Nat Hentoff’s Idiosyncratic Example

By John Whitehead

Those who wish to defend human life from the many threats to it, those who wish to overturn the usual left-right political categories, and those who wish to discover a genuinely independent thinker would all do well to read the work of Nat Hentoff. Hentoff, who died in 2017 after a journalistic career lasting over sixty years, defied conventional labels: he was an avowed atheist who staunchly opposed abortion and assisted suicide, a friend of both Malcolm X and John Cardinal O’Connor, and a civil libertarian who antagonized both liberals and conservatives. 

Many of Hentoff’s convictions and concerns came to him early. Growing up Jewish in Boston during the Great Depression, he experienced bigotry firsthand, most significantly in the form of Irish toughs who would beat up and terrorize Jewish Bostonians (Hentoff lost a tooth in one such encounter). His first (and probably greatest) passion—jazz music—brought him into contact with an array of black musicians and made him aware of racism’s evils. These early experiences gave a Hentoff a concern for equality and a penchant for siding with the underdog.

Hentoff also acquired a habit of iconoclasm and a dislike for authority. At the age of twelve, he dramatically rejected the Judaism of his early childhood by publicly eating a salami sandwich on Yom Kippur. As a teenager, employment at a candy store led to his first participation in a labor strike, against the store’s draconian owner. Work on the student newspaper at Northeastern University brought Hentoff and other students into conflict with the administration over the paper’s criticism of the college trustees. This last conflict demonstrated another of Hentoff’s passions: freedom of speech, as well as the First Amendment and constitutional law more broadly. 

These early influences fostered Hentoff’s career as a writer of fiction and journalism. His non-fiction writing covered jazz, racial equality, civil liberties, and politics. In the late 1950s, Hentoff found a steady outlet for his journalism at the Village Voice, where he would remain for over 40 years (although he characteristically criticized the Voice itself publicly on more than one occasion). 

Hentoff’s early career coincided with the civil rights movement, which he chronicled and sympathetically analyzed in his book The New Equality. In a passage that sounds familiar half a century later, he wrote:

Justice is less likely to be done if you are poor, and it is in worse imbalance if you are Negro and poor. A study by the United States Department of Justice reveals that in some areas guilty pleas are three times as frequent among prisoners who have to be assigned court-appointed attorneys as among those who can afford to retain their own lawyers. As for capital cases, Norman Redlich, a professor of law at New York University and a close student of capital punishment, claims that hardly anyone is executed in this country who has money or influential friends. Clarence T. Duffy, former warden of San Quentin [State Prison], adds: “Negroes are more likely to die than white men—and for less serious crimes.” (The New Equality, p. 52)

Hentoff would report on racial inequality, in the criminal justice system and elsewhere, until his last years.

When writing a profile of the Nation of Islam in 1960, Hentoff met the organization’s then-spokesman, Malcolm X, amid an unfriendly crowd in a Harlem diner. He found in Malcolm X a welcome intellectual sparring partner—“calmly alert, he enjoys the challenge of debate,” Hentoff wrote—and a friendship developed between them. As Hentoff later recalled, “I enjoyed watching him outmaneuver reporters and academics who either were convinced that he was an irredeemable racist or felt that with sufficient cultivation he might eventually see the light and join the editorial board of the New York Times.” They spoke for the final time a few days before Malcolm X’s murder, the only time Hentoff saw his friend visibly afraid.

A significant ideological difference between the two friends lies in their differing views on whether violence was justifiable, with Hentoff taking the more pacifist view. During the 1960s, he became involved in peace and nonviolent activism for the first time, participating in a protest against nuclear weapons and writing a biography of the pacifist A. J. Muste, whom he considered a mentor. Hentoff also spoke out against the Vietnam War and occasionally participated in anti-war activities. Writing in the Voice in 1968, Hentoff also made a curiously prophetic comment. Decrying the violence in Vietnam and the United States (Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated only a few days earlier), Hentoff speculated on what “could produce a massive pro-life victory.”

At the time, Hentoff’s use of the phrase “pro-life” did not include preborn humans threatened by abortion. Prior to the 1980s, Hentoff generally supported abortion access and knew very few pro-lifers. Moreover, abortion had touched him personally because his third wife, Margot, had had an abortion during a strained period in their marriage. Hentoff’s views began to change in the early 1980s, however, when he wrote a series of Voice columns on the “Baby Doe” cases. These were cases where children born with serious but not necessarily terminal disabilities, such as Down syndrome and spina bifida, were denied medical care at their parents’ request. As Hentoff reported, in one case a boy with Down syndrome in Bloomington, Indiana, was denied care that could have prevented his death by starvation.

Reports on these cases prompted an uproar and led Congress to amend child-abuse legislation in order to classify the denial of medical care to disabled infants with life-threatening conditions as a form of abuse. During the debate over the “Baby Doe” cases and subsequent legislation, Hentoff was appalled to see how many people on the political left defended the parents’ alleged right to deny their children life-saving medical care. An ACLU staffer described the denial of care in one case as “really an extension of reproductive freedom rights—a woman’s right to choose.”

This controversy led Hentoff to re-examine his attitudes toward abortion and to learn more about fetal development. As he explains in his memoir Speaking Freely:

I began to read the medical textbooks that physicians in prenatal care read—not pro-life books, but such standard texts as The Unborn Patient: Prenatal Diagnosis and Treatment

I spoke to a number of physicians who do research in prenatal development, and they emphasized that life is a continuum from fertilization to birth to death. Setting up divisions of this process to justify abortion, for example, is artificial. It is the life of a developing being that is being killed. The euphemisms for an aborted fetus—“the product of conception” and “a clump of cells”—are what George Orwell might have called newspeak… [emphasis in original]

As time went on, I began to understand that there is much more to abortion than abortion itself. The mindset—the ability to regard as just and necessary the killing of at least 1.3 million developing human beings a year—helps strengthen the consistent ethic of death in the nation—including the discounting of the Baby Jane Does and the rise of support for “assisted suicide.” (Speaking Freely, pp. 173-174)

Hentoff’s public embrace of a pro-life stance on abortion earned him the enmity of many, including several Village Voice colleagues and his own wife. His new stance did not earn him the unqualified support of pro-lifers, either: Hentoff remained a secular, left-leaning writer who took Republican politicians to task for their failure to respect civil liberties or meet the poor’s needs. In a 1986 speech on the “indivisibility of life,” Hentoff recalled speaking before a state right-to-life convention, to an audience that mostly disapproved of his whole-life message.  In that address, he argued that:

pro-lifers ought to be opposing capital punishment and nuclear armament and the Reagan budget with its dedicated care for missiles as it cuts funds for the Women/Infant/Children Program that provides diet supplements and medical checkups for mothers in poverty. Surely, I said, they should not emulate the President in these matters—and here I stole a line from Congressman Barney Frank—they should not emulate the President in being pro-life only up to the moment of birth. Well, the faces before me began to close, and from the middle and the back of the dining room there were shouts. I couldn’t make out the words, but they were not approving. As I went on, there were more shouts as well as growls and table-thumping of an insistence that indicated a tumbrel awaited outside. I finally ended my speech to a chorus of howls, and several of the diners rushed toward the dais. I did not remember ever intending to die for this cause, but as it turned out the attacks were all verbal.

He did find some philosophical allies, however, in groups such as Feminists for Life and the pro-life peace organization Pro-Lifers for Survival—the forerunner organization to the Consistent Life Network. Hentoff also found common cause and friendship with the “Genghis Khan” of the Roman Catholic Church, New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor, who also faced opposition from the left and the right alike. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Hentoff became a notable advocate for the consistent life ethic, in the pages of the Voice, in a syndicated newspaper column, and elsewhere. The speech just quoted expressed that ethic forcefully.

Hentoff went through a final, late-in-life philosophical change; however, that change sadly moved him away from the consistent life ethic and closer to his friend Malcolm X’s views. His concern for the lives and liberties of all people made him write frequently on victims of human rights abuses outside the United States, in China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere.  Exposing people’s suffering in Sudan, including the violent repression in Darfur in the early 2000s, was a particular passion of his.

Reporting on violent injustices led Hentoff to a disturbing conclusion: war could be justified in response to these injustices. Although a fierce critic of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, with its use of government surveillance, indefinite detention, and torture, Hentoff nevertheless endorsed Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. His support for the Iraq War was based not on concern over the weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, but rather on that regime’s very real repression of the Iraqi people. Later, this same belief in war as a tool of humanitarian rescue led Hentoff to advocate for military intervention in Sudan.

Such hawkishness is bitterly disappointing for peace activists and advocates of the consistent life ethic who once so appreciated Hentoff as a comrade. Given his keen appreciation of the Bush administration’s disregard for human rights and civil liberties, Hentoff should have asked the obvious question of whether such an administration could be trusted with humanitarian intervention in another country.

Nevertheless, he had something to teach peace-minded people even in his later years. His justification for renouncing his traditional peace advocacy stands as a challenge for all who seek to defend justice and human rights without resort to violence:

After nearly 20 years of reporting on the likes of Sudan’s General al-Bashir and, more recently, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, I’m convinced there are times when the only way to rescue the surviving victims of such monsters is to bypass the U. N. with a league of democratic nations, enough of whose citizens are driven by a visceral need to protect the human rights of people being terrorized by their own sovereign governments.

For many years, I considered myself a nonviolent, direct-action pacifist, one who was greatly influenced by the lessons of the late A. J. Muste. . . . However, I am forced to conclude, after many decades spent reporting on and witnessing the evidence, that there is such a thing as immutable evil in this world—as personified by, among others, Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir. By advocating the use of force to save their victims, I feel I have betrayed A. J., and probably that part of myself that made me a pacifist. But with General al-Bashir breaking the 2005 peace treaty that put a stop to his 20-year war against black Christians and animists in the south of Sudan—in which over two million people have already died—only force will prevent the opening of (to quote one Western observer there) “the gates of hell.”

While military force is a dubious tool for correcting injustice (as the dismal recent history of “regime change” shows), Hentoff was not wrong to point out the unambiguous malevolence of many regimes guilty of repressing their own people or others. Peace advocates need to be clear-eyed and honest about such regimes, and the departure from the peace cause by Hentoff should be a spur to deeper thought on how to counter these evildoers nonviolently. 

Notwithstanding his evolving views, Hentoff remained, in his later years, a gadfly and critic of those in power. His condemnation of Bush’s war on terror was succeeded by criticism of Barack Obama’s targeted killing by drones and other national security policies. He also continued to write against abortion, the death penalty, and police brutality. When Donald Trump emerged as a serious presidential contender, Hentoff wasted no time in lambasting him as well. His final column in September 2016 was, appropriately enough, in praise of the Constitution.

Very few people would agree with Hentoff on everything, something he would probably have regarded as a point of pride. Certainly, many advocates of the consistent life ethic would disagree with—and be deeply saddened by—his late-in-life hawkishness. Nevertheless, Hentoff’s work and life leave much to benefit the intellectually curious. He offered a thoughtful, unconventional defense of human life against abortion and similar threats, as well as valuable commentary on freedom of speech and other civil liberties. Above all, he offered the example of someone who did not follow the “herd of independent minds” but followed principles and evidence to their conclusions as he saw them, regardless of party lines or political orthodoxy. That is an example well worth remembering and imitating.

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