As a self-proclaimed "Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer,” journalist Nat Hentoff had -- as you would imagine -- an unusual set of friends and enemies.
In the end, it's pretty easy to describe the thread that united his admirers. They (I should say "we") saluted his fierce liberalism on First Amendment issues. I would stress that he strongly defended free speech, freedom of association and the free exercise of religious convictions, as well as freedom of the press.
The question today is how much of his unique intellectual equation made it into the elite newsroom articles about his death. Hold that thought.
You could say that the First Amendment was his only creed, but that would be wrong. As an atheist, he was a strict and doctrinaire materialist (especially when DNA was involved). Why would that be controversial? Well, let's let Hentoff explain that, in this famous passage from a 1992 piece -- "Pro-choice bigots: a view from the pro-life left" -- in the old-school New Republic:
Being without theology isn’t the slightest hindrance to being pro-life. As any obstetrics manual -- Williams Obstetrics, for example -- points out, there are two patients involved, and the one not yet born “should be given the same meticulous care by the physician that we long have given the pregnant woman.”
Nor, biologically, does it make any sense to draw life-or-death lines at viability. Once implantation takes place, this being has all the genetic information within that makes each human being unique. And he or she embodies continually developing human life from that point on. ... Whether the life is cut off in the fourth week or the fourteenth, the victim is one of our species, and has been from the start.
This brings us to the elite media obits.
In my opinion there are three pieces of Hentoff's life and work that must be mentioned in these pieces. First, of course, there is his status as a legendary writer about jazz, one of the great passions of his life. Second, you need to discuss why he was consistently pro-life. Note the "why" in that sentence. Third, you have to talk about his radical and consistent First Amendment views -- he defended voices on left and right -- and how those convictions eventually turned him into a heretic (symbolized by The Village Voice firing him) for post-liberal liberals who back campus speech codes, new limits on religious liberty, etc.
So what happened?