Don’t You Play Me Le Jazz, Nat, Baby

You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step,” a new documentary about the anti-gay jazz critic and First Amendment twister Nat Hentoff. Two articles in the New York Times provided more than enough nausea to suffice; the film itself, which recently debuted in New York at the IFC Center, would have caused internal bleeding.

Won't somebody make it end?

The first piece, a bland arts item by Larry Rohter, starts with a recap of Hentoff’s early career as a jazz promoter and slowly proceeds to elucidate his politics: “In the 1960s, sensitized by his friendships with jazz musicians, he spoke out strongly in support of the civil rights movement — the film shows him squaring off against William F. Buckley Jr. — and the 1970s allowed him to focus on what he viewed as growing government encroachment on individual freedoms.”

So far, so good.

But then Rohter slides into this: “These days, Mr. Hentoff describes himself as ‘an imperfect libertarian.’ He became a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, in 2009 and lately has been promoting the presidential hopes of Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who, he said, ‘knows the Constitution’ and shares his position on civil liberties issues like surveillance and the use of drones.”

Let us pause for a moment and notice the slippery transition from the civil rights movement — a term limited in its use here to African Americans, leaving out women’s and gay liberation — to the Cato Institute and Rand Paul. It’s generous of Rohter to call the Cato Institute “a libertarian think tank.” In fact, it’s a crank right outfit co-founded by Charles Koch; his equally drastic brother, David Koch, sits on Cato’s board of directors. Some of Cato’s poisonous schemes are the privatization of Social Security and the wholesale elimination of eight cabinet agencies — Education, Labor, Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, Interior, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs. After all, why do we need a Department of Energy when the Koch brothers could just issue policies out of Koch Industries’ corporate headquarters?

Rand Paul, of course, is the tousled-haired plagiarist and likely presidential candidate who predicted that the Supreme Court’s destruction of the Defense of Marriage Act could lead to legal bestiality: “It is difficult, because if we have no laws on this, people will take it to one extension further — does it have to be humans?”

Media Circus

Rohter goes on: “In the film, Mr. Lewis [David L. Lewis, the director of “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step”] tracks Mr. Hentoff’s shift to what he regards as social conservatism to the early 1980s, when Mr. Hentoff broke with colleagues on abortion and responses to the AIDS epidemic.”

Apparently reluctant to sour the milk by providing any details of Hentoff’s noxious proposals about people with AIDS, Rohter moves on to interview Hentoff’s wife. The same sssssh!-don’t-wake-the-baby courtesy held sway in the Times’ review of the film and indeed in the film itself, in which Karen Durbin, Hentoff’s former colleague at the Village Voice, says simply: “His first reaction to AIDS was not good. He was not at all interested in privacy rights for men with AIDS.”

I’ll spell it out: Hentoff liked to differentiate between “innocent” people with AIDS and “guilty” people with AIDS. On what do you think he based his distinction? You got it: babies born to mothers with AIDS were the innocents, as were those who received HIV-tainted blood transfusions, whereas the guilty were gay men, injection drug users, and in fact anyone who got it by having sex with an infected partner. In Hentoff’s warped worldview, one could actually be guilty of having an illness, though of course only one illness made the cut; there was never any talk of guilty cancer patients or guilty people with Parkinson’s disease.

Hentoff advocated mandatory HIV testing long before there were any truly effective treatments for the disease. Theoretical individual liberty was key for Hentoff; practical individual liberty —freedom from being rounded up by the government and forcibly given HIV testing without regard for privacy — was something else entirely. Like William F. Buckley, Jr.’s concurrent proposal in 1986 for tattooing everyone with HIV at the physical site of their infection — asses for gay men, arms for hemophiliacs — Hentoff’s strident, even belligerent demand for mandatory HIV testing never got around to the specifics of how the program would work.

In the darkest years of the AIDS crisis, what did the word mandatory mean in the context of mass blood testing? Would government vans have roamed through neighborhoods on the lookout for men with good haircuts and tank tops and punk rockers with needles hanging out of their arms? Would phlebotomists in HAZMAT suits have physically grabbed people off the sidewalks, frog-marched them into the vans, strapped them down on gurneys, stuck needles into their arms, and taken their blood? And who would have paid for tests administered against our will? The government? Maybe we could have charged it up on Amex and gotten points to be used for frequent flier one-way trips out of the country.

Nat Hentoff presents himself as a crusader. On gay rights and the rights of people to be free from forced blood tests, he’s just another creep. I skipped “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” My stomach wouldn’t risk it.

Follow @edsikov on Twitter.

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