In an acclaimed, if dubious, act of conscience, pornographer and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt has decided not to run topless photos alleged to be of Pvt. Jessica Lynch.
Forgive me if I'm underwhelmed by Flynt's moral largesse. It is one of liberty's distasteful ironies that someone like the smut-peddling Flynt, whose moral compass points only to the bank, is celebrated for pretending to the high ground.
The photographs in question were delivered to Flynt, he says, by two soldiers who served with Lynch in Iraq. They wanted the world to know - because the world cannot turn on its axis without such knowledge - that Lynch isn't really the pure, lovely, innocent mountain girl depicted by the media.
Instead, she is someone who, if the photos are legit, has cavorted topless with members of the opposite sex. Quel scandal.
Appearing Wednesday night on MSNBC's "Hardball" with Chris Matthews and MSNBC editor-in-chief Jerry Nachman, Flynt explained his reasoning. The girl had suffered enough, he said, and was a victim both of the Bush administration and a rapacious media. He saw no reason to inflict further harm.
Heart-warming, isn't it? Such chivalry from a man who showed the world paparazzi photos of a naked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sunbathing. Had she not been sufficiently devoured by the media? Or did the sound of coins dropping into the fathomless abyss of Flynt's rapacious greed drown out his better angels?
Oh, but we are a forgiving people. It was, after all, Jackie O's own son, John F. Kennedy Jr., who as editor of George magazine invited Flynt as his guest to the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, D.C., a few years ago.
Michael Kelly, the columnist and magazine editor killed in Iraq in April, summarized the disparate pairing in the July/August 2002 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, of which Kelly was editor-at-large:
"I thought then that this moment had to be some sort of unsurpassable low: the son of a former president bringing to a formal dinner with the current president a man who put his mother, the former first lady, in a skin magazine. Of course it wasn't an unsurpassable moment; it was hardly even a moment."
An unlikely hero, Flynt nevertheless has sealed his position as a First Amendment warrior through legal battles defending his right to show us anything. The current (December) issue of Reason magazine celebrates him as a "hero of freedom," along with 34 others who have "made the world groovier and groovier since 1968."
Most famous of Flynt's groovy skirmishes was his successful defense against libel charges brought by fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell, who challenged the publisher's right to run a cartoon of Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse. ("Jerry Falwell talks about his first time.")
While it is easy to cheer Flynt's victory on principle - because freedom of speech includes the freedom to satirize public people even though they get their feelings hurt - it is not so easy to cheer Flynt.
Watching "Hardball," I wondered: How did Nachman, Matthews and Flynt end up tablemates, such that a man who peddles savage imagery of dehumanized women is granted the perception of moral equivalence with serious journalists?
Even though Flynt was the newsmaker and thus the interviewee, a brief exchange of bonhomie with Nachman created the impression of comrades-in-arms. Later in the program, Matthews, whom I know and like, inadvertently delivered the dignifying wink of approval when he remarked:
"I remember those Jackie pictures, too. And they were quite beautiful, despite your intentions."
Make that one for Flynt, who can argue without contradiction that he merely provides what the market demands. If all-American Matthews admires illicit pictures of John-John's mom, who is Flynt to deny him access?
In other words, as long as decent men are lining up around the block to buy Flynt's droolings, as they did when the Jackie issue hit the stands, then we can't really challenge his legitimate place at the trough of public virtue. We are all cut from the same dirty cloth.
Would men line up around the block to see topless photos of Jessica Lynch? Doubtful. She's just a kid who, indeed, has suffered enough.
Thus, despite Flynt's assertions to the contrary, his "moral" decision was likely more commercial than conscientious. Given the likelihood of a lackluster response to a Jessica Lynch issue, he could make more capital by feigning altruism and milking his magnanimous moment.
As usual, we obliged him. Ka-ching.