Monday, January 09, 2017

Nat Hentoff, RIP

One of the most useful commentators in public life has now passed away. Nat Hentoff is perhaps best known for being one of the greatest jazz critics of all, writing primarily for the Village Voice, but he did some of his greatest work as a tireless advocate for free speech and the First Amendment. He was an increasingly rare bird, a pro-life liberal, and he was willing to put his beliefs on the line. A taste of Hentoff from 1992, when he helped to provide a forum for Bob Casey, then the governor of Pennsylvania, who had become unwelcome in his own Democratic Party because he, too, was pro-life:
In a full-page announcement, New York's Village Voice recently invited one and all to come to the Great Hall of Cooper Union -- where Abraham Lincoln made the speech that caused his bid for the presidency to catch fire. I have been at many debates and discussions there, some fiery, but always the clashing ideas could be heard.

This time Democratic Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania was to deliver the speech the Democratic Party would not allow him to make at its "unified" convention. Casey is a liberal Democrat. He has created and expanded, for example, a program providing crucial medical services to low-income pregnant women and young children, and he was responsible for the first increase in minimum teacher salaries in the state in a quarter of a century.

But Casey failed to pass the official Democratic loyalty test of chairman RonBrown. Casey is pro-life, and so he was gagged for the entire New York celebration of Democratic pluralism.
What happened next is depressingly familiar:
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. (There is no difference, of course, between right and left when it comes to silencing the bearers of uncomfortable ideas.)

Among the opponents of any free exchange of ideas were ACT UP and various pro-choice (sic) cadres, among them: WHAM (Women's Health Action Mobilization); and NYU Students for Pro-Choice.

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.
There's more at the link, including an anecdote about a long-time lefty cause célèbre, Mumia Abu-Jumal. Hentoff was able to support the pro-life movement and the cause of Mumia. You might think that wrongheaded, but Hentoff would have loved that reaction and would have mounted a spirited defense of both positions, just as he would have supported your ability to argue against him. I have a copy of his book "Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee -- How The American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other" in my library and I recommend it. RIP.

1 comment:

Bike Bubba said...

He will be missed, and as you note, it seems that something else is dying, too; the ability of parties to allow dissenting voices to speak. I'm pretty sure that far more conservatives than liberals listened to both Hentoff and Bob Casey, especially in the past 20 years.

And maybe it's just the "pro-life is the biggest issue" part of me, but I've got to wonder how many disasters our nation might have avoided if pro-life Democrats had taken the hint and left the Democratic Party. Almost certainly the Health Insurance Deform Act could have been avoided.