One Rogue Liberal: The Shunning of Nat Hentoff

Posted: Feb 28, 2017 12:01 AM
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My thanks to the tens of thousands of WORLD members who stuck with us even though they disagreed with our criticism of Donald Trump last year. Although secular liberals often say Christians are intolerant, the left more often seems to have a “one strike, you’re out” philosophy, combined with an avoidance of inconvenient news.

The excommunication of a great liberal journalist, Nat Hentoff, and the whitewashed obituaries that followed his death on Jan. 7 at age 91, showed both those tendencies. I read dozens of Hentoff obits to see how mediacrats would handle what seemed to them a great contradiction: one of their own becoming fiercely pro-life during the 1980s and staying that way.

Reporters learn about the attractiveness of “man bites dog” stories, strange and unexpected happenings. The conservative New York Sun followed that journalistic tradition, noting: “One of the most courageous and dramatic developments in Hentoff’s career was his emergence as a defender of the pro-life movement. The turn seemed at times to be all the more newsworthy because of his self-declared atheism and his long-established progressive bona fides.”

Many other publications, though, ignored the oddity of an atheistic left-wing pro-feminist libertarian becoming pro-life. Obits I read from NPR, Rolling Stone, Jewish News, The Atlantic, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Oregonian, and many other publications didn’t mention Hentoff’s stand. Some publications that did, did so oddly: The Washington Post noted Hentoff’s “determined opposition to abortion, leading him to call himself a member of the antiabortion left.” But I interviewed and profiled Hentoff in 1990: He did not call himself that. He called himself consistently pro-life.

CNN, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Associated Press, and others mentioned in one sentence Hentoff’s “opposition to abortion,” but did not mention why. Hentoff told me and others that he changed after digging into the story of a Down syndrome baby in Indiana who died of starvation over six days when his parents refused surgery for his deformed esophagus. When Hentoff talked with liberal friends about this horror, they responded, “Why the big fuss? Consider it a late abortion.” Ouch! No major publication I saw told that story.

Nor did publications describe how Hentoff faced shunning in the offices of The Village Voice, a publication he had helped build in the 1950s. During my visit there in 1990, I waited in an open area with dozens of desks where a 55-year-old editor in Dockers grimly harangued seven or eight 25-year-olds in tight jeans about the “blow-dried fascism of the Reaganitemare.” Then, from a dim hallway on the other side of the open area, a bent-over 65-year-old in baggy gray slacks shuffled into the light. The Red Sea of young people silently parted before him, and the middle-aged man offered a sullen look, but no one said hello to gray-bearded Nat Hentoff.

The excommunication should not have surprised me, because the lead article in the Voice that week complained of those who had “found common cause with the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world. On the package of issues surrounding abortion, they have allied themselves with the society’s most repressive and misogynistic forces.”

(I later found a statement from Hentoff, speaking at an Americans United for Life forum in 1986, on what happened when he became pro-life: It led to “certain social problems … there are people at my paper who do not speak to me anymore. In most cases, that’s no loss.” Hentoff also told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988 that his colleagues thought, “No one who opposes abortion ... could be a true supporter of women’s rights or, for that matter, a decent human being. To this day two of the Voice’s women editors no longer speak to me.”)

None of the obits I read captured the loneliness of Hentoff’s professional life once he professed pro-life heresy. In 1990, he sat in his windowless office (about 7 by 8 feet) at a desk facing the door, with books, folders, and jazz albums piled on his desk like a barricade against the non-collegial colleagues surrounding him. Nor did he feel theologically at home with his theistic pro-life allies: Hentoff told me, “I’ve always wished I could make the leap of faith and believe, but I can’t.” When I pushed harder, he snapped, “I’m an atheist. I’m really not interested.”

Many of the obituaries, though, noted that he died listening to great jazz singer Billie Holiday.