Reading a superb analysis of the effect of Hugh Hefner on the psyche of American culture by Algis Valiunas in the May 2010 issue of Commentary. In the piece, entitled “The Playboy and His Western World,” Valiunas makes a strong case that Hefner and his Playboy empire were the vanguard of the force that turned western morality on its head.
It is not an unfair claim, though I would argue that Hefner as much rode as drove that tsunami of post-modern libertine thought over the seawall of mid-century American morality. (Let us not forget the Beat Generation, which was itself the most extreme expression of popular most-modernism in 1950s America.)
The key to The Playboy effect, though, is, as Valinuas puts it, that “the brave new world demanded an end to the timorous old one,” and what Hefner called Puritanism was “what Hef wanted to rid the world of.”
This is a fascinating and, in my opinion, accurate criticism of the movement that lies at the roots of today’s secular humanism and of radical atheism. Hefner and his contemporaries were not interested in merely claiming legitimacy for their way of thought in a free marketplace of ideas (as they occasionally claimed.) No indeed: the only goal worth pursuing would be the de-legitimization of all contrary forms of thought.
Martin Amis picked this up in his 1973 novel The Rachel Papers, which Valiunas quotes:
“The so-called new philosophy, ‘permissiveness’ if you like, seen from the right perspective, is only a new puritanism, whereby you are accused of being repressed or unenlightened if you happen to object to infidelity, promiscuity, and so on. You’r enot allowed to mind anything anymore, and so you end up denying your instincts again – moderate possessiveness, say, or moral scrupulousness – just as the puritans would hav you deny the opposite instincts.”
The last forty years have been a testament to this orthodoxy of permissiveness, and the result has been a generation that gives heed to writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, men who seek to take up Friedrich Nietzche’s sword in the quest to kill G-d.
Tolerance has become a one way street, and Hugh Hefner has forged a cultural orthodoxy as stifling and repressive as the one he rebelled against and helped overthrow.
I argue not for our culture to return to the evil depicted in The Scarlet Letter, but for us to advance to a time where we are able to replace damnation and ridicule with debate and tolerance. If we do not, we must suffer the fate of all societies that succumb to monochromatic, universalist orthodoxies: fascism, blood, fire, and downfall.