Playboy After Dark

Of late comes word that Playboy magazine will stop publishing nude photos of women, and will turn its focus toward being a lifestyle magazine. As a traditionalist Catholic, I suppose the correct reaction is to be happy to hear it. And yet I must admit that as a child of the 80s, this news caused me a pang of melancholy nostalgic reflection. After all, as with so many other young boys raised in the late 20th century, Playboy was the first place I ever saw a woman with her clothes off (Miss December 1983, to be specific – the delightful Miss Terry Nihen).

TerryNihenAC03

Here she is, in the most PG-rated portrait that I could find online

But more than anything else, the reaction I have is that this new strategy won’t work. The conventional wisdom is that Playboy has declined because the level of raciness found in its pages has been so thoroughly surpassed by more explicit material that it is no longer relevant. While there’s certainly some truth in that, I don’t believe that’s what’s really at the heart of Playboy’s relevance problem. The reason that becoming a lifestyle magazine won’t save Playboy is the fact that more than anything else, even more than its now-tame degree of raciness, it is the Playboy lifestyle itself that is no longer relevant.

So what exactly is the “Playboy lifestyle”? Rather than turning to the magazine itself to illustrate it, let’s have a look at Playboy’s Penthouse, a TV show starring Hugh Hefner that ran back during the Mad Men era (a revived version of the show, renamed Playboy After Dark, ran in the late 60s). It was a talk show with a somewhat unusual format – instead of a desk and a couch for interviews, it took the form of a hip, classy party happening in Hef’s swanky Chicago apartment – and you were on the guest list. The camera was your eyes and ears as Hef guided you around while mingling with all of the famous, cutting edge artists, intellectuals, and performers who had accepted Hef’s exclusive invitation. The likes of Lenny Bruce, George Plimpton, Roman Polanski, and Gore Vidal were there, along with songsters like Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole, or Sammy Davis, Jr. who could, with some encouragement from Hef, be persuaded to come over to the piano and favor the guests with a number or two. The decor in Hef’s pad was impeccable, and the guests so very elegant; the men in tuxedos (or at least tailored suits and ties), and the ladies in tasteful gowns from the finest designers.

Here’s a playlist of some of it:

And here’s Sammy belting out some tunes at Hef’s piano:

But Hef didn’t keep the hipness confined to his Chicago apartment, nor to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles (on the door of which is a plaque in Latin reading Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare, which translates to: “If you don’t swing, don’t ring”). No, to travel between the two (and anywhere else he pleased), he had the Playboy jet! And not just any private jet, but his own personal, customized DC-9 airliner designed to be a non-stop party in the sky, complete with its own disco, movie theater, dining room, full-service bar, photo editing station, and bathroom with stand-up shower.

All of this reflects the vision that Hef had for the Playboy lifestyle. According to the New York Times: “When Mr. Hefner created the magazine, which featured Marilyn Monroe on its debut cover in 1953, he did so to please himself. ‘If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you,’ he said in his first editor’s letter. ‘We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, [or] sex’”. Yes, the Playboy lifestyle may have been degenerate, but it was also jet-setting, cultured, and sophisticated. It was certainly avant-garde – in art, philosophy, music, and sexual morality – yet to be avant-garde in those things, it is necessary to know them in the first place. Any genuinely sophisticated person, even a degenerate sophisticate, understands that the heart of being cultured is found in cultivating the self, something that can only come of endless hours devoted to study; much of it dry, frustrating, and boring (a fact to which anyone who has actually ever read Nietzsche, or any other German philosopher for that matter, can attest). The Playboy lifestyle was aspirational, and like any aspirational lifestyle outside of the realm of fantasy movies targeted to adolescents, it required effort in order to achieve.

But to what do we as a people anymore aspire? Certainly not to real culture or sophistication. Nor either to much of anything else that requires serious effort, other than the soulless corporate drone jobs that fund our ability to spend the remainder of our existences sitting on a soft couch in front of an enormous flat-screen television set.

Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. As Fred Reed once pointed out: “The United States holds three hundred million souls, or people anyway, enjoying an historically high degree of wealth, leisure, and access to universities…. All that is needed for a truly Florentine flowering of the arts, of thought and culture, of manners, we have. Yet by most measures of cultivation, the country is a desert. A literate Florentine of the fifteenth century would regard it with horror”. And while there is a certain degree of laziness that is responsible for this, there is also the Whiggish horror of anything that smacks of genuine elitism (As opposed to the phony hipster elitism that one may attain by listening to unknown rock bands, ironically drinking lousy beer, watching the Daily Show, and reading Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. An elitism that demands little more of its supposed elites than that they spread the right hashtags and vote for the right candidates is easily-achievable enough to remain acceptable to egalitarian, democratic sensibilities). This is a phenomenon found almost exclusively in societies that are either democratic or are in terminal decline (a correlation that should not be lost on anyone). As Oswald Spengler noted, in rising societies, the poor and proletarian seek to copy the manners of the rich and elite; in declining societies, the opposite is true. Our society is in a race to the bottom, and is so far along in it that we can no longer even see any use for a little bit of Picasso or Nietzsche with our titillation. Even if we say that these were only there to provide the enterprise with a veneer of respectability (and I, for one, believe Hefner to have been sincere in his desire for genuine sophistication to be a part of the Playboy lifestyle), what does it say about us as a society that we no longer have the slightest craving for that respectability? What do we crave, other than blind consumerism, meaningless sex, and validation via cheap social signaling?

No, the problem with Playboy wasn’t that its nudes were too tame; it is that there is no market left for the Playboy lifestyle. Nobody wants porn that you have to put on a necktie for, much less that you have to read some boring book in order to keep up with. Modernity is not about sophistication, but about authenticity, and authenticity is easy (Do you really think that corporations started to construct office buildings in the International or Brutalist styles because they admired the philosophy behind them? Or is it more likely that they took to them merely because they were cheap to construct?). And of course, there is nothing more authentic than the procreative urge; than feeling the need to ejaculate and satisfying it through the quickest and most straightforward means available. Hardcore porn serves those purposes admirably; what is added to that by talking about philosophy or jazz, or by having a chat with Norman Mailer along the way? How inauthentic! How elitist! What a waste of time! Just get to the sex! Hey Mailer: “Go away – ‘batin!

This is us: a society with no desires beyond materialist comforts and whatever Whiggishly practical means may be necessary to acquire them. Beautiful naked women are no longer enough sugar to make the medicine of Picasso, Nietzsche, or Miles Davis go down. Hef is old, lives in a world that is far in the dusty past, and has the problem exactly wrong. He thinks that he can still sell an aspirational lifestyle – the one that he once aspired to, and eventually managed to build for himself – but it is only possible to sell an aspirational lifestyle in a society that still has real aspirations. We are no longer such a society.

Our aspirations are dead, our intellectual life is dead, our culture is doomed, and the only question left is whether or not Hef will die before the magazine he created does.

Goodbye, Playboy. We’ll always have December, 1983.

P.S. Hef eventually sold the Playboy jet, at which point it was converted into a normal airliner. Though now quite elderly, it is still flying today, in the service of a cut-rate airline in Mexico. And so Hef’s private plane, once the very symbol of the jet-setting lifestyle of America’s 20th century elites, is these days little more than a flying bus; its cramped, uncomfortable seats crowded with lower-class Mexicans. Make of that what you will.

The Day They Tore Down The Future

They tore down the Randall Park Mall a few months ago. I’d never been to it – it was out in Ohio, a couple hundred miles away from where I grew up – but The Bechtloff used to go there all the time when he was a kid, and the loss of the place gave him occasion for some melancholy reflection. I didn’t really need to have been to Randall Park to know what it was like; I was a child of suburban America in the 80s, and that was the height of the mall and of mall culture. So I felt that sense of loss right along with him, and started thinking about what it all meant.

There’s a lot to complain about in being over 40, but I still feel rather sorry for anyone too young to remember what the 80s were like. We live in an angry, worried, fearful age here in the 21st century; and what’s worse, the young have no memory of a day in which things were any different. And yet, it did exist. It was a time when you could say that you were proud of your country and mean it. It was a time when it still seemed like the system could work; that it still might find ways to fix all the things that were wrong with our society. It was a time when it still looked like the bad guys would be defeated in the end. People had more pride in themselves back then: the morbidly obese, the garishly tattooed, the grown men dressed like adolescent boys in falling-down pants or in t-shirts with obscene slogans on them – these were all still rare and freakish. Some of the hairstyles may seem silly now, but even those took an amount of time and effort to pull off that showed us for a people who still took care of ourselves.

And everything was happening down at the mall, the epicenter of 80s social life. For those who aren’t old enough to have seen it yourselves, or who are and want a blast of nostalgia, a photographer named Michael Galinsky recently published a book called Malls Across America, which features pictures he took in malls during a road trip in 1989, and which will take you right back to those days. The Daily Mail did a feature on it, which includes many of his pictures. I remember the world that Galinsky captured in those pictures clearly, though I suppose it was all very long ago now.

My dad – sour old lefty that he is – always hated the mall. He thought it was an artificial and consumeristic replacement for Main Street, USA. But he was wrong about that – it wasn’t a replacement for Main Street, but an update of it. Yes, its economic purpose was to sell things (as was the purpose of the shops on Main Street). But as Galinsky’s pictures show, people went there for much more. They went to do all the things they did on Main Street: dining, meeting friends, promenading, or simply going there to see what everyone else was up to. It wasn’t merely retail space, it was social space where friends gathered and communities formed.

But that wasn’t why I liked to go to the mall. I went because to me, the mall looked like The Future.

Here we must make a distinction between the future and The Future. Chronologically speaking, the future is merely that which will happen at a point further along in time than the present, whether by milliseconds or by aeons. I am writing this sentence in the present, and in the future – maybe by a few days, or even a few years – you will read it. But that’s not the same as The Future. No, The Future is what we have been told about by authors, filmmakers, artists, and even creators of ten-cent comic books for the better part of a century and a half now. The Future is what we have been promised by scientists, politicians, industrialists, and even revolutionaries. All over the Soviet Union stood statues of Lenin with his hand outstretched, showing the way forward to The Future. In America, men like Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney (the latter two of whom were the primary influences behind the character of Howard Stark in the Marvel superhero films) not only showed us The Future, but built it with their own hands.

The Future is a place of massive buildings, of gleaming cities, of wide multi-level highways, of stiletto-shaped supersonic planes, of rocket launches, and of enormous video billboards (perhaps with something vaguely Japanese displayed on them). Everything in The Future is fast and sleek and clean and safe and automatic – but above all, everything in The Future is big and imposing; it strikes you with a sense of awe at its sheer size and scale.

That’s how I felt as a kid walking around the mall. The mall was big and beautiful and comfortable and even a little overwhelming. All of the wide passages, lined by stores, were multi-level – two in most places, but three at the food court and the movie theater. Everything there was new and gleaming and clean and safe, and automatic sliding doors and escalators were all around the place. There were walkways suspended in midair over wide indoor plazas and courtyards. In one of these, there was a small skate park, complete with quarter pipes, vert ramps, and a funbox, where kids could bring their skateboards all year round; in another, there was an indoor waterfall surrounded by palm trees that were green even in the depths of winter.

And then, of course, there was the arcade. It was pitch dark and full of glowing screens, and the sounds of all manner of electronic beeps and chiptunes were overwhelming. It felt like no less than walking onto the bridge of some spaceborne battlecruiser in the midst of combat. And the games! I cannot – there is no possible way to – make you understand just how much like The Future something like Pac-Man or Zaxxon or Defender looked to us, even if now they seem crude or even quaint. But we were in awe of the fact that we were playing a game against a computer – a computer! – that was drawing things recognizable as representations of real-life objects on its screen. None of us had ever been launched into orbit on the Space Shuttle or gone to Paris on a supersonic jet, but all of us played video games down at the mall arcade – and we were living in The Future when we did.

They tore down the Randall Park Mall a few months ago, and when they did, they tore down The Future. What does it all mean?

But wait – it was the internet that killed the mall, and what is the internet except the very embodiment of The Future? What indeed! Was The Future supposed to be an age of people sitting inside, passively staring at screens that displayed endless banalities (cat videos, Facebook selfies, and internet porn)? If so, that was only the very darkest vision of The Future – it is The Future of Mrs. Montag, of Edison Carter, and of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. And it’s not as if a few decades has made the experience of going out to shop any better, either – now it is both less like Main Street and less like The Future than ever. The decline of the mall coincided not only with the rise of the intenet, but also with the rise in earnest of Walmart and other big-box warehouse stores. There are no skate parks or indoor waterfalls at Walmart. The increasingly impoverished remnants of what was once our middle class shuffle in to buy cheap junk made by political prisoner slave labor in some dismal factory in faraway China. You’ll find no sense of community there, nor, considering the degree to which the former middle class has degraded, would you likely want to.

That isn’t The Future that we were promised; it isn’t The Future that was supposed to come. And here is a dark thought: What if we reached The Future, and then passed it? What if it has come and gone, and now we are in a post-Future future?

Consider: none of us kids in the arcade had ever been launched into orbit on the Space Shuttle or gone to Paris on a supersonic jet, and now it is decades later – decades into the future – but the chances that we ever will do those things have, in fact, decreased all the way to zero. The Space Shuttle has been retired for years now, and the Concorde for yet longer. Nor is either likely to ever be replaced by a newer version of the same thing. Occasionally a government agency or an aerospace company will release a concept drawing and a press release full of promises – good material for an eye-catching Popular Mechanics cover – but they always come to nothing.

When was the last time you felt like you were in The Future? How about the last time that didn’t involve staring at a screen?

Yes, the future is always ahead of us, but it is more and more beginning to look like The Future is behind us. Evidence of this is everywhere, even in what are supposed to be the most futuristic places. Living in what the technology writer John C. Dvorak calls the “northern Silicon Valley”, I am friends with a few Google employees, and have a handful of occasions a year to be invited to lunch at the Googleplex, the company’s headquarters in Mountain View. The food is excellent, and the place is pleasant enough, but going there is always attended by a sense of disappointment. If we lived in The Future (in the world of the classic cyberpunk of the 1980s and 1990s) Google – the world’s most powerful and influential technology corporation – would be housed in a hundred-story jet-black skyscraper with a huge neon “GOOGLE” sign on top like Channel 23 in Max Headroom; or perhaps, like the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, in a massive ziggurat that would cover whole square miles worth of territory. Instead, it is sprawled out across a dumpy, nondescript industrial park full of two-story concrete office buildings, indistinguishable from the one that housed the company that made postcards at which my grandfather worked when I was a child.

The Future had style: whether utopian, dystopian, or something in between, it was always imposing, breathtaking, even intimidating. But the future has no style, no sense of the grand or wondrous, no desire (or no ability, or both) to impress. It is so very different from my childhood days at the mall, which felt like The Future, and all the more so because it existed in a time of prosperity and optimism; a time that’s now long gone. And what of the mall these days?

There are a few that are still doing well, mostly those lucky enough to be located in places where they can cater to the bored wives of the elites in the handful of cities that currently represent our centers of power. There’s the Pentagon City Mall in Washington for the wives of congressmen and lobbyists; Valley Fair for the wives of Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires; Garden State Plaza, which caters to Wall Street wives. But these are the exceptions. Many malls that were once beautiful and were filled with the then-prosperous middle class are now occupied by seedy discount stores, and the people to be found there long ago started tending towards the unsavory. Things started changing, and you started to hear of fights at malls, then of people being shot there, and finally of full-scale riots in them – all unthinkable at the time of Galinsky’s photos. And of course many more, like Randall Park, have simply been demolished.

I remember when they used to tell you that when old things were demolished, it was in the name of progress. But what was Randall Park demolished in the name of? What lay beyond it? Was it really progress, and if so, what have we progressed to?

Well, we may not have The Future anymore, but we certainly do have The Current Year. Don’t you know that it’s 2015? That means gay marriage! Women in combat! Even the first rumblings of the normalization of pedophilia! Say what you will about the Classical Marxists of the past – Lenin, Stalin, Mao – but they built massive hydroelectric dams, intercontinental missiles, skyscrapers, and atom bombs. Yet in The Current Year, they and their grand projects have been replaced by the Cultural Marxism of Gramsci, Marcuse, and Alinsky. To the leftists of The Current Year, global warming means we can’t build big impressive things anymore, so now we simply declare the cutting edge to be increasingly degenerate sexual and cultural practices. There is nothing of The Future in The Current Year – any caveman could have smoked dope, had weird sex, or dressed up like a girl.

Is this how The Future dies? And what becomes of us when it does? The Current Year can provide sensuous pleasures and validation for our degeneracy, but didn’t we used to aspire to more than that? America is a modern nation that grew and developed during the Industrial Age; we have always been a people oriented towards The Future. We built steamships and cotton gins and giant radio towers and Santa Fe Streamliners and B-29 bombers and Shelby GT350 Cobras, because these were the things of The Future. We built the Saturn V rocket and then we went to the moon in it. What happens to such a people when they don’t have a Future ahead of them anymore? I suppose we will find out, but I have a feeling that the answer will not give us much to be optimistic about.

As The Bechtloff put it, the future ain’t what it used to be. And it probably won’t ever be again.

Sinking

Forty years ago today, the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald broke apart in a ferocious early winter gale while carrying a full load of taconite ore from the iron mines of upper Minnesota to the steel mills of Detroit. She sank with all hands; Captain Ernest McSorley and the twenty-eight men of his crew died at their posts, and none of their bodies were ever recovered.

It must have been a hell of a storm. McSorley, who had sailed them since he was a boy, was known as the best rough-weather captain on the Great Lakes; as for his ship, it was not for nothing that she was called “queen of the lakes” and “the pride of the American flag”.

But many of you probably already know of the ship and her fate. The sinking took place back in the glory days of the folk singer-songwriter, and the year after it, a musician by the name of Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song that told the story of what happened. For those who may not have heard it, here it is:

Take a moment to notice both the form and the lyrical content of this song. The melody is a modern-day sea chanty – it is timeless, and in its timelessness connects the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew to the traditions of the sea and of all the sailors who came before them. And then there are the lyrics, which resonate with heartfelt, non-ironic respect and reverence for the white working class, instead of with the condescension toward them of a Bruce Springsteen or with the Marxist rhetoric of a Pete Seeger or a Woody Guthrie. In Lightfoot’s song, the captain and his crew were neither fools nor cowards; they are not portrayed as piteous or as oppressed pawns of their betters. They were strong and brave souls who by chance ran afoul of the implacable forces of nature at their most destructive, and who faced them like men to their last breaths.

Wait – the white working class? Don’t I know that makes me sound like a Nazi? Well, perhaps it does!

If the intention of this clip was to make the Nazis seem horrifying, then it failed miserably (and judging by the comments posted underneath this video, I am far from the only person to share that sentiment). Of course, for our purposes, the key quote is: “Here the worker is honored, not a means to an end”. In other words, the working class (which, let us note, is not the same thing as the welfare class, no matter how much certain politicians try to conflate the two) should be honored because they deserve it, not as lip service to get them to support political agendas, including those that run directly against their own best interests. Who other than our TV-villain Nazi anymore believes things of that sort?

Certainly not the ideological left. As hard as this may be to remember, leftism was actually founded in order to protect farmers and factory workers from bourgeois, decadent, effete, overeducated, libertine urbanized elites. That’s why its symbol was a workman’s hammer and a farmer’s sickle. As one might have expected from a philosophy so ignorant of both economics and human nature, leftism ended up doing the exact opposite of what it set out to do; it has come to be used as a weapon by the people it deplored against the people it was trying to help. The working class has been abandoned. The Republicans never cared about them, and the Democrats were last seen even pretending to care about them in a Dick Gephardt speech sometime around 1989. The face of modern leftism is upper-middle-class white women with Master’s degrees in economically useless fields complaining about the content of video games, while what used to be the native-born working class sinks deeper into poverty, hopelessness, purposelessness, welfare dependency, oxycontin and/or methamphetamine abuse, and self-destructive sexual irresponsibility.

Any who think that I exaggerate should have a look at this recent study by a husband-and-wife team of economists from Princeton. They’ve found that death rates among middle-aged working-class white men have risen by 22% over the course of only the past fifteen years – an increase that is shocking both in its number and in the rapidity with which this phenomenon appeared. The increase can be attributed entirely to three causes: drugs (particularly prescription painkiller abuse), alcohol, and suicide. These are men in their forties or fifties (ones who entered the workforce just as trade agreements of the likes of NAFTA and GATT were being enacted) who in an earlier era would be settled into a comfortable existence. They would be respected in their communities, at home, and at work, where they would have seniority built up, and perhaps would have made foreman or shift supervisor or shop steward. Their sons at home, and the young guys just starting out at work, would look up to them and seek their advice. They would be beginning to think of retirement, on a generous and well-earned pension that would take care of them for as long as they lasted, and of their wives after they were gone.

And now, by the thousands, they are literally dying of despair in a society that no longer needs them, no longer respects them, and no longer has any place for them. There is not even any sympathy for them – as their jobs disappear and their marriages and families disintegrate, the society that once wrote songs about them now only tells them that an endless list of the problems of people who they have never met can be laid at the feet of their “privilege”. I wonder – do “privileged” people often drink themselves to death, die of overdoses of pills designed to take away their pain, or commit suicide because nothing better lies ahead of them?

These men, their entire socioeconomic class, and everything that was a part of their world is sinking; sinking as surely as Edmund Fitzgerald sank forty years ago today. Consider: when she was built, three hundred lake freighters just like her hauled raw materials from mines to factories in what was not yet then known as the Rust Belt, and finished industrial goods from those factories to market. Now less than half that number still sail the lakes. As for Detroit, her destination on that fateful day, it is a deindustrialized ruin that is slowly giving way to the weeds. But it isn’t just Detroit – this week’s news tells us that the last of America’s aluminum mills are cutting capacity and laying off workers as their industry buckles in the face of cheap competition from China.

The men of our working class – once the envy of the globe – have been cut adrift, and no one even waits at the dock for their return. As we mourn the twenty-nine men lost that night forty years ago, let us also take a moment to mourn the entire working-class world that has disappeared since. Let that be our way to show the world that someone still honors what has been lost.