Amidst the encomiums for the late Playboy founder, Douthat delivered a masterful anti-obituary for “a wicked American,” arguing that his advancement of sexual mores and other cultural contributions are not worthy of tribute but rather “rotten” to the core.
“Hef the vanquisher of puritanism, Hef the political progressive, Hef the great businessman and all the rest... were ultimately incidental to his legacy—a gloss over his flesh-peddling, smeared like Vaseline on a pornographer’s lens,” Douthat wrote. “The things that were distinctively Hefnarian, that made him influential and important, were all rotten, and to the extent they were part of stories that people tend to celebrate, they showed the rot in larger things as well.”
As many have pointed out, the column was indeed a fantastic piece of prose that persuasively pushed back against a slew of Hefner hagiographies. And Douthat, one of the Times’ most socially conservative columnists, managed to win over people on the left and the right.
But Douthat’s relentless character assassination of a recently deceased Hefner also falls into a relatively new tradition of treating the deaths of public figures as opportunities to issue definitive judgments about whether they were Good or Bad. For whatever reason, the occasion of someone’s death tends to make us even more allergic to nuance than usual.
The same tradition applies contemporary political and cultural standards to the lives of people whose greatest cultural achievements were made in a different era, effectively underwriting their influence. But refusing to celebrate achievements considered progressive in their time because they’re no longer progressive today is absurd and anti-intellectual.
This has become a common refrain in recent years, amplified by social media and hot-take culture. When David Bowie passed away, a subset of feminists on Twitter finger-wagged about how he slept with underage women. Likewise after Prince died, some people insisted he wasn’t a queer icon because of controversial comments he made about gay rights toward the end of his life.
Why is it so hard for us to accept that these public figures are imperfect? Why is it so hard for us to accept their impact on social progress if it doesn’t conform to our standards of progress and social conduct today?
How should they be judged, and how should we judge? Answer: harshly.
This certainly applies to Douthat’s column on Hefner, which refuses to acknowledge a single positive contribution that the late Playboy founder left us with.
All the tributes about Hef as a civil rights pioneer and sexual revolutionary are discounted because the “social liberalism he championed” was the “self-interested sort... of male and upper-class privilege.” (It’s worth noting that attacking “male” and “upper-classs privilege” is generally not part of Douthat’s ideological repertoire as a columnist.)
The fiction and journalism in Playboy—the “[John] Updike stories no one read”—cannot be appreciated because it was printed next to porn. According to Douthat, it was all just a “pretentious” distraction dreamed up by the magazine’s lecherous publisher and “father of smut addiction.”
Nor can we pay tribute to his “appreciation of male-female difference” when it comes to sex, because it was a “leering predatory sort of appreciation, the Cosby-Clinton-Trump sort” that “prefers breast implants to female intellect and rents the charms of youth to escapes the realities of age.”
It’s hard to argue with some of Douthat’s observations about Hefner, particularly with his characterization of the Playboy publisher in his later years. As time marched on and sexual mores changed, Hefner evolved into a “low-brow Peter Pan, playing at perpetual boyhood” within his “paid harem” mansion.
But it’s absurdly black-and-white to insist that Hefner’s “good deeds” are overshadowed by the “degraded, priapic senility” that defined him in his later years.
By this logic, Hefner’s celebration of a more honest dialogue about sex in America is not worth mentioning in history books—unless it’s appended with a lengthy footnote decrying his own lacking morality. Fair enough, but at least make his obituaries as encompassing as possible.