(This first appeared on our site on January 23, 2017. The visual is an original Nick Downes cartoon created for Hentoff’s Great Defender of Life Award, in 2005)
He shocked his friends, and lost a good many of them. He said something no one in his circles would say. In doing so, he exposed one of the weirder and sadder failures in modern American political life.
Nat Hentoff was one of the really cool guys. He wrote for the New York City weekly, The Village Voice, hippest newspaper in America. He was a jazz critic before anyone else thought jazz worth writing about, and good friends with some of the most important jazz musicians of the century. He marched against the Vietnam war and racial discrimination. He loudly and constantly defended the most radical possible version of civil rights, becoming famous—or notorious, depending on your point of view—for defending the rights of neo-Nazis to march in a heavily Jewish town.
He was a star in the world of hip, leftist New York City, and among its followers all across the country. Then, in the 1980s, he perceived for the first time that the unborn child had the right to live.
He explained the change in an article in the Human Life Review, “My Controversial Choice to Become Pro-Life”. In his world, he was now what he called “a pro-life infidel.”
Hentoff had done something his peers and fans thought insane and treasonous. Here’s the weird and sad thing: The old friends and allies who opposed him should have been on his side.
In the article, he quotes Mary Meehan, writing in The Progressive. She had had the same experience. “The traditional mark of the left has been its protection of the underdog, the weak, and the poor,” Meehan noted. “The unborn child is the most helpless form of humanity, even in more need of protection than the poor tenant farmer or the mental patient. The basic instinct of the left is to aid those who cannot aid themselves.”
The Progressive folded a few years ago after a long, distinguished run as a voice of classic American progressivism. You might disagree with its politics, but you’d recognize that it took the positions it did in defense of the marginalized and oppressed—those who couldn’t compete with or defend themselves from the powerful. That was what the American left had stood for.
The Left’s Failure
By the time Hentoff discovered the unborn child’s right to life, he and Meehan had little company among their ideological peers. It’s worth reflecting on the reason the American left turned its back on what should have been one of its basic commitments. Why was it, why is it still, so committed to the thorough outworking of the sexual revolution?
I would have thought the commitment to protecting the weak and the poor would be the fundamental one by which all other commitments would be judged. The conclusion should have been obvious: We protect the helpless; the unborn child is helpless; therefore we protect the unborn.
If the sexual revolution requires the killing of defenseless children, then by its own principles the left should have rejected the sexual revolution. That it required abortion should have been in itself a sign that the revolution was fundamentally wrong about man and the world.
Had those on the left subjected it to a leftist analysis they would have reached the obvious conclusion that abortion was an expression of the capitalist system they rejected. (As G. K. Chesterton had argued about the sexual revolution of his day.) But few leftists ever used their analytical tools on the sexual revolution. It got a free pass. Instead they have used the language of rights to obliterate the idea that the unborn child has the right to live, or that the unborn child is a child at all.
They should have demanded not that women have the right to abortion, but that they have the right to bear their children and raise them without fear of poverty. That would have been the principled leftist commitment. But instead, the left chose abortion.
A Consistent Leftist
Hentoff was a consistent leftist. His basic instinct was to aid those who could not aid themselves, and he had the courage to apply that principle even to the unborn. Once he saw the unborn child for who and what he is, he came to the obvious conclusion: Therefore we protect the unborn.
He learned the broader pro-life lessons too. In the Human Life Review article he tells the story of debating a Harvard law professor. “When I started, the audience was largely hostile, but soon I sensed that I was making some headway, and my debating partner became irritated. ‘If you’re so pro-life,’ he shouted, ‘why don’t you go out and kill abortionists?’ I looked at him, and said gently, ‘Because I’m pro-life.’”
Nat Hentoff died, at 91, on January 7th. Hentoff called himself “a stiff-necked Jewish atheist.” I honor him for his courageous ideological consistency, for remaining true to the left’s belief in protecting the underdog, the weak, and the poor, even though it cost him so many friends who had betrayed their own principles.