Santa & The Lies We Tell

This is my first blog in a long while. I apologize for my slothfulness and hope to do better. This is an essay on lying in our society, starting with the Santa Claus myth. I wrote it this Christmas eve but had somehow blocked myself from updating my blog till now.

A lesson from Santa There’s a lot I like about Christmas – the gift giving and getting, family, cheesy movies, the sanction of generosity and fellowship, the pagan rituals and decor. That said, when I was a teenager in the late 70s, influenced by the disillusionment and cynicism of the times perhaps, I began to think about the Santa myth in a new light. Refined over the years – more cynicism and disillusionment, tempered by some radical political revelations and convictions – it goes something like this: The life lesson of Santa Claus comes when the kid down the street (Billy Simpson, in my case, around 1969) tells you it’s a sham; they’ve been lying to you; you’ve been played, fool; wise up and smell the yule log. Maybe like me, you deny it, run home, cry to your mom, ask her to tell affirm the solidity of the magic fat man in the red suit. She pauses, thinking maybe now it’s time to fess up, but notices how badly you still want to believe (or to not believe you’ve been leaving cookies for a parent or older sibling), and then she tells you that Billy Simpson is wrong, there is a Santa. You’ve been watching her closely, judging her reaction, noting the pause, the bemused smile, the storytime tone. You spend the afternoon alone, contemplating it all, sensing the wider reality. After dinner you go back down the street to Billy’s house – yeah, I knew that; just kidding before; no really, Santa’s for suckers; let’s go play GI Joe. The lesson I draw from this is the valuable precedent it sets. It’s tough to remember this lesson, the precedent it set, like when your third grade teacher tells you a few years later that some kid in Sharonville doused a smaller kid with gasoline and burnt him to a cinder because the big kid smoked something called marywana, and it made him CRAAAZY. Again, you repeat this lie to some older kids in the neighborhood who fall down laughing at your gullibility. It begins to sink in. Adults, authority figures, lie. Big time. To your face, repeatedly, seriously. In hushed tones and sung to the heavens. In official or sacred settings. As you go through life, during those brief periods when you slip out of the comforts of denial, you know. They’ll lie to scare you about official enemies – drugs, sex, rock n roll; people, countries, ideologies. They’ll lie to you to get you to believe in official campaigns – Santa, Jesus, liberty and justice for all. As you go through life, you know you’ll be the adult, maybe the authority figure, and you’ll be expected to lie. And you will. YOU will. Not just the casual lies – calling in sick on a nice day; I didn’t know I was going 75; I’m fine, how are you. Not only the white lies – everything’s going to be all right; you’re looking much better today; if you leave the yard and go out into the street, you’ll be squashed by a truck in two seconds. No, you’ll also tell the whoppers – Santa’s coming tonight; the company’s doing fine, nobody’s going to get laid off; the people in this country are finally about to wake up and throw off their chains. Of course, kids lie. Anybody who thinks otherwise has forgotten what it was like when we were kids and hasn’t spent much time around kids since. We lie as soon as we can talk. He hit me first, yada yada yada. On a more basic level, we’re indoctrinated to confuse words with something they’re not, something able to convey absolute truths, when words are just symbols, with imprecise definitions (more symbols) only very generally shared among us. What’s more interesting to me are the big ones, the "Big Lies" that have cultural and official backing, that are everywhere and repeated endlessly in sober settings, that we swim in from cradle to grave, and yet are obvious lies: Rigid hierarchies are inevitable among us and we naturally form ourselves into lifelong followers and leaders. People are inherently savage and it’s only by our fear of and submission to authority that we keep from each others’ throats. There is absolute good and absolute evil, and there are people who hold those attributes. The happy face version of U.S. history (deserving another post on its own). The religion of Jehovah, God, Allah as something not based on a tribal desert war deity, whose cosmology was stolen wholecloth from Mesopotamians, whose history and sacred texts were written by men and evolved through the millennia according to circumstance. Big Lies are rarely questioned. They’re drilled into us by rote until they form bases of our being. Questioning them exacts severe costs. Your sanity is even questioned if you don’t profess unswerving certainty of "good" and "evil" despite the absence of any consistent or non-contrived philosophical or real-world definitions for the terms. People also believe a whole range of more temporal and shifting lies. There are different manifestations around the world, but in the U.S. some of these lies are also quite big. Corporate trade representatives (and most everyone else through constant reinforcement) believe that we have a "free market" and that if only we could make it more "free" at home and abroad then a worldwide middle-class would burgeon and lift the suffering out of poverty. Our sanctioned historians, economists, and commentators (and most everyone else through constant reinforcement) believe that this "free market" is synonymous with democracy and that one is not possible without the other. Corporate news media stars (and most everyone else, at some level or another, through constant reinforcement) believe we have vibrant independent mainstream journalism that does good (or at least adequate) work as information gatekeepers and which functions as an effective check on official power, on the rare occasions when this check is necessary in practice rather than in theory. Most relevant to today, perhaps, our current government’s leaders (like a majority of the U.S. population through constant reinforcement) believed (until our leaders were forced to admit the opposite fairly recently) that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction" when we attacked them, shifting to today’s lie (still fervently believed) that our mission in invading Iraq has always been to "promote democracy," the Ayatollah Al Sistani’s blackmailing us into even holding elections notwithstanding (not generally known). Honestly, I don’t think there’s anyone (not even Cheney) twisting a metaphorical villain’s mustache, chortling at the mayhem, and counting the dollars or knowingly ticking off a checklist towards world dictatorship. People believe the lies of the system in which they operate, "internalizing the value system" as Herman and Chomsky say. Most everyone does this, especially the ones at the top, those reaping the most rewards or with the most invested. The ones in the middle or at the bottom, who cares as long as they don’t wake up all together and at once. Which brings me back to Santa Claus. This is a lie of a different color. People know this is a lie. We tell it anyway. It’s a lie, after all, we tell only to children. It’s a lie of a different world. An arbiter of fairness exists in this world, and he’ll distribute the wealth of toys equitably to everyone on the planet, with only the empty threat of coal to the worst little boys and girls (who cannot be truly "evil" yet because they’re still children). There’s more, of course, the specific historic circumstances and evolving nature of myth involving a typical blending and cooptation of long persisting pagan legends, here merged with a Christian saint. But what’s held my interest over the years has been this simple altruistic vision, how it’s so quickly yanked away from us, where it goes, why it thrives. When Santa is revealed as fraud, we’re just children and most of us are still not privy to all the cold hard realities of the world. Those toys we thought Santa was bringing from the hands of happy elves were likely made by other children or second-sex oppressed women laboring for pennies in abject poverty and oppression. The toys were purchased with money most of our parents earned as wage slaves themselves in a hugely unequal and dictatorial "free market" where almost all the profit of their labor was funneled upwards to a wealthy parasite class of owners and investors, a system where our parents remained in debt for most of their lives with only as much reward as they or their immediate forbearers fought for through worker organizations or what was deemed necessary to keep them participating. Santa, elves, reindeer, sleighs, and chimneys form a much nicer image than multinational corporations, third world peasants forced off land they’d cultivated for generations and into sweatshops, container ships plying dying oceans, our parents’ forced toil in a corrupt system, manipulative ad campaigns, and town-destroying chain retailers. By design, we remain sheltered from this reality long past the death of Santa, though, and our parents’ later claims of not being made of money when we cry for the latest trinkets ring hollow in our ears, since real world economics are not on the curriculum of our elementary, middle, or high schools (nor most anyplace else). Still, there’s more than a coverup of the underlying matrix at work here. In contravention of the Big Lies mentioned earlier, there’s an obvious Big Truth at the core of the Santa myth. We crave a fairness, extending to all the boys and girls of the world, that would see everyone delivered some happiness. Toys are the stand-in, the symbol. After the curtain is pulled back, the disillusionment with the lie of Santa is only temporary, because what he stood for is what we want. Fairness and justice – no coal, but a distribution of the wealth to all the deserving people (everyone) and not just the spoiled inheritor class. Where this desire goes is the sad part, the road to the adulthood of the real world we now inhabit. Maybe there’s a problem implicit in the myth, that we need an arbiter of fairness instead of all the people of all the towns deciding that they’ll do this for themselves. That we can do this, that the huge hoarding of wealth by a tiny minority is what is not natural, and that a dedicated majority of the population of the planet (us) would be unstoppable in reversing this unfairness. No. These ideas are forbidden. These connections are made only at the fringes, never in the mainstream, in the schools, in the sacred myths, in the official commentary. Though most of us want this here and around the world, and there is a significant segment of the population making these connections, we remain isolated and marginalized. More so, in the U.S., this Big Truth, this desire for basic fairness, is effectively diverted to less threatening and more establishment-sustaining destinations. Soon after Santa is exposed and discarded, we all enter school and most of us enter church at some level. At school we’re taught that this fairness we crave is what our country, our government, is all about. Everyone in the world loves and envies us, we’re told, because we already have it – liberty and justice for all. It’s right there. We say it every day, while swearing allegiance to our symbol that we’re never told is a symbol. The heralded commingling of democracy with some ill-defined, allegedly free market begins almost immediately and continues non-stop until we become children again through Alzheimer’s and die, having finally paid off the house but now owing on the medical bills (having probably lost the house in the process). Along the way we’re conditioned, eased into our future of wage-slavery rote and obedience, learning to sit and stand in numbered lines, to repeat and obey, to elect sham student governments that pretend to wield power while a tiny minority in unchallengeable authority (the adults here) pulls all the real strings. Likewise, our free play is turned into something regimented to better prepare us for direct participation (should we be so brave, or impoverished) in the preemptive wars of the future. Somehow, the idea and ideal of a real democracy where we could actually move closer to that thing we crave, is drilled out of us. At church, temple, mosque, the fairness is again dangled before us. If we’ve seen through the sham of Babylon and seek something deeper, why just step up to the pew, son, daughter, you’re always welcome here. What’s that you say? Fairness, justice? It’s coming and you’re on the only path to it. Don’t step off. And don’t forget, this is The Way. The one and only Way. All you have to do is swear obedience to our earthly hierarchy for life and it’ll be there when you die, all you’ve been craving, the ultimate. If you don’t do this, with us, well there’s another place… Speaking of a kind of hell, I think I’ll end with a Santa story from my days in the U.S. Navy. A Sailor Claus kind of thing. It’s very late (or early) on Christmas eve and the sentences are coming hard. I didn’t plan this opus, but here it is; avoiding wrapping duties no doubt. I’d have ended it right up there (good place) but I intended at the outset to end with this and, well, here it is. So it’s 1987 and I’m on a midshift (midnight to eight) in the office of our small detachment. I’m at the Ops desk with two other Arabic translators. It’s quiet except for the clatter of teletypes. We’re all drinking strong coffee and smoking cigarettes. The Chief is sitting at the desk (normally not a Chief Petty Officer on our midshifts, but it’s my memory, eh?). I’m standing behind him checking the machines. The other guy, an E-6 (I’m lower ranking than all of them, an E-5), comes up and says something like, "I’ve been thinking about it and I think we might just be, kinda, egging Libya on. You know, provoking them. They’re not really a threat to us, America, and some of the stuff we’ve done, well…. Makes ya think, huh?" Now this is after more than a year of us having worked way too many 12, 16 hour days, flying nonstop reconnaissance missions off their coast in support of three carrier battle groups at a time, marine amphibious groups, the line of death thing and our bombing them then, countless continuing concerted provocative fighter squadron sorties right up to their international border lines. Hell, this guy had been flying from one of the carriers off the coast of Benghazi, while I was off the coast of Tripoli from another carrier, when we bombed the shit out of them another time in retribution for a terrorist attack that even the U.S. media was finally admitting they likely had nothing to do with, all part of the first bogus "war on terror." I’d known this guy for years. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he was often mistaken for an officer due to his clean cut good looks (unlike the rest of us). Among my group of drinking buddies, most of us had long, long ago accepted his premise in our discussions and it had ceased to even be a topic of conversation at our favorite bar or anywhere. The Chief had spent most of the last year out at sea, providing direct support from numerous ships and subs. A Vietnam vet, he looked exhausted and ancient, a black man who sadly often told anti-black racist jokes, to much discomfort all around. He turned around to me and deadpanned, "Do you think we should tell him about Santa?"

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