Sin. Remorse. Confession. Redemption. These are the steps of an ancient process of acknowledging a societal standard for behavior and using a form of public confession with its resultant humiliation to induce behavior modification. Hester Prynne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the struggles of an individual and society to come to grips with ‘unacceptable’ behavior, wore a Scarlet Letter to identify her action to the community and her acceptance of her action. The rudimentary nature of the Letter belied the complex considerations all the characters in Hawthorne’s novel face in dealing with and facing up to sin, guilt, piety, rejection, anger, sanctimony, and hypocrisy. Hester as part of her own redemption accepts her role and consequences of her behavior, the punishment, and takes a road of personal dignity to help others in the novel, not as strong as herself, to finally face up to their own demons.
Hester’s strong example finally gave strength to community leader Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale to admit his own role in her requiring the Letter and finally confessing and thereby achieving some redemption. Shame, both public and private, formed a mighty anvil upon which all learned and shaped their responses.
Well, there are no Hester Prynnes in own current society’s leaders. The concept of public shame helping to curb poor behavior in politicians and force a dignified response has lost all impact. We are being treated to a special group of people who can not be humiliated and are immune to public shame. The sins are old fashioned but both the reaction of the public and the individual to their liability is not.
Anthony Weiner, a nondescript former New York congressman who achieved a modicum of fame through a special talent of expressing outrageous bombast on TV and marrying a member of the extended Clinton royal family, proved to have a more prodigious skill – taking pictures of his privates and sharing them with anyone who would care to look. Forced to resign his congressional position by the shear volume and inappropriateness of his hobby, he lay in the reeds for a year and a half before determining that a morally deficient New York City public would have amnesia for his personal deficiencies and love for his over-the-top bombastic politics. He found himself in a short time leading the race for Mayor of the country’s largest and most influential city. Unfortunately, his alter ego, a pornocentric superhero named “Carlos Danger” continued to prowl the internet, extoling superhuman body parts and expousing the potential actions of these capacities on various young women, and has come to public attention. The public exposure of personal perversion used to be a special scarlet letter for politicians, but no more. Mr. Danger has determined to stay in the mayoral race, and is relying on the public’s comfort with immorality as no longer defining a public character, as if complete lack of discipline in a personal life would suddenly evolve into good and just public governance.
The modern disconnect is not limited to Mr. Weiner. The mayor of San Diego is Bob Filner, who has determined that being in a position of power as mayor, allows him special dispensation at seventy years of age to grope, taunt, grab, and demand lascivious behavior from whatever female happens to come within his force field. Apparently as a democrat campaigning against the republican party’s supposed war on women, he felt he had vaccinated himself with women to the extent that he could nuclear. Public righteousness, private hypocrisy – the modern cultural equivalent of “do as I say, not as I do.” Is there sufficient humiliation to force Mr. Filner to resign? Mr. Filner doesn’t think so. Once again, being in a position of power to tell other people how they should act and follow workplace laws has made him impervious to law in his own mind.
The examples could go on and on, but it really relates to a progressive societal exhaustion with having a shared concept of behavior. The mutual tug that both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale felt has left us as a society, and we have drifted into the hypocritical circus of the bizarre. Because Speaker of the House Bob Livingston felt his own internal shame of having had an affair in his life, while accusing President Clinton of similar malfeasance in office, he determined to resign in 1998. President Clinton, who perjured himself and broke numerous workplace laws having sexual relations with employees, felt no shame, and did not resign. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, whose IRS prosecuted untold numbers of individuals for tax evasion, felt no shame or need to resign, despite not having paid his own. Barack Obama in 2004 , working to gain national prominence by running for Senator from Illinois, made sure that his formidable republican Senate opponent Jack Ryan’s private court documents in a divorce child custody case be exposed through the press detailing some private accusations his wife made regarding Mr. Ryan’s sexual requests of her. Knowing of Mr. Ryan’s unwillingness to drag his child through the political mud, he counted on Mr. Ryan’s personal shame to drive him from the race, and succeeded. That certainly did not lead to Mr. Obama feeling a Arthur Dimmesdale moment to release private personal birth records or college transcripts which no doubt would reveal at least ‘inconsistencies’ in his personal storyline, but it did lead to a Senate seat, national prominence, and eventually the Presidency.
All roads of understanding lead to the concept of Shame requiring the secondary concepts of personal guilt and desire for redemption to be present to have any last effect. We see in our modern society a significant disconnect, in that the exposure of personal flaws are merely a temporary hurdle to overcome, not a abject lesson to learn from, and grow beyond. Our current society desires a feel good strategy of pick and choosing things to become outraged about, avoiding any collective responsibility, acting beyond approved laws, spending beyond approved limits, and fundamentally denying any personal remorse or collective action to change. Is it no wonder, that our unwillingness to stand as Hester Prynne and wear our Scarlet Letter, learn about ourselves and achieve collective dignity in acts, has led to a generation of politicians who are oblivious to their own dignity and societal clarity?
Shame…shame on us all.