Sarita Sarvate

Immigrants See Washington Scandal as Modern Morality Tale

December 16, 1998

Pacific News Service


The gravest mistake Americans could make right now is to dismiss the need for a national soul-searching over our social mores as a whim of the religious right. Sarita Sarvate is a writer who was born and raised in India. A longer version of this piece appears in India Currents, a monthly published in San Jose, Ca.

Once upon a time, there was a benevolent king who was loved by his people. In a nearby forest lived a rishi (a sage) who meditated and fasted, and after acquiring the necessary powers, transformed himself into an apsara or a beautiful maiden, to present himself at the court. The emperor resisted, but was soon seduced. Some of his subjects, upon learning of the king's downfall, began to clamor for his resignation. Sounds familiar?

Ken Starr is no saint of course, and Monica is a far cry from an apsara, but the parallels between ancient Hindu mythology and Washington's modern morality tale are irresistible. Lust and fallibility, sex and a ruler's character are at the center of both stories. And as in pre-historic India, we have a populace torn between ideology and realpolitik, human frailty and social mores.

Morality is a private matter, the intelligentsia argues. But we immigrants see it differently. If morality is such a private matter, we wonder, why has American national dialogue been dominated by it for decades?

When I first arrived in Berkeley as a student from India, the casual sex on the campus, not only between students and other students, but also between students and faculty, shocked me. That was the post-hippie era, when as the novelist Bharati Mukherjee put it, "everyone in Berkeley slept with everyone else."

It took me years to realize that underneath a layer of permissiveness, America was a nation deeply conflicted about moral values. The pundits claim that if we were not talking about the Lewinsky affair right now, we would be talking about education and health care. I beg to differ.

If we were not talking about Lewinsky right now, I think we would be talking about school prayer, capital punishment and abortion -- three issues that have galvanized American elections for decades; three issues that seem not to be about public policy, but about social morality.

Why is it that a highly spiritual country like India has practiced publicly funded abortions for decades without political controversy, while Americans continue to bomb clinics, we immigrants wonder.

We recognize America's moral dilemma better than its native-born citizens can. On the one hand we see a country so fierce in guarding its freedom of expression that it makes pornographic materials available at the drop of a hat; you only have to type the words "White House" on the Internet to get to a sex site.

With divorce and single parent families at epidemic proportions, on the other hand, we also see an America grappling with its collective guilt, apparent in such social aberrations as the recent discovery of a hitherto unknown male syndrome called "sex addiction."

Is it any wonder then that the country is now caught up in political warfare over what to do with a chief executive who has proven himself no better than so many middle aged men betraying their families for younger women?

"At least in the old country our men took care of their families; here all a woman gets is the freedom to sleep with any jerk she chooses," immigrant women from China, India and Iran often say. Indeed, in traditional societies, women might have enjoyed less sexual freedom, but they also received more respect as students and workers, wives and mothers, grandmothers and elders.

No one can see the undercurrents of misogyny running through this "liberated" society better than we women from the "Third World." American feminists may feel smug about their narrow victory on the issue of sexual harassment, but a legal antidote without a broader social awareness, we believe, will enhance female and male gender roles as victims and perpetrators, prompt male backlash, and, in the long run, worsen women's social status; just as a legal recourse for divorce without broader policies supporting families and children will fail to stem the tide of family breakdown in America today.

Sweden and France are often quoted as examples of sexually enlightened nations. The truth is they are enlightened not because they allow extra-marital sex but because they support its consequences through a set of social mores granting free family planning services, paid parental leave, and government subsidized childcare.

We stand today at the crossroads of our own social mores. The gravest mistake we could make now would be to dismiss them as the whim of the religious right.

In ancient India the emperor realized that he could no longer rule a citizenry that had lost its trust in him. He abdicated the throne, and along with his queen, embarked upon an exile in the forest.

Today, President Clinton is clearly unwilling to forsake the presidency. Whatever the outcome of the impeachment debate, a national soul-searching regarding our moral values would be timely.