Larry Flynt has died. Pray for his soul.
When I saw the news, I refrained from sharing on social media any of the many articles reporting on the matter. For one thing, I have my own views on his “legacy” that I don’t trust CNN or The New York Times or The Washington Post to share. He was, after all, the subject of a fawning biopic called The People vs. Larry Flynt. For another, it is generally not good to speak ill of the dead. Criticism of this sort needs to be circumspect.
Before anything else is said, then, I’ll repeat: we should pray for his soul. Having repeated that, though, there are a few other things worth observing.
First, Flynt was beyond doubt a perpetrator of monstrous moral evils. He published Hustler, the worst of the mainstream porn magazines (the ones you could buy at the average newsstand), the most degraded, misogynist, cruel, and obscene. But he was also a victim of the same. Indeed, as is so often the case, he was in many ways a victim before he was a perpetrator—and it’s worth pausing to note that that is so often the case.
It adds another level of imperative force to why it is so essential that we protect the innocent and try to prevent people falling victim to predation in the first place: because those victims themselves may go on to become predators. I’m not trying to excuse anyone or anything, but it is simply a fact: abuse often follows this pattern, and it is an extra incentive to be vigilant against it.
Flynt was more a product of a decaying culture than a cause. The would-be consumers of things like his magazine are as much to blame as he is. If no one bought it, no one would sell it.
Second, Flynt was more a product of a decaying culture than a cause. We very often complain about the media we have, and yet, in very many ways, the media we have are the media we have deserved. The law of supply and demand definitely holds. Whether it be a substandard journalism or a subhuman pornography, at the outset the would-be consumers of such things are as much to blame as those who descend to provide them. If no one bought it, no one would sell it.
But after a market is established, predatory advertising, price-cutting, and other techniques manipulate consumers and get them hooked. Flynt undeniably “earned” his success by preying upon the vulnerable, the sad, the lonely, the economically hard-up, and so forth. We’ve learned a lot over the last couple decades, with the arrival of internet pornography, about its addictive quality. It is on this level where “supply and demand” alone ceases to be adequate explanation of the whole phenomenon.
But there’s something more important than demand and market mechanics. It’s cultural preparation. Our culture deserved the scourge of Flynt’s success. The groundwork for it was laid by others than he.
The contraceptive mentality; divorce culture; abortion; the liberation quasi-“theology” of the sexual revolution which deifies the animal part of the human person with its desires and urges; moral relativism which reduces ethics to a consideration of whether someone is “hurting anyone” (which usually only takes stock of material harm, and doesn’t consider the self or God as “anyone” in the analysis); the commodification of sex, the translation of sexualization into “empowerment” … all this prepared the soil for Flynt’s fruitfulness, and the success of many other such enterprises, most not so offensive as his.
Flynt opportunistically exploited the potentials of an epochal moment — but he didn’t create those potentialities. All of them have been with us since the Fall. But many of them had been quite recently actualized and expanded in the decades before Flynt came on the scene.
One is tempted to suspect that, had he never printed a single magazine, some other would have arisen in his place: the thing seems almost inevitable. In short, yes, he was a moral scourge for his times, but he was a scourge an unfaithful generation deserved.
Finally, there is an element of Flynt’s story that can function as a cautionary tale for us. It must be allowed, notwithstanding what’s been said above, that a “moral majority” opposed Flynt. A part of the culture was outraged by his provender and sought to shame and to outlaw it. But if one gives credit to their motives, it’s hard to add to their credit the charge of success.
Part of what went wrong with attempts to thwart Flynt and his ilk was a failure to grasp and comes to terms with what they represented — to see that they were symptoms rather than root causes.
Porn in the online era has ballooned to a multi-billion dollar industry, and a force propelling human, especially child, trafficking. So, what failed? Many things. For one, the new technology made private indulgence easy and safe. But why have so many succumbed?
Some people now speak of a “consistent ethic of life.” We need a consistent ethic of sex. Part of what went wrong with attempts to thwart Flynt and his ilk, and all they stood for, was a failure to grasp and comes to terms with what Flynt really represented — to see that he was a symptom rather than a root cause of a social ill.
Often in my work with the International Organization for the Family, I’ve been confronted by “what about” questions regarding my priorities. I’m sympathetic to these questions. If the concern is gay marriage, for example, someone might ask, “what about divorce?”
My response involves an admission. I use the metaphor of a flood. My work is as part of the brigade sandbagging at the levee. There’s a practical and immediate necessity to the work born of an emergency. But I don’t deny that there’s a dam broken upstream; and that more fundamental crisis eventually needs sorting out, if my work is to be anything more than a Sisyphean exercise in futility.
In pro-life work, fixing the dam means establishing a true “culture of life,” a “consistent ethic of life,” changing hearts and minds. It means working simultaneously on the “demand” side and the “supply” side.
So it goes in the case of the culture Larry Flynt represented. We need a “culture of chastity” and a “consistent ethic of sex.” It can’t be just prohibitionist laws and censorious attitudes, which drives the product underground.
We need a rooting out of the “market forces” that create the demand, by creating a society in which chastity not only makes sense but is seen to be the good life. We need people to know that pornography and other sexual sins harm them, the ones they love, and society in general. Even more importantly, we need them to want the abundant life and flourishing that chastity protects and promotes.
In this, we have failed so far. It was as inevitable as my parents’ generation finding Flynt that my generation should find Tinder. It is that sense of inevitability that must be thwarted. If men like Flynt and products like Hustler aren’t to arise in every age, we must confront the circumstances that create them, and those that create a willing public buying what such a one comes along to sell.
Larry Flynt has died. We can, and should, pray that he may rest in peace. We must, and shall, pray — and fight — so that we, the living, may find peace and rest in our times. And that means more than mere sandbagging: we need to build a more lasting refuge against the flood.
Joe Grabowski is the executive director of the International Organization for the Family and an independent scholar in family, marriage, and life issues. His previous article was The Vatican’s Embarrassing SciFi Creche. For his more developed thoughts on this subject, see his From Flynt to Tinder: reflecting on the troubling legacy of one man and his whole era.
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