Quick: Name an icon of "capitalism at its most unabashed." Who'd you come up with? Somebody like Bill Gates from the exploding information economy? A Daddy Warbucks from Wall Street? Some old-time, public-be-damned robber baron?
The correct answer–at least the one given by The New York Times–is pornographer Larry Flynt. That's him in the film still, as portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Milos Forman's movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt. The Times reviewed the film when it played the New York Film Festival, praising the characterization of Flynt as "a maverick vulgarian who embodies capitalism at its most unabashed."
Critic Janet Maslin thought the film's opening sequence particularly good: It shows the young Flynt, then a Kentucky moonshiner, selling whiskey to a helpless old drunk in exchange for his last two bucks. "It's free enterprise even if it isn't pretty," she wrote. Pornography and the ruin of drunks; that pretty much sums up capitalism, unless you want to include genocide.
And the Times did. Frank Rich, the paper's former drama critic and now a columnist, applauded the film on the op-ed page. To Rich, making the Flynt film was a matter of "urgency." Indeed, the result is "the most timely and patriotic movie of the year." Why? Because these days, "even the word 'liberal' is considered obscene." Rich's concern is not economic; it is that the curtain of totalitarianism is descending, lowered by the right's cultural commissars. He quotes director Forman on the stakes involved: "The Nazis and Communists began by attacking pornography, homosexuals–it always starts very innocently."
Quite a chorus. Not only are such ready-made blurbs from the nation's most prestigious paper a publicist's dream become ink, they are a first-rate example of just how much rhetorical content can be stuffed into a few phrases of cultural discourse. These few lines of praise and hype also double as validations of historical, social, and economic points of view long associated with the cultural elite; they are like bits of a Frankfurt School lecture overheard on an Upper East Side bus.
The movie itself is not at issue here; it had not been released at press time anyway. Milos Forman is a formidable director, having made films of power and consequence in both Prague and Hollywood, from Loves of a Blonde to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (as well as such duds as Hair). He is a filmmaker to whom it is worth paying attention. But this time the matter at hand is not his film; it is the discourse it sparked even before it was released. Here, then, is some counter-discourse to munch on, along with your popcorn.
First, this project is a typical piece of Hollywood courage: The key court case in the film's script was brought against Flynt by fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell. First Amendment dramas that derive from hate-speech codes, lists of forbidden terminology based in the cant of diversity-think, or censorious feminist ideology have yet to find their multi-million dollar budgets or cultural champions. Columnist Rich, it should be noted, made some effort to bow in all these directions at the same time, citing Flynt's "nasty debasements of women" in particular, and "the grotesque excesses of our culture" in general. This very straddling, however, highlights the tension at the core of his op-ed lecture: his equating of "liberal" attitudes with the defense of the First Amendment. T'ain't so.
Second, Flynt's a has-been panderer. Like most figures who make their fortunes shocking the bourgeoisie, he eventually came to bore them instead. As a has-been, he ceases to be a threat to liberal sensibilities, and becomes available as a bludgeon for the left to use against the right in their continuing culture wars. Insofar as what he actually produced in the past remains offensive to those sensibilities, well, that's where capitalism comes in. Flynt's free speech rights are dear; if he used them to express garbage, then that's what unabashed market culture is all about. The argument becomes seamless.
Third, porn and alcohol predate capitalism by several millennia, and associating them through Flynt is at best superficial. Markets certainly facilitate the efficient production and distribution of both, but then the alternative is neither virtue nor sobriety. When the Soviets suppressed alcohol in the name of the collective Radiant Future, people drank after-shave; it was a command economy even if it wasn't pretty.
But even if one insists on viewing the world through Flynt's peephole, capitalism–though it did not create sin–has another, more pertinent, role to play. Market culture, because it vastly increased material wealth, rearranged social power, and created numerous avenues for information exchange, sparked a wave of emancipatory and reform movements in the industrializing societies where it took root. Among the new voices being heard were those of the founding feminists; their heirs are of course the secular opposition to Flynt and others like him. The free press through which they advance their arguments appears to have a certain connection to the free market. Perhaps this is all capitalism in one of its more abashed forms.
Fourth, it is painful to see a serious figure like Forman stupefy his own sense of the past to hype his movie with references to Nazis. Born in 1932 in Czechoslovakia, Forman experienced the Nazis and Stalinism firsthand. Indeed, the 1965 film that first brought him world attention, Loves of a Blonde, was an important part of the mid-'60s cultural run-up to the Prague Spring. That film focused on the all-female work force of a Czech factory and the state's bumbling attempts to introduce men into their environment. It was understood as a tale of the state's inability to solve anyone's personal problems.
Now Forman is willing to invoke Nazis and communists to fan interest in a story of an American pornographer in civil court. That Flynt won his Supreme Court appeal in the Falwell suit is a good thing indeed, though the fact that the decision in his favor was unanimous, and that it was written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist–about whom the left has little good to say–would seem to vitiate the Nazi parallel.
Finally, this movie was co-produced by Oliver Stone, who as a mongerer of paranoia, a narrator of pseudo-history, and an exploiter of violence as pseudo-protest, knows something about the lack of abashment.
Charles Paul Freund (email@example.com) is a senior editor of REASON.