Larry Flynt
(May 2007)

We'll get to Larry Flynt and why he is an Ethics Hero this month in a minute.

Televangelist Jerry Falwell is dead, and a lot of people who found his politics, his opinions and his success infuriating are just thrilled to pieces. Falwell certainly earned some of this enmity with his gay-bashing, his outlandish accusations against the Clintons, his vicious attack on those cute Teletubbies, and especially his outrageous claim after the World Trade Center bombing that it was God's judgement against America for straying from Christian values, though Falwell had the sense to apologize for that one. Still, there has been a cultural tradition for centuries that requires the critics and enemies of deceased prominent people to supress expressions of their real feelings until the body is cold.

Journalist Christopher Hitchens apparently doesn't agree with that tradition, at least when it involves Jerry Falwell and Hitchens is peddling a new book condemning religion. The day after Falwell's unexpected death, Hitchens told Anderson Cooper on CNN exactly what he thought of the Reverend:

"I think it's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to…The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend. Who would, even at your network, have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September 11 were the result of our sinfulness and were God's punishment if they hadn't got some kind of clerical qualification? People like that should be out in the street, shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign and selling pencils from a cup…The country suffers, to a considerable extent, from paying too much, by way of compliment, to anyone who can describe themselves as a person of faith…Chaucerian frauds, people who are simply pickpockets...[Falwell]woke up every morning, as I say, pinching his chubby little flanks and thinking, "I have got away with it again!"… I think he was a conscious charlatan and bully and fraud. And I think, if he read the Bible at all--and I would doubt that he could actually read any long book of--at all--that he did so only in the most hucksterish, as we say, Bible-pounding way."

Was this rant really necessary? More to the point, was it fair?

The cultural tradition of not speaking ill of the recently dead has several good reasons behind it, all based in ethics:

  • It is disrespectful and unkind. No matter who the individual is who has died, he or she is likely to have a family, friends and admirers who are deeply upset by his or her demise. These people do not deserve to have their grief amplified by gratuitous insults and attacks on their deceased loved one. You resist speaking ill of the recently dead out of respect for the living, even if you cannot muster any for the dead.

  • It is unfair and cowardly. Dead victims don't fire back. They are defenseless, and there is something decidedly jackal-ish about a famous man's enemies unleashing their venom after a death notice appears. If kicking someone when they're down is bad, kicking them when they're dead is really bad.

  • It violates the Golden Rule, which in this case means undermining the culture's sensitivity, gentility and civility. It fails the ethical acid test: does the conduct make society better to live in, or worse? Clearly, the answer is "worse." What possible benefit is there to attacking Falwell now, when it is cruel and unseemly, if there will be unlimited opportunities to argue about his life later? Absolutely none.

Oh wait! I forgot about Christopher Hitchens' book! Hitchens benefits by attacking Falwell now, because his new "religion is the root of all evil" book is on sale now. Before the tome ends up in discount bins, it is to his advantage to appeal to his book's target audience: Americans who have no respect for religion or the religious. And if condemning Falwell and calling him names upsets some perfectly good people whom Falwell inspired or helped, that's a small price to pay to get Hitchens on the New York Times best seller list. Gee, Christopher: if Falwell was a bully, what do you call someone who beats up on someone who is just lying there? And who does so to sell books?

Showing Hitchens the right way to respond to the death of someone he disagrees with was, of all people, pornographer-sleaze merchant Larry Flynt. Flynt has Falwell to thank for the fact that Woody Harrelson (rather than, say, Dennis Franz) played him in a movie, because Falwell sued Flynt in what became a landmark First Amendment case. Needless to say, the two did not see eye to eye. But Flynt told "Access Hollywood"…

"The Reverend Jerry Falwell and I were arch enemies for fifteen years…My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends. He would visit me in California and we would debate together on college campuses. I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling."

Larry Flynt is not the Scoreboard's model of the kind of person who makes life in America better. But in this instance, he has shown ethical instincts that are admirable and deserving of praise. In the aftermath of an adversary's death, Flynt avoided cheap shots and called attention to the good he saw in Jerry Falwell. Flynt was responsible, fair, respectful and kind. Yes, it's true: Christopher Hitchens could learn something about ethics from Larry Flynt.

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