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Minority of One

SPEAKING FREELY: A Memoir. By Nat Hentoff . Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $25

September 21, 1997|ANDREW SULLIVAN | Andrew Sullivan is author of "Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality" (Vintage). He is a senior editor at the New Republic

The mark of a truly interesting journalist, I've always thought, is some kind of internal tension. Polemicists have their place; but tortured polemicists are always better value. If Nat Hentoff is not exactly tortured, then he is, at least, tense. Tension enlivens his prose and his life.

As Sidney Bechet said of jazz (and Hentoff quotes him warmly in "Speaking Freely"): "There's this mood about the music, a kind of need to be moving. You can't just set it down and hold it. . . . You just can't keep the music unless you move with it." So Hentoff fights against the Vietnam War and the PC orthodoxies at the Village Voice: He opposes the death penalty and abortion; he lambastes the pope and resigns from the American Civil Liberties Union. In all of this, he never stops moving and rarely degenerates, heaven knows how, into the settlement of self-righteousness.

Maybe jazz is the central clue to this. That's what Hentoff started writing about in the 1950s, listening and responding to the works of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Paul Desmond, Rex Stewart, Billie Holiday, Henry "Red" Allen and Ben Webster, for the magazine Down Beat. A young Jew from Boston, Hentoff took obvious joy in consorting with these giants of a completely other culture and finding in music, if not always in politics, a means of unstrained dialogue.

Hentoff went on to become a legendary columnist for the Village Voice and the Washington Post, as well as, in the era of Editor William Shawn, a reporter for the New Yorker. A 1st Amendment obsessive, he is perhaps best known for his untiring defense of free speech, however objectionable.

But from the beginning, Hentoff's interests were eclectic, racial politics being one of the most enduring. He was an early, dogged reporter on the civil rights movement and one of the first white (or black) journalists to take Malcolm X seriously. He met him in a luncheonette on Lenox Avenue, with the jukebox playing a Caribbean singer named Louis Farrakhan. When Hentoff arrived, the entirely black clientele fixed him with a chilly glare.

"After an hour, it began to occur to me that either Malcolm X wasn't going to show up at all or I was being tested in some way," Hentoff recalls. "In any case, I'd had enough. I jammed the newspaper into my cot, and walked toward the door. A tall, lean man with glasses and an amused look, who had been sitting at a corner table reading and making notes, looked up and said to me, 'You looking for somebody?' 'Malcolm X.' He smiled. Not in any friendly way. 'You've found him,' he said."

Hentoff clearly liked Malcolm X, especially his chilly wit and, "quiet as it was kept, his tenderness." At the other end of his career, he fell for another unlikely character, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, whose blend of theological orthodoxy and social liberalism warmed Hentoff's secular Jewish heart.

In Hentoff's account of O'Connor, you see most clearly, perhaps, the qualities Hentoff especially admires: plucky individualism, occasional anger, bullheaded engagement and an ability to change one's mind. O'Connor had been a doctrinaire supporter of the Vietnam War at the time, even writing a polemical book in its defense, but later had regrets. Hentoff quotes O'Connor's 1986 mea culpa approvingly: "Even if it was justified for the United States to enter the war, as I suggested in a very poor book that I wrote on the subject and would like to rewrite today, or hide, it is quite conceivable--in accordance with Catholic Just War teaching--that our using more and more unjust means in that war resulted in our robbing ourselves of a justification of being in the war at all."

That's the spirit. When Hentoff converts to an anti-abortion rights position, he is imbued with exactly the same candor, if with a slightly more elevated appreciation of the sheer thrill of changing one's mind. Hentoff's move in the early 1980s to oppose abortion began with his appreciation of the growing sophistication of fetal surgery. He saw choices being made in treating fetuses with spina bifida that were not dictated by what medical science could do but by increasingly strained arguments about the future "quality of life" of the child and the alleged privacy rights of the mother.

Faced with empirical evidence, Hentoff became gripped by the immorality of it all: "I spoke to a number of physicians who do research in prenatal development, and they emphasized that human 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."

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