From the very beginning of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic nineteenth-century novel The Scarlet Letter, it is easy to hate the Puritans he so carefully describes. They are not simply content to make his heroine, Hester Prynne, wear a scarlet A because she had a child out of wedlock. They also want to humiliate her by forcing her to reveal the name of her lover. In Hawthorne’s eyes, the Puritans’ conduct is far worse than Hester’s. He will, however, concede their moral seriousness. Although they make Hester stand alone on a scaffold in the town square, there is on their part “none of the heartlessness of another social state which would only find a theme for jest” in her predicament.
We are a long way from Puritan New England, but as the 1990s draw to a close, it is clear that the sexual scandal has become the signature event of the decade. From President Bill Clinton to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to Senator Bob Packwood to Air Force General Joseph Ralston to comedian Bill Cosby—the list of those accused of sexual wrongdoing includes some of the most prominent figures in American life....
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