Larry Flynt vs. Senator Vitter: The Ethics Verdict
A world that unapologetically adopted Hustler publisher Larry Flynt’s values would look, I imagine, something like “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” “Pottersville,” the nightmare version of George Bailey’s home town in the alternate reality where he never was born. Flynt is the champion of sleazy, down-and-dirty sex, prostitution, drug use, infidelity and universal gambling. He publishes an ugly magazine full of ugly images and words, and then uses the money he rakes in to engage in epic casino gambling binges. Flynt is a legal pornographer, and he makes his money off of Americans’ right to behave in a boorish, selfish, crude and irresponsible manner. Thus he is the sworn enemy of anyone who advocates more genteel, considerate and civilized behavior, and since he cannot win this philosophical conflict with words or reason, his favorite device is reputation terrorism.
In Flynt’s warped ethics, people can never advocate behavior superior to their own conduct. They are forever “hypocrites,” you see, although his is a seductively dangerous definition of hypocrisy that simply guarantees a cultural death spiral of deteriorating values. Is it hypocritical for a former alcohol abuser to condemn drinking, a recovering coke addict to argue for stiff drug sentences, or a reformed thief to preach honesty? The nation’s persistent drug abuse problem has been primed by foggy ex-hippies whose muddled ethical instincts prohibit them from telling their children not to behave as recklessly as they did. These and people like them are easy targets for Flynt’s cynical game.
His favorite ploy is to offer cash for proof that elected officials who advocate such quaint values as fidelity in marriage have been unfaithful or worse at some point in their past. Flynt approves of such conduct, remember; he just wants to hurt anyone who believes otherwise by humiliating them and labeling them as hypocrites. The most prominent mounted head on his trophy wall is Bob Livingston, the GOP Louisiana Congressman who was about to become Speaker of the House when Flynt revealed that he had been involved in an extra-marital affair years before. Livingston resigned his seat just as the House prepared to vote on President Clinton’s impeachment. It was a foolish response by Livingston that played into Flynt’s hands and further confused the public about the reasons for impeachment, which was based on a president manipulating the legal system and his administration to hide his affairs and serial sexual harassment, not the adultery and harassment themselves.
The latest trophy is Republican Senator David Vitter, also from Louisiana, whose phone number appeared in the records of the D.C. Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey. He denied allegations that he frequented prostitutes in New Orleans as Palfrey claims, but admits to “sin” and “mistakes” in the past. Was Vitter, who has always been an anti-gay, “traditional values” stalwart of the extreme Republican Right, a hypocrite? Certainly. But is he now? Not necessarily. His prior conduct reflects on his credibility, and obviously diminishes his persuasiveness as an advocate. Nonetheless, Vitter has both the right and the responsibility to advocate societal conduct that he believes is best for the country, even if he fell short of it in the past. Whether those failings by his own standards make him an ineffective advocate is a practical consideration, but his advocacy does not become wrong because of Palfrey’s revelations unless his position is a sham.
In contrast to Livingston, Vitter’s past conduct is inconsistent with his policy positions and the social philosophy he routinely supports as Senator. Because of this, the public and his constituency have a right to know about it, private or not. Flynt’s determination to bring Vitter’s past to light then is not, by itself, unethical, even though his method of doing so—-essentially posting a bounty—is unsavory.
But Flynt’s motives are also repugnant. He wants legal prostitution, promiscuous sex within marriage, unrestricted drug use and gambling in every city and town. Exposing Vitter and others are just part of his strategy for getting these. His goal is an ugly, self-obsessed America populated with rich Larry Flynt clones and a poor, drug-addicted lower class wasting its scarce resources desperately trying to hit it big on slot machines. I don’t agree with Senator Vitter’s vision for America, which appears to include deporting 12 million illegal aliens and persecuting gay citizens. Still, even when directed at a right-wing zealot like him, Flynt’s tactics cannot be separated from his reasons for using them. The society he wants to create is not an ethical one. For him, giving the public information they ought to have is only an ethical means to an unethical end.
The verdict on Flynt’s exposure of Senator Vitter is, therefore, easy to reach. While sometimes the end can justify the means, an ethical means can never excuse an unethical objective. As has been his pattern throughout his career, Flynt did the right thing—informing the public of an advocate’s inconsistent conduct—for the wrong reasons: not to keep the public informed, but to pursue his own revolting agenda for social change that will line his pocket and fund more million dollar jaunts to Vegas.