He was originally of the Left, but really, of humanity. Hard truths could not be ignored by Nat Hentoff, the acclaimed civil libertarian and Village Voice columnist (and renowned jazz critic), who parted ways with many on his “side” in the decade following the Supreme Court’s disgraceful Roe decision, and over the next decades became a unique advocate for the humanity of the unborn child.
He was also a champion of free speech, and the two issues collided in 1992 when he hosted Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat — denied a spot at his party’s presidential convention earlier that summer — for a speech and discussion at New York’s historic Cooper Union. The topic: Can a liberal be pro-life. On hand: plenty of Leftist radicals. Here is how Hentoff, in his syndicated column, described what ensued:
As moderator, I started what would have been the discussion by pointing out that this was an evening about free speech — not only that of the governor of Pennsylvania but also that of anyone in the audience who wanted to challenge him.
The hooting, screaming, pounding and whistle blowing began. Strategically located at both sides of the hall — disruption by stereo — a preening array of hooligans made all speech except their own inaudible. They reminded me of the domestic brown shirts breaking up Jewish meetings in my youth, but these were howling soldiers of the left. (There is no difference, of course, between right and left when it comes to silencing the bearers of uncomfortable ideas.)
Among the opponents of any free exchange of ideas were ACT UP and various pro-choice (sic) cadres, among them: WHAM (Women’s Health Action Mobilization); and NYU Students for Pro-Choice.
At least 80 percent of the audience wanted to hear Casey and said so, as best they could, by applauding his attempts to get started. But they were no match for the speech muggers.
After several tries, Gov. Casey yielded. “The Democratic Convention suspended the First Amendment,” he tried to say, “and tonight you did the same thing.” Casey walked off the stage as the shouters congratulated each other.
Their glory is in their shame. It was an infamous event that has seen itself repeated many times, and with great intensity, over the years; and over them, Hentoff was on hand to bear witness to the assault on free speech in places where open debate and discussion were supposed to be the rule, and to call out those who were supposed to be protectors of the First Amendment.
Hentoff died this weekend in Manhattan. Age of 91. Surrounded by family and jazz music. A self-described atheist Jew, some of us hope he has a pleasant surprise awaiting him.
Here is a treat: One of the early Firing Line broadcasts, from 1967, with Hentoff and Bill Buckley discussing the Black Power movement, and other things. Enjoy, as you will, but be warned: You will despair that the quality and level of public discussion on display is in our rear-view mirror. RIP Nat.