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?