Nat Hentoff has passed away at the age of 91. NYT. Reason. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. I can’t link to them directly, but Popehat has been retweeting a lot of very good tributes to Mr. Hentoff.
Mr. Hentoff was a personal hero of mine (who I never met). Stipulated: he was a liberal, and we probably would have disagreed on many of the social issues of the day. But there was one thing we agreed on: freedom of speech. Mr. Hentoff was an absolutist. He didn’t care if you were left, right, a student, or even a Nazi. If someone was trying to stop you from speaking, he was against it. He wrote eloquently and well for many years for the Village Voice in opposition to censors and censorship. He didn’t just limit himself to government action, though there was plenty of fertile ground there. He also spoke out against private censors. I particularly remember his condemnations of CBS for suspending Andy Rooney
(I don’t know how long he’d been ill, but I wonder what, if anything, he would have said about Milo Yiannopoulos and Simon & Schuster.)
One of the things I respected about him was his intellectual consistency. That didn’t just apply to freedom of speech. He was opposed to the death penalty. But he was also opposed to abortion (he was the only anti-abortion voice in the Voice, and he wasn’t shy about expressing his views) and euthanasia. I like the way Wikipedia summarizes his view:
Hentoff argued that a consistent life ethic should be the viewpoint of a genuine civil libertarian, arguing that all human rights are at risk when the rights of any one group of people are diminished, that human rights are interconnected, and people deny others’ human rights at their own peril.
When I was a young lad in middle school and high school, Hentoff’s books on free speech were in the school library, and my high school had a subscription to the Voice. Nat Hentoff shaped my views on freedom of speech, and inspired me (in my own small way) to be a first amendment advocate and activist.
I’m reminded of that quote from Melville Davisson Post that I often use: “He stood up as though he stood alone, with no glance about him to see what other men would do…No one of them believed in what the other taught; but they all believed in justice, and when the line was drawn, there was but one side for them all.” That was Nat Hentoff.
(He also was a pretty prominent writer on jazz, though I was born without the jazz appreciation gene and am not as well read in his jazz writings.)
91 is a good run, but the world is still a lesser place today.