Nat Hentoff: Great Faker, Even Greater Lion

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Nat Hentoff qualified as a luminary well beyond the average, who shined brightly in myriad skies during his life, and now, having died at the age of 91, must be shining in that ultimate sky, even if he didn’t believe in it. You would need to be sure-footed in so many fields to write an obituary doing him justice.

I’ll just mention two things I appreciated about him. One, which I dug during my teenage years, was his glorious interview with Bob Dylan which appeared in Playboy magazine in 1966. (I should note that I first read it almost 20 years later and without, alas, the pictures.) It’s a classic and hilarious bout with Bob, and, what’s more (and somewhat topically), it is one of the greatest examples extant of fake news. Hentoff did interview Dylan, but Bob (at least as I understand the story) was unhappy with the end result, and so they went back and cooked up a new, improved interview to submit to Playboy. And thank the Good Lord they did, because there are some of us who might not have survived our adolescence and fruitfully wasted our adulthoods without the experience of reading it.

And another thing I appreciated about him was his fearless devotion to principle. Though political labels fail someone as complex and honest as Hentoff, he was in a sense an old-fashioned liberal; that is, he was a liberal who refused to accept the memo about how liberalism now meant abandoning the most helpless in American society, that memo being circulated circa 1973, and being the cause of so must corrosion ever since.

Back when I maintained a blog centered around Bob Dylan and commentary on topical events, I quoted a column of Hentoff’s at length, in relation to an issue of life and death that was then in the news. So, I’m going to copy that here below. Rest in peace, Nat Hentoff.


The Lonesome Death of Terri Schiavo

Yes, there’s a Dylan reference here, albeit a tenuous one. Nat Hentoff, who did that famous interview with Dylan way back in the 60s, and has written on other occasions about him (and is rather far from being "right wing") wrote a column for the Village Voice on the subject of Terri Schiavo. The sub-heading is: "her crime was being disabled, voiceless, and at the disposal of our media." It makes a good recap of some of the facts of the case, and an excellent review of the justification for outrage. Some excerpts:

For all the world to see, a 41-year-old woman, who has committed no crime, will die of dehydration and starvation in the longest public execution in American history.

Among many other violations of her due process rights, Terri Schiavo has never been allowed by the primary judge in her case—Florida Circuit Judge George Greer, whose conclusions have been robotically upheld by all the courts above him—to have her own lawyer represent her.

Greer has declared Terri Schiavo to be in a persistent vegetative state, but he has never gone to see her. His eyesight is very poor, but surely he could have visited her along with another member of his staff. Unlike people in a persistent vegetative state, Terri Schiavo is indeed responsive beyond mere reflexes.

While lawyers and judges have engaged in a minuet of death, the American Civil Liberties Union, which would be passionately criticizing state court decisions and demanding due process if Terri were a convict on death row, has shamefully served as co-counsel for her husband, Michael Schiavo, in his insistent desire to have her die.

Do you know that nearly every major disability rights organization in the country has filed a legal brief in support of Terri’s right to live?

As an atheist, I cannot speak to what he {Michael Schiavo – ed.} describes as his abandoned wife’s ultimate destination, but I can tell how Wesley Smith (consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture)—whom I often consult on these bitterly controversial cases because of his carefully researched books and articles—describes death by dehydration.

In his book Forced Exit (Times Books), Wesley quotes neurologist William Burke: "A conscious person would feel it [dehydration] just as you and I would. . . . Their skin cracks, their tongue cracks, their lips crack. They may have nosebleeds because of the drying of the mucous membranes, and heaving and vomiting might ensue because of the drying out of the stomach lining.

"They feel the pangs of hunger and thirst. Imagine going one day without a glass of water! . . . It is an extremely agonizing death."

And keep in mind from the Ralph Nader-Wesley Smith report: "The courts . . . have [also] ordered that no attempts be made to provide her water or food by mouth. Terri swallows her own saliva. Spoon feeding is not medical treatment. This outrageous order proves that the courts are not merely permitting medical treatment to be withheld, they have ordered her to be made dead."

Yes, I can understand differences of opinion on this subject. The arguments will go around and around. But for me it’s always come down to the fact that food and water are not extraordinary means of keeping someone alive, and where they are all that is required, they should not be denied. It surprised me personally to discover that this would even be considered. It would not be an acceptable way of executing a mass murderer. It would not be something that you’d do to your pet. It is said by some that Terri Schiavo is a vegetable. Well, it’s not even something one would do to a potted plant in an office. If it’s looking dried up, someone will give it water. The chief risk is that too many people will water it. This is not a risk in Terri’s case, thanks to the police in place to defend the judge’s order.

Iowahawk’s contribution to this debate was a list of various vegetable, fruit and nut plants which are specifically protected under federal law: Some Vegetables Are More Equal Than Others. Tasteless? Sure. But a lot less so than the headline in the New York Post today, unfortunately echoing so many others, saying, "Let Her Die In Peace And With Dignity."

Now, again, it is time to step back and let Terri Schiavo die.

She deserves at least that much.

God rest her soul.

Well, no: I disagree that she deserves this "dignified" death. I have not been apprised of the crime which she committed to warrant a denial of food and water. In fact, I’ve never heard of a crime where such a punishment is the result. Even Zarqawi in Iraq beheads his victims in an ordeal that lasts minutes – not weeks.

I wasn’t going to write anything more about this case on my little website, but today it occurred to me: If she can hold out for 12 days – and counting – with no water, I can at least use my fingers to type a little bit and add to the objections being raised to this pitiless execution.

Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.


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