50 Years of Pissing People Off

Sometime in the late ’80s, during a typical internecine squabble at the Voice, I took a cheap shot, in the form of a letter to the editor, at Nat Hentoff. There were many such squabbles back then, and an amazing number centered around Hentoff. Nat had a way of pissing off the writers and editors of two generations of lefties (by which, not to put too fine a point on it, I mean just about everyone who came of age from the Vietnam era on) that was unmatched by anyone I know of.

Suffice it to say that the spat had to do with something Hentoff had written about abortion, and my letter, which earned me pats on the back from some of my friends at the Voice, made liberal use of the word “fascist.” (We were young and passionate then and slung such words as “fascist,” “zeitgeist,” “subversive,” and “existential” the way Giuliani uses “9/11.”) I had also shown our disdain for Hentoff by briskly passing by his office door and refusing to ask him if he had gotten any good jazz records in the mail, which hurt me a lot more than it did him.

A few days later, I got my reply. In my mail slot, I found a reissue of a Pee Wee Russell album with a note taped to it: “Hey, give me a break. You may need it yourself some day. P.S. Listen to this. It might clear your head out.” What an asshole. Instead of jumping into the argument with pettiness and personal acrimony, he sought to create a dialogue with reason, tolerance, and jazz. What can you do with a guy like that?

Well, for one thing, you can read him, and—to borrow André Gide’s advice—do him the favor of not understanding him too quickly. It took me over 25 years to understand Nat Hentoff, and I’m still in the process of clearing my head.

I came to The Village Voice from Alabama in the early ’80s. (My first feature was a grudging appreciation of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, about which Hentoff said to me, “I’m not sure what the hell you were writing about there, but I loved it.”) I arrived in New York burdened with a concept of liberalism that time and experience have painfully stripped away. Our idea of liberalism—by which I mean most of my friends and colleagues—was grounded in sensitivity: We were determined not to give offense to any but those who weren’t as liberal as we were. More than one editor in chief (though not you, Marty Gottlieb) made us feel as though they were looking over our shoulder as we wrote. Nat Hentoff was fearless, never afraid to remind management that he wasn’t obliged to take a poll on something before coming to his conclusion. (“When I want your opinion,” I once heard him say to another Voice editor during a verbal debate, “I’ll ask Tom Hayden for it.”)

This caused resentment among those of us who lacked his courage, but that didn’t stop us from using his catch phrases: “crisis journalism,” for instance, about publications that descend on a story en masse when the shit hits the fan, but who ignored the issues before they exploded; the “tyranny of majoritarianism,” referring to activist groups who suppress dissent in their own ranks; “flash journalism,” exhibited by publications like New York Magazine—and all too frequently, he felt, The Village Voice—that stressed sensation over content; and my own personal favorite, “Free speech for me, but not for thee,” which I had to stop stealing when he used it for a book title.

“An intellectual,” said Camus, “is someone whose mind watches itself.” Nat Hentoff was and is an intellectual. Moreover, he is a liberal intellectual, out of a liberal tradition that predated my generation’s, one grounded not in sensitivity but in tolerance, a word I once snickered at but which—at a time when the right has adopted much of the prickliness and busybodiness of the left—is starting to look pretty darned good to me.

His politics, Hentoff once wrote, are “libertarian socialism,” two words that in theory seem to be as compatible as the NRA and ACLU, but in practice could have much of interest to say to each other. Because Nat Hentoff has never allowed his thought to harden into ideology, he’s never lost his talent to agitate us and make us rethink our own positions—to make sure that our minds watch ourselves. And if he’s contradicted himself occasionally, very well then, he’s contradicted himself. His note to me, I would find out over the years, made good sense. In giving him a break, I learned to give them to a lot of people and thus earned a few for myself. God knows, I’ve needed them. And the Pee Wee Russell record wasn’t bad, either.