A Jewish atheist, journalist, staunch defender of the First Amendment, outspoken advocate for civil rights and the rights of the powerless, Nat Hentoff might seem to be the kind of person all liberals would embrace. But we’re living in a time when people don’t so much discuss ideas, as hold opinions–when people wear their political positions like so much costume jewelry: coordinated flash, but not a lot of value. Not surprisingly, many traditional lefties feel threatened by Hentoff because he doesn’t buy into the liberal canon. He argues with passion and logic, highlighting the chinks in liberal dogma and the hypocrisies some on the left are willing to accept in order to avoid feeling uncomfortable, or excluded.
Hentoff is not only quick to speak out against other liberals when they fall short of their ideals, but he also points out when conservatives rise to a higher standard. He challenges received ideas, and pushes for intellectual engagement with the world. Hentoff’s attacks on leftist hypocrisy are not the acts of a self-aggrandizing showboater, however, but ardent pleas for an informed liberalism, one based on constant examination of one’s own beliefs.
The Nat Hentoff Reader is a collection of essays and columns written over the last 25 years that reflect the author’s iconoclasm. Although he is most widely known as a columnist for The Village Voice, Hentoff also writes for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, JazzTimes and The Wall Street Journal. This new collection is split into four sections, each dealing with a primary thematic concern: democratic freedoms (especially of speech), creativity (particularly in jazz music), race and politics.
Hentoff, who often appears on Nightline as a First Amendment expert, opens his book with a section called “The Condition of Liberty.” The essays in this section take up the argument that the government is too often willing to regulate our basic freedoms, even though the First Amendment is designed to protect us from such regulation. One of those most willing to limit our freedoms, according to the author, is ex-President Clinton. In the essays “The Diminishing First Amendment” and “Individuals of Conscience Against the State,” Hentoff castigates Clinton for his “dangerous weakening of constitutional rights.” Clinton’s evisceration of basic liberties included limiting habeas corpus to one year, thus condemning prisoners on death row who will not have time to prove their innocence. Clinton also pushed for limiting content on the Internet to material suitable only for children. In addition, he enabled people to be deported without their–or their lawyers’–ability to see the evidence against them.
Hentoff is particularly critical of Clinton’s celebrated meeting with General Chi Haotian of China, the man who oversaw the brutal massacre of students in Tiananmen Square. He quotes Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the lone Democrat to speak out publicly against this: “At the same time that President Clinton will not meet with any of the Chinese dissidents or have an official meeting with the Dalai Lama of Tibet, he has an official meeting with the person who continues to crush dissent in China and Tibet.” Hentoff writes that people aren’t aware of hypocrisies like Clinton’s because the media routinely fail to cover issues involving our First Amendment freedoms.
In “First Friend,” Hentoff discusses a Supreme Court case that resulted in what he calls “the most draconian restraint of the press in U.S. judicial history.” It involved a case where the California Supreme Court devised a complete list of words that people in the workplace would be prevented from speaking, even if the forbidden words were spoken outside the presence of those who might be offended, or were “welcome and overtly permitted.” When the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of this case, only one justice dissented. “A theory deeply etched in our law is that a free society prefers to punish the few who abuse rights of speech after they break the law than to throttle them and all others beforehand–we deal here with a claim at the core of the First Amendment.” The press ignored this dissent, written by Justice Clarence Thomas.
At the core of Hentoff’s passion for First Amendment issues is a desire to protect the authenticity of our laws, to prevent them from being watered down by political expediency. This same concern with authenticity, with “roots,” is on display when he writes about jazz, race or Democratic Party political ideals. In essays on Lester Young, Otis Span, George Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others, Hentoff celebrates what is honest, original and courageous in the music, that willingness to take a stand that shows itself both in creative and interpersonal endeavors. In “Dizzy in the Sunlight II,” Hentoff relates how, while in Pakistan, Dizzy Gillespie invited a snake charmer whose musicianship he admired back to his hotel room, where the horrified hotel manager objected, “The man was of a lower caste than the [hotel’s] clients.”
“He’s a musician, isn’t he?” Gillespie replied, and brought the man up to his room for a long, exploratory jam session.
In “The Integrationist,” a probing profile of Dr. Kenneth Clark–who in 1954 as an associate professor of psychology had his work mentioned in arguing for integrated schools in the Brown v. Board of Education decision–Hentoff shows how Clark’s consistent commitment to educating children made some turn against him when the public clamor for integration eventually dimmed and African Americans began to call for segregated schools to serve black children. Clark went from being a hero to having his blackness questioned because he held onto what he believed rather than compromise his deeply held values.
“I remain a rigid, hard-line integrationist,” Clark is quoted as saying. “Some of my black friends urge me to be more ‘realistic,’ more ‘pragmatic’–I continue to be an extremist–in believing that black kids can learn, and that segregation is one way in which they are prevented from learning.” Clark’s commitment to principle, Hentoff points out, ran aground against a political system more interested in maintaining power than developing programs that worked.
This urge for power, and the way it distorts political values, comes across most clearly in the closing essay, “Life of the Party.” This piece focuses on Robert Casey, the former governor of Pennsylvania, who paid a high price for his commitment to principles. In listing Casey’s accomplishments, Hentoff cites a variety of causes any liberal would embrace: investment in breast cancer research before it became politically popular; the creation of school-based child-care programs so teenaged parents could stay in school and poor adults could work; comprehensive health-care programs for children and women; more female Cabinet members appointed than any Democratic governor in the United States; a 1,500 percent increase in state contracts awarded to women- and minority-owned businesses under his leadership as governor. Paul Begala said that in Pennsylvania, “Casey rebuilt the [Democratic] party from ashes, and made it a better organization than the Republicans.”
Yet, at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, instead of being a featured speaker, Casey and the Pennsylvania delegation were “exiled to the farthest reaches of Madison Square Garden–because Casey was pro-life.” Instead of celebrating his accomplishments, the party punished Casey for still holding onto a belief that many Democrats had only recently abandoned. Even Clinton, Hentoff points out, was quoted in 1986 as saying, “I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortion.”
This is the single issue that most draws the ire of Hentoff’s readers. Hentoff is a pro-life liberal. He argues, in the Casey essay, that the Democrats’ turn to the pro-choice position was one of political expediency: “By the early ’90s, the Democrats [started] seeking the votes of upper-middle-class Republican women.” As an example of this, he points out that Pennsylvania Republican Kathy Taylor was a featured speaker at the same convention at which Casey had been ignored. Taylor had worked hard to defeat Casey’s progressive tax reforms. But she was an upper-middle-class Republican woman who was pro-choice.
You do not have to agree with Hentoff’s ideas to appreciate the challenge these essays offer. But The Nat Hentoff Reader is not a book for those who feel threatened by opinions contrary to their own, or are unwilling to do the hard work of honestly thinking through their positions on ideas like freedom of speech or the withholding of life support from handicapped children. But for those willing to live the examined life, the Reader provides an opportunity to reconsider one’s own ideas about how we are to live in this world today.