Only the most devoted follower of journalistic trivia would know the name of Francis Pharcellus Church. He’s the otherwise obscure writer who wrote history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” The work was a reply to a sincere inquiry from an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. It originally appeared as an unsigned editorial in New York’s Sun newspaper in 1897.

If I were given the chance to borrow some of Church’s prose, and to put the matter in terms of Tennessee politics, the column would read as follows:

Yes, Virginia, there is a sanity clause. Your inquiry likely has been prompted by several insane statements from Sevier County Commissioner Warren Hurst, who at an October meeting blurted, “We got a queer running for president, if that ain’t about as ugly as you can get.” Hurst added, “Look what we got running for president in the Democratic Party. We can go over here to Hoss’s jail (Sevier County sheriff) and get better people out of there than those running for democratic to be president of the United States.”

You’d think Hurst’s statements would draw a quick rebuke from his colleagues, instead of tittering and nods of agreement.

Take heart, Virginia, that a woman at the meeting, Sara Thompson, stood up, declared Hurst’s comments unprofessional and left the meeting. Later she noted, “County commissioners need to remember that when they’re elected, they need to represent everyone. This should serve as a reminder to all county commissioners to have more respect for each other and their constituents.”

Warren Hurst’s declarations have been infected by the meanness of a spiteful but dying age. Young people like you, Virginia, judge ideas not people — and are perplexed by those who slight and blame others based on skin color, gender, religion, where they were born or who they love. Your sanity will prevail, just as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and will give to your life its highest beauty and joy.

Virginia, I also must tell you about an insane statement made in September by state Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield, Tennessee. He called for eliminating higher education, calling it a “liberal breeding ground.” Alas, how dreary would be the world if there were no higher education. It would be as dreary as if there were no sanity clause or no Virginias. There would be less research, less personal and societal growth, and even less social mobility. It would be as if the eternal light of discovery which fills the world would be extinguished.

I suspect your Mama and Papa look forward to seeing you graduate from college, confident in your ability to sort good ideas from bad, and knowing that your journey is not one of inculcation but one of joyous exploration.

Fear of schooling took another strange turn this autumn when Tennessee state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, went on a bizarre rant blaming an increase in teen suicides on teachings about climate change and other progressive policies. Tennesseans representing us in Congress also have flashed the crazy. Sen. Marsha Blackburn in late October blocked three election security bills.

Virginia, insane statements can cause dismay, but crazy policy can hurt you and other 8-year-old friends. Our state could have opted for cost-free expanded Medicaid coverage of Tennesseans, yet our state legislature would not do it. The results are that 12 hospitals have closed, 300,000 people needlessly are uninsured and we failed to recapture $7 billion of our own federal tax dollars. This may lead you to wonder whether there really is a sanity clause.

Please note, Virginia, that the politicians I’ve referenced, all Republicans, are not the true heirs to our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. He called upon us to follow the better angels of our nature. I’m certain you will follow that path to a gentle and enlightened adulthood. Your generation will reject the insane machinations of our current age of senseless rage.

You see, Virginia, you are the sanity clause — in every act of kindness, every sensible vote when you reach voting age, and every sane young person who rises to leadership with a maturity exceeding your elders.

Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance and thoughtfulness can push aside the veil of ignorance and selfishness. When that veil is cast aside, we all can see the beauty around us and the joyous generosity in our community. We become every who in Whoville, holding hands and singing our Christmas song to every Grinch who is perplexed and annoyed. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. Merry Christmas and a joyous 2020.

Mark D. Harmon writes a monthly column for The Daily Times. He is a professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee, and a regional vice chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

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