We all say we support free speech, don’t we? We urge people to speak or write without fear and say what’s really on their minds.
Then we hear something we don’t like, and we falter. Something ugly is said, and our one-man rally for the First Amendment falls silent. Free speech is one thing, but … There were no “buts” with Nat Hentoff.
When news of his death at age 91 came out, headlines described him as a “renowned columnist.” He certainly was, but CNN also used the word “edgy” to describe the man who wrote for the Village Voice for 50 years. Hentoff didn’t simply pay lip service to the First Amendment. He meant what he said.
Consider the first two chapters of his book “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee.” People who advocate removing “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from school reading lists because it contains racial slurs could expect no support from Hentoff. Chapter one profiles some on the front lines of the perpetual battle to ban Mark Twain’s controversial novel.
The freedom to read means you risk being hurt. But that, in his view, is how you learn to think.
In chapter two, Hentoff pivots to efforts to suppress “Working.” Studs Terkel’s book profiles Americans giving candid views of their professions. Candid, in fact, to the point of sometimes using four-letter words. And the professions were so wide-ranging that they included prostitutes.
That didn’t sit well with officials at a high school in Girard, Erie County. When a teacher tried to include “Working” in her class, they banned it. The fight culminated in a visit from Terkel himself. The book was restored.
Two students refused to read the book, citing moral objections. The school said that if they didn’t read it, they wouldn’t graduate.
And that was something Hentoff couldn’t support. Just as you have a right to read “Huckleberry Finn,” you have a right not to read “Working.” The key, for Hentoff, was freedom. No one should be allowed to take a book away from you or force you to read it.
That kind of consistency, alas, is rare in any age. But it seems in particularly short supply these days, when people retreat into their own echo chambers and hear less and less of what the “other side” has to say.
Patience grows short. Tempers flare. Those who disagree with us are “unfriended.” But if we truly believe in free speech, how can this be? Why don’t we follow Hentoff’s example and really listen?
Perhaps we fear being challenged or even, horror of horrors, changing our minds. That happened to Hentoff on the issue of abortion. He considered himself “pro-choice” for many years. Then came Baby Jane Doe.
She was a spina-bifida child — one born with an exposed spinal cord. The cord can be closed via surgery, but parents have to OK the procedure. And those who didn’t want a disabled child would often refuse their permission.
“Here were liberals, decent people, fully convinced themselves that they were for individual rights and liberties but willing to send into eternity these infants because they were imperfect, inconvenient, costly,” he said. “I saw the same attitude on the part of the same kinds of people toward abortion, and I thought it was pretty horrifying. The ‘slippery slope’ business began to make sense to me then. From there it was ineluctable — not just abortion, but euthanasia as well.”
So Hentoff was making connections. To do that, of course, you have to think. And that can’t happen unless you’re free — truly free — to read and to write.
Perhaps the best tribute we can offer him is to join the fight to protect that freedom. RIP, Mr. Hentoff.
This piece originally appeared in Inside Sources.