Immigrants See Washington Scandal as Modern Morality Tale

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.


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