Purity: The Young People On Purity

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This is purity.

It is important to know what the students in our public schools are thinking. Here is a poem published in The Daisy, a literary journal for a Brooklyn high school, in November.

We have to recall that what kids say in high school does not always endure. People change their minds, after all, but it is a good way to spot trends. For telling the future is hard, but one way, at least one way people in my social media feed keep suggesting, is to see what the kids are saying.

Here is Michael Sophrin, Brooklyn, on purity:

Purity

By Michael Sophrin.

Forth she stepped from the purest sky,

And stood upon the mortal earth.

She glanced about with tossing eyes-

She cast a gaze into each heart

Of human generosity,

And of human false pretenses.

Again she stared, again she looked,

And again and again she sought

To find a home upon this Earth,

to find a throne of honesty

Where she, purity, might reign.

As she stood in veiled gown,

As she weighed Heaven and Earth-

Heaven, no of man’s vile actions,

Not the seat of godless rulers,

Not the Palace of Injustice,

Not the home of greatest suffering-

As she stood there thus debating,

Clouds descended and she entered;

Heaven demanded purity.

That’s what the kids said in November of 1910.

Purity. We need it, we want it, but it cannot come down from Heaven because we are not fit for it. Whatever the merits of the poem as poetry, it does seem to reflect the idealism of the class that had not yet known World War and was growing up under progressive Republicanism. The kids saw the problems–purity could not dwell here–where canning companies could pawn off impure foods as wholesome and too many people covered up for human sufferings.

There is no reason to doubt that the bulk of the kids wanted a better world. Magazines carried names like The Christian Century and science was making life better. If our hearts could be pure, then this power would make the world better than it was.

As far is it goes, for all the religions represented in Brooklyn in 1910, the American world did get better, though horrible times were coming in Europe for the Jewish people just finding some equality in New York City.

Justice did improve for many who were excluded.  Standards of living went up, and science solved many of our physical problems. Yet godless rulers, officially atheist states, would start mass murder within eight years of this poem being published. Injustice receded with colonialism, but new injustices, like the murder of unborn children, joined hidden manifestations of old evils such as racism.

The difference is that nobody wanted purity anymore. Fringe groups of Christians reduced “purity” to sexual behavior of women (and ignored men) taking the parts of Edwardian culture that should have died and reviving it while forgetting the broader meaning of the term. Purity was not just for women or about about sex, purity culture meant: protecting the air from polluters, our medicine from adulteration, and our politics from graft through civil service reform.

A lot of the answers of 1910 were half-hearted or just wrong, but purity was a goal: honesty, transparency, a square deal. By the time this lad would have been eighty, purity was not desired and more derided or debased. I don’t know which was worse.

Those who debased “purity” by talking about the old ideal while they only talked up a misunderstanding may have made the world useless for decades. Of course, this mistake was made, in part, because another group became intent on deriding sexual purity in any form. Both groups forgot the seamless garment of purity that led from the political to the personal: purity as integrity, honesty, cleanliness.

Maybe young Mr. Sophrin was right and purity did ascend to Heaven and leave us bereft in 1910.

God help us that would explain a great deal.

We were left with science, urges toward justice, and many other goods, but without purity to guide our way. Who does not look at polluters and wish for purity? Who does not see children forced to attend filthy schools and argue for purity? Turn on the television and hear our President and politicians use foul and debased rhetoric and we plead for purity.

Let’s aspire to pure justice, pure air, pure politics, even if we cannot quite attain it.

God send us purity again and recall our weakness.


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