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? You can read this tiny Village Voice piece in a matter of seconds, believe it or not. Surely I missed something there?
At National Public Radio the approach can be seen in the headline: "Prolific Author And Jazz Writer Nat Hentoff Dies At 91." In other words, he was a jazz writer and the story simply notes that he wrote quite a bit about civil liberties issues and that the Voice called him a "civil libertarian." His heresies simply vanish.
The Washington Post piece mentions a few of the tough subjects, However, in the end, it suggests that Hentoff's First Amendment radicalism -- rather than being evidence of consistent liberalism -- led him to support many things that were not liberal, in the views of more evolved liberals. This passage contains the crucial language:
Of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, Mr. Hentoff was most closely identified with the First, the one that guarantees freedom of speech and of the press as he derided and denounced what he perceived as efforts at censorship by the left and the right.
The crucial words are "what he perceived." Speech codes at public institutions are not illiberal, you see.
Atop his column in The Post were the words “Sweet Land of Liberty.” Mr. Hentoff believed in applying the words of the Constitution in the most difficult of circumstances. Nor was the word “Sweet” to be overlooked. As he saw it, it was the Constitution that created American life as he knew it and as others enjoyed it.
It was also said of him that he freely made use of the freedom that he cherished to promote causes that might have seemed inconsistent in someone whose ideas so often seemed to reflect those of American liberalism, or progressivism.
One of those for which he was well known was his determined opposition to abortion, leading him to call himself a member of the antiabortion left. It did not concern him that many whose views on abortion he shared might have held diametrically opposed positions on a broad range of issues also dear to Mr. Hentoff’s heart.
Why did Hentoff believe that he believed on the crucial life issues? No clues are given. Oh, and did he "call himself" a member of the "pro-life" left or the "anti-abortion" left? Why not actually quote the man, if you are going to attribute labels to him?
In my opinion, the New York Times did the best job of stating that Hentoff was the heretic that he was and, thus, for many modern liberals, he could not be forgiven for that.
The main obit at the Times explored all the tough corners of his life. Spot the key words in this summary:
The Hentoff bibliotheca reads almost like an anthology: works by a jazz aficionado, a mystery writer, an eyewitness to history, an educational reformer, a political agitator, a foe of censors, a social critic. He was -- like the jazz he loved -- given to improvisations and permutations, a composer-performer who lived comfortably with his contradictions, although adversaries called him shallow and unscrupulous and even his admirers sometimes found him infuriating, unrealistic and stubborn.
What were these contradictions, in the eyes of the modern liberals, at the Times, perhaps, and in the passive-voice attributions of Hentoff critics? This passage says it all:
While his sympathies were usually libertarian, he often infuriated leftist friends with his opposition to abortion, his attacks on political correctness and his criticisms of gay groups, feminists, blacks and others he accused of trying to censor opponents. He relished the role of provocateur, defending the right of people to say and write whatever they wanted, even if it involved racial slurs, apartheid and pornography.
He had a firebrand’s face: wreathed in a gray beard and a shock of unruly hair, with dark, uncompromising eyes. Once, a student asked what made him tick. “Rage,” he replied. But he said it softly, and friends recalled that his invective, in print or in person, usually came wrapped in gentle good humor and respectful tones.
Why was he pro-life and how did that fit in with his brand of Jewish atheism? No clues.
Why did he defend the free-speech rights of conservatives as well as liberals? Apparently, he was convinced that liberalism meant defending liberal values, even if that meant tolerating words with which he strongly disagreed. Hentoff (gasp) even defending the rights of people who offended him. He was liberal about things like that.
There's a really interesting question lurking in the shadows here that was left unexplored: If Hentoff abandoned "liberalism" on these issues, or betrayed it, then what is the meaning of the word "liberal" these days when applied to First Amendment issues of free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom of religion?
If you are looking for clues on these matters then the Times obit -- which is really quite good -- is the one to read, just as one needs to read key passages in the Catholic Catechism in order to understand Catholicism.
Those who care about Hentoff's life and work can also thank the Times team for posting a 2009 profile by Clyde Haberman that ran with this headline: "Nat Hentoff Writes His Last for The Village Voice." Check out this fierce summary of a remarkable career:
Across his 83 years, his three dozen books and his countless newspaper columns and magazine articles, Mr. Hentoff has championed free speech and opposed censorship of any kind, whether by liberals or conservatives. Few have more assiduously and consistently defended the right of people to express their views, no matter how objectionable. In that vein, he opposes hate-crime laws as wrongly -- no, make that dangerously -- punishing thought.
He is unalterably opposed to abortion, but he cares about life beyond the womb, so he is against capital punishment.
He supported going to war in Iraq, but denounces the Bush administration’s resorting to interrogation methods regarded by much of the world as torture. He also has his doubts about President-elect Barack Obama, who, for all the adulation that we hear, “needs watching -- like everybody.”
He has plenty of quarrels with the American Civil Liberties Union and its New York cousin. But he also shares the civil libertarians’ displeasure with school safety agents in New York City schools who, the critics say, abuse students with City Hall’s blessing. “Teaching fear of the police is part of the curriculum,” Mr. Hentoff said.
The thing is that, agree with him or not, Nat Hentoff offers no opinion that isn’t supported by facts, diligently gathered. One is tempted to say that facts are holy to him, but that is probably not the right word for someone who calls himself “a member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists.”
Some people, a few liberals included, would say, "Amen."
Many illiberal people -- left and right -- would not. There is a story there.