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But he needn't have worried. Hefner's strategy included this brilliant Catch-22: any expression of moral outrage about Playboy would entail the admission that you had seen it. If it was so morally objectionable, why were you looking at it?

This is still the main reason that Christians of all stripes ignore or deny any knowledge of pornography, when it is believers who should be the most willing to discuss the glory and grandeur of sex as God designed it. Following Hefner's cue, apologists for the porn industry today love nothing more than pointing out the hypocrisy of expressing moral outrage about porn while so many—including many of the critics—are simultaneously consuming it. If everyone's secretly doing it, Hefner argued, why be so prudish and puritanical about it? Bring it out into the open and you'll feel a lot better.

Hefner also had the foresight to defeat his critics by seeming to engage them seriously. Compared to today's PR tactics of avoidance and denial, Playboy back then was genuinely intellectual if not intellectually honest. In the first installment of the “Playboy Philosophy” column, Hefner quoted his religious critics, among them Unitarian minister John A. Crane, who wrote:

It strikes me that Playboy is a religious magazine, though I will admit I have peculiar understanding of the meaning of the word. What I mean is that the magazine tells its readers how to get into heaven. It tells them what is important in life, delineates an ethics for them, tells them how to relate to others, tells them what to lavish their attention and energy upon, gives them a model of a kind of person to be. It expresses a consistent worldview, a system of values, a philosophical outlook.
Not only does Playboy create a new image of the ideal man, it also creates a slick little universe all its own, creates what you might call an alternative version of reality in which men may live in their minds. It's a light and jolly kind of universe, a world in which a man can be forever carefree, like Peter Pan, a boy forever and ever. There are no nagging demands and responsibilities, no complexities or complications.

Today, of course, this “alternative version of reality” is the world we live in. Hefner countered and absorbed his critics by going on for another 10 years in a never-ending series of installments, complete with footnotes and indexes, that gave the illusion of a genuine dialogue—as if he too cared about the moral soul of the culture. There was even a series of in-depth discussions with leading theologians and thinkers discussing the “historical link between sex and religion.” Granted, these discussions raised some valid points. But at their conclusion, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum offered a summary that inadvertently illustrated the defeat of the religious establishment.

“We are dealing with new realities and our problem, as conscientious members of the religious community, is to try and decide to what extent our classic positions must be changed to accommodate the new realities—to what extent are we trying to impose the classic positions on contemporary society in an attempt to get it to conform more to what we have regarded in the past as the good, the true, and the beautiful.”

This turns the matter exactly upside down: what was really happening was that Hefner was imposing his new standards on society, making us conform to his new ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty.

November
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Christianity Today
Hugh Hefner’s Hollow Victory