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We Live in a Scarlet Letter World November 27, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Bill Clinton, current events commentary, Herman Cain, historical fiction, John F Kennedy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, politics, social commentary, The Scarlet Letter, Tiger Woods.
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When I was in high school, we read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a classic of American literature. I realize now I was reading a historical novel, written by Hawthorne in 1850 about events that took place two centuries earlier. The theme of this great classic novel was how that puritanical society of the 17th Century humiliated Hester Prynne for adultery by requiring her to wear a scarlet A, forever labeling her as having had sexual intercourse with a man not her husband. For this lapse in personal conduct, Hester Prynne was to forever wear this badge of her transgression. As a high school student reading this story, there is no doubt to me that Hawthorne’s emphasis was the hypocrisy and injustice of that 17th Century society as they humiliated this woman. They seemed backward and rigid. Hawthorne was no doubt implying that American society had advanced from that time, that people were more enlightened than the people in that Puritanical society. My high school teacher was certainly inferring the same message, that in our modern world, we knew better.

It doesn’t seem to me that we are more enlightened at all. In fact, in our own 21st Century way, we are more punishing with the scarlet letter than ever. We live in a Scarlet Letter Society. We only need to look at the most recent headlines. Presidential candidate Herman Cain has drawn unwanted national headlines over sexual harassment charges from events of nearly twenty years ago. Serious commentators have indicated this could disqualify him from being President of United States. These accusations are far from proven, and do not even involve actual adultery. Cain has made some unique policy proposals, proposals that should invite scrutiny and consideration. Instead, the public stage was overrun with tawdry he-said she-said mini-dramas about whether Cain “sexually harassed” women years ago.

We don’t just have this occurring in politics. The biggest scarlet letter story in the recent popular culture involves golfer Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods ruled the sport of golf with scores, victories, and tournament winnings that had him compared favorably with the greatest golfers ever. Then the media burst forth with stories of a weird vehicle accident followed by accusations of serial adultery as Woods’ marriage came apart. Woods called a press conference, prostrated himself at the feet of public opinion with apologies, and took time off from golf to deal with the crisis in his personal life. As this played out in full view of the public, I found myself wondering how any of this was my business. Tiger Woods is not a politician vested with the public trust. He is a professional athlete. Just because he has been an extraordinarily successful athlete with a huge public profile and financial success unimaginable to most people does not grant us permission to pick over the pieces of his personal life. Tiger Woods has never really seemed the same, as a public figure, even as an athlete dominating his sport. Now, when we see Tiger Woods, we can’t help but think of his personal troubles. The only thing missing is that scarlet A plastered across his golf shirt.

For more Scarlet Letter Society, we’ll go back to politics, looking back a little over a decade. We had a President of the United States impeached as a result of accusations stemming from infidelity. True, the offenses Bill Clinton was impeached for were not sexual misconduct. Those bringing the charges would insist that this was not about sex, but was about Bill Clinton’s lies under oath as he attempted to cover up his behavior. (Back at the time of these events, I wrote an essay, “Clinton Impeachment Post-Mortem: The Five Blunders,” available at my Internet Column.) But it was because of our Scarlet Letter Society that Bill Clinton felt compelled to cover up the conduct in the first place! Between 1994 and 2000, cooperation between Bill Clinton and the Republican majority House led by Newt Gingrich, resulted in notable achievements including welfare reform and balanced budgets leading to surpluses. But what do most people think of when recalling Bill Clinton’s second term? Bill Clinton’s Scarlet Letter struggles.

This gotcha world of the Scarlet Letter Society is a recent development. President John F. Kennedy certainly strayed outside of his marriage as much if not more than President Clinton. (Kennedy was idol of Clinton’s—I have to wonder if Clinton sometimes wishes he had come along a generation earlier.) The media back then allowed this private conduct, deficient conduct, immoral conduct, but of a personal nature, to remain private. Has the media become less respectful of the idea of “private” versus “public” conduct, or have we as a society insisted we have a right to know about everything? Probably a mix of both.

Credible reports tell us Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had similar personal conduct deficiencies. There are allegations Dwight Eisenhower was also unfaithful to his wife. Would any of these men have had a chance to be elected President in our Scarlet Letter Society?

Another aspect of this, by the way, is that this current brand of Scarlet Letter Society appears to apply more vigorously to men. Some young actresses in recent years have come under scrutiny, but this hasn’t really been for infidelity. In fact, sex videotapes may have actually enhanced public profiles of Pamela Sue Anderson, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, giving them a presence in the public eye that actually opened up opportunities.

Frankly, the Hester Prynne Scarlet Letter makes more sense than the current emphasis of our Scarlet Letter Society (though I have no love for either of them). Let me issue a warning—this line of thought is going to be politically incorrect. But it addresses reality. There is a perceived primal threat to human society from female adultery. In the evolution of humans from their primate origins, monogamy was a huge development for human beings. Females developed an enjoyment for sex, and the idea of choosing their mates and consenting to sex. This brought males back to the same females at night, to be with their receptive female mates. With exclusivity of mates, males also bonded with females to care for their offspring, being assured that the offspring of their female partners were their own offspring. Female adultery threatens that assurance for male partners. So there’s a primal aversion to it, especially among males. In our current society, we understand the unfairness of this, and that parentage can be effective without blood relationships. But that primal aspect still exists, and gives rise to the vociferous condemnations of female adultery even in our recent past. Male adultery has often been tolerated, rarely as strongly condemned as seems to be in our Scarlet Letter Society of today. Personally, I believe male adultery is immoral conduct, destructive to wives, mothers and children. But I also believe this is private conduct, to be handled between the parties, not under the bright lights of media scrutiny.

So can we be smug as we read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel about hypocrisy back during Puritan times in early colonial America? I don’t think so. We don’t sew scarlet letters on the clothing of the immoral transgressors anymore. Instead we flash their images around the world from television and computer screen to television and computer screen, a high-tech red letter Hester Prynne would have recognized very well and would possibly have found even more humiliating than her own scarlet A.

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