Sunday, December 20, 2009

Googling Santa

This is the most wonderful time of the year for those of us who toil in the vineyards of the editorial pages. Somebody always trots out Francis Pharcellus Church's 1897 "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" editorial in the New York Sun, and for a brief shining moment, people think hey, maybe editorialists aren't creeps after all.

In my experience, these sentiments do not last very long.

Church wrote anonymously, in the witness protection program tradition of most editorial pages. He didn't get credit for the Santa Claus piece until after his death in 1906, perhaps because his sense of timing wasn't that great. The "Yes Virginia" editorial was published on Sept. 21, suggesting that Sept. 20, 1897, was a very slow news day.

I got to wondering what would happen today if some 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon asked her papa if there were a Santa Claus. He would have said, "I dunno. Google it."

Little Virginia would type "Santa Claus" and "exist" into the search engine. Among the first things that pop up is an old Spy Magazine article that explains that the laws of physics would cause reindeer to vaporize if they attempted to fly fast enough to visit all the children in the world. Santa would be crushed by the G-forces. Virginia would be crushed at the news.

Or maybe little Virginia would have posed the question not in a letter to the editor, but on a newspaper blog. Within minutes, anonymous comments would appear ripping Barack Obama for thinking he was Santa Claus, or ripping Virginia for being a greedy welfare princess, or inviting her to meet the "real" Santa Claus, who is in fact a 38-year-old prevert living in his mother's basement.

This is yet another reason why newspaper editorials are so much more reliable than the Internet. But I digress.

Virginia might find herself visiting, a project of the KRS Media Group of Orlando, Fla., which promises to send 10 percent of its net proceeds to help orphans and children around the world. Virginia might think, "Ten percent? Santa's a cheapskate."

If little Virginia was like most people, eventually she would gravitate to websites that confirm her own suspicions. Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, in a new book called "Rumors," suggests that's why so many people today believe patently absurd things: Because they seek out other people who believe the same things.

"Rumors spread through two different but overlapping processes: social cascades and group polarization," Sunstein contends. "Cascades occur because each of us tends to rely on what other people think and do. If most of the people we know believe a rumor, we tend to believe it, too. Lacking information of our own, we accept the views of others. When the rumor involves a topic on which we know nothing, we are especially likely to believe it."

This may always have been true, Sunstein writes, but the Internet has helped spread the ignorance virus throughout the body politic. People who believe, for example, that President Obama is a Kenyan can find lots of validation for those beliefs by visiting sites that trade in rumors. You can discover that the Holocaust was a hoax and that AIDS was a government plot to destroy the African-American population.

Sunstein says research shows that the more you tell people that the facts do not back up their beliefs, the more strongly they cling to them. This is dangerous for the body politic, in that decisions are not made on facts: "To the extent that the Internet enables people to live in information cocoons, or echo chambers of their own design, different rumors will become entrenched in different communities."

Naturally, those who trade in rumors are worried about this, mainly because President Obama named Sunstein as head of the White Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. They envision a world of "truth squads" in which Glenn Beck, for example, would be held accountable for some of the stupid thing he says. His stupid opinions would be protected, but outright falsehoods would not.

Sunstein also has expressed the idea that animals may have legal rights that can enforced by the courts, which made him a target of pro-hunting and farm organizations. He's also written that environmental regulations should be subject to cost-benefit calculations, which made him suspect to a lot of environmental groups. The same cost-benefit calculations might be applied to end-of-life care, he's argued, which make some people worry that he supports euthanasia.

Indeed, there's almost as much about Cass Sunstein on the Internet as there is about Santa Claus, most of it inconclusive and subject to personal bias.

So if you're out there, Virginia O'Hanlon, I would recommend that you e-mail the letters editor. She would tell you that people believe in things a lot weirder than Santa Claus.


  1. Miracle on 95th Street: Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship Is Established at The Studio School

    Yes, Viriginia, your legacy continues.

    Founded in 1971, The Studio School is an independent not for profit day school, offering programs for pre-school through eighth grade.

    A moving event took place at The Studio School, 115-117 West 95th Street, on Friday evening, December 4, honoring the life and legacy of Virginia O’Hanlon.

    A large gathering, including three generations of the O’Hanlon family, attended the ceremony dedicating an historic plaque in Virginia’s name. After all, it was here, in 1897, that 8-year-old Virginia wrote her famous letter to The New York Sun, asking, “ Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?” Her question inspired Editor, Francis Pharcellus Church, to respond with one of the most renowned editorials in American History that contains the oft repeated words affirming, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Virginia O’Hanlon became a teacher, a principal, and an advocate for the rights of all children, regardless of social background, to have the same educational opportunities.

    Janet C. Rotter, Head of School, announced the establishment of the Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship, speaking passionately about The Studio School’s commitment to offering need-based scholarships for students of merit.

    One of Virginia O’Hanlon’s granddaughters spoke of her delight in knowing that her grandmother’s childhood home, rescued from years of abandonment, had been transformed into The Studio School. In an eloquent tribute, she observed that “A full circle has been completed and [my grandmother’s] life’s work continues. Virginia would be so very pleased.” Everyone left the event with a sense of awe at the power of destiny to transmute the deserted house into a school alive with the laughter and energy of children.

    Student Essay 12/5/09
    Francis Church is saying that belief is something we all have, but that some of us may not use it. In the part that he says, “You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove?” he is saying that some children need to see, feel or hear something to believe it’s there. I don’t. Mr. Church means that Santa is not flesh, bones and blood, or the guy in a red suit. He is joy, giving, love, peace and happiness.

    To me, joy is feeling wind in my face; to me, giving is when I am given respect by an other person or giving respect to someone else; to me love is being heard and cared for; to me peace is being free to move and breathe; and to me happiness is being close to someone and being able to love them. I hope Santa and Christmas live on forever in the hearts of many people.

    I think this editorial is important to people of all ages because it speaks of love, poetry and hope as being stronger than any man alive.

    Lucia, age 9

  2. Penned in the Home of Virginia O'Hanlon-Is There A Santa Claus?

    The Studio School, a not-for-profit, independent day school, currently stands on 115- 117 West 95th Street, serving 110 boys and girls ages two through fourteen years. The school offers Toddler, Early Childhood, Elementary, and Middle School programs.

    The Studio School’s approach transcends the standard curricula and is uniquely designed to develop and enhance each child’s innate intelligence and creativity. Students are asked to make connections, investigate, and explore subjects for deeper discoveries and meaning, leading to greater and original insights.

    Students were asked to respond to Virginia.

    Dear Virginia,

    Santa Claus isn’t just a man who leaves you presents on Christmas Eve. He is much more than that. Santa symbolizes hope, love, belief, imagination and the true spirit of Christmas. Eventually, we reach an age where we try to find explanations for everything. We lose the excitement in wonder and magic, and become more and more skeptical. Some people, like your friends, stop believing in Santa but don’t let them convince you.

    I believe that the best things in the world are those that you can’t see and that life would be very boring if there were no imagination, hope or belief in them. You couldn’t play, there would be no books, no toys or any games! We need imagination, hope and belief for all of those things to exist. Without them there would be no creativity or fun. There are many things in science that you can’t see either. You can’t see germs, air, or gravity, but you know that they’re there. Well, it’s the same with Santa. You may not have seen him, but that’s no reason not to believe in him.

    Your friend,
    Samuel, age 11

    Santa Claus is as real as you or me. He brings with him the spirit of Christmas, he brings everyone together, and we can feel his effect on us, even if we can’t see him. He resides in our hearts, and in our imaginations. It is a shame that Christmas Eve is the only time people believe he comes to us. Santa Claus is the Christmas Spirit embodied and he inspires those feelings of delight, love, wonder and happiness, which should be part of our lives all year round.

    I feel the effects of Santa, however I don’t need to see them to believe love is there. If I didn’t trust enough to believe that love was there, an intangible, invisible connection, I would be terribly sad and alone. And that is what I think Mr. Church is saying. We must trust what we cannot see and put our faith in the unknown. If we abandon what is unknown to our senses, how can we truly know anything? And so, I think Mr. Church’s letter is important for everyone to read, so we don’t forget what we don’t forget what we don’t see.

    Jenan, age 13
    Dear Virginia,

    In this day and age it is very difficult to know what to believe in. If everyone is telling you that there is no Santa Claus, you may feel pressured to agree with them. Virginia, don’t go along with everyone else. Have your own opinions and beliefs! I believe that there is a Santa Claus, not because someone has told me to, but because I am a believer in things unseen. I believe in Santa Claus and mythical creatures and I am not ashamed of that. If you only believe what you see, then you are missing a whole world out there full of wonderful mystical mysteries. Believing is seeing and using your imagination. Whether it is looking up at the sky and seeing a new shape in the clouds or taking an empty space in your mind and seeing a close friend, even Santa Claus.

    Never stop believing in Santa Claus, Virginia, because if you do you will stop seeing the magic in this world. Grown-ups have become skeptical and are missing all of the wonderful unseen things in this world. Virginia, there is a Santa Claus - I see him in my mind and believe in him in my heart.

    Much love from your BIG friend,
    Leila, age 13


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