Nat Hentoff, the prolific critic, journalist, and civil libertarian, passed away yesterday at age 91. His son Nick reports that he “died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday,” which I suspect is exactly how he wanted to go.
Hentoff wrote many things, from young adult novels to the sleeve notes of an early Bob Dylan album. But he was most famous for two great passions: his defenses of the Bill of Rights, especially Amendment One, and his enthusiastic writing about music, especially jazz. When people talk about old-school liberals who’d defend to the death your right to say anything you want, chances are good that Hentoff is the fellow they’ve got in mind. In his columns for The Village Voice and The Washington Post and in articles for countless other venues (including Reason), he pounded away at the evils of censorship, and he didn’t care if the censor had a left-wing agenda or a right-wing one. If anything, he seemed especially perturbed when people he expected to share his values started stomping on individual liberties.
Hentoff was less likely to be called a liberal later in life. That’s partly because his brand of free-speech absolutism was growing less common on the left, and it’s partly because of his heterodoxy on abortion. (Hentoff was pro-life, arguing against abortion on the same grounds that he argued against capital punishment and war. Or, at least, against some wars—he eventually rended his seamless garment to support interventions in Rwanda and Iraq.) But you couldn’t really cast him as a man of the right either: Besides his intense distrust for the police agencies that conservatives tend to revere, he was a longtime democratic socialist who held onto a lot of his leftist economic ideas in old age. It’s not even quite right to call him an ACLU liberal, because he kept butting heads with the ACLU. (The nation’s most prominent civil libertarian organization wasn’t always civil libertarian enough for him.) Best to think of him as his own man, with at least a couple of views to offend pretty much anyone.
He would have left a substantial legacy even if he had never written about politics at all, thanks to his work in the music world. His criticism covered several genres—one of my favorite articles of his was an appreciation of the country singer Merle Haggard—but his great love was jazz, a topic on which he wrote whole volumes. He produced several jazz albums too, by artists ranging from Max Roach to Cecil Taylor, and he had a hand in the great 1957 TV special The Sound of Jazz, which my colleague Kurt Loder once called “a landmark of televised jazz that has never been surpassed.” (Watch it here.)
But it was his political writing that left its biggest mark on me. I grew up reading Hentoff’s attacks on censorship and surveillance, and whatever disagreements I sometimes had with him on other topics I learned a lot from his uncompromising consistency on those issues. For a taste of just how committed to free speech he was, I’ll wrap up this obit with a video of him attacking the existence of libel laws, a hardcore position that even some of the fiercest civil libertarians aren’t willing to accept. (For the record: I think he’s right.) The video, shot in 1986, shows him debating the Objectivist philosopher David Kelley, who argues that we need libel suits to protect our “right to a reputation.” When it came to regulations on speech, Nat Hentoff could make even a Randian look like a big-government guy by comparison: