If you really want to understand why the First Amendment radical Nat Hentoff was so controversial -- I mean, other than that whole Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing, pro-lifer thing -- then what you really need to do is spend some time reading (or listening to) to the man.
That will do the trick. So watch the video at the top of this post. And hold that thought.
In this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilkens and I talked about the difficulty that some elite news organizations had -- in their obituaries for this complex man -- managing to, well, let Hentoff be Hentoff.
As our launching point, we used the passage in my earlier GetReligion post about Hentoff -- "RIP Nat Hentoff: How did press handle his crusade against illiberals, on left and right?" -- that argued:
... (T)hree 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.
To my shock, Wilken ended the podcast session -- with about 90 seconds to go -- by asking me the three essential themes that would have to be included in an obituary for, well, Terry Mattingly. Talk about a curve ball question! You can listen to the podcast to hear my rushed answer to that one.
Like I said earlier, anyone writing about Hentoff has decades of material to quote, if the goal is to let the man speak for himself. Journalists tend to produce lots of on-the-record material.
But let's look at two passages in a very important -- a turning point event, even -- speech in his career. It's called "The Indivisible Fight for Life" and was delivered in 1986 at a Chicago meeting of Americans United for Life.
Let's start here, with some of the events that led him to adopt a consistently pro-life position on a host of issues:
For me, this transformation started with the reporting I did on the Babies Doe. While covering the story, I came across a number of physicians, medical writers, staff people in Congress and some members of the House and Senate who were convinced that making it possible for a spina bifida or a Down syndrome infant to die was the equivalent of what they called a "late abortion." And surely, they felt, there's nothing wrong with that.
Now, I had not been thinking about abortion at all. I had not thought about it for years. I had what W. H. Auden called in another context a "rehearsed response." You mentioned abortion and I would say, "Oh yeah, that's a fundamental part of women's liberation," and that was the end of it.
But then I started hearing about "late abortion." The simple "fact" that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.
And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying -- this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island -- at a forum, "I don't know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women's reproductive freedom rights, women's right to control their own bodies."
That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row -- due process, equal protection of the law.
Later there is this:
Well, in time, a rather short period of time, I became pro-life across the board, which led to certain social problems, starting at home. My wife's most recurrent attack begins with, "You are creating social mischief," and there are people at my paper who do not speak to me anymore. In most cases, that's no loss.
And I began to find out, in a different way, how the stereotypes about pro-lifers work. When you're one of them and you read about the stereotypes, you get a sort of different perspective.
There's a magazine called the Progressive. It's published in Madison, Wisconsin. It comes out of the progressive movement of Senator Lafolette, in the early part of this century. It is very liberal. Its staff, the last I knew, was without exception pro-abortion. But its editor is a rare editor in that he believes not only that his readers can stand opinions contrary to what they'd like to hear, but that it's good for them. His name is Erwin Knoll and he published a long piece by Mary Meehan, who is one of my favorite authors, which pointed out that for the left, of all groups of society, not to understand that the most helpless members of this society are the pre born -- a word that I picked up today, better than unborn -- is strange, to say the least.
The article by Meehan produced an avalanche of letters. I have not seen such vitriol since Richard Nixon was president -- and he deserved it. One of the infuriated readers said pro-life is only a code word representing the kind of neo-fascist, absolutist thinking that is the antithesis to the goals of the left. What, exactly, are the anti-abortionists for? School prayer, a strong national defense, the traditional family characterized by patriarchal dominance. And what are they against? School busing, homosexuals, divorce, sex education, the ERA, welfare, contraception and birth control. I read that over five or six times and none of those applied to me.
Kind of a hard man to sum up in a short, shallow, burst of stereotypes. Right?