FAN 136.1 (First Amendment News) Nat Hentoff, First Amendment Champion, Dies

Sad to report the death of my father tonight at the age of 91. He died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday. — Nick Hentoff

Seattle. He was a friend, an inspiration, and someone who led the kind of life that so many long to live but are afraid to do so. When Ira Glasser shared the news, I left a party and went back to a quiet place to listen to Miles Davis’ Blue in Green . . . and then I turned off the lights and just sat and thought of Nat.

Perhaps no person better embodied the spirit of the First Amend — robust, rebellious, free-flyin’ and straight-talking — than Nat Hentoff (1925-2017) (AP obit here)

Fuse the life spirit of Lenny Bruce together with that of the early Bob Dylan and add a dollop of Miles Davis’ jazz and Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and you’ll get a sense of Hentoff’s persona. There was also a Tom Paine quality about him — feisty in his defense of freedom, no matter how unpopular it made him. Some liberals loved him, some conservatives admired him, and some libertarians applauded him — but very few came along for the full Hentoff monty. And that’s the way he liked it! If you have an open mind and a tolerant side, you had to love the guy . . . if only at a First Amendment distance.

If any of this strikes a chord in your free-speech consciousness, then check out the 2013 documentary on Nat — The Pleasures of Being out of Step, directed by David L. Lewis. Here is a description of the documentary:

Pleasures profiles legendary jazz writer and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, whose career tracks the greatest cultural and political movements of the last 65 years. The film is about an idea as well as a man – the idea of free expression as the defining characteristic of the individual. . . . Pleasures wraps the themes of liberty and identity around a historical narrative that stretches from the Great Depression to the Patriot Act. Brought to life by actor Andre Braugher, the narration doesn’t tell the story – it is the story, consisting entirely of writings by Hentoff and some of his subjects. With a potent mix of interviews, archival footage, photographs and music, the film employs a complex non-linear structure to engage the audience in a life of independent ideas and the creation of an enduring voice.

At the core of the film are three extraordinarily intimate interviews with Hentoff, shot by award-winning cinematographer Tom Hurwitz. The film also includes interviews with Floyd Abrams, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Dan Morgenstern, Aryeh Neier, Karen Durbin, Margot Hentoff and John Gennari, among others. It features music by Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan and Charles Mingus, and never-before seen photographs of these artists and other cultural figures at the height of their powers.

 Here is the trailer.

 Here is the bookThe Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Nat Hentoff’s Life in Journalism, Jazz and the First Amendment.

Nat Hentoff on Bill Buckley's Firing Line

   Hentoff on Bill Buckley’s Firing Line

Hentoff Books

Some of Nat’s books on free speech and related topics include the following:

See also Ronald Collins & David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002) (cd narrated by Nat Hentoff)

Video clips

       Hentoff & Allen Ginsberg on Charlie Rose (1995)

 Nat Hentoff on Free Speech,Jazs, & FIRE (this is precious!)

 See and hear the man himself on this Brian Lamb, C-SPAN interview with Nat (go here).

 And go here, too, for Richard Heffner’s Open Mind interview with Nat.  (See also here for a Cato Interview)

 One more — this, too, is precious: The young Nat debating the young Bill Buckley on Firing Line.

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4 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    Not remotely the sort running the ACLU anymore, alas.

  2. Joe says:

    The ACLU (making them ordinary as to any large scale institution) in the past were run by those who compromised on various things, so “any more” again speaks of a golden age of unclear reach. Still, on a range of issues, the ACLU still “remotely” supported things that Hentoff wrote about over the years (having read him over the years). I did appreciate Nat Hentoff – whose sense of perceptive at times were a bit off – for being more consistent about critiquing both sides than some out there.

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      Hentoff was a hangover from the days before the ACLU officially cut loose it’s agenda from the actual, ratified Constitution and Bill of Rights. As such, he had some standards for what qualified as civil liberties, beyond his own whims. For instance, he hated guns, but research forced him, like Tribe, to acknowledge that gun ownership genuinely was a civil right.

      Today’s ACLU has no such grounding. They repudiated it, because it demanded they respect rights they hated. Like a ship in a storm that cuts loose it’s anchor, they’re adrift now, and will predictably abandon what remains of their principle stance of standing up for the exercise of rights even when they disapprove. Their reputation as a principled defender of civil liberties is evaporating fast, soon it will survive only in their own imaginations.

      No, we will not see again the likes of Nat Hentoff, and if we did, the ACLU would have nothing to do with him.