Great human rights activists tend to know each other. Wednesday, Wesley J. Smith joined me on radio to talk about life, Nat Hentoff, and Wesley’s tribute in National Review Online last weekend.
We have lost a great writer, civil libertarian, free speech absolutist, jazz historian, and pro-life advocate, Nat Hentoff, who died today at 91.
As an atheist, Nat took much heat from his fellow liberals and rigid fundamentalists among the “free thinking” crowd for standing against abortion, euthanasia, and opposing protocols that would leave babies with spina bifida and other disabilities to die without attempts at curative treatment.
The conversation was both joyful and a little sad, because Wesley was one of many who knew Hentoff as an original and one of a kind, who has no immediate, obvious successor with his pure brand of civil engagement and reasoned, clear thinking.
At the end of that tribute, I noted with some sadness, Wesley wrote “We will not see his like again.”
He called Hentoff “a superb writer and first class public intellectual…a man of consistent, steadfast principle, a moral purist in an age of hand-wringing accommodationists. This unyielding consistency has made him an iconoclast’s iconoclast.” In fact, Wesley noted, Hentoff described himself as “a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer.”
One could disagree with Hentoff’s politics but appreciate his sincere humanitarian principles, we both admitted. Wesley’s tribute noted that ‘his style was as individualistic as were his principles. In an age of shouters, he was quiet. In an era of facile talking heads, he remained profound. Where others agitate and self-aggrandize, he relied on steadfast cogent argument to persuade. Where contemporary pundits often tailor their views to cater to the powerful or popular, Hentoff courageously remained a challenger of orthodoxies.
Hentoff’s advocacy cut a wide swath across what are often called ‘the life issues.’ Indeed, his unyielding stand over many years against abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, unethical human medical experimentation, and the ongoing bioethical construction of a “duty to die” has made him a moral beacon for those who believe that universal human liberty depends on society’s embrace of the intrinsic equality of all human life. And for decades he…connected the dots for his vast audience, expertly charting the consequences of our steady, but. not always slow, slide down the slippery slope toward a veritable culture of death.
NRO ran this piece the next day, by Jack Fowler, who also knew Hentoff and called him “a unique advocate for the humanity of the unborn child.”
(Sounds like a very fitting commentary for today.)
Fowler published a snip from Hentoff’s column on what happened at that ‘free speech discussion’ at Cooper Union, on whether a liberal could be pro-life.
As moderator, I started what would have been the discussion by pointing out that this was an evening about free speech — not only that of the governor of Pennsylvania but also that of anyone in the audience who wanted to challenge him. The hooting, screaming, pounding and whistle blowing began. Strategically located at both sides of the hall — disruption by stereo — a preening array of hooligans made all speech except their own inaudible. They reminded me of the domestic brown shirts breaking up Jewish meetings in my youth, but these were howling soldiers of the left…
At least 80 percent of the audience wanted to hear Casey and said so, as best they could, by applauding his attempts to get started. But they were no match for the speech muggers. After several tries, Gov. Casey yielded. “The Democratic Convention suspended the First Amendment,” he tried to say, “and tonight you did the same thing.” Casey walked off the stage as the shouters congratulated each other.
It was an infamous event that has seen itself repeated many times, and with great intensity, over the years; and over them, Hentoff was on hand to bear witness to the assault on free speech in places where open debate and discussion were supposed to be the rule, and to call out those who were supposed to be protectors of the First Amendment.
Then, with the tinge of resignation that Wesley Smith expressed at the end of his tribute to this singular, Fowler posted a 1967 video of Hentoff in debate with the inimitable William F. Buckley on an episode of Firing Line. It was priceless. Though the topic of that was ‘Black Power’ and civil rights, defense of the vulnerable and our duty to the poor in need, some of Hentoff’s remarks were remarkably relevant to this very day’s news of politics and ‘culture wars’.
“Liberals seem to be amused by their own language” he said. “It’s not a conspiracy, they’ve just stopped thinking. They don’t think about things after they’ve talked about them.”
He was sincere, knowing from whence he spoke. Continuing to explain the liberal mentality, Hentoff added: “You don’t really do things, you plan things.”
In that column with that video, Fowler left the reader this note, presuming readers would watch two great intellects speak, and listen, to each other for genuinely civil discourse, with conviction and respect.
Enjoy, as you will, but be warned: You will despair that the quality and level of public discussion on display is in our rear-view mirror. RIP Nat.
We don’t have a Lincoln, a Martin Luther King Jr., a Reagan or Buckley, a Hentoff still among us. But we have their legacy and model and witness. And it’s our right to choose to carry it on.