Nat Hentoff, a longtime columnist for the Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal, and the secular publication Free Inquiry (among many, many others) died yesterday of natural causes at the age of 91. He was a long-time advocate for free speech, fought the death penalty, and was (to the surprise of many liberals) anti-abortion on philosophical grounds.
Hentoff was born in 1925, the son of a Russian-Jewish haberdasher. Thrown out of Hebrew school, he flaunted his unbelief, even eating a salami sandwich in front of his house on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of fasting and atonement. In 1982, his opposition to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon led to a trio of rabbis declaring he had been excommunicated.
“I only wished the three rabbis really had the authority to hold that court,” Hentoff later wrote. “I would have told them about my life as a heretic, a tradition I keep precisely because I am a Jew.”
While his fans loved his outspoken nature, he was roundly criticized for the obvious reason. Not that he cared, even when it got in the way of certain opportunities. Leslie Fain of the Catholic World Report wrote this in 2013:
Hentoff encourages anyone who wants to find secular information to support the pro-life argument to read works written by doctors who operate on babies in utero. “Read them in terms of what they do — surgeons who deal with the child before the child is actually a child, according to the law,” he said.
Being an atheist pro-lifer often can have its costs. Hentoff has lost lecture-circuit jobs and the opportunity to have a journalism school named after him and was delayed in getting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Press Foundation because of his pro-life views. “Being pro-life has cost me a lot, but these are losses I am proud of,” he said.
Even with that major blemish on his record, though, it’s incredible the kinds of people and organizations who are mourning his loss. They include the liberal Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Secular Pro-Life.
If there’s one thing we can learn from his life, it’s that there’s power in forging your own path and following the evidence, as you see it, even if it may not sit well with those in your circles. Hentoff didn’t hold certain positions just because they were expected of him. He came to his own conclusions and fought for them passionately. That’s never easy to do when some of your opinions are bound to create friction. It’s also why people are mourning the loss of the kind of voice we rarely hear these days.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)