In our last two issues of 2016, we hurled everything from civil liberties defenses to descriptive insults (i.e. “liar”) at Boston Police Department brass, all in hopes that they would reconsider a planned $1.4 million purchase of dystopian social media surveillance software. As outlined in an op-ed by Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer and through tough investigative reporting by Sarah Betancourt, the prospect of such newfangled monitoring seems horrifying, especially considering past BPD behavior in Big Brother’s shoes. So I’m hopeful to have learned that such plans are on hold. At least for now. While police are likely still up to their sneaky tricks in other spaces that perpetually alarm the civil libertarians and privacy rights watchdogs among us, their concession this time around is a welcome change from when such concerns are disregarded or completely ignored.
Which brings me to the recently departed Nat Hentoff, a noted civil libertarian and lefty son of Boston who gained fame as a journalist and dissident at the Village Voice in Manhattan. Much more than just an iconic Voice personality for more than half a century, a few things in particular about Hentoff have for some time resonated with me, the first being his lifelong dedication to the indie press and hatred for the mainstream media. As long as his words live in some form to counter the claims of public relations parrots, future generations might actually stand a chance of stumbling upon the complex ethical and economic struggles of contemporary public education, for one, despite the hacktacular status quo’s scorn for granular details.
On a personal note, I’ve always seen a parallel between guys like Hentoff who came of age as jazz critics when establishment jerks shat on that genre and cats like me who launched under similar circumstances decades later as hip-hop writers. We both segued to having deep concerns for social and political issues through our exposure to the arts and to struggling and gifted radical musicians. While I began my media career covering rap in my native Queens before coming to Mass, Hentoff started here and migrated to New York City. As is eloquently illustrated in his legendary 2001 memoir, Boston Boy: Growing Up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions, his Hub experiences built Hentoff into the unique renaissance author he became—from the time he got whooped in Franklin Park by Irish boys for being Jewish to his interviewing Duke Ellington at the Savoy on Mass Ave. Like many other prodigies who hail from these parts, Hentoff also went to Boston Latin School, which he fondly recalled as a place where “we were all united—the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Greeks, the Scots, the Armenians, the relatively few Yankees who still went there (the others no longer applied because all the rest of us were there), and the far fewer blacks.”
In comparing my two polemicist heroes, Hentoff and Christopher Hitchens—the latter that other controversial liberal lion with a knack for turning on the pack—then Hentoff must be ultimately held in some kind of higher regard than Hitch, since Hentoff was less of a showman and contrarian and instead stuck to promoting his legitimate beliefs. Whereas Hitchens thrived on disagreement and engaged in intellectual warfare for sport, Hentoff cared more about what he was saying than about the whistle of his sweet charisma. He also wrote liner notes for Bob Dylan, which was an honor among honors even before the freewheelin’ troubadour became a Nobel laureate.
While it’s cute to suggest, as the Atlantic did, that Hentoff was among those “looking for an escape hatch from Trump’s America,” it seems absurd to search for significance in Hentoff’s passing at this time. The man was a disgruntled but by most accounts fair evaluator (or hater, as some might say) of all designations and administrations; from education policy to war and torture, whether writing for the alternative press or in his controversial fellowship with the Koch brothers-founded libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, Hentoff rarely appeared to be rationalizing and kept his core belief that most officials are unenviable through his last day. In any case, I couldn’t help but take the liberty of cherry-picking a quote, from his 1982 novel The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, which I’ll use as a guiding light through the inauguration and whatever threats to constitutional protections we face moving forward:
Those who created this country chose freedom. With all of its dangers. And do you know the riskiest part of that choice they made? They actually believed that we could be trusted to make up our own minds in the whirl of differing ideas. That we could be trusted to remain free, even when there were very, very seductive voices—taking advantage of our freedom of speech—who were trying to turn this country into the kind of place where the government could tell you what you can and cannot do.