Nat Hentoff's Greatest Hits
[January 8, 1958
50 Years of Pissing People Off
Allen Barra celebrates Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff, in this issue, initiates a regular series of columns in The Voice. Under the head "Second Chorus," Mr. Hentoff intends to comment on "various matters in the daily press and in magazines large and small". . .
P.D. East, editor of the weekly Petal Paper in Petal, Mississippi ($3 a year), and a happy skewer to the local White Citizens' Council, opened a recent editorial by recalling Satchel Paige's admonition: "Never look back . . . something may be gaining on you."
Having just read Dan Jacobson's "America's Angry Young Men" in the December issue of Commentary and Dan Wakefield's review of Kerouac ($4 minimum) at the Village Vanguard in the January 4 issue of the Nation, Page's counsel brought me a Feiffer-like image of the beatified hipsters scurrying through "the American night" hoping that daylight can be postponed just a little bit longer.
It's too late though; despite the imprimatur of the New York Times and the Evergreen Review, the present gig is nearly up. Jacobson breaks the San Francisco "poets' " balloon as well as Kerouac's ("I am obsessed by Time magazine," Mr. Ginsberg cries; and he speaks more truly than he perhaps "knows"); and Wakefield characteristically unimpressed by the canonized, adds: " . . . there are born each year a certain number of men and a certain number of boys . . . out of each era in our national history there come a few poets and a few poor boys who wander with words . . . and no grand generalization can tie them together."
Jacobson does feel, as did Herbert Gold in what was easily the most oriented review of On the Road (the Nation, November 16), that Kerouac has the capacity to swing, but that he's going to have to cut down on his echo-lake rhetoric to make it. In some passages, notes Jacobson of the novel, "There is some factual resistance to the rhetoric, some hard social and physical circumstance to respond to and to be contended with; but for much the greater part of the book, the emptiness of Dean Moriartyangel, bum, and saintis matched by the emptiness of the social scene in which Moriarty declaims and postures." Like at the Vanguard, J.J. Johnson was hip without worrying about the word and poor Kerouac was the prototypical square trying flailingly to be "in." "I could really work with a tenor sax," said Kerouac to J.J., as reported by Wakefield. "You look more like a trumpet man to me," said J.J. without expression.
Meanwhile, the hippest discussion of the "terrifying" reality of the actually "beat" generation that doesn't write books and doesn't confuse Slim Gaillard with Jean Genet appeared in the Summer, 1957 issue of Dissentand disappeared, for all the comment on it I've seen or heard. Yet, except for the Gold review in the Nation, it's the only article that begins to deal with what happens on the street. Somehow you ought to get a copy of that issue and read Norman Mailer's "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster." So should Seymour Krim. But all is otherwise well in the topmost American grain. Kerouac made the January Playboy (in the same issue as a five-page Playmate Portfolio) with a pint of moonshine I am sure would never have been accepted if he weren't (literally) in vogue.
Playboy as a magazine avowedly aimed at "Entertainment for Men" brings me to Otto Klineberg's article, "The Father's Role," that first appeared in Child Study and was reprinted in that oddly illuminating monthly, Best Articles and Short Stories (January issue). Klineberg worries the subject of man's increasingly ambivalent status-definition among us: "The expectation seems to be that since man now performs a portion of the tasks traditionally associated with womenbathing the baby, washing the dishes, etc.his son will not know what it means to be a man." Nonsense. Just tell the little hippie to watch Elsa Maxwell on the Jack Paar show.
[ March 9, 1961]
As a boy and more or less young man, I was a zealous labor partisan. I helped organize a radio station in Boston, served as a merciless shop steward, and almost broke up a long friendship when I couldn't cross a picket line in front of a theater which a friend of mine owned. (The friend was right and the union was wrong.) Now, organized labor is like organized Zionismself-canonized. I feel like a black Catholic with no faith, not in the labor hierarchy nor certainly in the employers. This bootless complaint is particularly occasioned by George Meany's recent answer to A. Philip Randolph's charge that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. has failed "completely" to eliminate Jim Crow in several key unions. Randoph had alreadyand wiselyformed his Negro American Labor Council last year. Meany said on February 28 that he has no objection to the Negro labor group "provided they keep out of our business and attend to their own."
Another "aesthetic circle." With Negro apprentices on the outside. Less than 1 per cent of all apprentices in the country are Negro. I somehow have missed any public statement about this imbalance by Walter Reuther in recent months. I agree with James Hicks of the Amsterdam News that Ralph Bunche had no right to "apologize" for the Negro demonstrators at the U.N. Those demonstrations were caused by men like Meany.
[ November 26, 1964]
It is instructive to note where the few defenses of Lenny Bruce have appeared in the New York press. Nothing from the Times, but this past summer Dick Schaap had a forceful column in the Tribune. ("I have never heard of anyone who was hurt by him. It is about time that people stop hurting him.") Schaap spoke again on November 19. Nothing meanwhile from the New York Postexcept a couple of interviewsbut John Chamberlain (yet) devoted a column to the harassment of Bruce despite the fact that Chamberlain doesn't dig the act. And the most direct support of Bruce recently in the dailies came from Charles McHarry in the Daily News. ("He belongs in night clubs, not jail.")
Even more instructiveand appalling is the fact that not one editorial to my knowledge has appeared concerning Ralph Ginzburg losing his appeal to the United States Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The former publisher of Eros still, therefore, faces an incredible sentence of five years in prison and $42,000 in fines for having mailed allegedly obscene literature. Apparently civil libertarians in the press are too fastidious to come to Ginzburg's defense because they don't approve of some of the material that appeared in Eros and his other publications. But the issue is utterly clear. Both Bruce and Ginzburg are being persecutedthere's no point in using euphemisms. And they have very few public friends.
[ April 4, 1968]
As Don McNeill's story in last week's Voice made clearmuch, much clearer than any of the writing in the Times on the eventmembers of the police force rioted at Grand Central Station on the night of March 22. Considering that cops bashed Don's head into a glass door, McNeill's story was remarkably controlled. I couldn't have done it. Stitches and all, Don also underlined the culpability of YIP and the Mayor's office in setting up the kind of situation which made it easier for the police to be unleashed.
But no matter what the failures in planning and communication, there is no possible rationalization for the police savagery that night . . . .
I waited for the mayor to say something, and on Wednesday called one of his press aides . . . .
"Look," said a Mayor's aide, "there was no excuse for the police brutality." "Then the Mayor ought to say that." "Yes, he should, and he will . . . . One thing we're going to do is have a lot more supervisory officers out there with the men. A cop knows that if an officer sees him working someone over, he'll be in trouble . . . . "
Who the hell is going to supervise the supervisory officers?
. . . The white middle-class, as Dick Gregory has been saying, is beginning, in this respect at least, to know what it feels like to be treated as a nigger by a cop. And that's an instructive experience, possibly stimulating some empathy when you read about ghetto rebellions in other cities.
[ May 2, 1968]
Preliminary notes on the Columbia Rebellion: On April 26, three New York Post columnists wrote on the subject. Max Lerner was Max Lerner ("If the whole affair were not childish and ludicrous to the point of being funny it would be for weeping"). James Wechsler, God save the mark, was still trying to tell us how thoughtful Columbia had been to "provide exclusive facilities for Harlem residents" in the new gym.
April 1968: Police remove sit-ins from Avery Hall during the Columbia protests.
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Only Jimmy Breslin knew what the hell was going on, and why. ("Columbia, like most universities in urban areas, has spent the years making distinct contributions to the trouble we're in. The school sits on a bluff which looks down on Harlem, and the people who administrate the school do just that.")
There was nothing in either Lerner's or Wechsler's columns about why Columbia is so hated by its "neighbors." Nothing about the incredible stubbornness of Columbia officials these past few years about the gym itself. Inadvertently I listened in early in the present city administration to attempts to convince Kirk and his colleagues that they were making a terrible mistake in pressing on with that gym. But Columbia had a legal deal made with the previous administration. (As Breslin wrote, " If a private citizen was discovered in a deal like this, there would be at least five indictments.") And having the law on its side, Columbia would not be moved. Not then, anyway.
Other issues are involved, issues of civil liberties and intersecting rights in what's been happening at Columbia during the past week. I don't have any instantly clear answers to those questions, but intend to try to explore them next time. However, it couldn't be clearer that the CAUSE of all this is Columbia University, and if there are going to be penalties, what penalty will be paid by Grayson Kirk and the administration hierarchy?
Another note: This is a further example of crisis journalism. Once the demonstrations began, there was extensive and even some intensive press, radio, and television coverage. But through the years, the callousness, to say the least, of Columbia University in its relations with its immediate neighborhood and with Harlem as a whole has been only glancingly reported on. So the citizen who has not kept up with Columbia's auto-anesthesia (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Lyford) can read Wechsler and Lerner and nod approvingly. Meanwhile that same Friday's Post ended one of its news stories on the events of the Columbia week: "The $12,000,000 facility will be massive, as seen from Harlem, which will have a view of a 126-foot-high rear façade built from three kinds of stone and concrete."
If only Wechsler would try, just try, role reversal for a moment. Stand down there, black, and look up. What does that rear façade say to you? What is its message from Columbia? Kiss my three-kinds-of-stone-and-concrete ass.
[ May 9, 1968]
For some months now, it's been clear that from time to time, sections of the New York City police force, seized by a lust for violence, could not be handled. Not by Commissioner Leary; not by that humanist of the higher police echelons, Sanford Garelik; and not by those on the Mayor's staff assigned as liaison personnel between the Mayor's office and the police.
Police have rioted, among other occasions, at:
To my knowledge, not one policeman, plainclothes or uniformed, has been disciplined as a result of any of these incidents of police violence. Nor has any superior officer in charge of any of those occasions been disciplined. Until last week, the Mayor was silent. Not for want of people asking him to speak up.
Then came the night of blood at Columbia. This time there was too much blood to ignore. Television was there, and the press. The Times, as is its strange custom, muted the degree and extent of police violence. The Post did not. Last week I spoke to at least 20 people who were involvedstudents, faculty, observers, press, Mayor's aides, members of the Medical Committee on Human Rights. Preston Wilcox, one of the coolest men under pressure I've ever known, told me: "That night I really got a sense of what it's like to be in a police state." A doctor at Mount Sinai, who had volunteered to help anybody who needed help: "The plainclothesmen and detectives were wild animals. They were beating up people who had offered no resistance at all, and in most cases were bystanders." A reporter who was much stronger in conversation with me than in the piece he wrote: "Those goddamned plainclothesmen were fucking brutes. They were just a bunch of animals." A man on the Mayor's staff: "There's no question about it. Some of those cops were just animals."
. . . Police Commissioner Leary (New York Post, April 30) praised his men for doing "an excellent job."
What is insanity? On the front page of the June 6 New York Times, Robert Kennedy, eyes closed, life going. Sirhan Bishara Sirhan being removed from the hotel. And Lyndon Johnson proclaiming: "Let us for God's sake resolve to live under law. Let us put an end to violence and the preaching of violence." But not a word from Lyndon Johnson about the laws we break in Vietnam, about the violence we continue to commit in Vietnam. . . .
And what is sanity? From the Liberation News Service, datelined San Francisco: "David Harris, a leader of the Resistance, was found guilty for refusing induction and was sentenced to three years in jail. The judge told Harris that he was 'the most willful violator of the law I have ever seen,' and he said the sentence was for 'purely punitive reasons' since Harris was 'not rehabilitative.' Harris replied, 'Thank you.' " Obviously, Mr. Harris is eminently sane.
What makes sense? Two weeks ago, Paul Goodman called with an idea. "We need a massive victory to stop the Pentagon." To stop the operations of what Izzy Stone calls the "huge human abattoir" in which we live. Paul's idea was a McCarthy-Lindsay ticket [referring to Wisconsin senator Eugene McCarthy and New York mayor John Lindsay] as the only conceivable combination that could produce a massive pro-life victory. Lindsay does know urban problems, and he has been against the war in Vietnam a very long time. After Paul called, I thought, of course, of how impossible an idea it washowever totally sensible. Lindsay would never jump his party. The Democratic convention would never nominate such a ticket. I suppose it still is an impossible idea, but if assassination and if death in Vietnam remain so persistently, horrifyingly actual, is this idea completely beyond "reason" in our "real" world of the abattoir? Could a national movement be organized behind that ticket in such numbers as to make clear the overwhelming support a McCarthy-Lindsay combination would have? I would welcome suggestions, or better yet, action.
[ May 5, 1975]
The same indignant question, "What the hell's going on at the Voice?" invariably erupts these nights when I talk at colleges, no matter the alleged subject of the evening. . . .
In one respect, the new management has unquestionably improved the Voicethe way it looks. The look of the old Voice resembled the prose of Buckminster Fuller. Some years ago I.F. Stone told me, "I'd like to read your stuff in the Voice, but I can't find it." The paper was a maze, and ought to have given weekly prizes to those who could find the endings to more than two stories.
There has been another marked change in the Voice's appearancethe now obligatory primal cover story, with a looming photograph keyed to it, beckoning you inside. This stratagem is supposed to be good for circulation but it can sure lead to shoddy journalism. There are weeks when authentic cover stories just don't exist. What then? If you're bound to that assembly line, you make the best of second choices or you invent a cover idea and have a hapless writer conjure up sufficiently intensified prose to try to justify all the front page fuss. . . .
Symbolically and actually, the totem of the Macho Cover signifies how fundamentally apart the new Voice is from the old. The coverand by now, much of the inside toois designed to sell hard and fast. From the front page on, a great deal is promised the readerin each story's head, in the teaser (lines extracted from the piece), and in the photographs. But often, in the reading, not much is delivered. The same is frequently true, not unsurprisingly, of New York magazine. This is flash journalism. The sensation, not the content, is to be rememberedas in "What an exciting magazine!" "Like what was in it?" "Oh, that was a whole week ago, who remembers?"
Voice journalismwith exceptions every issueis becoming increasingly formularized to fit the overall circus barker tone of the paper. As this happens, there is inevitably more input, from gestation on, by editors, since only certain kinds of pieces will fit into this staccato format. And the editors know which kind. Experienced writers can more or less handle these constant windstorms, but I would no longer advise a young writer that the Voice is a desirable place to break in. You could burn out fast.
[ September 24, 1979]
I have resisted adding a broadside to the sulfurous polemics about Cruising because there has been no scarcity of comment on the matter in this paper. Much of it has come from fervent souls who, in another life, might have fitted hungrily into Robespierre's court. But somenotably Dorothy Samuels's Press of Freedom piece in the August 27 Voicegot to the free-expression core of the debate. Now, with the film troupe gone, there would be nothing fresh left to say had Cruising not left an ominous legacy in my neighborhood, the Village, and by easy extension, in the city as a whole.
Hentoff used the controversy over Cruising (1979) to examine the evolution of the Village itself.
photo: Warner Bros/Photofest
Before examining the first stage in the new orthodoxy that the Village Independent Democrats and Community Board No. 2 have imposed on my neighborhood in response to the pressure from the sworn enemies of Cruising, a prologue on my stake in these streets, including Christopher Street:
When I came to New York from Boston in 1953, I already knew where I was going to live. It had to be the Village because from what I'd read and heard, it was the most open neighborhood in the city. Open to ideas and to diversely idiosyncratic behavior. Not that I'd been all that constrained in Boston as a resident of the seedier bohemian part of the Back Bay where my neighbors were musicians, students, non-tenured professors, bouncers, writers with ingenious skills at self-distraction, and waitresses. But it was Boston, and so even where we were, some magazines did not get sold and some movies were pulled. Furthermore, Boston was the provinces; and as hip as we felt we were, we knew that Coleman Hawkins was right: "You don't know if you're saying anything worth saying until you say it in New York."
So I moved into a building on Christopher Street, and while the Village did have some provincial fastnesses, including a few mean streets, it largely lived up to its billing. In places like the White Horse Tavern and the early coffee houses, no idea, whomever it offended, was out of bounds, although none was taken on faith either. And it was very much out of this ambience of openness that The Village Voice was created. Conceivably this paper could have taken root somewhere else in the city, but the Village was its natural turf. And indeed, the discussions in co-founder Dan Wolf's office on Sheridan Square were extensions of what was being talked about, without limits, in the streets and bars.
I am not saying the Village was a libertarian Elysium, entirely innocent of bigotries; but by and large, there was not the pall of orthodoxy that characterized many other neighborhoods in their distinctively smothering ways. Over the years, the Village became more expensive and manythough not allof the bohemians were displaced by quite different achievers. Yet, in terms of range of expression and choice of life style, the Village has stayed fairly loose. It is still the last place in the city I would have expected any community drive for censorship, however euphemistically phrased.
Then came Cruising. . . .
On August 13, the Village Independent Democratsnot only a pioneer reform club, but for years a center of freely clashing ideaspassed its resolution on Cruising after a two-hour debate. The vote was close, but what carried is a rather obscene parody of the trimming liberal. . . .
"Whereas the filming of Cruising on Christopher Street, an acknowledged center of gay activity, as presently scheduled, would be gratuitously inflammatory,
"Therefore be it resolved, the Village Independent Democrats urge the Mayor and the City's Office of Motion Pictures to withdraw support of the film shooting on Christopher St."
This one street, then, on the thoroughly stupid premise that it is the exclusive property of any sector of the community, must be protected by the government from any "inflammatory" filmmaking that that sector does not like. Why not, then, Mulberry and other Italian streets? And all the streets on which Chasidim live? And certain streets in black, Albanian and Irish neighborhoods?
"Well, you see," he explained, "we didn't want to offend the homosexual community."
Nice people. I mean, if you have to choose between gentility and the First Amendment, only a churl would prefer free speech for all of us.
[ July 16, 1985]
As the pro-life movement slowly becomes more heterogeneous, members of the Left within it are underlining the contradictions of the majority of pro-lifers on the Right while also illuminating the contradictions of the pro-choice Left on the other side of the barricades.
That's what I intend to keep on doing too. For instance, I recently discovered that one of the oldest and most consistently honorable antiwar organizations in the United Statesthe War Resisters Leaguehas a pro-abortion policy. Their sign is a broken rifle, which surely signifies a preference for life. Yet the WRL comes down on the side of "choice" in the matter of abortion, and one of those two choices is death. . . .
Another member of the Left who has spoken against the cheapening of human life through abortion-as-convenience is Elizabeth Moore, who organized Feminists for Life in the Washington, D.C., area. Recalling her life in the South during segregation, Moore said, "I knew first-hand the effects of legal nonprotection under the Constitution, and from my point of view, the basic value upon which just law must rest is not 'choice' but equality. I cannot tolerate the destruction of life in a society where I find myself among the expendable."
Elizabeth Moore also believes that the pro-choice argument based on a woman's right to control her own body is a right-wing concept that puts property rights over the right to live. . . .
Let me show you the naked lunch at the end of the fork.
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 ultrasoundor have seen color photographs of what's in there in widely available booksthey 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.
[ February 21, 1995]
Mario Marquez, 36, was executed at 12:21 a.m. on January 18 by the state of Texas in Huntsville. Official killings have become so common there thatas a reporter for the Huntsville Item told Nightline"The first few executions probably got people's attention, but you know, when you get to 86 or 87, it just doesn't have the impact it used to."
And a resident of the death town added: "It's like you get up and eat breakfast every day. It's just something that happens that nobody pays attention to, I guess."
And that deadly apathy will soon take root in New York.
Mario Marquez's crime was horrible. As Ted Koppel said, "He raped and strangled a woman who was only 18, and a girl who was only a child of 14." The woman was his former wife, and the child was his niece.
What made this execution worthy of a front-page notice in the Huntsville Item was the debate over whether someone retarded should be executed. And that was one reason Nightline devoted two evenings to the last days of Mario Marquez. . . .
What does George Pataki think?
In Huntsville, Texaswhich is becoming like the German towns near the gas chambers a half-century agoanother resident says: "Since I've lived here all my life, I never even think about the prison or what's going on there. Theythey justit's all behind closed doors."
And yet another resident says calmly: "I really don't hear a whole lot about it from other people. We reallywe really don't talk about it. I think it's just so, you know, normal here."
To whom? Marquez had the mind of a seven-year-old.
Remember the old prison movies? When the electric chair began its work, the lights dimmed all over the prison and sometimes in the surrounding town. No one could escape a few moments' knowledge of the killing being done by the state in his or her name.
In Huntsvillethe prison chaplain told Ted Koppelbefore the coming of lethal injection, "when the switch was pulled, the lights all over town dimmed, so everybody had a feeling of when it was taking place."
But now, the residents of Texas, of other states with lethal injection, do not have to think about an execution when it takes place. And state killings are never shown on television, including Nightline.
Why is that? Why do officials all over the country absolutely forbid the televising of executions? They are done in our name. Why can't we see the official killings? What is the state afraid of?
Let us begin the televising of executions with a prime-time killing of a retarded man. Or woman. And Charlton Heston could read from the Old Testament.
[ June 11, 1996]
December 1967: Hentoff and his wife Margot (left).
Fred W. McDarrah
No money was involved. The Voice was still struggling to stay alive. But the freedom to be infuriating on a myriad of subjects eventually helped bring lecture dates, book contracts, pieces in other publications, and a syndicated column in the Washington Post.
Dan gave me the space to find my voicesdifferent tunes require different phrasing but he was also important because of his skeptical presence. In all the years I worked for himhe and Ed Fancher were defenestrated by Clay Felker in 1974Dan never changed a word or the structure of anything I wrote for the paper.
But, as I wrote, I always had him in mind. I didn't want to be the target of his quizzical look: "Do you really believe that?"
Dan despised cant and anything that had the prim self-righteousness of what later came to be called "political correctness." Many Voice writers in the early years were more radical, to say the least, than he was. But he also encouraged writers who were more conservative than he. . . .
When there was a particularly fierce controversylike the 1968 strike in which the United Federation of Teachers shut down the schools citywide to protest the new black community-controlled district in Ocean HillBrownsvillethe Voice ran scores of articles on all sides.
During that time, I was asked to speak to the Nieman Fellows at Harvard, and a professor of government, sitting in, told me how exasperated he was by the Voice.
"I never know," he said, "what the paper itself believes. I never know what it stands for."
Thinking of Dan, I told the professor, "That's the point. You can read all kinds of views in the Voice, and then make up your own mind."
Since Dan was forced out of the paper, there has not been as much true diversity in the Voice. He liked to see the Voice as a tournament of endless controversy. He himself hardly ever raised his voice, but he made his penetrating points sting for a long time.
[ September 25, 2001]
Still a pain in the ass.
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
Last Tuesday, a friend, an inveterate civil libertarian, called me as broken bodies were still being placed on stretchers.
"This is going to cause a surge by governmentlocal, state, and federalto shred the Bill of Rights," he said. "And it will be cheered by an enthusiastic, indignant public."
If he's right, and American history would indicate he is, the relatively few uncompromising civil libertarians among us will again be regarded with contempt and continuous suspicion by both the authorities and the populace.
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