I’ve been thinking about Hester Prynne lately. You may remember Hester from junior-year English lit. She is the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, an 1850 novel about a young woman living in Puritan Boston in 1642 who is shamed by her community for allegedly having an adulterous affair. (She is forced to wear a scarlet “A” for adultery on her clothes to own up to her sin.) Even today, the book remains a powerful metaphor for the corrupting influence of faux morality and judgement in society, a sort of “let ye without sin cast the first stone” lesson that still packs a wallop.
And yet I am beginning to wonder if the Puritans weren’t on to something back on those chilly New England shores. While poor Hester may have gotten a raw deal, it seems to me we might want to consider bringing the idea of the old scarlet letter back into vogue. Because the cabal of people among us who seem to have no moral compass at all seems to be growing at a rate rivaling that of the zombie population on The Walking Dead.
I’m not talking about adultery here. Those kinds of interpersonal transgressions, so in fashion for topical debate among the Republican presidential hopefuls, are better left dissected and judged by the people who suffer directly from them. I am speaking of the kind of moral bankruptcy that has come to infect Americans like some sort of swine-flu pandemic, where what once might have been called “cutting corners” has now mushroomed into some national norm, malfeasance a la carte.
Let me tell you about a conversation I had with my dad recently. My dad is one of the most upstanding people I have ever met; he wouldn’t dream of trying to gyp a parking meter, never mind another human being. Long retired, he’s an active volunteer, and after he’d come back from one of his self-help groups he told me about a man he’s known a long time, who told him he’d just left his job as a doorman at a fancy Center City hotel. My father asked why.
“Well, my lawyer says I have to,” the man replied blandly. “I mean, it will jeopardize my SSI application.” Turns out he had applied for Social Security disability, meaning he wanted to start collecting Social Security payments now, for the rest of his life, because he “couldn’t” work anymore. So he had to quit his job—one that proves that he can, in fact, work—so that a judge could rule he can’t, and pay him for it. This man is 40 years old. And it gets better: His wife is already on Social Security disability, for “anxiety.” She’s 38. They’re looking to buy a Shore place.
What this means, dear people, is that you and I, the stupid, honest taxpayers constantly being rooked everywhere we turn, are going to be sending this couple two checks every month, possibly for the next 50 years. Now times that by hundreds of thousands. My sister-in-law has a cousin who collects disability, also for “anxiety”; ditto for the sister of one of my best friends, who started collecting when she was 22. They live in decent apartments, own cars, walk through shopping malls, spend the occasional weekend at the beach. The only thing they don’t do is work. Because why would they? They have us, the fools frantically scrambling to keep our jobs, who are sending work emails at 11 p.m., who are “popping” into the office on Saturdays, to pay them.
Now this is not about Social Security disability, which some people legitimately and desperately need. The abuse of the system is just a microcosm of the abuse of so many of our other systems, about the tax cheats and the abusive clergy, about the Wall Street titans who bankrupted the country to gild their personal fiefdoms, down to the people who pilfer Tastykakes at the Wawa. We’ve become a nation filled with masters of the house, the oily innkeeper from the the musical Les Miserables: “Here a little slice, there a little cut.”
Is dishonesty the new honesty?
It’s a troubling possibility to face. And still it surrounds us, an oozing blob of deceit that seems to be enveloping us at every turn. People who write memoirs turn out to have penned fake lives; athletes juice up to set records, breaking ones set by people who played fair. Political ads used to be pointed; now they’re outright lies, each tuned up to the highest volume to drown out the others. Our elected officials gorge at the public trough, openly stealing our money (DROP, anyone?) without any sense of compunction or shame. Teenagers bully their peers to suicide, as banks re-introduce the shady investment instruments that took us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then cry overregulation when anyone dares to question their ethics. It all extends back to the same disturbing roots: a soul-deadening dissolution of our common values. Of the things that make us human, in all the best senses of the word.
I know, I know. There will always be bad people doing bad things that the rest of us are powerless to stop. But the sense of defeat among us seems to be rising. I sense there needs to be a new call to arms, to not regain the moral high ground, but to unearth it. We need steelier resolve to not give up the ideas of honesty and integrity as quaint. As the psychologist Gordon Livingston wrote in 2006, “confronted with threats to our way of life, even our very existence, we can only respond correctly by apprehending the truth.” Even if it means being naïve enough to believe others will follow suit.
Last night I was walking down 19th Street when a homeless man approached and asked me for help. This sort of thing is not uncommon downtown, of course. I wish I could say I am always an altruist, but there are times when I am annoyed or rushed or don’t have any small change or just ticked off from a day at the office and I don’t feel generous, so I walk on by. But yesterday I stopped, and listened. He said he’d just gotten out of prison and had a small room nearby, but he had no toiletries and no food, and promised if I would just go with him into the CVS at the corner and buy him some stuff, I would know my generosity wasn’t going to purchase drugs.
Like everyone else these days I was running late. But something in his eyes told me he might be telling me the truth. I didn’t have anything smaller, so I gave him 10 bucks. He shook my hand and then started briskly back up 19th, toward the CVS. I was about to walk toward my bus when I pivoted to look back—I wanted to see if he would really go into the store, or whether he had been conning me, whether he was as ethically bankrupt as most people seem to be these days.
I watched him to the corner, just before the entrance. And then a big group of people crossed the path, and I couldn’t make out where my homeless guy had gone to.
I stood, hoping he was now in the store, buying toothpaste and cereal. And then a sadness crept over me. Because deep down I couldn’t shake the feeling he wasn’t.