Truthdigger of the Week: Larry Flynt
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.
Larry Flynt has been bound to a wheelchair for 35 years. A failed attempt on his life on the steps of a Georgia courthouse in 1978 during one of his many battles against censorship left the prominent pornographer paralyzed from the waist down. The man who claimed responsibility for the shooting, a white supremacist and serial killer named Joseph Paul Franklin, is scheduled for execution by lethal injection in Missouri next month. Whether officials can kill Franklin is not clear; the state is one of several said to be experiencing shortages of the substances used in the execution drug cocktail, and the manufacturer of a single-drug substitute has demanded the state return its supply.
It’s possible to call Franklin’s imminent execution into doubt for another reason, however. In a guest column published in The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday, Larry Flynt argued against Franklin’s scheduled execution.
“I have every reason to be overjoyed with this decision, but I am not,” Flynt explained. “I have had many years in this wheelchair to think about this very topic. As I see it, the sole motivating factor behind the death penalty is vengeance, not justice, and I firmly believe that a government that forbids killing among its citizens should not be in the business of killing people itself.”
Flynt is not a pacifist. A few paragraphs before those remarks, he states clearly that he would “love an hour in a room with [Franklin] and a pair of wire-cutters and pliers, so I could inflict the same damage on him that he inflicted on me. But, I do not want to kill him,” Flynt insists, “nor do I want to see him die.”
This expression of virtue is not a departure from Flynt’s established character. In what Americans who possess mainstream values may consider a life and career of dissolution and turpitude, Flynt has made repeated demonstrations of his ethical integrity and reshaped American culture and legal practice in the process — often at great personal risk to his freedom and wealth. Of his 1988 Supreme Court triumph over the Rev. Jerry Falwell (who had sued Flynt because of an ad parody published in Flynt’s Hustler magazine suggesting Falwell lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse), artist and talk show host Henry Rollins said: “A decisive win against censorship, the case established protection from lawsuits alleging emotional distress from parodies. That decision has ensured that comedians, commentators and shows like ours can satirize public figures without fear of retribution.” The victory was a triumph for free expression, not just for “smut peddlers,” as Flynt delightedly calls himself, but for anyone using art or humor to challenge the powerful.
And challenge the powerful Flynt has. In spectacles that are a joy for dissidents with a wicked sense of humor to consider, some of which can be seen in the film “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” he has marshaled his own power, influence and wealth to make full use of the First Amendment and embarrass and expose hypocritical political figures at seemingly every opportunity. During the GOP-led effort to impeach President Bill Clinton on sex and perjury charges, Flynt offered $1 million for similar dirt on serving Republicans. He subsequently came into possession of evidence that incoming Speaker of the House Bob Livingston, one of the Republicans calling for Clinton’s impeachment, had had an affair himself. The revelation led to Livingston’s resignation. In a 2003 act of service to the defenseless, Flynt purchased and buried nude photos of Jessica Lynch, the former Army private and Iraq War prisoner whose story leaders of the Pentagon distorted and exploited for a propaganda campaign. Flynt also supported activist groups that opposed that war.
Key to the public’s once considerable fascination with Flynt are his plainspoken style and lack of pretension. Born in a poor region of Kentucky, it seems reasonable to assume that in his youth Flynt had little need or few opportunities to develop the attitudes and social habits of America’s middle or upper classes. After a failed career as a bootlegger and a period of service in the U.S. Navy, he made his way into legitimate business in his early 20s by buying his mother’s bar in Dayton, Ohio. The profits allowed him to acquire more establishments, and within a short time he was running the Hustler Club, one of the first bars with nude dancers. Then came a newsletter in its name. First published as a national magazine in the summer of 1974, Hustler showed the kind of graphic, up-close shots of nude women that similar magazines had until then avoided. Its rising popularity proved Flynt knew what he was doing. In 1975 he bought and published nude photos of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy sunbathing on vacation. The issue sold a million copies within a few days. With that, Flynt was a millionaire on his way to commanding a national publishing empire.
Gaining his wealth and status by means that were considered unseemly by polite society seems to have insulated Flynt from contracting its obnoxious social diseases. Prudishness was never an option. He could shout “Fuck this Court!” in a Supreme Court defamation case without damaging his image, and was free to taunt judges and nannying members of the public by wearing a diaper made of an American flag in another. The latter act was not a show of opposition to the country. Rather, in the style of the satirist, Flynt was asserting the nation’s hypocrisy and evolving shame by making himself into an illustration of it. He attacked repressive, power hungry Christians in this manner by briefly converting to evangelical Christianity and claiming he was “hustling for God,” and a run for the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1983 was a clear effort to bring the party’s rottenness to light by imposing his own dubious association on it. “One of your colleagues said on the floor that no decent member of Congress would accept Hustler,” Flynt said to legislators in an ad promoting his campaign. “That’s exactly why I sent it to you in the first place. You’re all a bunch of low-life, indecent, puke-infested maggots that should be hounded from office for being political, inept, quacks, spelled q-u-a-c-k-s. Fuck you, motherfuckers.”Flynt’s latest attempt at assassination-by-association came in April of this year, when he declared his approval of the South Carolina Republican representative, former governor and confirmed adulterer Mark Sanford. “No one has done more to expose the sexual hypocrisy of traditional values in America today,” Flynt said in a video statement. “His open embrace of his mistress in the name of love, breaking his sacred marriage vows, was an act of bravery that has drawn my support.”
It is a mistake to think of Flynt primarily as a pornographer. More accurately, he is an actor of the sexual revolution who got rich honestly; he seems never to have misled the public about what he was doing, unlike so many of his opponents and detractors. In a world ruined by the misuse of money, he gives us a glimpse at some of the good a fortune can do. His injury means he has spent a great deal of his life in a personal prison of excruciating pain. But his acts reveal him as a man unbound. He is a hobgoblin of hypocrites, a champion of civil liberties, including same-sex marriage and gay rights, who, when he is physically able, employs for the benefit of the public the megaphone he acquired hawking pictures of naked girls. It is one of America’s many great misfortunes that his speaking voice is almost as damaged as the lower half of his body. The culture needs more like it. Nevertheless, he booms over his opponents when he writes against the unnecessary, state-sanctioned slaughter of the man who shot him. This and his other political acts do honor to the essential treasure that Christopher Hitchens, as he was dying of cancer, called “the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”
As Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer wrote, Larry Flynt is “opposing the death penalty even when it applies to saving the life of the man who almost killed him and caused decades of very painful and debilitating suffering.” He does so because he knows it’s in his and everyone else’s best interest. For that sensible display of humanity, we honor Flynt as our Truthdigger of the Week.