By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Chances are this story makes no sense, except in the overheated vestibule of my own imagination. So proceed at your own risk. Maybe you’ll find it scary. Maybe merely laughable. I’d laugh, too — except it hurts. In my heart, America is still democracy’s sweet maiden, youngest and fairest of the great nations. In my foolish heart. To see her with matted hair and breath fouler than the cities, a crooked old witch with blood in her eye, is no joke. I happen to live here.
So does Larry Flynt. So did John Kennedy, until a gunman (with better aim than the one who shot Flynt last month) dispatched him to another land.
How do Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler, crown prince of American smutdom, and John Kennedy, 35th President and democracy’s fallen prince, end up bunkmates in the same paragraph?
Last year, Flynt offered a $1 million reward for information on the Kennedy murder. He also made Mark Lane, author of Rush to Judgement (one of the best known works on the Kennedy assassination) a senior editor on his Los Angeles Free Press. Of course, this kind of news is hard to take seriously. Hustler has made Flynt a multimillionaire by mirroring the most sexually violent and degrading fantasies of its readers (it occupies a role in the world of men’s magazines roughly similar to that of a drunk hoisting a bottle of Thunderbird at a wine-tasters convention). I kept passing up the new issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, with its JFK MURDER SOLVED, KILLING COORDINATED BY CIA headline, not because I disbelieved it, but because I didn’t want Larry Flynt’s dirty hands peeling back that old scab. The murder of Kennedy — who, for all his faults, mirrored back the best in ourselves — was a turning point, a sign that something in the American body, something poisonous and without love, was on the loose, its odor malign, like Hustler itself, unsoftened by its lilac-scented, pubic scratch ’n’ sniff centerfolds. Who needed Larry Flynt to tell us the truth about John Kennedy? Whoever shot Flynt thought so too, perhaps. After the shooting [a sniper, apparently hiding in an abandoned stone hotel, shot Flynt twice as he walked to the courthouse in Lawrenceville, Georgia, for an obscenity trial] Mark Lane suggested that Flynt was “silenced to keep him from finding out the truth” about the Kennedy assassination. Lane said he clocked the sniper’s getaway route to his parked car. Twelve seconds. “It doesn’t look like amateur night in Lawrenceville,” he said.
Whether or not Flynt was the intended victim of a political assassination matters less, to me, than that it is perfectly reasonable to think so. Nothing shocks us anymore. The line between social truth and social fiction has been erased (from the Warren Commission to Watergate we have been asked to disbelieve our eyes and ears) and we are in the curious no-man’s-land of the artist, the madman and the saint. There is no consensus reality; there never was. Truth has many dimensions, separate but equal — fruitful knowledge, for the artist, who turns it into art, or the saint, who understands it as the divine play. But in the mind of the madman, who senses it incompletely, it becomes the ultimate terror: a black hole at the heart of existence into which all meaning is sucked, with a fierce rush. The eternal flame atop Kennedy’s tomb sputters like an old Zippo lighter. Assassinations, race riots, peasant huts burned to the ground — the litany is familiar, terrible, and boring. We are beyond shock, and thus in peril, because our acceptance of whatever comes next is not active and loving but painful and resigned. We cannot forget what we are: a noble experiment gone awry, the most intentional of communities. The Founding Fathers were young men, like those now retreating to the land, shrewd and thoughtful pioneers of new space and new time: the frontier was endless, and we had left the ancient, binding traditions behind. We called it the New World, and believed it. What can we believe now?
We can believe in God, if we can stomach the rest of the congregation. To be “born again” has the same tinny ring as a dozen other get-to-God-quick schemes. A “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ is only as wonderful as the person so blessed. Add the name of Larry Flynt. Not long before the shooting, Flynt underwent what was described as a dramatic religious conversion. Sharing a pulpit with Ruth Carter Stapleton (one wonders, in retrospect, if her born-again brother was praying 25 times a day for something other than his own election), Flynt said God had “convicted” him of sin and converted him from unbelief. He vowed he would turn Hustler toward healthy sex and religion. The cover of Hustler’s April issue shows a rabbit nailed to a cross to illustrate “The Commercialization of Easter.” But inside, the contestants in Hustler’s Beaver Hunt are wishing for the same small miracles: to be gangbanged at a stag party or spend an evening with Elvis on a deserted beach. Flynt had warned that, because of Hustler’s long lead time, the changes would take months. Yet, we have also the assurance of Hustler’s new publisher, Paul Krassner, that Larry is not one of those “prudish born againers.” So, whether we can look forward to exposés of prominent sinners or porno-illustrated Bible stories is anyone’s guess.
Flynt’s sincerity is, of course, impossible to gauge. A man who wears a Number One diamond pendant around his neck (Hustler is the most successful new magazine of the last five years) might be expected to try to make a few bucks off his rebirth — but that doesn’t mean he’s not sincere. He is, from published accounts, guilty about the source of his wealth; like many before him, he can make a vulgar fortune respectable by a well-publicized (and he did his best to publicize it) conversion. A few conspicuous donations, some public appearances with Ruth Carter Stapleton or Billy Graham, and those dirty millions become socially redeemable. His conversion is also likely to help him in court, where he’s appealing a seven-to-twenty-five-year obscenity sentence. Flynt’s eagerness to become respectable has come out in other ways. He courted Mother Jones magazine, wanting to become its newsstand distributor; it turned him down. He was more successful with Krassner. He promised to resurrect and distribute The Realist, an irreverent journal of social criticism and satire which Krassner published from 1958 to 1974 (“The Truth Shall Make You Silly Putty” was its motto, yet for all of its brashness, there was a refreshing innocence, and a keen sense of moral outrage, about the magazine; it still believed, against its better judgement, in America). Krassner accepted and (his part of the deal?) became Hustler’s new publisher. “As for me,” he said, “I feel like a born-again weirdo.”
Irony upon irony, peeling away, like the skins of an onion, with nothing at the heart, just that dark, pulsing emptiness into which our dreams are sucked, and transformed into — what? Paul Krassner, self-appointed moral overseer of the Sixties, peddling tits ’n’ ass? Larry Flynt in a wheelchair, stumping for Jesus? “The grim irony,” notes The Charlotte Observer, is that America’s most celebrated pornographer, paralyzed from the waist down, “may never again function sexually.” But, as we know, blessings are often disguised. The Lord, and the CIA, work in mysterious ways. If Larry was a bit insincere, the Lord could find no better way to let him know. Was he “paralyzed” before and now, praise God, free? Liberated from that sexual chamber of horrors in which so many are still trapped?
We objectify sex as we objectify God. They become something outside ourselves. We look for God in church or in an institutionalized conversion. We look for sex in a dirty picture, or in the picture we take of the world. The lightning-fast shutter of our own judging faculty traps the light, making “sense” of it, so that getting to be President, or getting fucked, becomes the photograph we live by: The Truth. And when we don’t get what we’ve paid good money for, or paid for with years of empty living, we get nasty. We may never know “the truth” about the Kennedy killing, but we live with the truth of assassination as political art, the truth of violence in the streets and in the schools. And we live (whether we acknowledge it or not) with the plain fact (which the newspapers always miss) that the violence is in ourselves. What we “make” of it tells us who we are, stripped of social roles, personal roles, naked but for our understanding.
If, for example, we make of the Central Intelligence Agency a demonic force (which, on one level, it surely is) we are simply acknowledging that demon within ourselves that makes of “intelligence” without compassion a guiding principle, central. We can choose to revile it, like the “disaffected” radical, or see it as part of ourselves which can be redeemed (the demon not driven off but lived with, and loved, because as long as the demon is “out there” somewhere it has a reality independent of us, and is always a threat). Thus, a politics of “love” — though who is brave enough to see it through? We are feverish and in pain; at every chakra, at every power center in the American body, there are blockages big as dams: we fear for our survival, we fear the opposite sex, we fear our powerlessness. The fourth chakra, the open heart, love, is reached by few, and briefly. Beyond it is a frontier we’ve yet to map. But who will guide us? How do we tell the outlaws from the loyal scouts? The spiritual life is peddled no less crudely than Hustler’s dildos and penis enlargers: we are to believe that this or that mantra, this or that book, this or that diet is the door through. Larry Flynt himself had turned vegetarian, then fruitarian, and had two enemas the day before the shooting to “clean out the poisons” in his body. His wife attributes his survival to this, since the bullet pierced his intestines.
Good for you, Larry. I hope you make it; I hope we all do. It’s a prejudice I acquired at the knee of Mother Liberty. I believe in America still, I do — America the Maiden and the Whore, Mother of the Tired and Priestess of the Moon, the America to which the gurus flock, not just because we’re an easy mark (we are) but because something important is going on here, a testing of freedom on a grand scale. We made a conscious agreement (though we pretend otherwise) to find something out about ourselves, the same way we consciously chose our families, our bodies, at a level deeper than our usual “consciousness” allows us to acknowledge. We create our reality with our beliefs, not just “psychological” reality but the very three-dimensional “hard” reality we take as a given. We do it because we’re free. Because we’re God before we’re American, before we’re middle-aged men with mortgages or teenaged girls with abortions. Oh, the awful freedom to be.
We rediscover who we are. A whole New World within ourselves, from which a New Age on the planet may yet be delivered, but with such painful labor that we will need the greatest faith. And love. Not the kind you buy. Or sell. Publish. Or kill. You can’t see it, the way you see the flag. You see what it does: the flag moving in the wind, the wind across the fields. The fields moving out towards night, the night towards morning.