'The Pleasures of Being Out of Step': Nat Hentoff's Free Speech

If it's good to believe and to take a stand on it, it's also good to think through beliefs.

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step

Director: David L. Lewis
Cast: Nat Hentoff, Margot Hentoff, Stanley Crouch, Karen Durbin, Amiri Baraka, Floyd Abrams, Phil Woods, Andre Braugher (narrator)
Rated: NR
Studio: First Run Features
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-06-25 (Limited release)

"Nat loves conflict." Margot Hentoff doesn't always agree with her husband. "Why?" wonders her questioner the documentary The Pleasures of Being Out of Step. "Oh it's fun," she smiles. "I love it too, it's great when everybody disagrees with you and everything's coming down and you can stand there and say, 'This is what I believe.'"

But if it's good to believe and to take a stand on it, it's also good to think through beliefs. The film touches on such complications repeatedly. Most plainly, it's a portrait of Nat Hentoff, jazz critic, historian novelist, columnist and, since 2011, a fellow at the Cato Institute, with opinions offered by a predictable set of talking heads, including colleagues and Margot, as well as Hentoff himself. As such, it's appropriately fractured and vaguely jazzy in its rhythms, connections between ideas a little hazy, transitions between scenes a little jittery.

Even as the film lays out Hentoff's associations with thinkers and artists (among others, Dylan, Malcolm X, Charlie Mingus) or commends his prose, his passion, and early appreciation of jazz (when not everyone was so keen), it also poses some questions, as to the definitions and effects of principle. Put another way, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step wonders, repeatedly, about those pleasures, and if confronting "everybody" is a function of a sometimes disconcerting certainty, finding fun in the conflict in and of itself.

Of course Hentoff defends his thinking rigorously, including a longtime devotion to free speech, a principle that may in itself trump all others. But the film's celebration is more complicated that than. Its occasional open to uncertainty, not incidentally voiced by women interviewed in the film, makes Hentoff at once fascinating and infuriating, a rather perfect focus of conflict.

This focus begins but hardly ends with his notorious proclamations on various public issues, condemning bigotry but fighting for the civil right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois during the mid-'70s, insisting on individual rights to privacy but asserting a pro-life position during the '80s. His defense of the Nazis in Skokie is recalled here by former record executive Regina Joskow, who says that his response to her outraged letter to him at the time was so eloquent, so "patient, gentle, and well thought out" that she came to understand the First Amendment in a new way.

That new way, as Floyd Abrams notes under images of The Innocence of Muslims (2012) and protests against it, holds that "We should allow speech which offends people, speech which can do some harm, speech which leads to pain, is a uniquely American approach, and when you carry it as far as Nat does, it takes a lot of talking about it and explaining." The film's juxtaposition of a "them" and "us" as Abrams speaks sets the free speech argument in a stark and somewhat reductive context, confirming the fearfulness and lunacy of censorship.

But even as this argument is reconfirmed in Hentoff's defenses of all sorts of art -- and the film includes Amiri Baraka and Stanley Crouch as defenders of this defender ("Nat didn't care about any of it," says Crouch, "It wasn't that he was indifferent to hostility and all of that, it's just that I think he thought that in a society where free speech is possible, there is a cost that one has to endure to be free") -- other contexts make for other stakes, and speech that does harm might need more speech. Indeed, this might follow on Hentoff's own argument, that more talking is always preferable than less.

There may be a way to fold the free speech argument into Hentoff's campaigns against men with AIDS and abortion, in the sense that privacy is not the same as speech. His onetime Village Voice editor Karen Durbin says he was "developing certain lines of social conservatism and one of the first ones, I think, had to do with homosexuality: his first reaction to AIDS was not good. He was not at all interested in privacy rights for men with AIDS."

Similarly, his adamant pro-life stand (which he calls a "consistent ethic of right," on a continuum with his position against the death penalty) seems opposite of his more familiar alliances with the left. As Anna Quindlen puts it during a debate clip included here, under this thinking, "I can be private in my own home, not in my own skin."

Recalling her decision not to help him with research on an anti-abortion column, Durbin says this of Hentoff's stand on abortion: "I don't think it has intellectual underpinnings, I think it's a personal thing that is unexamined." While Hentoff doesn't address this question (and so it may remain unexamined), The Pleasures of Being Out of Step doesn't ignore it. Still, the question hovers, quietly. And as you know, more speech is always better.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.