(Tim) Last week, Nat Hentoff was laid off at the (Greenwich) Village Voice. This brings an abrupt end to Hentoff's fifty year run there, appropriately and affectionately titled "Fifty Years of Pissing People Off" by fellow Voice columnist Allen Barra in his recent tribute to Hentoff.
Hentoff started as a staff writer for the Voice back in 1958. His dismissal fifty years later coincides, almost to the day, with Louis Menand's short history of the Voice that ran in the current New Yorker. Beyond the Voice, Hentoff has also published in the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, JazzTimes (his best-known work may be as a jazz critic and historian), and Atlantic Monthly.
I note the dismissal of Hentoff, as well as the profile of the Voice in the current New Yorker, because this past week I've been enjoying a Christmas gift received from a friend in New York City who knows me well. A former member of Church of the Good Shepherd while studying at IU's School of Music, Regina Scow sent me an autographed copy of The Nat Hentoff Reader which I've been relishing this past week.
So far, I've read a short piece on jazz clarinetist, George Lewis; a longish one on my longtime favorite, Merle Haggard; some superb essays on racism in America including a good profile of Ken Clark titled, "The Integrationist;" and a rare glimpse of the racial suffering of Louis Armstrong in "Louis Armstrong and Reconstruction." The book also reprints Hentoff's classic essay exposing the practice of infanticide in America today titled, "The Awful Privacy of Baby Doe." I'll never forget reading it when it first appeared back in 1985. When I finished the piece, I remember feeling deep gratitude for Hentoff's leadership and courage.
I've been a fan of Hentoff for years now, largely (but not exclusively) because of his heroic defense of the First Amendment, the newborn, and the unborn. Interesting trio, aren't they? Imagine someone who tenaciously defends the First Amendment against the depredations of p.c. nannies also tenaciously defending the unborn and newborn against oppression and murder. He'd have to be a Christian, wouldn't he?
Well, in this case not...
When awarded the "Defender of Life Award" by the Human Life Foundation a few years ago, Hentoff described himself as "a Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, pro-lifer."
Through the years, I've had a few heroes. Mud and Dad. Mother Teresa. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Malcom Muggeridge. John Cardinal O'Connor. Iain Murray. Paige Patterson. Joe Sobran. They're all Trinitarian theists.
Then there's Nat Hentoff.
While reading Hentoff's essays, I've been thinking about preaching in New York City, wondering how it is that abortion can't be mentioned in the pulpit of a PCA church while a Jewish atheist writing for The Village Voice can be one of our nation's principal defenders of the newborn and unborn, growing his reputation and influence while running anti-abortion pieces in the pages of publications like The Village Voice, the Atlantic, and Human Life Review (see his superb piece on euthanasia titled, "Come Sweet Death").
Honestly, people could learn as much about the character of God--His love for mercy, justice, and truth, for instance--by reading Hentoff's Reader as they could by reading most of the books written by evangelical luminaries found on the New York Times' bestseller lists.
Here's a teaser from a "greatest hits" piece by Hentoff that ran in the Voice on July 16, 1985:
Much has been made of Dr. Bernard Nathanson's The Silent Scream, a film of the killing by abortion of a 12-week-old unborn child. I've seen all of it once, and parts of it several times. I do not see everything he says I should see. I also think, as I have told Nathanson, that he deflects the impact of the film by focusing on the question of whether the fetus can feel pain and did indeed scream, silently. There are experts on both sides of that argument, and the debates obscure the main issue. The question of fetal pain is less important than the actual dismemberment of this living being. . . .
Ah, but good liberal pro-choice folk deny that this was really a human being. In 1973, the Supreme Court had said it was not. Just as in 1857, the Supreme Court had said that people of African descent had "Never been regarded as a part of the people or citizens of the State, nor supposed to possess any political rights which the dominant race might not withhold. . . . "
The majority of the Supreme Court, back then, had actually seen these black people but did not see them as human. They saw them as property to be disposed of in any way the owner chose. And now, although the Supreme Court and the other pro-choicers can see into the womb through ultrasound—or have seen color photographs of what's in there in widely available books—they do not see the unborn as human, and they strongly advocate the killing go on and on.
If only the pro-choice Left could think of the fetus as a baby seal, in utero.
One final observation.
While reading Hentoff, I've had a recurring thought that, if I had a day in New York City to meet and share conversation concerning the nature and character of God with someone who's well-known across the city--someone who's a real leader and makes his living off the use of words--I'd choose Hentoff. Two other Jews would come in a close second, both of whom have also done stellar work in defense of the unborn: Marvin Olasky and Bernard Nathanson.
But there's no one else.
If you have the name of some other well-known leader in New York City to propose--say a man who has shown great courage, whose name is a watchword across the city because, like Job, he is known for his defense of the weak and oppressed, for standing up for justice and mercy--please let me know. Especially if he's a Protestant pastor.