Page 17


BOOKS & THE CULTURE / Speak, Pariah Hentoff Recalls a Life in Opposition BY KAREN OLSSON SPEAKING FREELY: A Memoir. By Nat Hentoff. Knopf. 303 pages. $25.00. eading Nat Hentoff s new memoir is a bit like sitting on the front porch drinking iced tea with a yakety-yak old guy who’s got lots to tell you. He lurches from episode to episode, recalling the fights he’s fought, the people he’s known, the events he’s witnessed and meanwhile he’s not too humble to boast a little bit, or too circumspect to pull a few photos of his kids \(Tom, Jessica, Nicholas, good stories, but after a while you begin to wonder why he’s saying what he’s saying. Is this fond reminiscence or self-vindication? In the end, it’s some of each, and in the very end, mostly the latter: the closing chapter reprints six paragraphs of a laudatory speech given when the esteemed author won a National Press Club Award in 1995. “Journalism,” said Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield on that occasion, “doesn’t get any better than Nat Hentoff.” One would hope it doesn’t get any more self-absorbed, either. I admit I came to this book with a slight, recent chip on my shoulder. But I would not have been swept away by it even had I not read Hentoff s November 25 Village Voice column, in which his inaccurate summation of the Hopwood v. University of Texas Law School affirmative-action-ending case came straight from the white plaintiffs’ attorneys. “I knew something of the affirmative action program at the law school even before the court case,” Hentoff wrote, “…and I was surprised that all these legal scholars had so carelessly violated the…Supreme Court’s precedent in affirmative action cases on the college level.” The air of presumed knowledge is too typical of the book, in which Hentoff is often just plain flummoxed by other people’s wrongheadedness. \(In writing of U.T.’s “violation” of Supreme Court precedent, he was referring to the fact that the law school set goals for its entering classes of 5 percent black and 10 per cent Mexican American, which Hentoff considers indistinguishable from prohibited “quotas”; and to the fact that one phase of the 1992 admissions process involved the use of separate committees for applicants of different races a procedure that had been discontinued by the time the Hopwood case made it to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Hentoff ignores such crucial distinctions, and he slides over the fact that the Fifth Circuit went after a lot more than perHentoff is a straightforward writer, never dull or florid. As a journalist who avoided the pigeonhole his subjects over the years have included jazz, civil rights, free speech, the Constitution, and medical ethics Hentoff has been a smart, skeptical eyewitness to many public battles, and an exposer of other, less wellknown ones. He’s been acquainted with luminaries like Duke Ellington and Malcolm X, and some of the best stuff in the memoir comes when, rather than telling the reader something about himself, Hentoff quotes what others have told him about themselves. Ellington, for instance, once described the life of the improvising jazz performer: “What I’m involved in is a continuing autobiography, a continuing record of the people I meet, the places I see and then, years later, see change. Furthermore, what is music if it isn’t communication? I like to know firsthand what the response is to what I write. And it’s by playing all these one-nighters that I can hear reactions from all kinds of audiences.” Or here is maverick journalist I. F. Stone: “The only kind of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important major fight one hundred years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing for the sheer fun and joy of it to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.” When Hentoff quotes men like Ellington and Stone he does so, it seems, both because their remarks have intrinsic interest, and because these particular statements illuminate the way Hentoff would like to see himself as, say, a talented improviser, or as a champion of the losing side. Which is reasonable enough: these are men Hentoff has admired and has tried to emulate. Yet in presenting his heroes in terms of whatever principles they handed down, Hentoff misses the opportunity to really give us much sense of the people he’s talking about. He rarely lingers in any one scene. Speaking Freely is a memoir in column form: a series of succinct, disconnected reminiscences. Ultimately, of course, Hentoff himself is the connection, and he plays this up, at times implying that the means by which he’s arrived at his own opinions is a subject endowed with great natural fascination. The development of his views thus becomes one thrust of the book, and the particular intellectual journey he’s most fascinated with is his turning “pro-life.” \(“How I came to be, to my own surprise, a prolifer will be a later part of this narrative,” he writes in the introduction. “The conseFor years Hentoff had considered pro-life views the property of Christians and thus, as a Jewish-raised atheist, he had rejected those views. But in 1983 Hentoff set out on what he calls “the path to pariandom,” in response to a series of developments: The parents of an infant girl born with spina bifida, a condition that can lead to serious brain damage, decided to provide her with only “conservative treatment” until she died. The case was widely reported on and, according to Hentoff, “All the press…vigorously supported the parents.” Hentoff championed the girl’s right to an THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21 DECEMBER 19, 1997