A Hero for Our Times

by Michael Potemra

Nat Hentoff is one of our country’s most forceful and eloquent advocates of civil liberties, and he richly deserves the portrait he receives in the new documentary The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff, which premieres on Wednesday at the IFC Center in New York City.

Someone who defends with great vigor both the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., and the right of unborn human beings not to be killed in the womb can rightly be called a man of principle. Now, in our times, the phrase “man of principle” all too often calls up an image of a self-righteous, moralistic jerk or a preening, humorless scold — and that’s why it’s so great to see a convincing depiction of someone defending good values while simultaneously being a warm, witty, likable soul.

The film devotes a substantial amount of time to Hentoff’s work as a jazz critic (he is one of the most important figures in the history of that field). But his work on behalf of civil liberties accounts for the lion’s share of the narrative. Hentoff is in the highest tradition of liberalism, and defends that tradition every bit as much when it is threatened by Democrats as he does when it’s under attack by Republicans. Check out his scorching words about President Obama from a 2009 interview:

I try to avoid hyperbole, but I think Obama is possibly the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had. An example is ObamaCare, which is now embattled in the Senate. If that goes through the way Obama wants, we will have something very much like the British system. If the American people have their health care paid for by the government, depending on their age and their condition, they will be subject to a health commission just like in England which will decide if their lives are worth living much longer.

In terms of the Patriot Act, and all the other things he has pledged he would do, such as transparency in government, Obama has reneged on his promises. He pledged to end torture, but he has continued the CIA renditions where you kidnap people and send them to another country to be interrogated. Why is Obama doing that if he doesn’t want torture anymore? Throughout Obama’s career, he promised to limit the state secrets doctrine which the Bush-Cheney administration had abused enormously. The Bush administration would go into court on any kind of a case that they thought might embarrass them and would argue that it was a state secret and the case should not be continued. Obama is doing the same thing, even though he promised not to.

So in answer to your question, I am beginning to think that this guy is a phony. Obama seems to have no firm principles that I can discern that he will adhere to. His only principle is his own aggrandizement. This is a very dangerous mindset for a president to have.

In January 2010, he would assail Obama in the pages of the Village Voice in language that hit left-wing Obama supporters where it really hurt: His article was titled “George W. Obama.”

Halfway through the movie, I started to worry that the documentary would downplay or even omit Hentoff’s activism in the pro-life cause, because that is surely the least popular aspect of his résumé (among the sort of people who fund, produce, and view documentaries in New York City). I needn’t have: His work against abortion-on-demand is presented fully and fairly. Some of the talking heads interviewed in the film suggest that Hentoff is pro-life because he’s a contrarian, but even that is a sort of backhanded tribute to the man: Even strong pro-choicers acknowledge that Hentoff is a good and intelligent person, so they have to grasp for some explanation of why he could take such a benighted position (other than the one that they think covers most of us pro-lifers, i.e., we are dumb religious people, or anti-woman, or both). Another suggestion from the film is closer to the truth: Hentoff is a lifelong fighter for the underdog, and in our culture, the unborn child certainly qualifies.

I reserve the right to disagree with Nat Hentoff on this, that, or the other particular issue — and I’m glad he’s out there, willing to fight for my right to do just that. America has been lucky to have him. If you’re interested in civil-liberties issues, or just want to get to know one of the most engaging personalities of our times, you should see this film.