I won’t miss Nat Hentoff

Bennett Baumer Jan 19, 2009

The Village Voice laid off veteran columnist Nat Hentoff in late December and he wrote his last column for the Village Voice this month. I won’t miss him.

I know I should like Hentoff and lament his firing as yet another marker of the demise of print journalism. I should commend Hentoff’s weekly columns railing against the Bush administration’s trampling of civil liberties and shredding of the constitution. But Hentoff’s support of the Iraq War – the issue of my generation – spoiled all affection that I could have for the octogenarian legend.

Hentoff is often cast as a libertarian-leftist. His libertarianism is solid, but Hentoff’s leftist roots have always been overstated, probably in part because he wrote for what was once a progressive newspaper and his counterculture credentials (jazz, opposition to Vietnam). Like many faux-liberals and real liberals, Hentoff fell hook, line and sinker for the Bush administration’s false rhetoric on defending human rights in Iraq.

When this country needed journalists to challenge President Bush’s lies and rush to war, we needed Hentoff to be in dogged pursuit of the truth. Hentoff let Village Voice readers down. He joined his corporate journalist colleagues to hype the Iraq War, trading on whatever value he could garner from his perceived progressivism in his schilling for war.

From his article “Why I Didn’t March This Time”

And, in the March 23 New York Times Magazine, Michael Ignatieff, a longtime human rights investigator, wrote of “14,000 ‘writers, academics, and other intellectuals’—many of them my friends—[who] published a petition against the war . . . condemning the Iraqi regime for its human rights violations and supporting ‘efforts by the Iraqi opposition to create a democratic, multi-ethnic, and multireligious Iraq.’ ” But they say, he adds, that waging war at this time is “morally unacceptable.”

“I wonder,” Ignatieff wrote—as I also wonder—”what their support for the Iraqi opposition amounts to.”

You could argue that Hentoff has made up for his error in judgment by since penning numerous articles critical of the Bush regime. But in Hentoff’s professed concern about Iraqi human rights he failed to see how the Bush administration’s deceptive push for war would unleash hell fire on our cherished civil liberties. The cliché is that the first thing to die in war is the truth. Nat Hentoff became complicit in killing the truth about this war.

What also irks me is that Hentoff is praised for bucking the left’s “tribalism” and so called knee jerk positions. And how does Hentoff buck the left?

As an “a member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists” (once again I should love this guy), he supported the most dogmatic religious elements of the Christian Right in their mock rage over Terry Schiavo.    

From his article, “Terri Schiavo: Judicial Murder”

Terri Schiavo has never had an MRI or a PET scan, nor a thorough neurological examination. Republican Senate leader Bill Frist, a specialist in heart-lung transplant surgery, has, as The New York Times reported on March 23, “certified [in his practice] that patients were brain dead so that their organs could be transplanted.” He is not just “playing doctor” on this case.

During a speech on the Senate floor on March 17, Frist, speaking of Judge Greer’s denial of a request for new testing and examinations of Terri, said reasonably, “I would think you would want a complete neurological exam” before determining she must die.

Senator Frist’s diagnosis of Schiavo smacked more of politics than sound medical opinion.


I do feel some empathy for Hentoff, who helped build the Village Voice over the decades only to get unceremoniously dumped. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Hentoff or maybe I just expected him to see through the Bush administration’s rush to war. He didn’t. 

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