The People vs. Larry Flynt
Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, and Milos Forman, 1996
#12, 1996 Skandies

Consider that The Tudors had to move at a brisk pace in order to squeeze the reign of Henry VIII into 38 hours, and imagine what a two-hour feature film has to leave out of the story of anyone's life. The People vs. Larry Flynt isn't a biopic, exactly — as the title suggests, it mainly focuses on Flynt's court cases — but here is a rundown of what the movie finds salient to the story it's trying to tell:

  • Larry Flynt launches Hustler magazine, a downscale alternative to Playboy that is substantially more explicit and contains none of Playboy's aspirational lifestyle features; an early issue containing papparazzi shots of a naked Jackie Onassis makes him a millionaire

  • Flynt is arrested on obscenity charges in Ohio, tried, and sentenced to 25 years in prison; the sentence is eventually overturned

  • Flynt is arrested on obscenity charges in Georgia, but during the trial is shot outside the courthouse by a sniper; Flynt is paralyzed for life, and only after several years does he receive surgery to relieve the constant pain from his injuries

  • Flynt releases an FBI surveillance tape demonstrating that John DeLorean's arrest for drug trafficking was a case of government entrapment, and refuses to reveal the source of the tape; after making an ass of himself in court (e.g. by wearing a flag as a diaper) he is again jailed

  • Flynt is sued by Jerry Falwell for publishing a parody ad claiming Falwell had sex with his mother in an outhouse; Flynt wins on the libel charge but is found guilty of inflicting emotional distress on Falwell

  • This conviction is overturned by the Supreme Court

  • Through all this, Flynt has a romance with a '70s version of Courtney Love, played by the '90s version of Courtney Love

The basic argument of the movie — and since so much of it takes place in courtrooms, the argument is delivered as an argument both by the lawyer character and by the Flynt character — is that while we all support free speech when it comes to mild satire like Doonesbury, many of us find ourselves inclined to ban offensive speech like that in Hustler, but since the difference between the two is really just a matter of taste, any move against the latter threatens the former. I read some articles that criticized The People vs. Larry Flynt for whitewashing Flynt and Hustler, but they generally stopped there, as if impugning the movie's lack of documentary realism were criticism enough — or as if the movie's thesis were that Larry Flynt is a hero, and that it is therefore sufficient to retort that, no, he's just an asshole. I was more interested in how the whitewashing undermines the actual thesis. Take the nature of Hustler magazine. The movie presents it as a version of Playboy that shows women with their legs spread. The Flynt character gives a little speech, standard in movies like this, about how if we believe that the human body is a work of art then we can't find any part of it obscene. Now, this speech wasn't meant for me; I already thought it was ludicrous that we live in a society in which The People vs. Larry Flynt cannot include an image of a vulva. But say that you actually are the target audience for this argument. You'd have been outraged if Johnny Carson had been led off in handcuffs for telling one too many Reagan jokes, but seeing Larry Flynt led off in handcuffs for publishing Hustler doesn't particularly trouble you. How should these filmmakers go about convincing you that it should? One approach would indeed be to contend that Larry Flynt isn't so bad — that his obnoxious clown act is just his way of fighting for civil liberties, that he shared an ennoblingly tragic love with his junkie basket case wife, that his magazine is just Playboy without the elitism, that his humor pieces may be lowbrow and not particularly funny but that at least they're aimed at deserving targets. The problem is that going to such lengths to make the case that Larry Flynt isn't beyond the pale only reinforces the idea that there is a pale and that it's important not to be beyond it. It's easy to imagine someone evaluating this movie's version of Hustler and deciding that, as the Antonin Scalia character says in response to a description of a political cartoon of George Washington's era, "I can handle that" — only to then encounter the real Hustler and declare "but I can't handle that." If your thesis really is that placing limits on expression you don't like entails a latent threat to expression you do like, then it seems to me that you'd want to go the opposite way and make your test case look as vile as possible — to say, yes, even this has to be permitted if we really want to live in a free country.

But to me, that has long been a pretty big if. I'm not a libertarian. On questions of freedom vs. what I would consider civilization, I have tended to come down on the side of civilization. For instance, the freedom to carry a gun around means nothing to me, while not having to worry about defending myself against armed attack strikes me as fundamental to what civilization is. This might not seem too unexpected, given that we lefty types tend not to be too enamored of firearms as a rule, but it might come as more of a surprise that earlier this year I released a huge work of interactive fiction that can be interpreted as an argument against free speech. I generally find it more interesting to explore topics I've changed my mind about than to spout opinions I've always held, and while in the '90s I enjoyed a good flame war, I later came to feel that people's right to act like assholes in online discussions was less important than other people's right to have online discussions without having them derailed by assholes. I could be convinced that, similarly, people ought to have the right to live their lives without having to be exposed to Hustler's latest simulated gang rape pictorial. That said, the notion that the way to provide that protection is to arrest and imprison someone for publishing a magazine is absurd, and no matter how distasteful he may be as a person, the fact that this happened to Larry Flynt is an outrage.

As those who've been reading my site for any length of time already know, I am a lifelong straightedger. I've never had a sip of alcohol or taken an aspirin, let alone smoked pot. Being around people who are under even the mildest influence of basically anything makes me horribly uncomfortable, and if I could wave my hand and eradicate recreational drug use from society I would do so. When cannabis decriminalization measures have popped up on ballots I have voted against them. Yet the tide is turning against me on this. Last month voters in Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana, at least on the state level, and the smart money says that nationwide legalization is an inevitability and may well come sooner than nationwide same-sex marriage. And I have been shocked to discover that all of a sudden I am pretty much fine with this. Again, as much as I loathe drugs, the idea that people could be arrested and imprisoned for possessing pot, or any other drug for that matter, now seems like madness to me. What exactly is the logic here? We see that (in the case of the harder stuff) people are involved with something that could potentially ruin their lives, so we definitely ruin their lives by packing them off to a violent hellscape? I guess the idea is to use the threat as a deterrent, but when someone is caught with the stuff and gets arrested, by definition the deterrent hasn't worked. You can hope that by destroying the arrestee's life you can deter others, but that's monstrous. I still don't know whether I believe in full legalization of all drugs, but there must be more appropriate penalties than incarceration.

So what changed? Again, it's less my view of what is or isn't acceptable as a matter of philosophy than my opinion of the mechanism that turns social philosophy into enforced law. That is, no matter how much I might favor civilization over freedom, reducing freedom requires police power, and after watching the police bludgeon and mace peaceful protesters at UC Berkeley and UC Davis and any number of Occupy gatherings, I can't help but think that anything that gives the police more latitude to operate in general, like the drug war, just opens the door to more of these sorts of abuses. Better that the use of force be limited to cases involving active threats to people's safety. Pornographers, pot smokers, and political protesters do not qualify. Similarly, better that the decision to jail someone be based on whether that person actually needs to be removed from society than on how profitable it would be for the prison-industrial complex. So, yeah, I may not prefer a society with weed dispensaries on every corner and pictures of women in meat grinders on every magazine rack to one without those things. But lately I find that I do prefer a society in which we don't destroy people's lives over those things to one in which we do.

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