As a writer polemicist, fierce unrelenting defender of the Bill of Right he is one of American journalism’s, American liberty’s great national treasures. The fact he hasn’t been given a Pulitzer Prize by now is a great national scandal. I’ve valued his unceasing fight for civil liberties almost all my life and I feel great personal guilt for not having put into print, or into cyber space my gratitude for his work. Not that my praise would make a difference, not that he hasn’t gotten his share of recognition, but because he deserves more.
I should note I might not have become a writer myself if Hentoff hadn’t noticed some amateurish if well intentioned work I did for an obscure weekly paper and brought it to the attention of Dan Wolf the founding editor of the The Village Voice who gave me a job in large part on Hentoff’s word alone.
It’s hard to capture the mad maelstrom of idealists, eccentrics, poets and crazies the The Voice was then, but Hentoff kept his eye steadily focussed on one issue: The Bill of Rights, most especially the First Amendment. And no one did more to keep affronts to the Founders’ concern for individual freedom of expression front and center among activists than Hentoff.
He’s most recently been a fierce critic of the Bush Administration’s cavalier treatment of the First and Fourth Amendments. He’s a liberal but he’s been a prophetic voice unafraid to speak out against anti-semitism on the left. He’s a foe of totalitarianism everywhere. He’s been bringing attention to prisoners of conscience throughout the world for four decades now. What prompted this belated but heartfelt tribute was a column of his I came upon about the plight of independent librarians in Cuba. Who else knew about this issue, who else cared enough to pick a fight over it with the American Library Association, particularly when he’s spent column after column backing the ALA against U.S. government snoopers.
But when civil liberties are in danger anywhere in the world Hentoff somehow seems to know about it and refuses allow it to go unnoticed, unprotested.
Here’s the opening of his recent column on Cuban librarians:
The American Library Association —the largest organization of librarians in the world —continually declares that it fights for everyone’s “Freedom to Read!” and its Library Bill of Rights requires its members to “challenge censorship.” Yet the leadership of the ALA —not the rank and file —insistently refuses to call for the immediate release of the independent librarians in Cuba —designated as “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International. They are serving very long prison terms because they do believe in the freedom to read —especially in a dictatorship.
Among the many organizations demanding that Fidel Castro and his successors release these courageous Cubans —who have opened their homes and libraries to offer books censored in the Cuban state libraries —are such groups as the library associations of the Czech Republic, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. All these librarians, finally freed from Communism, agree with their colleagues in the Polish Library Association, who say in their declaration, “The actions of the Cuban authorities relate to the worst traditions of repressing the freedom of thought and expression.”
Good for you Nat. Keep on fighting the good fight. You bring honor to American journalism in a dark time.