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January 24, 2004

Nat Hentoff Responds to Library Journal

Nat Hentoff’s response to "ALA AND CUBA: who’s afraid of Nat Hentoff"
FROM Library Journal Academic newswire. Jan. 22, 2004

The letter that follows my comments below was republished with Mr. Hentoff's permission and encouragement. Nat, good for you! This morning I was spending thought and prayer on this issue, trying to decide how to put light back on the real crisis: 75 people remain in jail for defending the rights to read and to speak, and to own and share books. Talk about an angel of mercy.

For the record, Nat did call me before ALA. When he heard I would not be taking action on the issue, he was clearly disappointed, but polite, and he did not call again. Then without any further communication with Nat, my heart changed, my mind changed, and I chose to take action, and when Nat found out, he did indeed call me back, with words of encouragement. I feel honored to have had his wise counsel and advice. I have had far more, and far less polite, communiques from people on the other side of the issue.

It was not easy to promote this amendment when I had people I have known for a long time tell me that I was wrongheaded, and when I knew, deep down, it would crash in defeat. The occasional pugilistic, scolding comments from the handful of Friends of Cuban Librarians activists only made me wince. I prefer a more Ghandi-esque activism. Hectoring and insulting my peers--even when they are completely wrong--just won't get us there, and even if it were effective in the short term, it wouldn't be good strategy in the long term, at least not in my book.

It was hard to go so far out on a limb, with friends rolling their eyes and some whispering that they would like to support me, but just couldn't. However, supporting the amendment became easier when some of my peers on Council offered their own rationalizations. One Councilor speculated that the prisoners had committed other crimes, which were the real reasons they were imprisoned. Another Councilor said in Council Forum, "the only prisoners I care about in Cuba are the ones in Guantanemo." That flippant comment put more wind in my sails than this oh-so-New-York-cool Councilor realized. (Grow up, girlfriend. People are in jail, some for sentences of over twenty years.) Several Councilors who had voted on the dozen or so resolutions on free speech issues in other countries we had considered in the last decade said they didn't think ALA should interfere in "foreign affairs."

As for John Berry of Library Journal, he didn't mind making a crack in passing, on the floor of Council, about my support for the "CIA operatives." That's how objective and informed that journalist is. Berry's stilted and misleading coverage of this issue doesn't surprise me, and I'm glad to see a journalist of Nat's calibre call Berry on his increasingly slap-dash "reporting."

Nat is entitled to write about Cuba, and criticize the American Library Association, until the cows come home--or more accurately, until the prisoners are released--and, if he wants to, beyond. That's why they call it free speech, Rossi. If LJ considers Nat a "threat," then they can count me among Nat's thugs.

I too will keep thinking, writing, praying, talking, researching, and working on this issue. I am moving into the second phase of my activism. I'm not completely sure what form it will take--or whether I will even bother to involve the American Library Association, which appears to be happy to wave the flag for "Banned Book Week" activities such as "Free People Read Freely," as long as we're discussing privileged Americans. Consider yourselves threatened.

Rock on, Nat. Thank you for making me proud all over again of my stand on this issue. I may not have much company, but I know I am right. In "Writers in Prison," Joan Smith & Adolfo Fernandez Sainz observe, “Terrible things happen when the world's attention is diverted.” Let us put the light back where it belongs--on the people in jail for bravely championing the rights we as librarians have always stood for.

The letter follows:


Letter to LJ from Nat Hentoff


In view of the ALA Council’s overwhelming rejection of an amendment to its Final Report at the midwinter meeting that called for the largest organization of librarians in the world to demand of Fidel Castro that he release the ten independent librarians in Cuban prison for 20 years and more, the headline on that Library Journal report should more accurately have been: WHO’S AFRAID OF THE CASTRO DEFENDERS ON THE ALA COUNCIL? The Library Journal significantly omitted in its charges against me the rejection of the amendment to the amendment to release the librarian prisons by the ALA Council.

But the Library Journal accused me “of actually phoning library leaders, including staff at Library Journal, and threatened to write more hostile columns if the ALA didn’t take the position he demanded”- to release the imprisoned Cuban librarians. These librarians, it is pertinent to note, have been designated by Amnesty International as “prisoners of conscience.”

I did not phone the Library Journal, although I should have in appreciation of its favorable October review of my current book, “The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance.” In the course of my reporting on that book, I often informed sources at the Justice Department that I would continue writing columns critical of John Ashcroft’s war on the Bill of Rights so long as that war continued.
Would the Library Journal characterize such calls as “threatening,” or a continued attempt by a reporter to get explanations of the secret implementation of sections of the Patriot Act and subsequent executive orders?

For another example, for more than five years, I was the only American journalist to repeatedly report on the slavery, genocide and gang rapes perpetrated by forces of the National Islamic government in Sudan on black Christians and traditionalists in the South. I called the Africa Desk of the State Department and other government agencies to tell them that I was still writing about the administration’s indifference to these human rights atrocities. The Bush administration finally took some actions, though still too inadequate, at the urging of black preachers around the country, the American Anti-Slavery Group and other who had been among my sources for my “threatening” letters to the State Department.

In WHO’S AFRAID OF NAT HENTOFF?, the Library Journal reports that “the ALA joined the IFLA to “express deep concern” over the arrest and long prison terms of political dissidents in Cuba.” But the Library Journal failed to indicate how such a deep concern without including a demand for the release of these prisoners for some of whom are in poor health and are not receiving medical treatment was in any real way sufficient?

Also, the Library Journal reported that the ALA and the IFLA “supported an investigative visit from the UN Commission on Human Rights.” But the Library Journal neglected to remind its readers that among the members of the UN Commission on Human Rights are Cuba and such other paladins of free expression as Zimbabwe, China, and Sudan. And that the UN Human Rights Commission, following Castro’s April crackdown that sent the 75 dissenters, including the 10 librarians, to prison refused to pass a condemnation of Castro and also rejected a resolution by Costa Rica calling for the immediate release of the prisoners.

I teach journalism at NYU’S Graduate School of Journalism, and I
continually- though not threateningly – remind students of the crucial importance of context in reporting. The article, WHO’S AFRIAD OF NAT HENTOFF? will be cited by me when I return to teaching in the fall.

And I continue to not understand why only five or so of the 182-member ALA governing Council raised their hands in support of the amendment to release the prisoners. Were the prisoners regarded as abstractions rather than actual human beings, abandoned in filthy cells for acting on the freedom-to-read principle at the core of the ALA’s reason for being?

The Library Journal mentioned that I was a “winner of ALA’s Immroth Award for Intellectual Freedom.” In the Village Voice I will be publicly demanding – not threatening – that the ALA remove my name from the list of Immroth Award winners because I do not regard it any longer as an honor.

Nat Hentoff.
Faxed to Steve Fesenmaier who transcribed it to a computer and e-mailed it out.
Saturday, January 24, 2004 4:30 PM Charleston, West Virginia [ Mr. Hentoff does not use the web – for e-mail or otherwise.]

Posted by kgs at January 24, 2004 02:26 PM

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Hang in there, Karen. You're on the side of justice here. Eventually our colleagues will see the inconsistency of not supporting Cuban citizens in their fight for free speech as adamantly as we support it here. You reach many librarians in your various writings and I'm sure will influence some.

Posted by: Nancy Currie at January 25, 2004 06:41 PM

Seconded. Here in the real world a lot of us agree with you and admire your persistence in keeping this issue alive despite the best efforts of the opposition.

Posted by: Eli Naeher at January 27, 2004 06:18 AM