Nat Hentoff, RIP

The first notable death of the year is that of journalist and author and critic Nat Hentoff, who died Saturday at the age of 91, and although that’s a ripe old age we wish he could have stuck around a bit longer. For the most of his seven-decades-long career and even right up to the end he was one of those durned back east big city liberals we’re always railing against, but he was one of the rare principled sorts who really did believe in life and liberty and individualism and everything else that liberalism claims to champion, so such principled conservatives as ourselves will need such stubbornly independent allies in the coming years.
Hentoff was born to Russian and Jewish immigrant parents in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, which way back then was a hotbed of both orthodox Judaism and radical politics, and by the age of 12 he was spending Yom Kippur conspicuously eating a salami sandwich on his tenement’s porch steps to signal his affiliation with the latter influence. A star student at America’s oldest public high school, Hentoff went off to Northeastern University, where he ran in to trouble as the student newspaper’s editor by publishing accounts of anti-Semitism at the the school, but still graduated with honors and started a career in journalism.
The jazz-crazed Hentoff’s first gig was as a music columnist with Downbeat, at that time the very Bible of jazz criticism, but despite an avid readership he was forced out after a few years because of his outspoken insistence the magazine hire more black writers. He then started a short-lived but briefly influential jazz journal of his own, and would later write several important books about the subject, and although he liked all that noisome be-bop and modernism more than we did his writings celebrated the glorious freedom of both the old and new jazz with a passion that’s still worth reading.
After that Hentoff wound up at the Village Voice, which was then as now the very Bible of radical chic liberalism, and at that point he was so eager to get out of the contentious field of jazz criticism that he started covering politics. He mostly concerned himself with any governmental attempts to restrict freedom of expression or pretty much any other freedom, and way back in the ’50s and into the ’60s he could find plenty of material about censorious right-winters and foul-mouth comedians and gay bars and Watergate to satisfy his avid liberal readership. He was still at it when we first started reading him in our junior high’s library in the ’70s, and although we picked up the Village Voice mostly because it gave our teenaged punk sensibilities a certain satisfaction to refute its radical chic liberalism we usually had to admit that the Hentoff guy had a point. Something in our own much-later prairie protestant upbringing in a hot bed of conservative orthodoxy had imbued a similar philosophy of First Amendment absolutism, and we vowed not to abandon that even for the sake of our side.
By the time we started our own journalism career in the early ’80s the liberals had been in charge for a while, at least in part because of Hentoff’s compelling arguments, and we already were noticing that they were suddenly the censorious and bossy ones. Conservative speakers were being literally shouted down at campus appearances and orthodox religious viewpoints were being excluded from public discussion, and all sorts of folks were suddenly confronted with new rules and regulations they never voted on. Hentoff couldn’t help noticing, either, and we have to admire that he wouldn’t abandon his First Amendment absolutism even for the sake of his side. He wrote column after column excoriating the rescinded commencement address invitations to conservative speakers, the silliness of a campus culture that insisted on ideological purity, the charges of racism leveled against any who dared speak out against the ostensible consensus on race, or the charges of homophobia against anyone who hewed to traditional religion, or any of the familiar rest of it. Of course it didn’t play well with his erstwhile avid readership on the left, and neither did it gain him much from respect from his erstwhile enemies on the right, but that’s all the more reason we’re going to miss the guy.
In his final years Hentoff was still as outspokenly atheistic as ever, but he was every bit as anti-abortion as any Orthodox rabbi, making a case for life from the very moment of conception to the end that was probably all the more convincing to many readers because it was grounded in the scientific and secular principles he’d always championed, and he even wound up writing admiringly of the radically anti-government Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul during that past crazy election year. Although we’re not so crazy about Paul ourselves neither are we crazy about the Republican president-elect with the censorious streak and the crazy idea that his government can make America great again, and although Hentoff was still a back east big city atheist liberal to the end we think we could have used his help in a time when principled conservatives few few and far between. In any case we wish Hentoff well, and hope that the God he never believed in will nonetheless welcome his soul to the perfect freedom he always wanted for the rest of us.

— Bud Norman

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