Nat Hentoff passed away over the weekend. He was 91.
After getting his start as a jazz critic with the Village Voice, Hentoff swerved into a career as a civil liberties activist. Probably 25 years ago, I read Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee – a book about free speech, but even moreso a treatise on how protecting freedom for the unpopular and unsavory was as important, or more important, than protecting it for “the good guys”. It also warned of today’s campus totalitarianism. Hentoff, a longtime ACLU activist, lived out what the organization was back before it turned into the “Manhattan Civil Liberties Union.
It’s become a traffic-worn cliche to say an old-time conservative, a Ronald Reagan or a Jack Kemp, “..couldn’t get elected in today’s GOP” – but it’s actually true that Nat Hentoff couldn’t get arrested in today’s power-mad hard left. We know this because today’s left literally did, in fact, reject him:
In 2009, after 50 years, Hentoff lost his job at the Village Voice. He was told it was due to “budget” concerns, but most believe he had been fired because his libertarianism was increasingly controversial on the left. In the years that followed, he wrote for numerous publications, including The Washington Times, and worked with the Cato Institute. He was honored by and spoke on free speech and privacy at a Conservative Political Action Conference and served on the advisory board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which fights for free speech on our campuses.
When the Village Voice cast him adrift, he observed that he would just have to put on his “skunk suit” and saunter off to someone else’s “garden party.” And he did just that. He supported the Iraq war, but was a dogged critic of the Bush administration’s assault on privacy rights in the name of the “War on Terror.” He said he was going to support Barack Obama in 2008, but couldn’t because of the man’s views on partial-birth abortion. Last year he was to be found in the camp of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. He had not become a conservative, but remained Nat Hentoff. He was a man who could get up in the morning, look himself in the mirror and see the face of one who had, regardless of what others might say, remained true to his convictions.
He may have been the last liberal who actually was a liberal.