Nat Hentoff Defends WBAI's Right to Air 'Racist Poetry'

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives. February 6, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 17

The siege at WBAI by Nat Hentoff

"There is no doubt, certainly, that life in the United States remains freer than in the Soviet Union," Edgar Friedenberg writes in the February Atlantic Monthly. "What is doubtful is that our greater freedoms express the will or would even be acceptable to it." For example, what is the general will in tis city with regard to WBAI? I would fear to make that station's fate the subject of a popular referendum, in the manner of the late civilian review board. In these recent weeks, those who have been importuning the FCC to punish -- better yet, to obliterate -- WBAI have been remarkable and chilling in their quantity and respectability.

But perhaps not so remarkable if Friedenberg is right, and I think he is. Introduce the Bill of Rights to the New York City Council -- without imprimatur of its place in the Constitution, typing it instead on Commonweal stationery -- and except for Carol Greitzer, Ted Weiss, and a few others, the overwhelming will of that body would be swift and clear. (Who will be the first worthy on the Council to try to introduce President Nixon's "preventive detention here?)

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The President of the City Council, Francis X. Smith, has already asked the FCC to suspend WBAI's license. The United Federation of Teachers has complained to the FCC about WBAI. The Workman's Circle has demanded suspension of the station's license. The Board of Rabbis calls for the withdrawal of the license. (A minority of the rabbis disagreed, but if their objections were strong enough to result in a separate statement, I have no knowledge of it.) How are you going to keep Judaism alive among Jewish college students? Not this way. Or as Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg said last month, for the young "there is no dividing of the world into 'we' and 'they' (gentiles) and no temptation to find a religious consciousness in anti-anti-Semitism. Even though there are sufficient negatives around, negatives won't work to create a Jewish identity for our young people. The only thing that will work is a set of affirmatives that forms them as a people.")

And the siege of WBAI has been joined by may others, ranging from the New York Post's television reviewer and confounder of rights and privileges, Bob Williams ("it strikes us that WBAI-FM in broadcasting obviously anti-Semitic material is misusing its First Amendment privileges") to Representative Emanual Celler. The latter -- William Douglas save the mark! -- is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and has urged the FCC to use its "full powers" against WBAI. The anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Defense League have also been instructing the FCC as to its duty, and the latter, addressing the station directly proclaims: "You stand as accessories to the crime of conspiracy to commit genocide."

Another exemplification of Mr. Friedenberg's gloomy assessment of the "general will" is the prestigious City Club, a non-partisan group of lawyers, public officials, and businessmen. From the most recent edition of City Club Comments: "...it is hard to see how radio station WBAI will be able to escape the consequences of its act in broadcasting racist poetry. WBAI might show its good faith -- and perhaps thereby save itself -- by getting rid of both the staff people responsible and the offending program."

Were WBAI to follow the bleakly self-revealing recommendation, it would, of course, have lost all reason for its existence.

There is no station in the city on which a wider spectrum of opinion has been and can be expressed. From the Ku Klux Klan to the young black man who has more in common with the Klan than he knows, having said: "As far as I am concerned, more power to Hitler. He didn't make enough lampshades out of them."

As Eric Salzman, writing for 24 members of the staff and volunteers of WBAI, said in a letter printed in last Saturday's Times, "Is anti-Semitism the only issue that is to be excluded from the concept of free speech and the First Amendment? Would the critics of WBAI prefer that we make a compact (or a law) to pretend that anti-Semitism does not exist and let the virus spread in darkness and in silence?"

I would recommend to those critics that they spend more time listening to WBAI rather than trying to extirpate it. They might have heard, for instance, the long "Letter from a Listener" (reprinted in full in the February, 1969, WBAI Folio). "I am young (23) and black," the listener writes, "and would have until quite recently been considered somewhat anti-Semitic." She goes on to explore how and why she became "somewhat anti-Semitic" -- a process of self-analysis, stimulate, she points out, by listening to the ceaseless clash of opinion on the station. "What the Jewish liberals who are threatening to end their support of WBAI fail to see," she adds, "is that contrary to fanning the flames of anti-Semitism, WBAI is in fact helping what small minority of black listenership that it has to realize that the Jew is not his real enemy, although he is his most immediate scapegoat"....

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

Nat Hentoff Defends WBAI's Right to Air 'Racist Poetry'

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