Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Speak, Notebook
By Nicholas Stix

In writing his memoirs, a journalist has an advantage over a civilian, in having a record of his life. And where Nat Hentoff's notebooks left off, his FBI files provided items he'd forgotten, such as the name of the haberdashery where, at age 11, he'd had his first job, and some which he'd never known, such as his parents' Russian birthplaces.
A Village Voice and Washington Post columnist, and the author of some 40 non-fiction and fiction books for adults and children, the catholicity of Nat Hentoff's interests and his career of taking gutsy stands have made him an institution in a profession pervaded by mediocrity and conformity.

Hentoff's atheism, his support of trade unions and flag burners, and his quaint faith in school integration that most American blacks no longer believe in make him look like your standard-issue liberal. Yet the same man defended the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, opposes abortion, and has fought against a purported "right of privacy" that would allow women to dispose of children born with birth defects. It is no wonder that many of Hentoff's colleagues at the Village Voice have stopped speaking to him.

The sequel to Hentoff's 1987 memoir Boston Boy, which told of his "exuberantly anti-Semitic hometown," Speaking Freely briskly covers his 50-plus years in journalism with a wry, self-deprecating humor that his columns and First Amendment books often lack.

Hentoff enjoyed early success writing on jazz for Down Beat magazine, whose New York office he ran. In 1956, he got fired. It seems he had hired a "black" secretary without getting permission from the home office in Chicago. The magazine, which was devoted to black music, had never hired a black staffer. Ironically, Hentoff reports, "Several years later I found out that the secretary at issue was not black, but Egyptian. Of course, these days, the creators and practitioners of Afrocentricity would rule that, being Egyptian, the new secretary was, of course, black. Either way, I would still have been fired."

Hentoff sketches several poignant portraits of jazz greats. He tells of a 1980s concert at Lincoln Center in Dizzy Gillespie's honor. "I hadn't seen Dizzy...for a few years.... In the hallway, Dizzy was talking with someone, saw me, ran over, and grabbed me in a bear hug. To the man he was talking to, Dizzy, grinning, explained, 'It's like seeing an old broad you used to go with.'" Hentoff comments that "This old broad has seldom been so honored."

Hentoff tells sadly of the deterioration of New York's Village Voice, once as vividly unpredictable as it is now a museum of political correctness, and of his hopes for its reinvigoration under its current editor-in-chief, Don Forst. For the past several years, I have found Hentoff to be the sole reason for reading the Voice.

Hentoff's turn against abortion quarantined him at the virulently pro-abortion Voice. He has subsequently campaigned against all forms of euthanasia. He also attacked the practice of testing pregnant women for HIV for research purposes and then withholding the test results from them-a policy demanded by the AIDS lobby, employing an obscene interpretation of "privacy" rights, which condemned thousands of children and their mothers to terrible, premature deaths. Hentoff compared this practice to the "Tuskegee experiments," in which black men infected with syphilis were left untreated, to die horrible, slow deaths. The ACLU's support of this HIV testing policy led Hentoff to resign from the organization in 1995, after 35 years as a member.

In the "Genghis Khan of the Catholic Church," conservative archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor [alive at the time of original publication of this review], Hentoff sees a kindred spirit. He and O'Connor locked horns over Pope John Paul II's granting of an audience to Kurt Waldheim after his complicity in Nazi war crimes had been exposed. Before Hentoff could complete a second column attacking the Pope and O'Connor, a letter from the latter shut him up: "Now that I have won the argument, let us proceed. You may recall how Belloc ends his Path to Rome: 'So let us love another and laugh. Time passes and we shall soon laugh no longer. Meanwhile, earnest men are at siege upon us all round. So let us laugh and suffer absurdities, for that is only to suffer one another.'"

The defense of an opponent's freedom of belief requires a kind of love, and the embrace of absurdities. In Hentoff's case, the loving and the embracing are done by a warrior journalist.

The American Enterprise, Spring 1998.

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