Monday, December 22, 2014

Santa Claus shows us the fine line between truth and lies

Today's news included a Christmas item about a letter in the JFK Library in which the president wrote to a child assuring her that Soviet nuclear testing at the North Pole would not affect Santa, with whom the man in the White House claimed to have spoken on the telephone the day before.

Forgive me if I stop to point out at just how many levels this letter exemplifies the myriad of ways in which children of the 1950s and 60s, of whom I was one, were lied to blatantly, nonchalantly and unnecessarily. Some of these lies continue today, at some level, to children of the new millenium.

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," looked upon today as a heartwarming story, is the quintessence of the American mythmaking. The 1897 New York Sun editorial, in which Francis Pharcellus Church replied to a letter by Virginia O'Hanlon, was an antecedent of the John F. Kennedy letter.

Let me begin by pointing out the crass commercial motive behind the Sun editorial's profession of a broad nonconfessional "faith." It was no accident that Church prominently cited the bias of O'Hanlon's father, another lie: "If you see it in The Sun, it's so."

Church was selling his newspaper and, along with it, the singular and fundamental philosophical flaw in American society's thinking: the notion that facts are truths to be believed, especially if an authoritative source says so.

Facts are not truth. They are only realities observable within certain contextual circumstances. Almost everything we "know" about physics ceases to be certain, for example, at the quantum level. Facts are only tenable claims, not truth.

Church did O'Hanlon no favor, really. Look up her life and you learn that within little more than a decade she ended up in a short-lived marriage in which the man deserted her before her daughter was born.

Skepticism is warranted. We should not base anything on fact alone; or if we do, we must remind ourselves that the facts are dependent on how perception occurs. Even myth, which is not factual but not necessarily untrue, must be handled with care lest it become an actual falsehood rather than an intuitive inkling of truth.

This is where the gratuitous and arrogant twist of Kennedy's mendacity gets me. He did not have to tell the girl that he had spoken to Santa. It was true enough that Soviet testing of nuclear weapons would not hurt Santa Claus.

In a broader arena, there is little doubt that during the Cold War era the Soviet regime was harsh and repressive. But was it necessary to tell children Superman fought "for truth, justice and the American Way," when that Way featured blatant injustices such as racism and patent falsehoods such as fairly rewarded hard work?

As a child I once wrote a letter to the pope asking that the assassinated Kennedy be canonized. Today, the Irish name summons the indelible image of a young president bidding an infatuated young woman to perform oral sex on an aide in the White House pool. So much for Camelot; King Arthur was a frat boy.
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