[JPL] Having Writ for 50 Years, Hentoff Moves On From The Voice
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Fri Jan 9 14:55:49 EST 2009
January 9, 2009
Having Writ for 50 Years, Hentoff Moves On From The Voice
By CLYDE HABERMAN
When he was young, Nat Hentoff said, he was lucky enough to have Duke
Ellington as a mentor. This was, of course, quite some time ago, when Mr.
Hentoff was writing principally about jazz and ³Duke Ellington² had yet to
become another way to say ³West 106th Street.²
He learned a lot from jazzmen, Mr. Hentoff said. Ellington taught him the
perils of being pigeonholed. ³He said, Never get caught up in categories.
That¹ll imprison you,¹ ² Mr. Hentoff recalled.
³Duke was talking about music,² he said. But the same words could easily
apply to Nat Hentoff, who ³Thank goodness,² he said has defied
categories since he began putting pen to paper more than six decades ago. In
a simplistic age that likes convenient labels, you can try slapping one on
him. But you¹re bound to go wrong.
Across his 83 years, his three dozen books and his countless newspaper
columns and magazine articles, Mr. Hentoff has championed free speech and
opposed censorship of any kind, whether by liberals or conservatives. Few
have more assiduously and consistently defended the right of people to
express their views, no matter how objectionable. In that vein, he opposes
hate-crime laws as wrongly no, make that dangerously punishing thought.
He is unalterably opposed to abortion, but he cares about life beyond the
womb, so he is against capital punishment.
He supported going to war in Iraq, but denounces the Bush administration¹s
resorting to interrogation methods regarded by much of the world as torture.
He also has his doubts about President-elect Barack Obama, who, for all the
adulation that we hear, ³needs watching like everybody.²
He has plenty of quarrels with the American Civil Liberties Union and its
New York cousin. But he also shares the civil libertarians¹ displeasure with
school safety agents in New York City schools who, the critics say, abuse
students with City Hall¹s blessing. ³Teaching fear of the police is part of
the curriculum,² Mr. Hentoff said.
The thing is that, agree with him or not, Nat Hentoff offers no opinion that
isn¹t supported by facts, diligently gathered. One is tempted to say that
facts are holy to him, but that is probably not the right word for someone
who calls himself ³a member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked
The purpose here is to note what New York is losing now that Mr. Hentoff has
been laid off we prefer to say fired by The Village Voice after having
worked there for 50 years. The weekly, financially struggling like many
other newspapers, cut him loose last week.
A lot of staff members have been let go since New Times Media, based in
Phoenix, took over The Voice in 2005. (The company then recast itself as
Village Voice Media. It seems to like the paper¹s name more than the
people.) But Mr. Hentoff is in a league of his own.
Do not mistake this for an obituary. It¹s not even close to one. Mr. Hentoff
may not hear as well as he once did, or stand quite as straight. But he will
not fade to silence. Citing the late journalists George Seldes and I.F.
Stone as his muses, he promised in a farewell Voice column to continue
³putting on my skunk suit at other garden parties.² He will write for the
United Media syndicate and Jewish World Review, and also reflect on jazz,
his lifelong passion, in The Wall Street Journal.
He will keep pecking away on his IBM Selectric III in the Greenwich Village
apartment that he turned into an office, a space that may be described most
charitably as cluttered. Martha Stewart would probably freak out if she saw
Clinging to his typewriter does not make Mr. Hentoff a Luddite. Like most of
us, he relies on the Internet for research. But there is a price to be paid
for that ocean of data, he cautioned, quoting a line from T. S. Eliot:
³Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?² So much information
brings ³more confusion,² Mr. Hentoff said.
³You can¹t stop the spread of the Internet, the bloggers and all that,² he
said, but the problem is that people tend to visit sites that only reinforce
their preconceptions. ³And since there¹s not very much fact-checking on the
Internet although sometimes you find out a lot the confusion continues,²
IN his view, nothing less than democracy is on the line, especially with
³the shrinking of reporters and editors in the print media.²
³I think we¹re in a perilous state in that, to paraphrase Mr. Madison, the
way to keep this republic is to have an informed electorate,² Mr. Hentoff
said. But what we have is ³Constitutional illiteracy, which is rampant.²
³If you ask the first 100,000 students or adults what¹s in the Fourth
Amendment or what¹s the separation of powers, I think you¹d have some
puzzlement,² he said. ³And that¹s, if I can use the word, dangerous.²
At least we will still have Nat Hentoff on the ramparts warning of the
danger, even if not in The Voice and even, he said, if he has to go it
alone. That, too, is a lesson learned from an old jazzman, Ben Webster, who
played tenor sax. ³He said to me, Listen, kid, when the rhythm section
ain¹t making it, go for yourself,¹ ²
³I¹ve tried that with editors all the time,² Mr. Hentoff said. ³That¹s the
fun of all this. You keep surprising people.
³And angering them, I might say.²
E-mail: haberman at nytimes.com
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