Cultural Multiple Personality Disorder

Michael Potemera muses on the survival of two very different cultural institutions – Playboy and National Review:

I just caught the last couple of minutes of a cable-TV documentary about Playboy magazine, which featured a clip of Hugh Hefner opining about the huge cultural impact the magazine has had in its 50-plus years of existence. And it struck me as an illustration that, even in the realm of culture and ideas, it’s the supply side that makes the greatest difference. Two young men in the mid-1950s had vastly different ideas of what the American audience really wanted and needed, and ventured forth to create magazines that reflected these views. Hugh Hefner, convinced that America was too sexually conservative and really needed to let its hair down, founded Playboy in 1953. Bill Buckley, convinced that America was too politically liberal and needed to restore its older, small-r republican virtues that had been eroded in the Progressive and New Deal eras, founded National Review in 1955.

Now, think about how these ventures must have appeared at the time. Playboy was an outrage to conventional pieties about sexuality. National Review was an outrage to conventional pieties about politics. How much money would you have bet, at the time, that either one would survive for very long? “A dirty magazine? Won’t people be embarrassed to buy it?” “A magazine that’s to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon? Are there that many real fringies out there?” But the supply side takes a chance. And, quite amazingly, both ventures succeeded beyond imagining. Playboy bore fruit in the Sexual Revolution, which may already have reached its high point but shows little sign of receding. And from National Review emerged Reaganism, and conservatism as the broadly dominant system of political thought in recent years.

An extraordinarily prescient person, writing in the mid-1950s, might have predicted one of these triumphs. But anyone who predicted that both of the magazines, simultaneously, would have a massive, culturally transformative impact on our country, would have been dismissed as, at best, an extremely confused thinker.

But the truth is, we are a confusing country. We contain, in Walt Whitman’s sense, multitudes. Even as we prize national unity, we resist homogeneity; even as we embrace populist fads, we remain suspicious of conformism. It makes me wonder: Which two implausible — and apparently mutually contradictory — cultural ventures of our time will end up shaping the American life of the next half century?

Certainly fodder for further thought.  There is a superficial explanation to this seeming contradiction.  In a country that at the time both publications were launched numbered 200 million citizens, and where now north of 300 million live, it’s not unreasonable for disparate publications to attract very large audiences.  If you draw, say, 100,000 subscribers (and I have no idea if this is anywhere close to how many people subscribe to either publication, now or ever), that’s barely more than .o1% of the population.  So it’s easy to see why the same country can pack arena-sized mega Churches on Sunday while also making pornographic sites the biggest profit makers on the Internet.  To put it simply, there are a lot of people, and they’re going to like very different things.

But of course that really is Potomera’s main point.   We are a culture deeply divided, and that division seems to be getting more intense.  While the pron industry is doing quite well, conservative (traditional, Orthodox, whatever adjective you prefer) religious institutions are also faring quite well.  Gay marriage is gaining some traction while at the same time larger and larger families are filling the pews every Sunday.  Admittedly, there is some overlap as some of the commenters observe (not to mention that William F. Buckley wrote articles for Playboy at one time), but by and large we’re talking about – dare I say it? – two Americas.

In the comments section I wrote the following, and it’s hopefully worth repeating here.  One of the things to consider is the standing of both magazines within the movements that they helped launch. Playboy is considered tame nowadays, what, with the explosion of raunchier magazines like Hustler, and even more so with the easy availability of hard core pornography on the Web.

As for National Review, while there has been an explosion of other conservative magazines, institutions, and other media, NR remains one of the most influential journals of conservative opinion. Sure some might think it has gone “soft” in its own right (including yours truly, at least on occasion), but it is still no doubt more influential within its own sphere than Playboy is nowadays.

What that says about our society, and where it is trending, is perhaps more troublesome.

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Dante alighieri


  1. Come again?

    Playboy in its day was a profitable commercial venture and its circulation was at its peak ca. 1971 around about 9,000,000. The circulation of the paper edition of National Review has scarcely exceeded 160,000 and it has ever been a philanthropic enterprise. Other than the New York Review of Books, magazines like National Review have not been commercially viable in forty years or some, and some have never been.

    I hate to break it to Mr. Lowry’s employees, but the Republican Party had within it a component given to vigorous opposition to the regnant liberalism of that age. Mr. Buckley was not the progenitor of that. Robert Taft was nearly the Republican nominee for President in 1952. I suspect you would also discover, were there any surviving survey research, that the liberal arts faculty of 1955 was far more variegated in its political profile than is the case today. Newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune continued to reflect in their coverage the priorities of their (commonly Republican) owners. Time-Life was not exactly a liberal concern. What William F. Buckley provided was a discussion forum for the general reader of a sort that had been present a generation earlier but had subsequently disappeared. What the nascent American Enterprise Institute provided was a mediator between academics and policy-makers.

  2. “Newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune continued to reflect in their coverage the priorities of their (commonly Republican) owners. ”

    That may be true Art, but they endorsed Obama in 2008 and lost a huge chunk of their Downstate readership, including me.

    As to Taft, he had his points, but he was also illustrative of not only how impotent conservatism then was on the national scale, but even within the Republican party.

    Buckley in his salad days in the Fifties and Sixties was always more important than National Review, as he gave a young and articulate face to American conservatism that was badly needed.

  3. The reach of National Review went well beyond its mere subscription numbers. Granted we sometimes tend to exaggerate the influence of this or that institution, but as Donald mentioned Mr. Buckley certainly was one of the key sparks of the conservative revival during the Cold War period. Also, a lot of magazines come and go, so the fact that NR has survived for nearly 60 years is a remarkable sign of vitality.

  4. The reaction to National Review initially from a liberal journal was that America could use a good conservative magazine but that National Review wasn’t it. Liberals tend to be all in favor of conservatism, except for all and any current manifestations.

  5. Potemra is making a point that can only be made in retrospect. Both magazines had a huge cultural impact that has little to do with their actual readership. Whether we liked it or not, both changed the world we lived in and that was true even for people who never read an issue of either. That’s a claim that neither Time nor Newsweek, both of which were vastly more successful in those years, can make.

    What I wonder is whether the two are nearly as contradictory as they seem. I don’t know if William f Buckley ever went to the Playboy mansion in the 1960s but it wouldn’t surprise to learn that he had. The two men had a lot in common.

  6. The reach of National Review went well beyond its mere subscription numbers.

    Agreed. These publications are helpful, just as agencies like AEI are helpful.

    That may be true Art, but they endorsed Obama in 2008 and lost a huge chunk of their Downstate readership, including me.

    I was referring to the situation prior to 1955. What appears to have happened to metropolitan newspapers in the post-war period is that the lenses through which they viewed the world came to be ground and selected by their employees. One of the curios of the last two generations is that our political life came to reflect a social and cultural struggle between salaried employees who earn their living by manipulating words and images and salaried employees in just about every other trade, with wage-earners lining up on one side or another according to cultural affiliations.

    I think the same deal happened in academe. Tenure shifted the balance of power between the faculty and their superordinates and (like the newspaper owners) the trustees voluntarily ceded control with regard to all issues save budgetry and athletics. In 1940, the President of the College of William and Mary was a Southern Jeffersonian and the President of Colgate University was a trenchant opponent of the New Deal. You would be hard put (I am sure) to find anyone on the faculty of either institution who would hold to either view nowadays.

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