The Village Voice, New York’s traditional counterculture newspaper, is housed in a crumbling tenement on Broadway at the northern edge of Greenwich Village. Almost every square foot of the building’s exterior wall is plastered with handbills for hipsounding bands or talks at nearby clubs and meeting places: “Lunachicks,” “Suicidal Tendencies,” “Haunted Toilet,” “Hide the Baby,” and “Yogi Gupta: Trimmer Body, Calmer Mind, Self-Realization.”

A huge trash pile along one side of the building smells of urine and sparkles with empty bottles of Wild Irish Rose and other cheap hits. On the inside, a dark staircase leading to the second-floor editorial department is brightened only by a taped-up flyer offering comfort to “Lesbian Survivors of Abusive Relationships.”

The editorial department is well lit, however. Fluorescent bulbs bring out the detail of scratched linoleum floors, a broken table sitting in the hallway, and a current Village Voice that has slid off the table. The lead article in that issue complains of those who have “found common cause with the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world. On the package of issues surrounding abortion, they have allied themselves with the society’s most repressive and misogynistic forces.” Down the hallway lies an open area with dozens of desks; around one of them seven or eight 25-year-olds in tight jeans grimly receive a harangue about the “blow-dried fascism of the Reaganitemare” from a 45-year-old editor in Dockers trousers.

Then, from a dim hallway on the other side of the open area, comes shuffling a bent-over, 65-year-old in gray slacks. The Red Sea of young people silently parts before him, and the middle-aged man offers a sullen look; but no one says hello to gray-bearded Nat Hentoff. The silence is striking, for Hentoff is one of the creators of the Village Voice and its environment. For 33 of the 36 years of the Voice’s existence, Hentoff’s articles and columns have attacked anyone attempting to put limits on freedom of expression of any kind, whether political or pornographic. Even today, Hentoff decries a Cincinnati judge’s anti-Mapplethorpe ruling as “so stupid and so unconstitutional,” and says that the characterization of “secular humanism” as school-established religion is “nonsense.” On many other issues Hentoff toes the Village Voice party line that he helped to create. But in one area—abortion—Hentoff is a deviant, and for that he has achieved what he calls a “difficult, sometimes pariah status.”

Hentoff grew up in a Jewish neighborhood of Boston, received his B.A. with highest honors from Northeastern University, and did graduate work at Harvard. He moved to New York City, became well-known as a jazz critic, wrote or edited two-dozen books, and became a syndicated columnist. Through the early 1980s, Hentoff shared the “very heavy presumption among people on the Left that the feminists are right,” that women “cannot in any meaningful sense be free unless they have what they call reproductive freedom.” Support for abortion at the Village Voice remains “as fixed an orthodoxy,” Hentoff says, “as belief in God is with Falwell and Wildmon.”

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But Hentoff read widely and was surprised in 1984 to find that every article about a case much in the news that year, that of Long Island infant Baby Jane Doe, had an Orwellian spin to it.

“All the newspapers, all the editorials, were saying the same thing,” he recalls. The pundits all backed the parents’ willingness to let the baby die because she was born with spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal column does not close properly before birth. Reporters minimized the medical fact that operations could save the child’s life and allow her to become a bright, but braces-requiring adult. And so it was a lie rather than a life that first pushed Hentoff, angered by “hypocrisy” and “evasion,” to write several magazine articles about the arrival of infanticide.

When some of his teammates on the Left then asked him why he was making a “big deal” about a “late abortion,” Hentoff realized that the slippery slope spoken of by prolifers was angled more sharply than he had supposed. When Hentoff began to label killing of children born or unborn as just that—killing—he again got strong pressure to back off.

Pushing at the headstrong Hentoff has never worked, however. He regularly tells interviewers of the time he was 12 years old and sat on the porch of his parents’ house on Yom Kippur, the holiest fast day of the Jewish year. On that porch, in full view of the Orthodox Jews walking past the house to the synagogue a block away, he ate a huge salami sandwich very slowly. Many of the passers-by shook their heads in disgust. One shook his fist. Another spat—and Hentoff, in his autobiography, Boston Boy, recorded the overall experience as “quite enjoyable.”

Hentoff explains his conspicuous consumption of that salami sandwich in three ways. At the time, the precocious 12-year-old declared that he was protesting “intolerance”: A neighborhood butcher who tried to sell non-kosher meat from his shop had to give up after his windows were repeatedly broken by Orthodox Jews. Almost a half-century later, however, Hentoff noted in Boston Boy that the protest angle “wasn’t true.… I mainly wanted to know if I could do it.… I wanted to know how it felt to be an outcast.”

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The third reason goes deeper: Hentoff says that by the age of 12 he was already an atheist but was reading “lots of things, I was trying to find out what this God thing was.” Hentoff wanted God to “manifest” himself, but on Yom Kippur, “he never showed up to smite me, and that was the end of that.”

What Hentoff does recall unequivocally from his childhood are the smitings by those he identified with Christianity. He listened to the radio anti-Semitism of Father Coughlin and was badly beaten by Irish boys. But after the beating, as his own blood sank into his white shirt, he had the consoling thought that he would “grow up to be served by these goyishe hooligans fattened into loutish laborers, garbage men, firemen, and cops.” He believed, he recalls, that “Christians don’t like Jews, Christians kill Jews, at least they did in the Old Country, and they could some day here.” Hentoff no longer makes such generalizations, but because he has lived his entire life in Boston and New York, he sees much of the rest of the country as an alien place for flying over but not living in, and evangelical belief systems are similarly distant from any reality he knows.

Hentoff has a glib answer when pressed on religion by his theistic prolife allies: “I’ve always wished I could make that leap of faith and believe, but I can’t.” And yet, Hentoff does not seem to have any desire to try; despite his voluminous reading, he admits to having never read any evangelical theology. When pressed harder, he simply snaps, “I’m an atheist. I’m really not interested.” The bondage clearly is of will; it takes determination to write, as Hentoff did, a book-length biography of John Cardinal O’Connor that studiously avoids any deep looks into the spiritual underpinnings of the cardinal’s life. But Hentoff is very much the product of an educational era that looked on all theology through the lens of staunchly secular sociology.

Hentoff’s reading of the First Amendment also seems grounded in his view of America as an alien, “Christian” country. He is heated (appropriately) about the “disgusting anti-Semitism” in a recent Spike Lee movie, but he shows no particular concern over anti-Christian biases in either art or journalism. He pooh-poohs any concern about public schools and the propagation of atheism: Such a complaint “makes no sense. There’s no place in the United States where this could happen.”

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Instead of noting the great political and cultural power of homosexual groups, he calls gays and lesbians “a community under siege.” There appears to be a contradiction between Hentoff’s personal life (married to his third wife for three decades, he describes himself as “pretty conservative in terms of my family, honesty, and all that sort of stuff”) and the scatology and pornography he defends. The key to the latter, however, may be concern about anti-Semitic persecution around the corner: If 2 Live Crew can be stopped today, perhaps Jews will be beaten tomorrow.

Clearly, Hentoff has a sense of right and wrong, and admirable courage in standing by his core values and beliefs: “You shouldn’t lie. You shouldn’t kill developing human beings.” But when asked why others should listen to him, he is unable to ground right and wrong beyond his own rationality: “I have developed for myself a moral sense.” And if others have developed other moral senses? “They’re wrong,” he says with a twinkle. And why? “They are.” In the end, this self-described member of “The Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-necked Jewish Atheists” sees himself as a god unto himself—and the urgent need for God’s grace becomes more evident than ever.

Remarkably, however, Hentoff’s eyes have been opened on abortion. He has written columns not only defending unborn children but supporting the defenders themselves, including Operation Rescue soldiers bashed by governmental manipulation of RICO (antiracketeering) statutes. Hentoff is willing to take a prolife stand alongside leaders he otherwise despises; in doing so, he forgoes the adoration of Village Voice fans and readers. And he turns out prolife columns as deliberately as he ate his Yom Kippur salami sandwich, grinning at the panic he causes.

Yet there is something in Hentoff akin to Duke Ellington and the other jazz greats whose pictures hang in his office. For, as drummer Jonathan “Jo” Jones said long ago, a jazz musician “might put on a big smile and say, ‘man, ain’t life grand!’ But as soon as he starts playing, you can hear the hurt.”

Hentoff drinks from a Village Voice coffee cup and decorates his office door with a sign that reads, “Card-Carrying Member ACLU.” His windowless office (about 7 by 8 feet) is so crammed with books, folders, and jazz albums that when Hentoff sits in the chair behind his paper-strewn desk he almost seems to be sinking beneath a sandbag barricade. He does not join the young Village Voice staffers scurrying to the conference room to preview a new MTV commercial for the newspaper. Nor does he head off to “a 401(k) Pension Plan presentation” for all permanent staff. Soon Hentoff will take the elevator down to the first floor and walk away from the building that is both home and isolation cell. He will walk through a neighborhood that is in many ways a consequence of the ideas he has expressed, past signs advertising “Urban Scarecrows,” “Hell in a Handbasket,” and “Biohazard: Infection Approaching.” But in the meantime, Hentoff sits in his bunkered office, alone.

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Eugene H. Peterson is pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church, Bel Air, Maryland, and author of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity) and Answering God (Harper & Row), both of which are about the Psalms.

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