Hester Prynne standing atop the scaffolding, bearing both her child and the embroidered scarlet A is a pitiable image. Through the certain anguish of her public admonition we can feel her defiance, and so, she becomes something of a hero in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of group judgment, and individual consequences.
Puritanical America, at least as envisioned by Hawthorne, is happily gone. It is right to replace societal norms with individual conscience, leaving each to his or her path. The entire American experiment in self-government was designed to protect the rights of a minority from the whims of the majority. For that reason the Constitution created a republic, and not a democracy.
Yet it seems as if we have passed some tipping point, and thus lost an important ingredient of republican liberty.
Self-government begins with self-control. That is, liberty can only be exercised by a population that has some sense of responsibility. Therein lay the distinction between freedom and chaos. Liberty is inextricably linked to obligations, the converse path leads to a Hobbesian free-for-all.
Hawthorne rejected the mob-imposed shame of the seventeenth century, but remained an ardent defender for the need of each person to live in accordance with some code. But what can be done when the code has eroded and societal norms seemingly protect only the race to the lowest common denominator?
It is a problem described brilliantly by Charles Murray in the closing section of Coming Apart. Murray writes that for most of its history, “in keeping with its democratic tradition, America did not have different codes for socioeconomic classes.” A shared code existed for all, but, he chronicles, it has come undone.
America today places an extreme value on niceness, on generalized tolerance. We take great pains to avoid being judgmental. Most of us understand that we have no right to tell anyone else how to live, or to criticize them for their choices. Thus, we accept some vulgarity and lewdness, we are patient with exhibited sloth and dependence. Young men do not hold doors open for old ladies, adults freely swear in front of children, and we seek advantage and gain at the expense of fairness.
The prototypical American code (and it should not be just an American code), essentially mirrors the values of the Boy Scouts. We should all be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous, thrifty, and brave. A code transcends, or at least should, the political divide between Left and Right.
So what to do about an Amanda Clayton? The 24-year old Clayton recently won $1 million in the Michigan lottery. She now owns two homes and a luxury car – and continues to collect food stamps. When asked if she feels entitled to the public largesse she replied, “I kinda do.”
In 2008 Viacom lost half its value, prompting executives Philippe Dauman and Thomas E. Dooley to lay off 7 percent of its workforce. For the terrible corporate performance, and for sending nearly 900 people to the unemployment lines, Dauman and Dooley rewarded themselves with a combined $165 million over nine months.
Neither Clayton, nor Dauman and Dooley, did anything illegal. But they certainly did something wrong. The three should be ashamed of themselves. How a code of conduct can be enforced without a return to Puritanical New England is, however, something of a problem.
Cadets of the United State Military Academy at West Point must abide by a code that says they “will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” A testament to the success of the code can be found in the scores of Medal of Honor winners who once wore the cadet grey. Despite its apparent success, we understand that military practices can not be enforced in civilian life.
America must confront a cultural rot nonetheless. Sadly many imaginable remedies risk being worse than the disease.
We must encourage courtesy, bravery, honesty, and self-discipline without succumbing to malice, bias, or favor seeking. We must not tolerate vice, but remain patient and generous to those still seeking virtue. When Paris Hilton has “earned” in excess of $100 million, and Tim Tebow is roundly mocked by media pontificators, our national course seems fixed