“If there is a basic, fundamental engine that makes this peculiar experiment, constitutional democracy – I’m quoting Jefferson – work, it’s that we all have a right to free speech no matter how offensive.” –Nat Hentoff
We lost a great one Saturday when Nat Hentoff died.
As NPR’s Arts Desk Editor Tom Cole remembers, “For writer and historian Nat Hentoff, it was all about freedom in the jazz he loved and the First Amendment he fiercely defended.”
Author of “more than 35 books—novels, volumes for young adults and nonfiction works on civil liberties, education and other subjects…He relished the role of the provocateur, defending the right of people to say and write whatever they wanted…” (The New York Times)
Among those books was the YA novel, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, which Hentoff wrote in 1982. It’s about a censorship challenge to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at fictitious George Mason High School.
Frighteningly, 35 years later the challenge, the challengers, and the goals of the challengers could have come verbatim from any a complaint lodged recently about Huck Finn and even just last year in Accomack, Virginia.
The challenger in The Day, is concerned about the language in Huck Finn—the “N-word”—and points to a specific passage on page 193. This parent goes on to say he doesn’t want any child to read the book which he insists must be taken out of the curriculum and the library or the school will be faced with a “mobilization of a good many parents besides myself.” (p.28)
The history teacher who assigned the book describes the censors that had been coming around the school for several years as,
“The standard brands. Parents who didn’t want their children reading about sex or being exposed to words they weren’t allowed to use at home. No problem there, of course, so long as they wanted to prevent only their own kids from reading those books. You’d just give the kid something else. But some of the parents wanted to save every single child in the school from those books.”
“Saving” children, saving the world, from the freedoms to read and write and speak and think for themselves—what some may call “dangerous freedoms”—is the antithesis of Nat Hentoff’s support for the First Amendment. Allowing everyone those “dangerous freedoms” is, as he says, the basis of our democracy.