Those familiar with my dietary and exercise habits know that preventative health care is not a high priority. An exception, though, is an annual rite of late autumn, the flu shot.
It’s likely quicker to get the deed done on a routine visit to the doctor, but I opt for Shoppers Drug Mart, as they give you a handy printed card that certifies that the shot has indeed been shot.
For a priest called to visit the sick in hospital or a nursing home, it is handy to have evidence on hand if, as sometimes happens, the wards are closed to those who have not been inoculated.
The wait at Shoppers is about 10 minutes, and then you are required to remain in the store for an additional 15 minutes to ensure no immediate adverse reaction has taken hold. So my half hour in Shoppers every November is likely the longest time I ever spend there, which means I notice things I might not otherwise. This time it was the sexual revolution. I had noticed that elsewhere; it was in Shoppers that I noticed it anew.
I awaited my shot in a seating area immediately in front of a prominent end-of-the-aisle retail display for Plan B, the “contraceptive” that sometimes isn’t, as it can prevent an already fertilized egg from implantation in the womb. The technical term for that is abortifacient, which many oral contraceptives are too. They do not prevent conception but rather prevent conception from following its natural course.
In any case, there I was, faced with multiple shelves stocked with Plan B, looking like those stacks of Rice Krispies in the supermarket when they go on sale. Beside me was a mother with her son, about seven years old I would guess. I doubt very much the boy has had much talk about sex with his parents just yet, but when it comes time for him to be told about such matters, will he already know that if Plan A is virtue and responsibility, there is always Plan B down at Shoppers?
Plan B used to be available only behind the counter. No prescription necessary, but the pharmacist provided it upon request. That’s still the case in Saskatchewan and Quebec, but elsewhere it can be bought alongside antacids and paper towels. The normality of it all is no longer surprising, but then it is. Just waiting for a flu shot with a young boy, and what the commercial culture has to offer us are emergency abortifacients.
I discovered, after the shot was administered and I was free to roam for my 15 minutes, that Shoppers has a little literature section. Not just magazines, but also books. Who knew that as bookstores were struggling across the Dominion, Shoppers was picking up the slack? My eye was caught, though, by the magazine rack, where side by each – as they say in Newfoundland – was a special edition of Time magazine dedicated to the late Hugh Hefner, and a special edition of People, dedicated the 70th wedding anniversary this month of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. It’s fair to say that Hefner never really had a Plan B; his philosophy was that Plan B was the original plan all along.
The cad and the queen. The latter ruled the realm, but the former ruled the culture. Not because he peddled porn. So did many others. But he argued that it was a good thing, and built a seductive philosophy around it. The philosophy argued explicitly against thinking of this world as a “vale of tears” – a phrase taken from the traditional Catholic hymn in honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, Hail Holy Queen. No, it was the great adult playground, where the wealthy boys could buy whatever they wanted.
The philosophy of self-indulgence rather than self-sacrifice runs counter the entire history of philosophical and theological reflection. It did prove rather popular for an affluent society in the age of contraception, which made the living the Playboy philosophy much easier. The Playboy philosophy always requires a Plan B, a way to quickly get rid of the problem, the child, or the woman herself.
Hefner or the Queen? At Shoppers they were just various choices, no doubt juxtaposed by accident. But they do represent different paths, and different allegiances. Not as between mammon and monarchy, but as between the indulgent self and the sacrificial self.
When Hefner died in September, I didn’t bother to comment. There is some (limited) wisdom in not speaking ill of the dead, especially those freshly so. And about Hefner, there is nothing but ill to say. But more than 10 years ago, when he was very much alive, I wrote the following, taken from the National Post archives, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. And just like the magazine rack at Shoppers, he shares that with Queen Elizabeth.
20th April 2006
When Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born to the Duke and Duchess of York on April 21, 1926, it would not have been expected that she would, by her 80th birthday tomorrow, have served as Queen Elizabeth II for nearly 55 years, presiding over the transformation of Empire to Commonwealth with skill and diplomacy, over five decades of public life with elegance and dignity, and over the serial fiascos of her children's unruly lives with long-suffering patience. In many ways, the Queen greets her 80th as one animated by the disciplines and virtues of another -- now apparently lost -- age. Certainly her heir has not followed in her footsteps, to the great detriment of the Royal Family and the monarchy itself.
Born the same month in Chicago was Hugh Marston Hefner, an ordinary boy born into an ordinary family, who would, in time, preside over a vast pornography and commercial empire. He marked his 80th birthday (April 9) in Hefner style -- a grand pajama party in which the girls were cheap and the self-congratulation lavish. Respectable news outlets covered Hefner's birthday in, well, respectable fashion.
And why not? The stigma of pornography is much diminished. Hefner has made money in six decades. He has remained famous at the same time, an even more remarkable achievement in a celebrity-centred culture. And, above all, Hefner is just about the most influential cultural figure of the last 55 years -- far more influential than the Queen Regnant herself.
That their birthdays fall 12 days apart is a just a coincidence. But their long, public lives frame the great cultural change of the postwar period. The essence of being a hereditary monarch is that one is born to certain duties, alongside of which are certain privileges. The Playboy philosophy, on the other hand, is that one is born with certain appetites, and the goal of life is to achieve enough privilege that they may be indulged, unrestrained by duties of any kind. The monarchy may reign, but it is the Playboy philosophy that rules.
The grandiose term "Playboy philosophy" was coined by Hefner himself, who has always fancied himself something more than a savvy peddler of smut. The Playboy philosophy, written in the early 1960s, is an extended (150,000 words) riff on the findings of Alfred Kinsey, the now-discredited but massively influential sex researcher. Hefner's argument was that the sexual appetite was unruly (something one does not need Kinsey to confirm) and therefore should not be subject to rules, lest the personality be suffocated by repression. The Playboy philosophy argued that the uninhibited libido was the path of personal liberation.
That ran directly counter to the more traditional wisdom that the task of civilization was precisely to domesticate the appetites, so that the sexual energies of men in particular would be channeled toward marriage and children, upon which the future of a free and virtuous society depends.
The older wisdom disdained the playboy as just that -- one who played liked a boy instead of assuming the responsibilities of a man. Hefner's philosophy was to recast the playboy not as a dissolute cad, but a refined sophisticate.