The Old Essays
The truth is transcendent. When we talk about the truth we are talking about
all things as they really are regardless of our ability to fully perceive them.
Yet people often feel a need for certainty and if they become convinced that
something is the truth, they will proceed to believe that. The trouble is that
our ability to understand the truth improves over time while beliefs take on a
life of their own, held in place as they are by human biases. Furthermore,
believers often differ among themselves, and so in such cases, someone
must be wrong, someone must not be telling the truth. On one level, it may
be that the truth is that you believe, but on another level, the truth is that you
don’t know--not for sure, anyway. But rather than exploit whatever margin
uncertainty as an escape hatch for your beliefs, it’s more honest to settle—
for the time being anyway—on the probable truth. Let the clear facts fall into
place and define the intellectual landscape to which your beliefs should
conform rather than trying to force the facts to conform to your beliefs.
“Culture" can be defined as sets ideas or practices for which alternatives exist
and which are adopted by the individual not through reason but through the
influence of others. Culture dictates many aspects of life, from daily habits of
food and dress to esoteric religious beliefs, but it should be distinguished from
other aspects of living in that fulfills group-based expectations as opposed to
purely pragmatic concerns. For example, if you buy a pair of blue jeans
because they're cheap and durable, that's not culture, but if you wear them
because all the other kids are wearing them, then that is an artifact of culture.
We can see here how a cultural artifact can start out as a utilitarian innovation
by a people whose place and time remain associated with it, eventually to re-
emerge as something with cultural value long after the need for its original use
If ever there had been a set of controversial issues, it is over matters of race.
The very notion of “race” has been controversial. The idea that the human
species is divided into 8 or 9 genetically distinct subspecies has largely been
dismissed, in part due to the fact that there tends to be more genetic variation
within a supposed racial group than between them. But on a superficial level,
it can be said that there is a recognizable correlation between a given range
of physical features, such as skin color and facial structural, and an ancestral
geographic region. But such distinctions are as irrelevant as they are
And yet distinctions have been made. To make undue distinctions on the
basis of racial differences is what we call racism. Racism has manifested itself
in many ways throughout history, the most severe manifestation obviously
Symbols play a powerful role in human culture. They can be vital tools in
communication, but they can also be the enemies of truth. Symbols convey
ideas, but they also provoke feelings. While the truth is complex and definite,
symbols are simplistic and transient.
Basically, a symbol is an idea—one that reliably invokes another idea. It could
be one of the many familiar designs that represent various groups, causes,
etc, but also every word that makes up the language. Or a symbol can be a
well-known historical event, or person, or story, or other cultural concept.
Much of the time, the meanings are straightforward and non-controversial,
such as in written language, or mathematical or musical notation, although
when such symbols are strung together to create a sentence or equation,
useful information is conveyed with precision. Symbols themselves trigger
associations, that is they grab information that’s stored elsewhere, namely in
If these associations vary among different people, they can be divisive. If they
are predictable, the symbol can be used to manipulate the body politic without
having to resort to logic.
There is an eternal struggle going on in the world between good and evil.
Most people believe that, and most people believe that they are on the side
of good. In fact, I can’t recall anyone ever claiming to be on the side of evil.
Those who go forth to fight evil very often wind up fighting each other. And of
course the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s easy to label as evil
some individual criminal who committed a heinous act or has an overall mean,
selfish attitude. We speak of the Devil as a supernatural being who is at work
within each human being, tempting us to commit sinful acts.
But we like to see evil as transcending the individual and looming as a vast,
powerful force threatening whole societies. And so the good, righteous
people must loom as a powerful force capable of destroying societies. You
see where this is going.
Sexuality is all part of growing up. It’s a major facet of human existence. Our
highest priority in sex education must be to ensure that everyone uses
proper contraceptive methods every time they have sex. Accidental
pregnancy is by far the most serious problem associated with sex, all but
eclipsing all the others. For all the bitter controversy swirling about this
issue, few disagree that out-of-wedlock or mistimed births are a very serious
problem--both for the individuals involved and society at large. Children born
to single mothers, as we’ve been told many times, are much more likely to
grow up in poverty. Huge amounts of taxpayer’s money are being spent,
both directly through welfare programs and indirectly in many other ways.
And as we’ve also been learning, children raised without fathers are much
more likely to get involved in crime and other kinds of trouble. And it’s not
just the children but the mothers, too, who are part of the problem. A woman
or girl who becomes pregnant either interrupts her education or abandons it
altogether, permanently damaging her ability to compete in the workplace
and, typically, depriving society of a needed skilled worker and becoming an
economic liability instead. And yet, in one of the great twists of irony, some
liberals are in denial as to the need to prevent births to unmarried and/or
poor women even thought they support the use of contraceptives, while
many conservatives understand the former but are in denial about the need
for birth control.
THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
Nations and groups of nations experience bouts of political stability and
instability that seem to progress in a certain pattern. You might say that
instability leads to stability, which then sets the stage for instability on a
higher level. By “instability” we mean the presence of conditions that
increase the likelihood that violent conflict may erupt. It could be due to a
large, radical protest movement demanding change, or two nations having a
border dispute. Any situation where more than one center of political power
is present has some degree of instability that is heightened when one or
more of them represent some level of dissatisfaction. The more power
centers there are to interact, the more political fault lines there are and the
greater the potential for conflict. A power center can be a nation with an
army, or an alliance, or an international political movement, or on a smaller
level, a terrorist organization or even a political party or labor union. The way
that instability leads to stability is that once a conflict is resolved, the warring
parties may become friends and pursue commerce, or the loser may
completely absorbed by the winner, or they may form an alliance against a
common enemy. They have now merged to form a new, larger power center
--on some level anyway--that now finds itself in an unstable relationship with
another large power center, itself perhaps an alliance or an empire. And just
as earthquakes along major fault lines are less frequent but more
destructive, so are wars between these larger actors.