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NO, VIRGINIA, NOW THAT YOU MENTION IT

 

O.T. FORD
2002 December 2

 

For translation of an unfamiliar word, place the cursor over the word.

 

Journalism is generally an honorable profession, as I have argued to my friends for years. My friends care about the truth, and I have worked to convince them that journalists are the champions of truth. Some reporters, indeed, have been heroic, risking and losing their lives in the service of a simple, noble ideal: the truth must be known.

But we can’t expect the Watergate scandal to break every week, and meanwhile there are magazines to sell. So every December, readers are enticed by a broad range of holiday-themed human interest stories, a pleasant break from all the painful news of world events. Newsweek, for example, began this December by turning its Tip Sheet section into a Christmas shopping guide, with a few extra holiday tips. Among other tips, it quoted a child psychologist suggesting that, if a daughter seems sad to learn that Santa Claus looks different at different malls, we should say: “Santa’s at lunch. This is a helper filling in for Santa.”* Of course, Tip Sheet is just a fluff section, filled with product reviews and other cutesy consumer information, hardly worth ... I’m sorry, did a respected news weekly just offer me advice on how to lie to my children?

It wasn’t too long ago that Newsweek was forced to contrition for its role in the Joe Klein/Anonymous affair, where a staffer who was not prepared to be honest about his professional activities brought disrepute upon the magazine and journalism itself. This was short-lived; but Newsweek seemed to understand at the time that credibility is a precious commodity, built up over decades and lost instantly. The news media are totally dependent on their credibility. Forget respect and Pulitzers; Newsweek can’t even make money if it doesn’t have credibility.

My counterculture friends almost universally believe that the corporate media cannot be trusted. They scorn the lot of them, claiming that each one is beholden to the powerful company that publishes it, and the wealthy individuals who own the company, and the political and social web of influence that pervades our society.

I, in contrast, always defend such media. Owners and publishers may care only about profits, but editors and especially rank-and-file journalists are the good guys, dedicated to bringing the truth to light. Sometimes that requires a difficult investigation. Sometimes it requires long exposure in a war zone. Sometimes it requires nothing more than the relentless will to be on the scene every day, covering events until the arrival of a story that demands to be told. That is not to say that CNN or Time is going to publish everything that might damage AOL Time Warner; but if not, a competitor surely will, and the discerning citizen can learn the truth with a minimum of effort. Self-censorship there might be; but lying is a different matter, too easily discovered, too risky. And let’s not be paranoid, this isn’t Сталинist Россия.

It was telling that Newsweek’s instruction on perfidy was titled “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus ...”, from an old story in which a girl, doubting the existence of Santa, seeks the judgement of a trusted newspaper. Her father says: “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.” And the paper confirms the Santa fiction in a heartwarming editorial*. The fact that this story is reprinted in newspapers every year, or that Newsweek casually aids the deception, supports what my friends have been saying. The corporate media cannot be trusted. They are servants of societal mind-control. They are in on the game.

If my heart isn’t warmed by the poetry of Francis Church’s editorial, it must be two sizes too small. But as I accept the charges of Grinch and Scrooge, I will claim a share of credit for a fidelity to truth that at least some of us must maintain. If a news magazine will promote a social lie on the subject of Yuletide magic, why not on the subject of national security, where lives are at stake?

Our culture doesn’t value the truth. During his presidency, Ronald Reagan testified that he didn’t recall anything of the illegal actions of his administration; either he was perjuring himself, or he hadn’t been running the country. Bill Clinton’s attempts to answer questions truthfully without telling the truth led to his impeachment. George W. Bush wages war on drug users after offering his own legalistic non-denial of past drug use.

Voters who blame politicians and not themselves are engaging in self-deception. The greater problem is not these shady attempts to cover up past deeds but the commonplace dishonesty about policy and substance. Most voters claim to disbelieve campaign promises; but they continually endorse outlandish promises by electing those who make them. There is essentially one promise at the heart of US politics, one lie that is told over and over. It is possible, we are told, to have a government that will do everything we want, without paying for it, ever-higher services and ever-lower taxes. The implication is always that someone else’s services will be cut, someone else will pay the necessary taxes. Apparently Santa Claus is paying: the publicly-held national debt is $3.6 trillion, quite a bit of something for nothing.

When the Cold War ended, politicians promised new ways to spend the money previously required for defense. And when, to no one’s credit, the government started running a budget surplus, politicians instantly began discussing its disposal, debating whether to splurge on government spending, or to slash taxes. Or why not both? Our current president successfully insisted on a tax cut and rebate, because, as he said, the surplus was the taxpayers’ money.

Except that, with the government several trillion dollars in debt, the surplus was spent years ago. That money belongs to the nation’s creditors. We have promised to repay it, a promise even politicians fear to break. We owe money from decades of having the government democratically do our bidding on fiscal policy, spending much and taxing little. To excuse the public from ultimate blame is to ignore the history of those politicians who were rewarded for repeating the lie, or who were punished for acting against it. The official who votes to cut the cherished program will never cast another vote. The candidate who promises to raise taxes will never cast a first. The honest politician can’t compete.

Dishonesty is a part of our society. We tolerate it, we encourage it, and we practice it. We claim to be honest; but at the same time, we will pick up an impressionable child, hold her on our lap, look her in the eye, and lie to her.

Truth? Humbug.

 

Of The Ford
Indianapolis, just north of Who-ville

 

 
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus ..., Tip Sheet, Newsweek, 2002 December 2

Have you been naughty or nice? At Christmastime, parents of small children face tough questions about Jolly Old Saint Nick. Tip Sheet’s Karen Springen helps you answer four of the biggest:
Is Santa real? Ask, “What do you think?” says University of Chicago child psychiatrist Bennett Leventhal. Some kids are mini-lawyers, and they’ll be proud to uncover the ruse on their own. Don’t rush the disillusionment. “Most kids over 5 know the truth. They just like playing the game anyway,” he says.
Why are there different Santas in every mall? Again, follow the child’s lead. If your kid thinks they’re fake, admit that’s true, says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger. But if she seems sad about the discovery, say “Santa’s at lunch. This is a helper filling in for Santa.”
Will you tell him I’m bad? Avoid the old “I’ll call Santa” device, Leventhal says. For kids, Santa’s magical and kind ― it upsets the myth when he’s turned into a disciplinarian.
We’re not Christian. Will he still bring us toys? Santa is practically a secular symbol, but that doesn’t mean all families need to embrace him. If you do welcome Santa down your chimney, explain that he’s a symbol of kindness and generosity.

 

Editorial, New York Sun, 1897

We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:

I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?   Virginia O’Hanlon
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus? Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!!!

Francis P. Church

 

© O.T. FORD

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