my life. You can trash the movies all you want, but they do have an artistic component. And yet brutal competition knows no peers when it comes to Hollywood.
The 10 or 12 artists I have known really well all my life are at least as competitive as professional athletes. They may express it in slightly different terms, but you look at the Jackson Pollocks et al., and they are as interested in wall space in the galleries as Joe Montana is in the percentage of completed passes. So the notion that symphonic conducting, or stage play, or pure art, is not a competitive business is real bullshit.
Reason: I also sent you a Los Angeles Times column by Gary Chapman, who founded Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. He’s very upset that people are saying that “policy making” – – by which he means centrally deciding – is an anachronism and “the only appropriate response is to surrender our desire for control.” How do you respond?
Peters: I think you would have to be a total idiot not to realize that Alan Greenspan and the head of the Bundesbank are not as powerful as their predecessors were 50 years ago. But the major Hayekian, Braudelian point was that government really never could do shit and what was fundamental were the transactions in the private sector. That was their point – long before the Internet became a part of our life. So to a large extent things have never been in control.
The Hayekian argument that I love is that more government documents simply continued to exist over time than records of private-sector transactions. So if we pay attention to what we can research in the Harvard library, that’s the collections of government documents as opposed to the day-by-day transactions of the General Electrics of the world. There’s a lot of truth to that. Economic history has not been the essence of the study of history.
Reason: Many conservatives hate economic and social history. They think it’s terrible to study everyday life. They think it’s a plot by evil Marxist professors. It’s not that I don’t think people should study political or intellectual history, but if you want to know what the past was like, recovering the textures of life is critically important.
Peters: That’s the key. The best summer I ever spent was about five years ago, when I wanted to sort out in my mind: What the hell went on when the Industrial Revolution came? I went back to as close as I could find to the original sources and read about the real history of how the Springfield Armory came about, and how the Harper’s Ferry Armory came about. And it was fabulous stuff!
Reason: How do you see the future of business?
Peters: There’s this terrible or wonderful paradox/dichotomy: What it means to be human is not going to dramatically change in the next 50 years probably, but the way we conduct a lot of enterprise will, so the world will be radically different, radically different. There are two halves of the brain. There’s the logical half and the primitive half. The primitive half hasn’t evolved in the last several million years, and the logical half is moving at a jillion miles an hour. I think that will continue to be the warfare.
It is going to be a big wrestling match. It’s going to be great fun. That’s why my fundamental nature is Popperian and Hayekian. The one thing that I’m sure of is those who are playful will win, or at least they will lose with vigor, which to me means much more than winning in a narrow sense of the word.
205212964 15687OCT0097TDMT 0050 In 1979, Volker Schlondorf’s The Tin Drum was co-winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for best picture. The next year it picked up the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It has since attained classic status around the world, except in Oklahoma City. For now, anyone there who so much as possesses a videotape of the film – never mind watching it – risks spending 20 years in jail. A district court judge there last June declared the film to be child pornography.
His decision – made without a formal hearing – generated international headlines, as did the actions of Oklahoma City police: They took copies of the movie from video stores and even from private homes in the absence of filed charges and without search warrants. Whether they or the judge acted properly – and whether Oklahoma’s statutory definition of child pornography is constitutional – will likely be answered in court.
But the case has implications beyond Oklahoma, which has a broader definition of child pornography than most other states. Over the past decade, the federal government has broadened its own obscenity laws, and while the Supreme Court has said these statutes are thus far acceptable under the First Amendment, this case may force the Court to consider whether such laws can run afoul of free speech protections.
The film, which had not previously been considered controversial, first began to run into trouble on a local Christian radio station when a talk show host told the story of an unhappy student required to view the film for a college class. Listening with interest was Bob Anderson, director of Oklahomans for Children and Families. Founded in 1984 as Oklahomans Against Pornography, OCAF has forced numerous adult-oriented businesses in Oklahoma to close and has succeeded in removing The Playboy Channel from local cable systems.
“The host said that he thought the film could be judged as child pornography,” says Anderson. So Anderson’s group checked out a copy of the film from the local library to judge for themselves.
Going to the library wasn’t just a way to save on a video rental charge: OCAF has been at odds with the Municipal Library System Commission in Oklahoma City for some time. The group objects to the library system’s policy of making anything on the shelves available to anyone regardless of age. Members cite numerous works they want removed or restricted to adults, including a series of adolescent novels by Robert Cormier.
“We have a procedure for people who wish to contest library policy to go through,” says library spokesperson Julia Frefonke. “There are forms immediately available in the library for people to fill out.” According to Frefonke, “OCAF has never followed that procedure.” Instead, the group has preferred to complain directly to the volunteer commission that runs the library system.
In the case of The Tin Drum, however, OCAF took a different tack: It went directly to the police and asked that library officials be arrested for circulating child pornography. The police then took the film to Oklahoma County District Court Judge Richard Freeman.
Under Oklahoma law, the police do not need a judge’s opinion to make an arrest if they believe they have a case of child pornography. “We felt that potentially it was both obscene and child pornography,” says Capt. Ted Carlton of the Oklahoma City Police Department. “But we recognized that this was an award-winning film, so we took it to a judge to get his opinion.” Judge Freeman found that the film was indeed child pornography under Oklahoma law.
That law declares child porn to be any actual, simulated, or described sexual act in which one of the participants or a depicted observer is under the age of 18, or appears to be prepubescent. As that definition makes clear, you don’t need actual children to have child pornography in Oklahoma. Indeed, police there have gone after printed descriptions of child sex.
And in 1995, Oklahoma City police raided a shop called Planet Comics on a tip from OCAF, charging the owners with child pornography. The charges were based on cartoon drawings of sexual acts involving a “newborn demon” that bore slight, if any, resemblance to a human baby. Those charges were later dropped, but the owners still face misdemeanor charges of displaying material harmful to minors.
Based on an acclaimed and stylistically complex 1959 work by German novelist Gunter Grass, the R-rated Tin Drum is an indictment of Nazism through the eyes of a seemingly young boy, Oskar. Protesting the adult madness around him, Oskar has “refused” to grow up. The role was played by actor David Bennent, then 12 years old.
Two scenes, of no more than 30 seconds each, caught Freeman’s eye. In the first, Oskar and his young nanny are in a bathhouse changing room. Both are apparently nude, though viewers never see either’s genitals. Oskar asks the girl how old she is, and she answers that she is 16. He too is 16, he says, and circles his arms around her waist. The scene then ends. This sequence has been described in the press repeatedly as one in which Oskar performs oral sex.
The second scene begins with Oskar and the girl in bed, dressed in night clothes. That scene ends as they start to play around, but it was apparently interpreted by the judge as a scene of sexual intercourse. That was enough to qualify the 142-minute film as child pornography. “The law doesn’t make any exceptions based on literary or scientific value,” observes OCAF’s Anderson.
“You don’t even have to have nudity,” adds Bill Comstock, an attorney representing the library system. “If you have, say, two people rolling around under the sheets, that could qualify as sexual activity under the law if at least one of them is underage.”
Once the judge ruled that the film was child porn, Oklahoma City police moved quickly to gather all copies of the film in their jurisdiction. They visited six video stores and left with cassettes, but whether the police “seized” the tapes or were given them has become an Orwellian matter of contention. “We take exception to the term seizure,” says Capt. Carlton. “We solicited the voluntary cooperation of people in trying to abate future legal problems.”
What police told people was that the film had been ruled child pornography, and possession of child pornography is a felony. Police also persuaded video stores to turn over the names of two persons who had rented the film, and went to their homes to “solicit the voluntary cooperation” of those persons as well.
Since the police didn’t have a warrant, this was a violation of the Video Privacy Act of 1988. Who violated the law is also the subject of finger pointing. “It’s our understanding of that law that any violation would have occurred on the part of the video store, not on the police,” says Carlton. The entire process from OCAF’s complaint to the confiscation of the tapes took less than 72 hours.
One person whose home the police visited was Michael Cam field, development director of the state American Civil Liberties Union. Aware of the brewing controversy, Camfield had rented the tape at a Blockbuster before the judge’s decision. “I asked them for their warrant, and they said they hoped it wouldn’t come to that,” said Camfield. “I got the impression that resistance on my part was futile.”
Camfield and the ACLU have filed suit against the Oklahoma City Police Department, charging that Camfield’s rights were violated when police seized the tape from his home. The Video Software Dealers Association has also filed suit against the police department. And Oklahoma County Prosecutor Bob Macy has gone to a second district court judge asking him to reaffirm that the movie is child porn and to enjoin the library system and local video stores from making it available. (Frequent updates about the Oklahoma City case are available at www.kino.com, the Web site of Kind Films, The Tin Drum’s American video distributor. Kind is also offering discounts to Oklahoma residents who order copies of the video.)
The most important of the issues the case will likely settle is whether a work like The Tin Drum is protected under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that obscenity is not protected. In Miller v. California, the Court put forth its well-known three-prong test for obscenity: The average person, applying community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to a prurient interest; the work depicts sexual conduct in a way that would be offensive under community standards; and the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
But in New York v. Ferber, the Supreme Court held that the Miller test doesn’t apply to child pornography. The government can outlaw child porn without regard to other issues. “This means that a work doesn’t have to be judged as a whole,” said Rick Tepker, a First Amendment specialist at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. “One depiction of minors engaging in sex can qualify a larger work as child porn.”
Nor does it matter that the work may have a serious intent. “When judging child pornography, the Court has held that you don’t have to consider whether a work has literary, artistic, or scientific value. Those issues don’t even have to be considered.”
But Tepker doesn’t think the Supreme Court had in mind works like The Tin Drum when making its rulings, and he expects that, if the case reaches them, the justices will find that the film is indeed protected by the First Amendment.
Judge Freeman’s ruling that The Tin Drum is child porn covers only Oklahoma County. District attorneys in at least three other Oklahoma counties viewed the film, but none took action against it. Bill LaFortune, the Tulsa County district attorney, announced that he would not prosecute anyone who sells, possesses, or shows the film. But he did caution those possessing the film “not to show it to minors.”
“After viewing the film, we thought that it was indeed possible that it violates Oklahoma law,” says LaFortune. “But after reviewing the relevant court decisions, we also thought it possible that the film was constitutionally protected. It’s really in sort of a legal gray area.”
LaFortune notes that the Supreme Court’s cases have involved works featuring actual sexual activity by minors, or the lewd exhibition of the genitals of minors. “And neither of those elements is present in this film.”
In Oklahoma City, however, film lovers will still view The Tin Drum at the risk of their liberty. The courts will eventually decide if authorities there have been too zealous in their pursuit of smut, and the city’s younger citizens will, like Oskar, have a chance to consider if the adults around them are mad.
Contributing Editor Charles Oliver (email@example.com) writes for Investor’s Business Daily.
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