When the 1996 biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt came out, I would have been 11 years old. I actually remember seeing the ads for it in my parents’ Newsweek, with their striking black-and-white photos of Woody Harrelson gagged by an American flag, along with the wordy tagline: “You may not like what he does, but are you prepared to give up the right to do it?” The campaign wasn’t exactly subtle. At the time, I had no idea who Larry Flynt was—I probably wouldn’t have even recognized the name Hugh Hefner—but the ad told me all I needed to know: if he was a real person, I didn’t like him. “Free speech” was a catchphrase for rock stars and pornographers—something they hid behind as they dragged the United States down a moral sewer.
At the time, of course, the so-called Culture Wars were raging. My parents were more Jesus Freak than Fundamentalist in background, but the rise of the Religious Right and the New Left had forced everyone’s hand, making them choose between being on the side of Jesus and being on the side of the pornographers. I went to a Christian elementary school where I was fed a steady diet of the America-used-to-be-great narrative that’s currently gasping out its death throes on red trucker caps. My parents faithfully boycotted any gas station they knew sold porno magazines, and the goal of stomping out pornography altogether seemed almost winnable. Of course, this now seems woefully quaint.Censorship is great—as long as you’re the one holding the Sharpie.It was actually because of the Culture Wars that I eventually learned Larry Flynt was a real person. (This was the ’90s—we couldn’t just google things if we wanted to know them.) In 1998, when I was 13, the Religious Right was in the process of impeaching Bill Clinton, who had become synonymous with everything terrible about our country: pro-abortion, pro-gay (by the standards of the time, at least), and—of course—serially unfaithful to his wife; such was the fruit of liberalism. I first noticed Flynt’s name in the headlines that year thanks to his highly successful campaign to dig up stories of marital unfaithfulness among Republican congressmen—a campaign that technically missed the official point of the impeachment, but struck the intended blow on a cultural level nonetheless. This was a man who fought the Culture Wars and fought them to win—and he was winning.
I finally saw The People vs. Larry Flynt when I was in my late 20s, and by then it was clear that Flynt and his ilk had thoroughly won. I have no idea whether you can still walk into a gas station and buy a porno mag, but I also can’t imagine why anybody would want to—everybody with a smartphone is just a few screen taps away from literally more porn than they could look at in their entire lifetime. It’s hard to say if the landscape of the Internet would look the way it currently does had the sexual revolution never happened; I want to say “probably,” but who really knows?
In any case, the film intrigued me enough that I’ve watched it several times since. It’s not perfect—it repeats many of the clichés endemic to ’90s Oscar-bait biopics, and producer Oliver Stone’s trademark lack of subtlety overwhelms the proceedings occasionally—but at its core is a serious look at an issue whose importance is difficult to deny: Just how absolute is the Constitutional right to freedom of speech? To that end, the film concerns itself primarily with Flynt’s various legal battles, beginning with his early obscenity trials, wending its way through his bizarre, provocative behavior during depositions with regard to John DeLorean’s drug charges (long story), and climaxing with a historic victory he won over the Rev. Jerry Falwell in a libel suit that went all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s clear that this particular case was chosen as the film’s grand finale for its cultural significance: in Hustler Magazine vs. Jerry Falwell, two titans of the Culture Wars duked it out on a very public stage.
For those unfamiliar, the suit was filed over a satirical ad parody that Hustler Magazine ran. At the time, Italian liqueur Campari had a suggestive series of print ads in which they’d ask celebrities about their “first time” (drinking Campari, obviously, wink-wink, nudge-nudge). In the spoof that Hustler ran, they posed the question to Jerry Falwell, who took the words “first time” in their usual colloquial sense and related a story about a sexual encounter in an outhouse with his own mother. Tasteless, to be sure, but libelous? Falwell thought so and filed suit.
In many ways, the film gives you no particular reason to root for Flynt in any of his court cases. While he occasionally fills the “jerk with a heart of gold” role in the film, he’s more often just a jerk—he sells moonshine, takes advantage of his strippers, disrupts courtrooms, mercilessly berates anyone he chooses, and eventually holes himself up in a Citizen Kane-style palace of opulence and drugs—along with, obviously, peddling porn that doesn’t even pretend to be classy the way Playboy does. On the other hand, the film’s portrayal of Falwell comes across as almost impossibly saintly, if bland. None of the Reverend’s incendiary sermons or controversial political maneuvering make it into the film—this was a case of the smut peddler versus the saint, and the film wants you to know it.
And yet—when Flynt ultimately wins his case, it’s hard not to feel at least somewhat relieved.
The Tables Turn
By the time Hustler vs. Falwell had reached the Supreme Court, lower courts had already denied Falwell’s libel claim—all that remained was $150,000 in damages for “emotional pain and suffering.” In other words, to put it a bit uncharitably, the Rev. Falwell was demanding that Larry Flynt pay him more than a hundred grand for making him feel bad. Flynt’s lawyer, Alan Isaacman (portrayed in the film by a very young Edward Norton), famously argued that the “pain and suffering” complaint was unprovable and unquantifiable, and therefore could be used to silence almost any criticism—in other words, to find in favor of the Rev. Falwell would have created a dangerous precedent where people would be afraid to criticize public figures at all, for fear of being slapped with a lawsuit. As Isaacman puts it, “This country is founded, at least in part, on the firm belief that unpopular speech is absolutely vital to the health of our nation”—or, in the real Flynt’s own words: “If you’re not going to offend somebody you don’t need the First Amendment.”
Censorship is great—as long as you’re the one holding the Sharpie.
Fundamental to Flynt’s case—in the Falwell incident and elsewhere—is the pretty-hard-to-deny reality that “freedom of speech” is no freedom at all if it only protects popular speech. Even the most oppressive regimes in the world will allow you to say as much uncontroversial stuff as you want. It’s unlikely Falwell realized it at the time, but the ruling in favor of Flynt might have been the best thing for him: his fire-and-brimstone preaching may have been the flavor-of-the-month in the conservative ’80s, but the second public opinion turned against it, the door would have been wide open to anyone looking to silence his tireless proclaiming of the gospel—particularly as he was in the habit of calling out by name individuals whose conduct he disapproved of (such as, for instance, Flynt, who once wrote of Falwell, “He called me every terrible name he could think of—names as bad, in my opinion, as any language used in my magazine”).
This is particularly important because, as I pointed out earlier, the Religious Right has lost the Culture Wars about as thoroughly as it could have. Not only is porno now deeply embedded in U.S. culture, religious devoutness is at an all-time low, gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, and—particularly given the current slate of presidential nominees—any sort of change in the legality of abortion is looking less and less likely. The generation that was by far the most invested in fighting—the Baby Boomers—is aging and dying off, while my generation has a growing disgust with approaches to faith and politics that make the former subservient to the latter (or we’ve simply given up on religion altogether). I myself (for whatever it’s worth) gave up on voting Republican a while ago, sick of seeing the abortion issue held hostage to supply-side economics. From what I understand, this disillusionment was fairly typical for evangelicals my age.
Meanwhile, the Secular Left, while perhaps not yet as politically powerful as the Religious Right may have been in its heyday, has adopted many of its worst strategies and rhetoric. Of late I’ve seen more and more cries for violent punishment for religious conservatives and demands that those who have views not sufficiently “inclusive” be silenced. Many of them even invoke that same criticism Falwell had of Flynt—that religious conservatives are “hiding behind” the First Amendment (whatever that means). No doubt many left-leaning readers would disagree with the parallel I’m drawing here—but recall, as we’ve said, that censorship is always appealing to the ones doing the censoring. The promise of liberal democracy, when it was born during the Enlightenment, was exactly what was handed down in Hustler vs. Falwell: that if I protect your right to say what you have to say, you’ll protect mine. It should be clear that maintaining this delicate balance is in everyone’s interest, and that dismantling it can only lead to a tug-of-war of opposing tyrannies.
Some Unpopular Speech
I imagine what I’m about to say next will be unpopular, but since Larry Flynt lives and fights for my right to say unpopular things, I should probably exercise it. I’d like to make the case that freedom of conscience is every bit as vital as freedom of speech—after all, the ability to say what you think is necessarily dependent on the ability to think what you think. With that in mind, is there any doubt as to why the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines both freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the same breath? Both are expressions of the freedom of conscience—the right to express your beliefs verbally, and the right to express them actively.
I bring this up, because as the Secular Left has won out over the Religious Right in more and more areas, we’ve seen increasingly many high-profile court cases that invoke “religious liberty.” They haven’t all ended the same way, but enough of them have ruled against the religious liberty crowd to leave me concerned. Businesses are being forced to sell birth control, or (almost) forced to provide it to their employees, or forced to cater or photograph same-sex marriages. Many readers may wonder what the big deal is. In some of these cases, so do I. My own opinion, however, should not be the deciding factor here. The relevant question is: Do you want a government that can force people to go against their consciences?
We are currently at a point in history where the traditional Christian understanding of sex and marriage is less popular than it’s ever been. Whether you regard this as progress or a sign of the apocalypse ought to be immaterial—as with freedom of speech, freedom of religion that only protects popular beliefs and practices is no freedom at all. We protect religious liberty not because we agree with everyone’s religious convictions (how could we?), but because a government that can force one individual to violate his conscience can easily force you to do the same. At the heart of liberal democracy is a very delicate agreement: “If you promise not to turn the world into 1984, I promise not to turn it into The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Or something. Feel free to substitute whatever dystopian fiction you prefer there.
Is it too late to call for a cease-fire in the Culture Wars? Maybe it is; the fact that religious conservatives have retreated to calling for “principled pluralism” in recent years is likely less an indication of a newfound broadmindedness than it is a sudden realization that it’s the best they can hope for. There’s little doubt in my mind that the rabid bloodlust I see on the Left would be no less pronounced on the Right had things gone a bit differently in the last decade or two. The temptation to chase down your retreating opponent and utterly destroy him is a difficult impulse to resist. And yet, as history has shown us again and again, vengeance can only give birth to vengeance: whatever you do to your enemy now is something he’ll likely be doing to you tomorrow. And ultimately, that’s the problem: It’s easy to ask that warring parties lay down their arms, but ultimately one of them has to go first.
Here, I think, is where Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell have the most to teach us.
An Unlikely Friendship
There’s a fascinating postscript to the events of The People vs. Larry Flynt, one that would make for a phenomenal sequel, were it ever filmed. When Flynt was doing the usual TV rounds to promote the movie and his accompanying autobiography, he managed to score a guest slot on an episode of Larry King Live. Looking to stir up some controversy, the producers cast Jerry Falwell as a guest on the same episode. No doubt they thought they’d get a screaming match, or something better—but instead, when the two men came out on stage, Falwell embraced Flynt and kissed him. Or, as Flynt later put it, “I was expecting (and looking for) a fight, but instead he was putting his hands all over me.” It was an act that would turn out to be the beginning of a close friendship that would last until Falwell’s death in 2007. The men toured the country together in a series of debates on free speech. They began paying each other friendly visits, sharing stories about their grandchildren, exchanging diet tips, and engaging in friendly arguments about religion and philosophy. At least once, the self-described pervert loaned the reverend his own private jet.
After Falwell passed away, Flynt wrote him a heartfelt eulogy that ran in the Los Angeles Times, musing:
My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.
He was definitely selling brimstone religion and would do anything to add another member to his mailing list. But in the end, I knew what he was selling, and he knew what I was selling, and we found a way to communicate.
That, after all, is the real problem with the mass media that make Culture Wars possible. When we communicate only through the press—through TV, through our magazines, through (now) social media—it tends to flatten us into nothing more than collections of opinions (and, let’s face it, most of us have ignorant, fallacious opinions). When we take a moment to look each other in the eyes, however, we see that we’re more than skulls with bad ideas rattling around inside them. We’re real people with hopes and dreams, convictions and desires, and a dignity that’s undeniable regardless of our circumstances. In other words, to put it in Christianese terms: none of us is totally vile. We all bear the image of God.
That may sound Pollyannaish. Taken simply, it might be. And yet, when two people are engaged in a fight to the death and one chooses to remove his armor and throw down his weapon, such a move may be naïve, but it is also undeniably fearless. I can’t claim to know what was going through Falwell’s head when he chose to embrace Flynt instead of fight him, but consciously or not, he was following the call of Christ to live by love and not the sword. And it’s hard to deny that both men were better off locked in an embrace than locked in combat.
Back when the film was released in the ’90s, there were few more joked-about catchphrases than “Can we all get along?” The phrase was so frequently quoted that many probably don’t even remember who originally spoke it, thinking of it only as an emblematic slogan of naïveté, no different from “Give peace a chance.” In reality, though, the words came from the mouth of Rodney King, a black man who was brutally beaten by several Los Angeles police officers—a horrific event that tipped off the L.A. race riots of 1992, in which 53 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured. If anyone had the right to be vengeful at the time, it was King (whose assailants were acquitted of all charges, despite clear video evidence against them)—and yet, he had the courage to call for peace. In King’s mouth, the words were not a pie-in-the-sky dream of easy love and harmony, but a tearful, impassioned plea that we would use our anger not to tear each other apart but to build something better.
So…can we all get along?
I didn’t ask for this Culture War. I was born into it. But I refuse to be conscripted to either side. I refuse to be party to a government that punishes people for holding onto the “wrong” ideas, regardless of what those ideas might be.
If I am to participate in a war, please let me be the one to lift high the white flag painted with a scarlet cross and go forth to heal the wounded.
This is my only plea.
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