I recently had an e-mail exchange with a reader who was a smidgen disappointed with something I wrote. I won’t go into the particulars, but one thing that came up as a tangent I thought bore expanding into a full posting on its own.
“Purity” is, to me, an overrated concept — at least in the “homogenous, not containing any foreign elements” context. The idea of something being composed of exactly one thing and one thing alone as a paragon and ideal strikes me as a notion that is not borne out by reality.
For example, let’s look at metallurgy. Iron is a very useful substance, but there’s very little use for it. It’s only when it is combined with carbon and other elements that we get steel, which is superior in almost every way.
Then there’s chemistry. Most “pure” chemicals will kill. Pure oxygen is toxic. Sodium and chlorine will kill you. But blend the oxygen with other gases, and it’s a necessity of life. And sodium and chlorine together give us salt, another necessity of life.
And botany. “Pure” strains of crops are vulnerable to a host of diseases. The hybrid strains, such as found in corn and wheat, are much hardier and useful — and often tastier.
Then there’s zoology. “Pure-bred” dogs are highly prized, but are susceptible to a host of genetic ailments. Displaced joints, chronic conditions, and a host of other problems (I’m reminded about the stories I’ve heard about how the bulldog breed has been bred and refined to the point where it can’t conceive and deliver puppies without help from humans) beset the “best in show” candidates. But it’s the rare purebred that can compete with a good old fashioned mutt on simple survival. And the so-called “thoroughbred” race horses originated from crossing Arabian stallions with English mares.
Then there are the nuts who go on and on about “racial purity” in humans. I hold a special place of contempt for them, as a good chunk of my heritage would qualify me for Hitler’s “Master Race,” and I get livid when they start presuming to speak for me. In World War II, the United States was up against two powers who both proclaimed to be The Master Race, and we — the biggest bunch of mongrels, mutts, half-breeds, mixed-bloods, and race-traitors the world has ever seen — crushed them both. And to this day, we remain the world’s only true superpower. (In fact, I’ve heard some say that we have transcended “superpower,” and are tossing around the term “hyperpower.” I’m not quite sure I like that, but it’s certainly something to consider.)
It’s continuing in politics, as well. The extremists on both sides tend to test everyone on their “purity” to their ideals, and cast aside or turn on those who fall short of their goals. The Democrats are doing that with people like Zell Miller and Joe Lieberman, and the Republicans have their own history of turning on the moderates in their ranks. They both seem to forget that in a democratic republic like we have, numbers count — and chasing away people is not a very good way to expand one’s influence and advance one’s agenda.
A while ago, in my ongoing quarter-hearted effort to lose some weight (I’ll let you know when it gets to half-hearted), I started piling lettuce on my sandwiches. The idea was to add bulk to the meal so I’d feel fuller, without actually eating more stuff that will add to my weight problem. Now, when I eat sandwiches without lettuce, I notice that I’m hungrier after. I think both political parties could use a little time in the kitchen, because it’s that added “bulk” in the party that often makes the difference between tasting victory and still being left hungry after the election.
Now, “purity” does have a second meaning — uncorrupted, unsullied, untainted. Those are, indeed, things to be valued. But the two meanings are non synonymous, and those who attempt to blur the lines between them do so to their own detriment.