December 20, 2009
American philosopher SIDNEY HOOK (1902-89) enacted the key dilemmas of twentieth-century politics. Born in Brooklyn to Austrian Jewish parents, he attended City College of New York, the same “Harvard of the Proletariat” that would educate Irving Howe and Irving Kristol a generation later. Like Kristol — but unlike Howe — Hook abandoned the standard left-wing views of his youth and by 1945 had embraced a robust anti-Communism that bordered on mania. He later became a vocal critic of the Soviet Union and supporter of the Vietnam War, thus earning the dubious honor of being the original neo-conservative. In 1985, U.S. president Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom for contributions to conservative thought. After CCNY Hook had attended Columbia and worked under the great pragmatist John Dewey. Hook’s major contribution to intellectual life is not to be found among his reactionary polemics, though these are bracing even to the otherwise minded; it is instead his staunch support of the idea that democracy cannot survive without freedom of expression. His central commitment was always to pragmatism, lending some credence to Hook’s claim that he was “not aware of having undergone any serious conversions from the days of [his] youth, or of having abandoned [his] basic ideals.” He famously wrote that “the easiest rationalization for the refusal to seek the truth is the denial that truth exists.” But for Hook there can be no final truth, and hence no valid ideology. There is only the seeking after better answers, and more democratic outcomes, that marks the best in us.
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