The death of Nat Hentoff a couple of weeks ago was movingly memorialized for First Things by William Doino. Hentoff was truly a remarkable individual with a sharp, consistent mind and a very broad range of friends and readers.
I first came across his work when I emigrated in 2001 and bought on a whim a remaindered copy of his autobiography, Speaking Freely. Little did I know that his love (and mine) of freedom of speech in the civic sphere would soon be jeopardized by those who fail to understand—or perhaps who understand just too well—that free speech means the right of my bitterest opponents to articulate their most reprehensible views in the public square. Hentoff was a man of the left, but he was also a libertarian on matters of freedom and an evangelist for the same. Indeed, his children’s novel, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, became a staple in our house, with both of our boys reading it, loving it, and taking its message to heart.
There is one passage in Speaking Freely (177-78) that offers disturbing insights into modern political culture. Hentoff quotes a certain politician on abortion: “What happens to the soul of a nation that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of society will we have twenty years hence if life can be taken so casually?” He also quotes the same politician on the right to privacy: “There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of a higher order than the right of life. That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside of your right to be concerned.” This politician had himself almost been aborted, and he saw the clear connection between the dehumanizing of a child in the womb and racial oppression, in that both involve a denial of real personhood to a human being.
Later on, this politician decided to run for president and magically changed his mind on abortion. His name? Jesse Jackson.
In his memoir, Hentoff recalls meeting Jackson on a train in 1994. As they journeyed together, Hentoff told Jackson that he frequently quoted his pro-life writings because they were among the most compelling he had read. Jackson, he said, looked troubled. Hentoff then asked the politician whether he had any second thoughts on his change of mind. Jackson looked even more troubled and said, “I’ll get back to you on that.” Hentoff ended the anecdote on this laconic note: “I haven’t heard from him since.”
Of course, Jackson had no arguments for his change. He changed, as Hentoff pointed out, when he wanted to run for president. He is the quintessential politician in an era of mass media and entertainment, where politicians’ views are too often shaped by the perceived direction of the popular wind. That is a tragedy, for opinion polls are more a means of shaping public opinion than of reflecting it. Have you noticed that they continue to be paraded by the media after Brexit and Trump? The media clings so very tightly to its manipulative ideological necromancy. And sadly, politicians today are too often the successors of the Jacksons, not the Hentoffs—selling their consciences to whatever and whoever they think will get them the necessary votes. We need politicians of conviction, not spineless puppets of popular taste.
The politicizing of the issue of abortion has done little more than trivialize human personhood. The career of Jesse Jackson is a great and pitiful example of this. As was, in an opposite way, the career of Nat Hentoff. He may have been an atheist, but he understood that human personhood is not a function of the ballot box, the focus group, or the latest opinion poll.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.