“The reasoning man who scorns the prejudices of simpletons necessarily becomes the enemy of simpletons; he must expect as much and laugh at the inevitable.” – Marquis de Sade
This is the first of four tributes to some of my personal heroes. None are the kind that gets a statue erected or a freeway named in their honor. Quite the opposite. To be certain, I do lionize certain Good Housekeeping™ approved heroes—just as I do honor the cops, firemen and soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way—but this list is different. I was holding this essay for a future date, but Mr. Flynt’s passing calls for it to be published.
Few extremely successful American businessmen are as polarizing as Larry Claxton Flynt. He’s a hero to millions of men and women the world over for being the first major publisher to “show pink” in an explicitly sexual (“men’s”) magazine, and for creating an adult entertainment empire that caters to sexual libertarians. He has been one of the main boogeymen of the religious and political right. Flynt became famous for his successful Supreme Court battle against televangelist Jerry Falwell that upheld vital First Amendment tenets, and his life was portrayed in the successful and critically acclaimed movie The People versus Larry Flynt. It was this film that got me interested in learning more about the man.
There is much that is fucked up in Flynt’s younger years, which he freely admits in his 1996 memoir, An Unseemly Man. Like director Milos Forman, I choose to focus on those aspects of Flynt’s career that had far-reaching impact on culture, politics and our very freedoms. While Hustler magazine has hit some very sour notes over the years, overall Flynt consistently jabs an erect middle finger in the face of Puritanism and then stood up for the right to do so in court—at great personal and financial expense.
At this point I would ask anyone who has not seen The People versus Larry Flynt to do so before reading further—or to re-read this piece after you have done so.
Other than Flynt’s rags-to-riches history, what I love most about the man is his unapologetic assault on “family” values, good taste, parochialism, and the right wing’s insistence on trying to control what adults can see, watch, listen and do in private. Flynt hates hypocrisy and he uses his multi-billion empire to goad the purveyors of “moral” hypocrisy. It seems to me Hustler’s mission has been to eviscerate good taste as a means of rebellion against puritanical society, while at the same time pleasing a specific audience amused by “bad” taste.
To me, Flynt rose to hero status by his willingness to risk his freedom and fortune to help defend the First Amendment protections for free speech. Flynt once said, “Freedom of speech doesn’t protect speech you like; it protects speech you don’t like. No one understands that the First Amendment is only important if you are going to offend somebody. If you’re not going to offend somebody, you don’t need protection of the First Amendment.” Without that protection, any of us could be sued or criminally prosecuted merely for hurting someone’s feelings in word or print.
The climax of The People versus Larry Flynt, and my greatest admiration for Mr. Flynt, came during the reenactment of his victory over Reverend Jerry Falwell at the Supreme Court. Hustler had run a savage parody of Falwell, who sued—among other things—for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” It was this case that made it to the highest court of the land. And because Flynt was ultimately standing up for freedom of the press, major news organizations filed briefs with the court in favor of Hustler.
What I savored most about Flynt’s victory was the blow against Jerry Falwell. As a fundamentalist preacher, he made his living—a highly paid living—scaring people, making people feel bad about themselves, and turning people against each other. Especially outrageous to me was the smug bastard saying that AIDS was “God’s judgment” against “sinners”—that they all deserved to die because they had sex or used IV drugs. It was satisfying to see that asshole taken down several notches.
To those who accuse Flynt of “exploiting” or “demeaning” women, do they also attack women who freely exploit their own bodies of the same thing? Would they deny adult women the right to make that choice of their own free will? What gives them the right to make that moral judgment against these women? In doing so, are they not behaving exactly like the same religion that insists women not have control over their own bodies or that that they should be subservient to men? I maintain that it is hypocrisy to attack Flynt and/or adult models while at the same time decrying the church for oppressing women for exercising agency.
I am a product for the late sixties liberalism: free love, rebuking needless shame, and challenging authority that has no meaningful basis as an authority. While I have moved somewhat more toward the center as I got older, I fully support the rights of women and men to enjoy safe, sane and consensual sex, to employ their bodies in any way that doesn’t harm other people—especially the innocent—and for people to stop having their morality dictated to them by hypocrites reading from 2000 year old books. Larry Flynt has stood for all of these things, so he earns a spot on my personal Mount Rushmore that marks this website.