Nat Hentoff — RIP

What I’d read of Nat Hentoff’s in the last twenty years suggested he would have made a sterling mentor. A jazz critic of formidable erudition and prodigious output, Hentoff could have triumphed in any genre. I will leave it to others to write the full retrospectives he deserves, so let me stop mine with my favorite piece of writing. Those who have watched the VD rerelease of Cruising are aware of the level of rage that the Village’s gay community aimed at what it perceived as writer-director William Friedkin’s depiction of disco-era libertinage:

Those who strove so mightily to shut down the filming—by mayoral intervention or just plain disruption—have won more than they may realize. And libertarians, including homosexual libertarians, have suffered more of a loss than they may yet recognize. There are homosexual libertarians who wanted Cruising left alone. In conversation, they ask that their names not be used because the tyranny of majoritarianism is not limited to yahoos. Indeed, the majority of an outside group that justly feels beleaguered can be roughest of all on internal dissent. (See the collected works of Stanley Crouch on this phenomenon in another sphere.)

I can think of no finer an explanation of the consequences of outsiders tasting power, however meager, than Hentoff’s last sentence. Its predecessors establish a context. It has never lost its resonance. He’s not basking in contempt; he’s lamenting an inevitability. Speaking of context, the rest of this essay is an elegy to the Village that Hentoff in 199 no longer recognized. Those who live long live to see greater changes yet.

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