Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Yes, Virginia, There is an Answer to Your Uncomfortable Question

     Francis Church and Virginia O'Hanion are two names that most contemporary Americans would not immediately recognize. In September of 1897, these two people had a brief conversation through their local newspaper that, at the time, went mostly unnoticed. But, not entirely unnoticed, since a few readers of the day found it worthy of saving, and they pasted it into their scrapbooks. Although the entirety of their conversation took up less than 500 words, and it's original location was buried on the newspaper's editorial page, crammed in the third of seven columns between a story about the value of new “chainless” bicycles and a story on how an independent candidate would serve the politics of Tammany Hall, over the next century this discussion would become the most reprinted newspaper article to ever run in any English language newspaper.
     Of course, while the names Francis Church and Virginia O'Hanion may not be generally recognized, their story – that of an 8-year-old girl writing the newspaper at the advice of her father to find out if there really is a Santa Claus – has become an annual fixture of American Christmas lore. In the years since it's initial publication, the story of a young girl's sincere letter to the editor and it's heartfelt response has undergone numerous transformation including a radio cantata, two animated TV specials, a made-for-television movie, and a broadway musical. After the original copy of the letter had been discovered in a scrapbook after being thought long lost by O'Hanion's descendents, one appraiser set the value of the authenticated artifact at somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000. While we are apparently able to set a price for a historical document with a meager 45 words written on it by a young girl who had been provoked by her friends to question the reality of the mythic supplier of her yule-time bounties, how do we put a price on the sentiment it evoked? Furthermore, how great a price do we place on “realistic” truth?
     Virginia O'Hanion's letter was short and to the point; she wrote, “DEAR EDITOR: 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?” Rhetorically, O'Hanion's letter painted Francis Church (the newspaper's reporter who had been given the job of crafting their response) into the proverbial corner. The elementary schoolgirl had challenged the newspaper to give her the truth and had gambled the paper's reputation for trustworthiness on their response. On one hand, Church had the choice of affirming Santa's existence but risking the newspaper's reputation as a reliable source for factual information; some journalists consider publishing anything that cannot be verified through empirical observation as a violation of a nearly-sacred ethical obligation to print the truth. On the other hand, declaring that – based upon all available evidence – Santa Claus did not exist risked losing readership to people who felt newspapers have no right to decimate their children's cherished belief in a supernaturally jolly and generous gift-giver. The challenge Church faced was to craft a response that would satisfy both the journalists who would accuse Church of selling out to sentimentality if he wrote something he knew to be untrue and the intent of O'Hanion's letter which was to settle definitively the question of Santa's actual existence.
     Anyone with an interest in rhetoric can find much to admire in how Church met the challenge of answering the question of Santa's existence while keeping both his journalistic integrity and his compassion for a girl who demanded the truth but who was not, perhaps, entirely ready for it. What everyone seems to know is that Church responded, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”; what few people seem to know is this particular line is neither the title of the response nor even the articles' opening remark. In formulating his response, Church begins by saying that O'Hanion's friends were wrong about Santa's existence because they were victims of a pervasive skeptical mentality that had gripped contemporary society. This skepticism, Church argues, is unable to recognize the limitations of its own reality by ignoring the vast intelligence that lies beyond what small minds are capable of understanding. Church writes: “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.”
     In considering his response, Church is well aware that his correspondence is not with a singular, particular child, but with a broad spectrum of readers including those who would want to know how a newspaper can deal with the truth of an innocent question posed in a cynical world. Church, rather than run away from the implications of asserting a mythical being does exist, embraces the ramifications of those who would argue that Santa doesn't exist. Church's first move in defending a belief that cannot be empirically verified is to impugn the intelligence of anyone who argues that all knowledge should be empirically verified. What Church argues in his opening remarks is that imposing the limitations of common, ordinary existence upon a supernatural reality does not disprove the existence of the alternative reality, it merely demonstrates a sad inability of the skeptic to see beyond his own little world. In other words, from the beginning of Church's reply, he sets up nonbelievers as victims of a socially-constructed reality that trains its inhabitants to disrespect anyone who attempts to see beyond their own self-imposed templates of what they believe can exist. Thus, by saying O'Hanion's friends are wrong because they are too small-brained to contemplate the possibilities beyond their own existence, Church is challenging anyone who would object to his argument to first admit that they might themselves be too stupid to see beyond their own little worlds. Instead of being painted into a corner by what could be an embarrassing question for a newspaper reporter to answer, Church begins by painting his readers into the corner of small-mindedness if they would disagree with him.
     Church goes on to argue that human life without the magic of romantic interpretations is doomed to the sad, unfriendliness of drab realism. Church writes, “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 eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.” As a rhetorical theorist, I am of two minds regarding Church's argument here. It's hard to disagree that life without the magic of romantic whimsy is tedious and worrisome. Still, I always find arguments based upon the idea that it's better to live with happy fantasies rather than hard truths a bit dangerous. How much reality do we need to ignore to be happy? How much fantasy can we accept before our optimism gets in the way of future self-interests?
     Perhaps, the best we can strive for is to find the middle ground, as Church does when he concludes by saying that we all need a little Santa in our lives. Church writes, “No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.” The trick in believing something that is otherwise unbelievable, then, is to recognize that when our brains demand dominance over our hearts, our hearts need to resist just enough to show the brains how little it actually knows about how to live.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

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