Yes, Virginia, there are arrogant, soulless jerks.

I’m not enough of a presence in the blogosphere to get pulled into any internet memes yet, but I can do the next best thing and get into a blog argument. My friend Seppo fired off a post killing Santa Claus, and now I have to use the healing power of the internets to restore the faith in humanity to the children of the world.

Seriously, though, I should make it absolutely clear that Seppopolous is not one of the arrogant, soulless jerks referred to in the title. This woman is. That is, of course, the substitute music teacher who couldn’t read “The Night Before Christmas” to her students without telling them all that Santa Claus isn’t real. Because, she explained, it’s important for children to know The Truth. Seppo’s post reminded me of the story and how much it pissed me off.

First of all, FOX News and World Net Daily had a field day with the story, because it feeds their whole “War Against Christmas” angle. And that should be reason enough for anyone with a lick of sense to be united against Ms. Farrisi. As if they needed any more ammo in their own War Against Religous Tolerance and Compromise, when there are plenty of people who will gleefully line up as part of The Secular Liberal Agenda (without, apparently, having enough intelligence to understand that the Secular Liberal Agenda is a construct as fictional as Yukon Cornelius) and play right into their most paranoid fears.

“Merry Christmas!”
“I don’t celebrate Christmas because I am of a different religion/of no religion at all.”
“Oh. Well, Merry Christmas anyway.”
“That’s all I hear this time of year. I hate your stupid holiday.”
“You’re waging war against my religion!”
“My actions are justified because your religion started oppressing my religion first!”
“Look that proves it! They’re killing Christmas!”
“It deserves to die because it’s based on a pack of filthy dirty lies! ACLU!”
“Now you’ve gone too far! Constitutional Amendment!”

Repeat until the idea of peace on earth is obliterated and the United States becomes a theocracy. All because people just can’t get over their own arrogance and the conviction that what they believe is more important than what other people believe. And anyone who thinks that only fundamentalist Christians are guilty of this needs to take a step back and look at what’s really going on.

And I’ve already gone off on a tangent. So all I’m saying is that if some Jewish guy is so freaked out at being oppressed by a holiday, then maybe he should’ve thought of that before he killed Jesus.

Anyway, back to Santa Claus. The first and most obvious problem I have with the substitute teacher who told kids “the truth” about Santa is that she was just being a dick. That’s like going around popping kids’ balloons.

Second is the issue of parental jurisdiction. If a parent chooses to tell “lies” to his children, like the one about Santa coming down the chimney to give them presents, or the one about how he loves all of them equally, then that should be his own business. It’s not the place of anyone else to tell them otherwise.

Third is that it was just such a tremendous display of crass arrogance and total lack of class. The way she rationalized it by saying that she couldn’t in good conscience perpetuate a lie. But she didn’t present the story just as a story, and she wasn’t faced with the ethical problem of how to answer a student’s question; instead, she injected her own views as something so important it simply must be said. The school district managed to recover somewhat by using a bit of deft plagiarism, referencing Francis P. Church’s “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial and telling the children that Santa passed along the message that he still exists in the spirit of Christmas.

Now Church — there’s a guy who had class. He wasn’t so wrapped up in his own self-importance that he felt he couldn’t lie to a child. And as a result, he didn’t lie, and he instead ended up writing something of undeniable brilliance, not just as a defense of The Spirit of Christmas, but the philosophy of faith and imagination.

Which finally gets to my point, my response to Seppo’s question: “Why do we tell our children lies, and get upset when those lies are revealed? Do we not want them to know the truth? Do we not want them to understand the difference between reality and fantasy?”

My response is: what is the truth? That “Santa Claus” is nothing more than an amalgamation of historical characters and myths and folklore used by copywriters who needed to meet deadlines and advertisers who needed to sell products, then appropriated by parents to perpetuate an elaborate ongoing lie to their children to explain why they only get what they want one day out of the year? Is that really the whole truth, or is that just the part that we as cynical adults are able to see?

I’m going to cheat by quoting a bit from Church’s editorial to make it sound like I’ve got a better writer on my side:

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 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.

The whole thing could be summed up as “it’s important for children to have their time of wonder before the cold reality of adulthood sets in,” or even the broader “Santa Claus is alive as long as we keep the spirit of Christmas within us all,” but I think both, while true, are a little too simple.

I do believe that it’s important for children to be given the time to just be children — to believe in a world where fantastic things do happen, where some kindly stranger with magic powers flies around the world and gives them presents, driven only by his own sense of generosity. And to believe that it simply is, without needing all the qualifiers and explanations and responsibilities that come with adulthood.

And most importantly, to believe it without any demarcation between reality and fantasy. Sure, a kid is able to distinguish between reality and make-believe and still have fun with the make-believe. But every time you impose that distinction on him, you’re cutting off an infinite number of ideas. You’re training him to think in terms of what’s real vs. what’s possible, instead of giving him a world where anything is possible.

It’s not just for kids, either. It’s now impossible for you or I to believe that Santa Claus is a real person who really lives at the North Pole and actually flies around in a real sleigh and really delivers presents to millions of children in one night. That’s closed off to us forever, because we’re older, and more cynical, and have learned to trust only what we can see and hear and test to be true, and dismiss the whole thing as either playful make-believe, or worse, a “lie.”

And still we work hard so we can get presents and give them away, absolving ourselves of credit and instead writing “From Santa” on the gift tag, sneaking them under the tree at night, and depending on our level of dedication, drinking the milk and eating the cookies and leaving footprints in the snow. All to perpetuate the “lie” that a person exists who works hard to give away presents, in secret, for no reason other than his own generosity and maybe the off chance of getting some milk and cookies out of the deal.

So what’s the truth there, that kids should — no, need to — know? Seems to me that everything in the story really exists; we’ve just given it the name “Santa Claus.” And telling kids that it’s all make-believe just takes away that spirit of anonymous generosity by giving the parents credit. It may seem like a simple distinction to those who think that “belief” is the same thing as “gullibility,” but I think it makes all the difference in the world. And I’d rather keep the idea going that there’s more to the universe than what we can see and hear and test. Cynicism and disappointment and skepticism and closed-mindedness will come along inevitably; I’d rather put it off as long as possible.

9 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, there are arrogant, soulless jerks.”

  1. I agree with Seppolopilicious that there is something a little creepy about a fat man invading homes leaving gifts. I also think it is creepy to consider that Christianity redeems its flock through ritual cannibalism.

    For me, I just let sleeping dogs lie. I don’t have any kind of sophisticated argument here, but I more or less think humans are a bunch of idiotic shit monkeys who have discovered a way to turn mud into happy meals and have unfortunately used that technological feat to delude ourselves into thinking we know shit from shinola.

    As I have said cheekily in many arguments, I don’t think any of us should get too puffed up about our grasp of reality until we can cure male pattern baldness. How ridiculous are we that we can say, categorically, that some things exist and other things not and at the same time we can’t prevent hair from falling out of our head.

    Yeah.

    Anyway, when I go in for surgery, I want an empiricist digging in my guts. But when I go home for Christmas, I will make an allowance for fat men breathing heavily on me while I sleep, whether they exist or not.

  2. Alls I’m saying is that if we let a child believe in Santa for as long as possible, then maybe when he gets older and starts losing his hair, he’ll be more inclined to accept it gracefully as part of the wonder of human existence, and less inclined to reduce mankind to nothing more than idiotic shit monkeys. And maybe the kid who’s been raised thinking that anything is possible is the kid who invents Rogaine.

    And I never got the home invader aspect of Santa. But then, I’m still not particularly skeeved out by the idea of a bearded man breathing heavily on me while I sleep, so maybe it’s just my weirdness.

  3. My take on it, totally the opposite from Chuckzilla’s, is that it’ll be the kid who understands how the world works that invents the thing that keeps the hair from falling out, and the kid who believes a fat man lives on the North Pole, who makes presents for the entire world is the one who’ll end up in the mental institution one day. 😀

    But … yeah, I guess I’m just er… IDIOTIC SHIT MONKEY!!!! WOOOOO! *throws poo*

    grinchalopolis

  4. Ah, just to elaborate a bit more, and not *just* sound like a complete jackass:

    1.) I literally went into fits of uncontrollable laughter at the “should’ve thought of that before…” line. Uncontrollable.

    2.) re: Farrisi – I think you’re right, she was being a jerk. But, it feels to me that she was a jerk, in the same way really aggressive sales people are jerks. At some point, there’s simply bounds of “good taste” that dictate that sometimes, you should just STFU. This seems like one of those times. I wish I had a link to the story I was referring to, though… it was more similar to this: http://www.cathnews.com/news/411/126.php where basically, a child asked something directly, and the teacher answered truthfully. Different, IMO, than the teacher bringing up the topic without the question from the child. To me, the distinction is important, in the same way that say, a doctor takes the Hippocratic Oath. A teacher’s job, first and foremost, is the education of the children. And education requires certain standards, one of which is that the teachers put the *truth* first and foremost. More on that later.

    3.) re: Parental Jurisdiction – at what point can a parent really teach their kids whatever they want to believe, and not have society push back on them? Is it *right* for a parent to pass racist beliefs on to their kids? Is it right that we should accept the child’s racist beliefs, because their parents had that right, and not attempt to teach them otherwise? How does that apply to medicine? Particularly, when a child, whose beliefs differ from their parents, require medical attention that requires approval of the parents, but violates *their* religious beliefs? Where is the line? Who judges? How? I don’t really have any answers for that, to be perfectly honest.

    4.) The spirit of anonymous giving – that’s, IMO, the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existance of Santa Claus, but it still feels weird, to me. If the spirit is anonymous giving, why do we give it a face that we then tell the children is the truth?

    5.) The big question, which you allude to, and the accompaniment: What is the truth, and do we allow children “time to believe anything is possible”?

    I think this is where we differ most severely. I agree with you that Farrisi was a jerk, and I like the “spirit” of Christmas very much. But, and maybe when I have kids, they’re really gonna end up fucked up because of this, I dunno – but, I think the notion that children should have time to be children is a pretty strange cultural construction. When I was a child, I had little in the way of responsibility. I had time to play, time to explore the world. When I asked my dad why the sky was blue, he didn’t tell me that god made it so, he didn’t tell me any of the traditional stories about why thy sky is blue. He told me why the sky is blue. Did I understand about the refraction of light, at the time? Only sort of, in the way that a child might grasp the basic concepts.

    But I began to understand how light *worked*. That it was a system, consistent in its behaviour, that once understood, that knowledge could be applied in other situations, to other questions I might have. This lead to scurrying around the back yard, trying to understand how other things worked, and it gave my play meaning, and purpose.

    Now, that’s not to say that my playtime, or my childhood, was structured around the pursuit of knowledge, any more than any other kid’s. I played, had fun, and “was a child” in the same way that any other was. The difference, to me, was that I was given a tool. I was shown a way in which I could understand the world. I could use that tool as I saw fit, and for the most part, it sat rusty, in a box, until later years. But when those concepts were brought up again, I learned them quickly – I had held these tools before, when I was young, and my inexperienced hands had grown accustomed to their shape.

    I think that kids should be given those tools as young as they become interested in the questions those tools can answer. The other facet of that, though, is that they shouldn’t be given conflicting, false tools. If I explain to a child that Apollo drags the sun across the sky in his chariot, and I present this as the way the universe works, (and not as a means to explain how people of old viewed the world, and show how they explored it, as a result) then what end does that serve? If a god pulls the sun through the sky, then that is the hammer that they will use on their nails. A god, then, controls the way plants grow, or the colors of the sunset? This is, in some respect, how people used to think, yes? And I suppose to some degree, that’s part of your (Chuck’s) point, that maybe that *is* a valid explanation, for some aspect of the world that we cannot understand.

    I don’t know. I’m not trying to convince you of anything, I’m just trying to explain my viewpoint.

    I think children *are* given time to be children. They are given time to explore, to play, to succeed and fail and learn. To me, that’s what being a child was. It was about imagining what was possible, and even what was impossible.

    Instead of believing in Santa Claus, when I was young, instead, I might learn through the process, and the spirit of the holiday that giving, without credit or praise, was the spirit of Christmas (not in the acknowledgement of Christ’s birth, say, but the *new* pseudo-commercialized sense of the holiday), not a weird, physically impossible manifestation of it as a fat man in a red suit.

    seppopaosotuieiha

  5. (sorry – clarification – the notion that children should be children is a strange cultural construction *only* in the notion that “being children” means retaining a sense of ignorance. Not innocence, not childlike wonder of the possibilities, but ignorance. I don’t think that *you* mean ignorance – I think you mean the latter – but I’ve seen so many cultural institutions where ignorance = innocence, and I don’t believe the two are necessarily the same. I feel like I had the innocence of childhood, and wasn’t kept “in the dark” about things, whereas I see a lot of parents now, shielding their kids from knowledge under the guise of preservation of innocence. It’s odd.)

  6. And if you believe that I’m an arrogant, soulless jerk, that’s ok. 😀 My character has changed substantially since high school, becuase it was only out of high school that I say, lived with gay people, got engaged to a Christian, had arguments with really politically conservative people, etc. And when those experiences have shown me bits and pieces of my worldview that were either absent, ignored, wrong, or idiotic, it made me a better person. Maybe I’d disagree with you, but hey, better honest than not. And yes, I do to some extent understand the notion of “social grace” and not “complete assholism,” though it’s something I’ve traditionally had a bit of a hard time with. Heh.

  7. Naw, and you don’t need the disclaimers, and I’m not trying to put anyone on the defensive. Stating an opinion isn’t arrogance; what’s arrogant is imposing that opinion on an inappropriate audience (like the teacher did), or stating the opinion with no indication that anyone else has a remotely valid viewpoints (like the “War on Christmas” nonsense and the assholes who bait them, disguising their own religious intolerance as The Truth).

    Besides, the long-winded types have to stick together.

    2) I’ve looked all over the internets for an objective account of the story, and can’t find one. But they all say that she volunteered her opinion. Regardless, even if she were responding to a student’s question, there are plenty of ways to answer a point-blank question from a first-grader without lying to them but without imposing your own opinions on them. (And by “opinion” I mean of course not whether Santa is real, but whether a 6-year-old should be told he isn’t). And in the case of Santa, she was simply asked to read “The Night Before Christmas;” it wasn’t a Comparative Folklore course for first graders.

    As for a teacher’s obligation to tell the truth, somebody on a message board put it well: if a first-grader who’s not your own asks you where babies come from, what do you say? Do you tell them about semen and ovaries and Barry White, or do you say, “ask your parents.” Knowing the ins-and-outs about sex, so to speak, is only part of knowing the truth. An equally important part is being able to recognize how delicate the topic is, how important it is to families’ belief systems, and how it’s simply not your place to answer.

    3) If you honestly can’t tell the distinctions between Santa Claus and racism and Christian Science, then I’m not sure I’m capable of explaining it. If a parent is telling his kid that Santa wants him to hate the Coloreds, or that he doesn’t need dialysis because Santa will give him new kidneys if he’s really good, then yeah, that’s a problem. That’s a really absurd and impractical distinction, though; do you honestly believe there’s no difference between that and telling kids that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and brings them toys?

    4) The spirit of generosity has a name because that’s the easiest way to explain it. And it’s pretty fun, both for the kids and the adults. Why does there have to be a more complicated, “realistic” explanation? We assign names to characters that represent ideas; what’s so weird about that?

    There is simply no harm in a child up to a certain age believing that Santa really exists. At least, unless the child is overly impressionable and lives in terror of a home invader, which is just something parents have to handle on a case by case basis. There’s no harm in their believing in the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny and that the people inside the suits at Disney parks are really Mickey Mouse and Goofy.

    And it’s just plain more fun to dispense with the complicated pretense and just enjoy the ride. If you’re riding a roller coaster, do you want somebody sitting next to you explaining the physics of it to you the entire time, or do you just want to let yourself think that you might really be in danger? If you’re watching a fantastic movie, do you want somebody whispering in your ear that it’s only a movie and it’s all CGI, or do you just want to let go and enjoy it? Only the aliens from Galaxy Quest could have trouble distinguishing that from “lying.”

    5) Well, of course the key distinction is that Santa Claus isn’t used to explain a concept from the natural sciences. It’s used to explain something unnatural — people giving generously and expecting nothing in return. (And, more cynically, being rewarded for good behavior.) I think it’s another absurd reduction to imply that if you raise a child believing in Santa Claus, you can’t also teach him basic scientific concepts.

    When I have a kid, I’m going to teach him how a plane flies, and also tell him that Santa’s sleigh flies by “magic.” Human beings aren’t like the robots on “Star Trek,” and the kid’s head won’t explode as soon as it’s fed two seemingly irreconcilable concepts. Hell, kids can perfectly understand that department store Santas aren’t real and still beieve in the real Santa.

    Eventually, all kids are going to learn that it’s parents who are behind “the conspiracy.” That’s pretty much unavoidable. So if it ends up the same way whether you start the kids off knowing it’s a “fairy tale,” or telling them that it’s real, what’s the difference?

    The difference is in the “tools” you talk about. Telling a kid that God makes the sky blue doesn’t do him any good; explaining to him about the atmosphere and the refraction of light does teach him, especially if you explain it in a way that encourages him to test and discover things for himself. And telling a kid that Santa Claus brings him presents gives him the “tools” of faith and belief. Not to balk at the idea of a jolly man in a red suit just because he’s physically impossible, but just go with the flow and enjoy the idea of giving with nothing expected in return.

    I don’t see how it does a child any good to be let in on the whole Santa conspiracy. But I can see the good in keeping him “in the dark” for a few years until he figures it out on its own. It keeps him open to the idea of the impossible, the idea that there’s maybe more to existence than what we can see and measure, and that maybe people really are more than just synapses and neurons and stomachs and hormones.

  8. Which is, fundamentally, where we differ, since I do see people as bags-of-mostly-water, by and large. Not, to me, that that diminishes the signficance, wonder, or mystery of humanity.

    Or, to be more direct about it, I’m not sure I see the value of faith – or belief in the absence of evidence. Rather, I *don’t* see the value in it. Now, I can say I have “faith” in that someone might do the right thing, but that’s not the same say, “faith” in the existance of a divine creator. In the first case, that “faith” is based on past performance, my evaluation of their character, the circumstances they’re placed in, etc. It may be misplaced, it may be wrong, but it’s based on empirical data, and as good a guess as I might surmise.

    Here’s a question – not to cleverly upend your argument, since I’d have to be much cleverer to do so, but rather, as a genuine question – as a tool, what use does faith, or belief have?

    (yes, I realize this question sounds extremely cynical, and/or “soulless”, though in the case of the latter, that’d just be a collection of electrical impulses and such – a giant state machine – and I know you said I could dispense with the disclaimers, but it’s not meant to be cynical. I literally cannot conjure a single “use” for faith as a tool that cannot be eclipsed by another facet of our existance in a better way. I’m definitely interested in your perspective.)

  9. Well, if it is possible for someone to explain the value of faith, it’s not going to be me. I get too frustrated with it. I just see more and more cases of people equating faith and belief with arrogance, ignorance and gullibility, and people equating atheism or even non-fundamentalism with arrogance, coldness, and amorality. It’s all condescension and intolerance on both sides, instead of just being accepting of the idea that people have a different way of interpreting what’s going on past what we can see.

    As far as its being a “tool,” I think faith helps people think past defeatist skepticism and be open to the idea of what’s possible, instead of what’s likely based on empirical data. If “wonder and mystery” are still important to keep in mind, then they’re important to instill and encourage in children. It’s all a question of outlook and philosophy. The facts, the “truth” are what we know, and everybody has the same access to that information. Faith and belief and philosophy are what take over once you get to the limit of what we know. It takes a bunch of chemical reactions and gives them context.

    Back to Santa and the War on Christmas nonsense, I do think that most of it is idiotic political posturing from a bunch of asinine fear-mongering pundits trying to foster more intolerance. But I also see a lot of cases of people who don’t appreciate the value of it to others, and so dismiss it as “lies” and insult it and, like Ms. Farrisi, try to ruin it for children and their parents.

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