Columnist John Bos: Living in a tsunami of conspiracy theories

  • JOHN BOS

Published: 6/13/2021 6:55:18 AM

In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked by his then 8-year-old daughter, Virginia, whether Santa Claus really existed. O’Hanlon suggested she write to The Sun, a then prominent New York City newspaper.

Here’s what Virginia 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?”

Francis Church, one of The Sun’s editors, was a war correspondent during the American Civil War, a time that saw great suffering and a lack of hope and faith in much of society. Not unlike how we feel in today’s uncivil war of words. Although The Sun buried Church’s editorial below one about the newly invented “chainless bicycle,” it was noticed and well received by readers. According to an anecdote on the radio program The Rest of the Story, Church was a hardened cynic and an atheist who had little patience for superstitious beliefs, did not want to write the editorial, and refused to allow his name to be attached to the piece. More than a century later it is the most reprinted editorial in any newspaper in the English language.

“Virginia,” Church’s editorial began, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe anything except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. 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.”

Was the Santa story simply a well-meaning myth? Or was it a charming folk tale with variations in different cultures such as in my Dutch parents’ home country tradition where Sinterklaas has a “helper” named Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”). Piet usually appears as a blackface character with large gold earrings and exaggerated lips. In the weeks leading up to “Kerstmis,” cities and towns host parades featuring hundreds of white people dressed as Piet who is tasked with handing out presents to the good children and punishing the naughty.

Today, as the anti-racist movement against the Zwarte Piet has grown, so too has organized white supremacy in favor of him. Journalists have received death threats for writing about Piet and anti-blackface activists have survived violent attacks.

We are living in a tsunami of conspiracy theories in today’s America. “Though there are no known dates for the earliest recorded conspiracy theories” according to Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia, evidence suggests that they have been around since as early as the Roman Empire. “…conspiracy theories are almost always present in the fabric of society, societal upheaval and traumatic events that call into question established power structures, norms of conduct, or even the existence of specific people or groups, tend to stimulate belief in conspiracy theories.”

Enter the Internet that has made it possible for an exponentially exacerbated spread of conspiracy theories at a pace we have never before known. Internet-based media outlets such as the late Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, the Alec Jones Show on InfoWars, “news” programs on Fox News, One America News Network, Newsmax TV, the large Sinclair Broadcasting Group of radio stations, and many other conservative media, attract audiences which already have a predisposition to believe in such theories before they begin to “believe” in them.

How, otherwise, could one possibly believe that the first moon landing was a hoax staged by NASA? Or that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center were not (exclusively) conducted by al-Qaeda, but a U.S. government conspiracy to let these attacks succeed? Or that the 2020 election was “stolen?” Or that Jan. 6 was a typical tourist day at the capital? And … that Donald Trump will be “reinstated” as president come August?

“No Santa Claus!,” Frances Church ended his 1897 editorial with; “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.”

If planet Earth is still supporting human life a thousand years from now, nay, 10,000 years from now, I wonder what the history of the 21st century will look like?

John Bos wrote a bi-weekly column entitled “Connecting the Dots” for seven years in the West County Independent. Having moved to Greenfield last year he is more than pleased to continue his column in the Recorder. Questions and comments are always invited. Readers who would like a copy of the original Sun editorial or “Tips on Countering Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation” may request a PDF copy at john01370@gmail.com.




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