Sunday, May 7, 2017


by David Balashinsky

FGM has been in the news lately.  This is on account of the arrest and indictment last month of two Michigan physicians (as well as the wife of one of them) for allegedly performing genital-alteration surgery on two 7-year-old girls.  One of the physicians, Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, practices internal medicine and the other, Jumana Nagarwala, is an emergency-department physician.  They, along with Attar's wife, Farida Attar (who is Attar's office manager) have all been charged with the commission of female genital mutilation, conspiracy to commit female genital mutilation, and conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding.  In addition, the two physicians have also been charged (somewhat perplexingly) with conspiracy to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. 
Although this story has exploded throughout the media and been the subject of widespread commentary, it is an interview with the anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu, conducted by Tucker Carlson for Fox "News," that I believe provides a particularly compelling foundation for a brief discussion of the extent to which FGM (female genital mutilation) and MGM (male genital mutilation) are fundamentally the same.  This is, in part, because Dr. Ahmadu touches upon the ethnocentrism, so prevalent here in the United States, that constitutes the conceptual foundation for the double standard that many here maintain with respect to these two practices.  At the same time, Carlson, himself, as he reveals in his comments throughout the interview, perfectly epitomizes that very ethnocentrism, hence, that double standard.
There is actually little or nothing that can be said about FGM that cannot be said with equal validity about MGM.  Both practices are rooted in deeply entrenched cultural beliefs and attitudes about anatomy, sex, sexuality, and gender.  The double standard to which  many Americans  tenaciously cling demonstrates their cultural arrogance.  What they are as much as saying is  "It's okay when we do it but when they do it it's mutilation."
Carlson's refusal to acknowledge the ethical and sociological argument that FGM and MGM are fundamentally the same results largely from the fact that, like many Americans, he views MGM through the distorting lens of his own cultural experience: an experience in which MGM has been normalized while FGM remains alien. But, as Ahmadu notes, in those cultures that practice FGM, it is not viewed as "mutilation." They reject that nomenclature just as vehemently as supporters of MGM here reject the term "mutilation" to refer to what is euphemistically known as "circumcision."
Carlson's inability to bridge the cultural divide also rests in part on a false assumption regarding the facts and in part on faulty reasoning.  First, he states, erroneously, that FGM is only illegal when it removes "an entire portion of the sex organ." That is not true. Even a slight ceremonial nick to any part of the vulva is treated as a felony. Contrast that with the radical prepucectomy to which over 3,000 infant boys are subjected daily in our own genital-cutting culture here in the United States of America.  In fact, The World Health Organization defines and categorizes FGM into four types.  The inclusion of amputation of the prepuce within a subcategory of one of these types means that this particular form of FGM is identical to infant male circumcision.
Carlson's faulty reasoning comes into play when he states that there are no studies that demonstrate any health benefits of FGM in contrast to those that purport to demonstrate the health benefits of MGM.  This is, indeed, one of the most commonly cited alleged distinctions between FGM and MGM.  But absence of proof isn't proof of absence.  As the Oxford bioethicist Brian D. Earp has noted*, the fact that studies do not support the "benefits" of FGM is due largely to the fact that such studies do not exist. As Earp has pointed out,

any scientist who tried to . . . [conduct such a study] would be arrested under anti-FGM laws (and would never get approval from an ethics review board). . .   As a consequence of this, every time one sees the claim that 'FGM has no health benefits' - a claim that has become something of a mantra for the WHO - one should read this as saying, 'we actually don't know if certain minor, sterilized forms of FGM have health benefits, because it is unethical - and would be illegal - to find out.
Such potential benefits might include a decreased incidence of UTIs, STDs, and vulvar cancer.
In contrast, there remains in the United States a widespread notion that it is perfectly ethical to experiment on baby boys by permanently amputating a major, normal, sensitive, and functional part of their genitals in order to conduct, as Earp writes, "study after well-funded study" in search of the elusive benefits that may result from this amputation. The double standard here occurs because our society approaches both FGM and MGM with a set of a priori assumptions that the former is intrinsically harmful and always performed for malevolent reasons while the latter is intrinsically benign at the very least or positively beneficial. But this set of assumptions is not borne out by the facts and certainly not by controlled, side-by-side scientific studies of the procedures performed under "appropriate" (meaning aseptic) conditions. And in all probability they never will be.  That says much more about our cultural assumptions than it does about scientific hypothesizing.  As Earp writes, "Imagine a report by the CDC referring to the benefits of removing the labia of infant girls, where the only morally relevant drawback to such a procedure was described as the ‘risk of surgical complications.'"
Of course, any amputation of a body part has potential benefits. If you amputate an infant's hand, her chances of getting it crushed in a car door later on in life are reduced to zero. But what about that child's right to grow up with her hand in place? What about her right to decide for herself that the benefits of having her hand - it is hers, after all - outweigh the risks of keeping it, or vice versa?
There is no rational or ethical basis for treating the male prepuce any differently from a hand or - more to the point - from a female prepuce. A prepuce is a prepuce. But there is a difference in how male and female prepuces are treated and this is due entirely, as Earp (and others) have observed, to a culturally determined valuation of the male prepuce as essentially vestigial and worthless, even a noxious and harmful structure. The putative innocuousness and even salubriousness of male "circumcision" in the United States therefore rests entirely on the completely arbitrary social construct of the male prepuce, in contrast to the female prepuce, as serving no purpose, having no function, having no value and, therefore, having no legitimacy.  But that is not how the majority of intact men feel about it.  And it is certainly not how many victims of MGM feel about it.
No one - female, male, or intersex - should ever be deprived of the right to own and control her, his, or their body and to decide, for herself, himself, or theirself, which parts he, she, or they get to keep and which parts get cut off.
* See, in particular, Brian D. Earp: "Boys and girls alike," in Aeon, 13 January 2015, or the longer essay from which it was was adapted, Earp, B. D. (2014). "Female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: Should there be a separate ethical discourse?"
Practical Ethics. University of Oxford. Available at:…/Female_genital_mutilation_FGM_an…. DOI: 10.13140/2.1.3530.4967.

Here is a link to one of many YouTube videos of the interview:

Here are links to some other worthwhile commentaries:

Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Response to the White House "Joint Address Issues Survey"

Out of the blue I received an email from Trump's White House inviting me to take part in a "Joint Address Issues Survey." It states, in part, "Now is your chance to give your input. Let us know what issues you want President Trump to focus on and your ideas for the future of our country. Take the survey and share your thoughts."

The survey includes the usual heavily slanted and loaded questions, such as this: "Which accomplishment(s) do you consider the most significant of the Trump Administration so far?" It then lists a host of "accomplishments" (these, of course, are the "alternative-fact" sort of accomplishments) that one may acknowledge with a mouse click. Given that none of Trump's nefarious accomplishments (it would be more apt to call them misdeeds) was listed or at least credited properly (as a misdeed rather than an accomplishment) and that those that were do not in fact constitute accomplishments by any rational definition of the word, I left all these blank.

Fortunately, there was also a free-text area where one may contribute one's "Ideas to make America great again." Since they asked, this is what I wrote:

1)Trump should immediately stop lying and apologize to the American people for having done so. 2)Trump should issue a strongly worded statement to the effect that a free press is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society and that he fully respects the integrity of the news organizations that he has libeled with the false charge of presenting "fake news." 3)Trump should withdraw Neil Gorsuch as the nominee to fill the seat on the SCOTUS that was stolen by the Republicans and renominate Merrick Garland. 4)Trump should replace his cabinet with people who are actually qualified and who actually believe in the missions of the departments they will be leading. 5)Trump should direct his attorney general to immediately appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump campaign's connections to the Russian government including any possible collusion to subvert the United States elections last November. 6)Trump should stop ripping off the tax payers and pay for his own travel and security, as well as that of his family. 7)Trump should immediately fire Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller and denounce them for the neo-Nazi white nationalists that they are. 8)Trump should issue an apology to the American people for being one of the most divisive and destructive public figures in our nation's history; he should also apologize to the American people for making the United States a laughing stock before the rest of the world. 9)Trump should rescind his executive order banning refugees and Muslims from entering the United States. 10)Trump should rescind his executive order scaling back equal-access protections for transgender persons. 11)Trump should pursue comprehensive, rational, and humane immigration reform that doesn't destroy families and that doesn't deport productive and assimilated undocumented Americans, and he should publicly renounce his intention to waste billions of tax dollars on a wall across our border with Mexico. 12) Trump should immediately renounce his calls for repeal of the ACA and instead urge congress to improve it by guaranteeing coverage for all Americans; this should include a not-for-profit, government-administered public option (a Medicare-for-all approach). 13)Trump should direct the attorney general and the department of Justice to immediately step up monitoring and tracking of domestic white nationalist hate groups, including the KKK and neo-Nazi groups. 14)Trump should issue a statement apologizing for his office's recent Holocaust commemoration statement that failed to make any mention of the 6 million Jews who died in the attempted genocide of the Jewish people and which, through this very omission, served to advance the narrative of Holocaust deniers that the Jewish people were not singled out for extermination by the Nazis because they were Jews. 15)Trump should issue a strongly worded statement in support of a constitutional amendment reversing the Citizens United SCOTUS decision that has opened the floodgates of corporate money corrupting our democracy. 16)Trump should issue a strongly worded statement acknowledging that Roe v. Wade is settled law and acknowledging a woman's right to obtain a safe and legal abortion. 17)Trump should urge Congress to increase funding for Planned Parenthood because, besides providing cancer screenings and other important preventative health measures, Planned Parenthood actually prevents abortions by providing contraceptives. 18)Trump should commit the United States to getting off of fossil fuels and instead pursuing the development of renewable and "green" energy technologies; and he should recommit the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement. 19)Trump should urge Congress to enact real tax reform so that corporations, millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share of taxes. This should include an end to such gimmicks as taxing earned income at a higher rate than capital gains whereby Warren Buffet, for example, pays a lower tax rate, as a percent of his income, than his secretary does. It should also include cracking down on corporations and individuals who hide their wealth offshore in order to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. 20)Trump should greatly expand and urge Congress to fund improved benefits and services for our nation's veterans. 21)Trump should issue a public endorsement of increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and he should use his executive-order powers to further that goal in all federal hiring and government-awarded contracts. 22)Trump should issue a proclamation rededicating the United States of America as a beacon of liberty and equal opportunity for all and stating unequivocally our nation's opposition to bigotry and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identification, sex, ability or disability, race, age, ethnicity, religion or lack of religion and nationality. 23)Trump should immediately make public his tax returns from the past ten years. 24)Trump and his immediately family should divest themselves of and liquidate any holdings or assets that may create a conflict of interest between their personal gain and their public service. 25)Trump should urge Congress to enact commonsense gun reform including mandatory background checks and the banning of high-powered military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. 26)Trump should convene a national conference on demilitarizing our nation's police forces and working toward fostering trust and mutual respect between police and the citizens they take an oath to protect and serve. 27)Trump should urge  Congress - and should use his executive-order powers - to eliminate private, for-profit prisons. 28)Trump should issue an executive order banning all drilling and mining on federally owned wilderness areas and national parks. 29)Trump should urge Congress to increase funding for infrastructure, the arts and humanities, education, public transportation, and early childhood nutrition and wellness programs (this should include parenting programs for new parents). 30)Trump should direct the relevant federal agencies within the executive branch to step up enforcement of basic animal welfare regulations including (but not limited to) the elimination of gestation crates, forced crowding and confinement of livestock and poultry and other inhumane factory-farm practices, the elimination of puppy mills and animal-fighting enterprises and putting other unscrupulous breeders out of business, and the strict enforcement of laws banning the trafficking of wildlife. 31)Trump should issue a statement in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. 32)And, last but not least, Trump should urge Congress to expand the 1996 federal anti-FGM bill to include all Americans - girls, boys, and intersex - because every child and every human being has a right to grow up with his genitals intact and to decide for himself which parts of his body he gets to keep.

Perhaps I should have stopped there but, gluttons for punishment that they are, they actually asked me if I had any additional comments. So I concluded by saying this:

Trump lied to the American people when he promised to "drain the swamp." Instead he packed his cabinet with Wall Street insiders. You're not fooling the majority of the American people, Trump. You're a liar and a fraud and we know it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017.

by David Balashinsky

As a feminist man I am proud to have marched in Washington, D.C. on January 21st, 2017. It's a good feeling to know that one has been not only a witness to but a participant in history. And how could I do otherwise? The sexual predator and liar-in-chief who has just been sworn in as the nation's 45th president has not only boasted about sexually assaulting numerous women and not only makes a habit of denigrating women and grading them on their looks but, against this background of casual and aggressive sexism and misogyny, has stated his intent to nominate for the SCOTUS only candidates committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, returning women to the days of wire-hanger abortions in seedy motels. I believe that abortion rights are central to human rights because nothing is more important to one's ability to determine her or his own destiny than control and ownership of one's own body. That's why I protested last Saturday.

But I would also like to argue another closely related point here and, in so doing, issue a public challenge to my fellow feminists. While I remain committed to the idea that bodily autonomy is the quintessentially feminist position, I remain equally committed to the idea that bodily autonomy does not belong to women alone. It's time for feminists to stand up on behalf of boys, men, and intersex children for the same right of genital autonomy and bodily self ownership that they rightfully claim for girls and women. It is time for feminists to embrace the cause of ending non-consensual and non-therapeutic genital surgery of infant boys and intersex infants. Why? Because, as Jeannine Parvati Baker has noted, circumcision is where sex and violence meet for the first time. Because routine infant circumcision is medically unnecessary, harmful, painful, and poses numerous risks of complications including death. Because non-therapeutic circumcision is performed overwhelmingly for reasons of custom, cosmesis, or religion and none of these reasons is of sufficient merit to warrant depriving the individual himself of the right to bodily self-ownership. Because for all intents and purposes and in principle non-therapeutic circumcision is no different from female genital mutilation. (Infant circumcision was popularized in the United States and Great Britain during the Victorian era as a way to discourage boys from masturbating. It is every bit as anti-sex and as contrary to contemporary notions of personal self-determination as FGM.) Because routine infant circumcision has been condemned as unethical and as a human rights violation by numerous professional medical organizations around the world. Because every child, regardless of sex, including intersex, has an innate right to grow up with all of her or his body parts intact and to decide for herself or himself, when mature enough to do so, which parts s/he gets to keep and which parts get amputated. Because female genital mutilation - including those forms (even a ceremonial "nick") that are far less destructive than the radical prepucectomy to which over one million infant boys are subjected annually in the United States - has been illegal in the United States since 1996 and boys and intersex infants have every bit as much right to be protected against invasive, harmful, non-consensual and medically unnecessary genital alteration as girls. Because feminism is not only about bodily rights, bodily autonomy and self-determination but about equality, too. Genital-alteration surgery when not medically necessary (and it virtually never is) is absolutely inconsistent with everything that feminism stands for.

One of the themes that emerged both during the planning stages of the Women's March on Washington and during the demonstration itself was the principle of "intersectionality," the idea that a person may face discrimination in more than one way on account of different aspects of what she or he is.  For example, though both an African-American woman and a woman of Celtic ancestry both may have to contend with sexism, the African-American woman  also has to contend with racism.  An intersectionality-oriented approach to feminism is based on the recognition of these multiple ways in which a person can face discrimination.  This approach is often contrasted with (and represented as a critique of) a monolithic if perhaps a pragmatic and compromising approach to feminism in which the claims of racial or other minorities, so it is argued,  have been given short shrift or expected to be subsumed within the larger claims of  feminists on behalf of women broadly. It is no secret that these sometimes contentious and differing approaches have led to some tension within the feminist movement and, as has been widely reported, even threatened to undermine the unity and turnout of the Women's March on Washington last weekend.   I am not arguing here for any additional fracturing of feminism nor for any dilution of the feminist message.  Even less do I have any wish to be accused of doing so.  And I am particularly sensitive to the legitimate claim of feminists that it is men's wont to hijack women's issues and make everything always about men.  Arguing for an end to male genital cutting on the basis of the feminist principle of respect for the bodily rights of the individual brings me perilously close, I acknowledge, to subjecting myself to one or more of those charges - particularly now, when feminists the world over are in the full flush of ebullition and potency on account of the huge turnouts last weekend.  

And yet I remain more convinced than ever, after marching last Saturday, that the issue of bodily integrity not only has a rightful place under the rubric of feminism but that to abstract it therefrom makes no sense philosophically or strategically.  Every feminist should have an interest in creating a society that respects the borders of every human body, no matter what that body looks like or how it is configured.  These thoughts crystallized for me last Saturday in Washington, D.C. as I stood taking in the many protest signs that were on display.  Three in particular forcefully drove home to me the way in which bodily integrity for all is a feminist issue.  One sign, held by a 30ish man read, "I want my daughters and sons to be treated equally."  This quote offers as compelling an argument against denying boys the same right of genital autonomy and integrity as has been legally guaranteed  to girls since 1996 as it offers against discriminating against girls with respect to education, sports  and every other opportunity that boys enjoy.   Another sign contained a quote by  Audre Lorde: "There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives."   This, to me, epitomizes the importance of the intersectionality-oriented approach to feminism but I would argue that it epitomizes equally why bodily integrity for all - female, intersex, and male - is indispensable to feminism.   Feminism, after all, is not just about equal pay for women, freedom from sexual violence and harassment, and all the rest.  It is about many things but, on the most fundamental level, it is about autonomy: the autonomy of the body and the autonomy of the self.  That includes the unrestricted potentiality of the body and the unrestricted potentiality of the self.  Non-therapeutic infant circumcision violates these fundamental principles and that, too, is why this issue belongs foursquare under the rubric of feminism.   At the same time, because of the principle of intersectionality, there is room for it there.  Sexism, after all, does not only harm women; it harms men, too, but differently.  Male genital cutting is a case in point.   Still another sign that I saw contained the great line (attributed to various authors, including Sartre, King Jr., and Maya Angleou), "No one is free unless everyone is free."    Here again is an articulation of the universality of the feminist principles of justice and equal opportunity irrespective of sex or gender.  And, just as feminism has never been about benefiting women at the expense of men's rights to anything to which they would have any claim in a sexually egalitarian society, so feminism cannot arbitrarily deny boys, men, and intersex children the conceptual sanctuary from genital cutting that it offers to girls and women.

I am proud to have taken to the streets to defend women's rights to own and control their own bodies. I've done so before this past Saturday and I will do so again. But I now call upon all feminists, including women feminists, to stand up in the same way on behalf of the right of boys, men, and intersex infants to own and control their own bodies. It's time for all feminists and all progressives and anyone who cares about human rights to resolutely condemn the unnecessary alteration of any child's genitals.

Growing up whole is a basic human right. Recognizing and acknowledging that that right is intrinsic to all of us by virtue of our common humanity is demanded by the principles of justice and equality. What could be more feminist than that?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Video Review: "The Most Common Abuse in the American Church," posted by Little Images

by David Balashinsky

Little Images is a website and Facebook page that states that its missions is "Equipping the Church to treat children with dignity as bearers of God's image."  It further explains on its homepage that Little Images is about "Protecting babies from cutting by producing media, messaging Christians, writing letters, publishing articles, and providing research support."  Its cover photo (on its Facebook page) includes a picture of a smiling infant boy accompanied by this rhetorical question in a bold yet appealingly understated font:  "Why not keep God's design for your son intact?"

Little Images produced a video in which it sets forth numerous reasons why male genital mutilation goes against Christian theology and Christian ethics.  And it cites, in support of its thesis, a number of Christian philosophers and church leaders from Augustine of Hippo to Pope Pius the XIIth.

The video is well produced, polished, and powerful in its simplicity.   And yet I have several basic objections to it.

First, I believe that it seeks to obtain the right result but for the wrong reason. The right not to have one's body mutilated precedes religion. That right is more basic and more fundamental than any particular religious creed. If you ground the right not to be mutilated on a particular religious doctrine, then that right is not absolute and applies only to the followers of that particular religion. But religious beliefs and doctrines differ. That holds even in the case of exegesis when different denominations within a given religion differ over the interpretation of shared religious texts. And these interpretations also change over time. If, in one century, genital mutilation is considered unorthodox, what is to prevent its becoming orthodox in the next? Basic human rights should not be based upon so ephemeral and shaky a foundation as religious scripture or else they will have no permanence. 

Moreover, if the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is based only on a particular religious doctrine, then any opposing religious doctrine that supports genital mutilation necessarily has just as much validity.  Thus, although the laudable objective of this video is to discourage genital mutilation, because its argument rests ultimately on "the word of God," its underlying thesis can be used for precisely the opposite purpose.  In other words, the premise of this video - that MGM is wrong not in and of itself but only because it is displeasing to God - can be turned to the advantage of any other religious group that seeks to defend and justify MGM on the grounds that it "is pleasing to God." I am unwilling that defenders of genital mutilation (of any religion) should have handed to them on a silver platter such a justification as that and that, I am afraid, is precisely what this video - as an unintended consequence, to be sure - may do.

My second objection is precisely the same objection that I have to the argument that a religious exemption should be added to laws banning MGM. As a Jewish male, that makes me feel like my rights don't matter as much as the rights of Christians. If I were an infant again, why should I not be protected against genital mutilation just as much as any other infant? What this video implies to me is that protecting non-Christian infants from genital mutilation is not quite as important - at least not as important to the creator of the Little Images video - and not as central to this cause as protecting Christian infants from genital mutilation. That makes me extremely uncomfortable. To understand this, look at pictures of the Bay Area Intactivists protests in front of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU. No one can look at a picture of Brian Levitt demonstrating against the NCACLU's support for MGM on the grounds of "religious freedom" and not be moved. Mr. Levitt is pictured holding up a sign that reads, "ACLU - Why won't you protect my Jewish body?" That is exactly how I feel personally and that is precisely my objection to the position of the ACLU. Although well–intentioned, the Little Images video, at least to some extent, makes me feel the same way. I object to the implicit exclusion of my right and the right of all non-Christian children to be free from genital mutilation. Moreover, I, as a Jewish man, am working to protect all children from genital mutilation: children of all sexes (including intersex), all nationalities, and all religions. I am not focusing my efforts on protecting only "my" people and I see no reason why Christians should focus their efforts on protecting only "theirs."

When Congress banned FGM in 1996, it specifically stated in text accompanying the statute that the finding of Congress was that the law did not infringe on the legitimate practice of religion. Congress recognized that the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is absolute, hence more basic and of greater weight than the right of one's parents to exercise their religious beliefs when doing so entails the ritual genital mutilation of their children. What was so perverse and, I believe, unconstitutional about the language of this law is that it exempted 50% of the population - males - from this protection. The creator of this video, in contrast, has taken precisely the opposite tack, namely, that genital mutilation is wrong not in spite of religion but because of it. But, like the 1996 FGM law, this approach limits the protection of infants to only a certain segment of the population; it aims to protect some infants but not others. Here the distinction is based not upon sex but upon religion. It is almost as though the creator of this video is making a strategic calculation that not all children can be saved from genital mutilation and so she or he is concentrating her or his efforts on creating a figurative Christian sanctuary in which only Christian children may be protected from genital mutilation. Meanwhile, the doors of this sanctuary are effectively being slammed shut in the faces of non-Christian children. Although surely not its intent (at least, I hope not), that, at any rate, is how many non-Christians (and, perhaps, Christians, too) are likely to interpret this video.

I understand the urge to appeal to a particular audience - to tailor the message, so to speak - in order to increase the likelihood that one's target audience will be more receptive to one's message, but doing so comes, I believe, at the risk of what may ultimately prove to be a great cost to this movement. And this ties in with my first objection. Namely, that by appealing narrowly and specifically to Christians on the basis of Christian doctrine, the maker of this video is in effect conceding that genital autonomy is not a basic human right. But until the right not to be subjected to genital mutilation is recognized universally and absolutely as a basic human right without any exception whatsoever, the world will be condemned to live with it.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Trump, Conspiracy Theories, and Mob Mentality

Within the past few days there have been two news stories about right-wing conspiracy theories percolating upward, as such things inevitably do, from the morass of fake news platforms, online chatrooms and posts to actual instances of harassment and violence.   Both conspiracy theories appear to have originated with or, at the very least, been launched into the cybersphere by Alex Jones, a man whom Donald Trump has praised effusively.  Of course, people have a right to believe whatever they want to believe and to say whatever they want to say.  But a line is crossed - as epitomized by the example of screaming "fire" in a crowded movie theatre - when such speech precipitates actual harm.  One of these conspiracy theories, the so-called "pizzagate" conspiracy, which consists essentially in allegations that Hillary Clinton is involved in running a satanic child-sexual-exploitation ring headquartered in a Washington, D.C. pizzeria where the children are being held captive,  has resulted in death threats against and harassment of the owner and employees of this restaurant and culminated earlier this week in a vigilante firing off a semi-automatic weapon on the premises while "investigating."  The other conspiracy theory peddled by Jones is that the massacre by Adam Lanza of twenty 6- and 7-year-old children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 never occurred but was a hoax by the federal government, presumably so that the feds would have their long-coveted pretext for confiscating Americans' guns.  This has now culminated in the arrest of a woman for making death threats against the father of one of the massacre's victims.  

Although the pizzagate myth is manufactured out of whole cloth and the Sandy Hook myth is the opposite - the negation of an event that actually occurred - both of these conspiracy theories are notable for their historical precedents, from the medieval accusations that were made against Jews to the early modern accusations of witchcraft to the contemporary phenomenon of holocaust denial (another of the alt-right's preoccupations).  But even more important than the academic interest that these right-wing conspiracy theories may hold for historians is that, however false they may be, they end up creating real victims or, as with the Sandy Hook massacre, they re-victimize those horrendously victimized already.  Thus, while there were no actual victims until Alex Jones insured that there would be in the persons of the owner and employees of Comet Ping Pong, there were hundreds of actual victims of the Sandy Hook massacre: the 20 children and 6 adults who were gunned down in cold blood as well as the families of the deceased who were left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.   Because of Alex Jones, the survivors would be made to suffer the most painful sort of insult-added-to-injury.   That is what is so utterly callous and reprehensible about spreading rumors and conspiracy theories such as these.   Imagine what it must feel like to have been the parent of a 6-year-old who was murdered and to have to listen to some worthless shit claim that your child never existed or that she wasn't really murdered. That is the sort of inhuman, depraved lunacy that right-wing conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones have peddled and continue to peddle without a shred of concern for the consequences.

Why does this matter now, more than it did one year ago? Because Donald J. Trump has himself traded on these very types of right-wing conspiracy theories. Trump is a fellow traveler of the alt-right who has actively courted its membership and promoted some of its leading figures to the highest echelons of power in the Trump White House. Trump and Jones, meanwhile, have something of a mutual admiration society: NPR reports that Trump has gushed over Jones and that, after the election,  Trump called to thank Jones for his support. It is little wonder that Trump should share in Jones's penchant for fabrication, outright lies and conspiracy theories. Crowds of Muslims in New Jersey cheering as the World Trade Center came crashing down; global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government; millions of illegal votes for Clinton cast last month by dead people or resulting from other forms of voter fraud: all of these are completely baseless claims without an iota of supporting evidence that serve directly or indirectly only to advance the right-wing agenda.   Each of these claims (and, perhaps, most notoriously, the "birther" lie about President Obama) has been iterated and reiterated by Trump.

But telling lies, spreading rumors, and promoting "fake news" causes real harm to real people. Today it might be death threats against the grieving father of a Sandy Hook victim, and yesterday it might be a man firing a semi-automatic rifle in a restaurant filled with patrons, but make no mistake: the rumor-mongering and baseless allegations of Alex Jones, Michael Flynn (both the elder and the younger), and Trump himself is precisely the sort of reckless behavior that history shows us inevitably leads to mass hysteria and mob violence. It was just this sort of scurrilous finger-pointing that led to the trials and executions of accused witches in Salem, Massachusetts at the end of the 17th century. It was just this sort of finger-pointing and scapegoating that led to the burning at the stake of tens of thousands (some sources put the figure at between 100,000 and 300,000) mostly (but by no means exclusively) women in Europe during the 15th through the 18th centuries on the basis of nothing more substantial than accusations that they practiced witchcraft.  Yet another notable example of this sort of mob mentality was the periodic rounding up and killing of Jews - usually in mass burnings - in the communities along the Rhine in medieval Europe on the basis of what we would now call conspiracy theories about Jews having caused Bubonic plague by poisoning the wells or their abducting Christian children, killing them, and using their blood to make matzohs (the notorious "blood libel"). 

It is surely no coincidence that there are striking parallels between the wildly false accusations against Clinton in the pizzagate conspiracy theory and the historical accusations of witchcraft in Renaissance Europe and the blood libel against Jews in medieval Europe.  All involve false allegations of organized satanic ritual, sexual exploitation and depravity, and the abuse and murder of children.  Indeed, the Times reports that Alex Jones has actually stated that "Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up children."  The mentality of all of those who perpetrate and participate in such mass hysteria as is demonstrated in each of these examples is exactly the same: the scapegoating and the demonization on the part of the accusers and the credulousness and complete abandonment of critical thinking on the part of the mobs who listen to them.

And this type of thinking - this mob mentality - is precisely what Donald Trump knowingly and shrewdly exploited in order to get elected.  Trump might not have peddled stories about satanic sex rings but, with his demagoguery and scapegoating of Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities, with his campaign's shameless use of codewords and imagery to appeal to naked anti-Semitism and white nationalism, with his endorsement of the essential canon of right-wing conspiracy theories, with his appointment to his administration of some of the central players in this perverse predilection with gothic horror fantasies and right-wing paranoia and, most obviously, with his unbridled praise for Alex Jones, Trump has bestowed his official imprimatur upon the right-wing conspiracy-theory industry.  And because Trump has used his position to confer legitimacy on these right-wing conspiracy theorists and their fantasies, ultimately, it is now Trump himself who is responsible for them.  

This explains also why Trump has been so reticent on the subject of the support that he has received from the alt-right and why, even now, he has not repudiated it on his own initiative but rather, only when put on the spot, as when he participated in a post-election interview with the editorial- and management staff of the New York Times.  Trump validates right-wing conspiracy theorists and the alt-right and they, in turn, validate Trump.  It is a symbiotic relationship in which one cannot exist without the other.  That is why Trump represents an existential threat to our nation, to its democratic traditions and institutions, and to its social fabric.  

Meanwhile, the larger portion of the pro-Trump electorate and those craven Republicans who supported and continue to support Trump stand by silently and uncritically while the right-wing conspiracy theorists in effect scream "fire" in a crowded movie theatre. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Billy Bush

Last week, the New York Times reported that Billy Bush, one of the hosts of NBC's morning program "Today," was negotiating his severance package. This follows the release of the now famous and infamous recording in which Donald Trump is heard candidly boasting about his attempts to seduce Bush's former co-host at "Access Hollywood," Nancy O'Dell, and about his propensity for sexually assaulting women in general.  (A tape and transcript of this can be found here:   Bush, throughout much of the exchange, plays the role of fawning sycophant, simultaneously encouraging and savoring Trump's sordid accounts.  In his transparent hero-worship,  Bush's encouragement of Trump's tales of sexual conquest appears to be a facilitation of Trump's further aggrandizement, not unlike rubbing a giant symbolic phallus in order to marvel as it grows to its full turgid magnificence. (I have always been struck by the homoerotic nature of male bonding rituals.  One wonders that the anti-LGBT- and homophobic attitudes of many of the men who engage in such behavior does not outweigh their propensity for engaging in it.)  At the same time, Bush obviously hopes to derive a vicarious sexual thrill from Trump's stories; indeed, to such an extent that, listening to this recording, one is inevitably struck with the truly distasteful realization that one is privy to Bush's act of masturbation, though, of course, the only thing actually being stroked here is Trump's ego. 

In a previous story about this, the Times reported that Billy Bush, who is now 44 years old, issued a statement which reads, in part, "It’s no excuse, but this happened 11 years ago — I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along.”  But later in the recording, as the two men are disembarking from the bus in which this conversation took place and being greeted by the actor Arianne Zucker, Bush can be heard pressuring her into hugging Trump and then himself. That is not "playing along," and he's right: the fact that this happened 11 years ago, when he was 33 - a grown man - is no excuse. One does not hug someone one is meeting in one's professional capacity as a reporter or as anything else.

To those fortunate enough not to know from firsthand experience how sexual abuse occurs, it may come as a surprise to learn that it often disguises itself as friendly, supplicating, and innocuous, rather than overtly aggressive or threatening. That is one of the ways in which sexual abuse is at once pernicious and successful.  And that is precisely why victims often feel ashamed and conflicted. People (and I would argue women, more so than men) are socialized to respond welcomingly to overtly friendly overtures and to be on guard more against hurting other people's feelings than against other people's violations of their own personal space and dignity. It is just that sort of socialized vulnerability that sexual abusers exploit and it is this type of unctuous and underhanded approach that Bush used to pressure Zucker into body-to-body physical contact. He first pressures Zucker on behalf of Trump and, in so doing, assumes the role of procurer, again, acting in his role as Trump's lapdog but also, again, so that Bush could experience the thrill of Trump's physical contact with Zucker vicariously.  This, too, takes on the character of a macho bonding ritual, in which the men share in exploiting the vulnerability of a female victim and putting one over on her.  Trump and Bush both knew, from their previous conversation, that the point of the hug was to gain access to Zucker's body when the rules of social and professional etiquette would normally render it off limits.  For her part, Zucker surely was caught unawares and was forced to perform the quick mental calculation that women in this position so often are forced to perform: "Are they just being friendly? Am I being too sensitive and standoffish?"

Not content with acting as Trump's procurer, Bush then goes on to pressure Zucker into hugging him himself so he could experience his own sexual thrill at her expense.  But make no mistake: the thrill for this sort of person is not merely the physical contact with someone who has been pressured into granting it; it is the thrill of knowing that one has used subterfuge and exploited a vulnerability in order to get it.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Response to Monica Robins, Senior Health Correspondent, WKYC

Dear Ms. Robins,
I am writing to express my disappointment in your coverage of the protest in Cleveland by Bloodstained Men against non-therapeutic genital cutting or circumcision ("Group of Men Protest Circumcision," October 1, 2016, I realize that you are limited probably to mere seconds or minutes on broadcast TV news, yet the tenor of your coverage (particularly as it reads in transcript form on the station's website) was exceedingly superficial, biased and, at best, dismissive of these protesters. And while I applaud you for at least covering this story, I believe that you missed an opportunity to do what a reporter ought to do, including presenting both sides of the story in an objective and balanced way. Instead, you simply recycled sound bytes and long discredited misinformation on the efficacy and legitimacy of infant circumcision as a prophylaxis against diseases such as urinary tract infections and STIs, all of which can be prevented or treated with non-invasive means. Your viewers and the public deserve far better, especially from a Senior Health Correspondent.
To address the main points of your story:
You stated, "Most circumcisions are performed on newborn boys and have been practiced for religious, cultural, and ethic traditions for thousands of years."
In fact, the majority of the world's male population is intact. The United States is one of the small minority of modern industrialized nations in which infant circumcision is performed routinely. Currently, over half of all newborn males in the United States are subjected to it: over one million annually at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to consumers - and to tax-payers, as well, in those states that permit Medicaid funding to be used for this medically unnecessary (by the AAP's own admission) surgery. From a health- and medical standpoint, your statement that circumcision has been practiced as a tradition for thousands of years has absolutely no bearing on this topic, otherwise your station should have sent its religion- or cultural reporter to cover this demonstration. Yet, at the same time, your statement seems intended to confer legitimacy on this practice by virtue of its deep historical roots and longevity. I would remind you, however, that female genital genital mutilation, slavery, and the legal subordination of women - to name only three religious, cultural, and ethnic practices - likewise have been practiced for thousands of years. That does not make these practices valid nor ethical.
As we know, the United States is not thousands of years of old and routine infant circumcision is not in the cultural, religious, or ethnic traditions of the vast majority of people living in the United States. Your viewers might therefore have been better served by a more detailed history - or even any history - of how circumcision came to be commonly practiced here in contrast to most of the rest of the world. That would allow them to judge this surgery in its proper context. To wit:
During the 19th century, circumcision was promoted as an effective remedy for a host of ailments including, but not limited to, rheumatism, epilepsy, asthma, skin cancer, insanity, and venereal disease. However, it was as a remedy for "masturbatory insanity," which was believed to result from masturbation or "self-abuse," that circumcision was most widely promoted by its supporters. Incidentally, one of its most passionate Victorian advocates, none other than John Harvey Kellogg, the co-creator of Corn Flakes, also advocated putting carbolic acid on girls' clitorises for the same purpose: that is, to decrease sexual sensation and thus to inhibit masturbation. Because it was widely pushed by its supporters both outside of and within the medical profession, infant male circumcision increasingly came to be accepted as normal and routine by a credulous public, even as the medical (and sexually-repressive) justifications for circumcision were debunked, one after the other. And because, until about a generation ago, circumcision was seldom questioned, routine infant circumcision metamorphosed from pure pseudoscience to a cultural norm, all while masquerading as a valid medical procedure. It persists to this day as the proverbial cure in search of a disease. These are the historical, pseudo-scientific and cultural roots of routine infant circumcision as it is practiced in the United States.
Added to this are the determined efforts by an entrenched and financially interested pro-circumcision lobby. Circumcision, it should be noted, is a $400 million per year industry for OBGYNs and pediatricians. The stolen foreskins ("stolen," since an infant cannot consent to his own circumcision) are then often used by biotech corporations in the manufacture of everything from replacement skin for burn victims to "beauty cream" products. Circumcision, then, is big business (estimated by some at upwards of a billion dollars) and now generates a huge revenue stream for those who participate in it. This, too, is why circumcision persists in the United States today. Your viewers deserve to have been informed of this, as well.
You stated, "The American Academy of Pediatrics found the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, but the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision. The decision should be made by parents."
The AAP's latest position statement (from 2012) has been roundly criticized by numerous professional medical organization both in the United States and in Europe, and specifically because of the manifest cultural bias which led the AAP task-force members to come to their conclusion. Indeed, one of the lead authors of the AAP's revised policy statement, Andrew Freedman, MD, FAAP, has recently conceded in a published statement that when the AAP task force on circumcision alluded to its "benefits," it was referring not strictly to "health benefits" but to the cultural and "aesthetic" "benefits" of circumcision as well. It is not surprising, therefore, that the AAP's 2012 statement on infant circumcision was criticized for its cultural bias. In a commentary signed by about 40 physicians and published in the Journal Pediatrics (the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, March 18th, 2013), entitled "Cultural Bias in the AAP's 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision," the authors write: "Seen from the outside, cultural bias reflecting the normality of nontherapeutic male circumcision in the United States seems obvious, and the report's conclusions are different from those reached by physicians in other parts of the Western world, including Europe, Canada and Australia." The authors of this commentary conclude, "There is a growing consensus among physicians, including those in the United States, that physicians should discourage parents from circumcising their healthy infant boys because nontherapeutic circumcision of underage boys in Western societies has no compelling health benefits, causes postoperative pain, can have serious long-term consequences, constitutes a violation of the United Nations' Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and conflicts with the Hippocratic oath: primum non nocere: First, do no harm."
The AAP's conclusion that the "benefits" of infant circumcision "outweigh the risks" has also been criticized by a group of psychologists who wrote to the CDC, after the latter issued a draft of updated recommendations in support of circumcision based on the AAP's position statement. The authors of this letter noted not only the numerous methodological errors behind the AAP's position statement, but "the troubling fact . . . that the CDC completely ignored the psychological effects of genital cutting on male children." Among the conclusions of these psychologists was that "circumcision causes significant psychological harm in children and adolescents" and that "by encouraging circumcision, medical professionals are shaming [intact] boys' bodies."
So, aside from the AAP, whose members have a financial interest in perpetuating infant circumcision, where does the rest of the medical community actually stand on this question? Your viewers deserve to know. This is what the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) has to say: "[N]on-therapeutic circumcision of male minors is a violation of children's rights to autonomy and physical integrity. Contrary to popular belief, circumcision can cause complications - bleeding, infection, urethral stricture, and panic attacks are particularly common. KNMG is therefore urging a strong policy of deterrence." This is what the Canadian Paediatric Society has to say about it: "The overall evidence of the benefits and harms of circumcision is so evenly balanced that it does not support recommending circumcision as a routine procedure for newborns." Here's what the Royal Australasian College of Physicians has to say: "After reviewing the currently available evidence, the RACP believes that the frequency of diseases modifiable by circumcision, the level of protection offered by circumcision and the complication rates of circumcision do not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand." In fact, there is not a single professional medical organization on Earth that recommends routine infant circumcision. Every research arm of every major medical organization ever tasked with assessing infant circumcision has found insufficient evidence to warrant recommending it. That holds even for its most ardent defender in the U.S. - the American Academy of Pediatrics. As you have noted, The AAP's own position statement on circumcision is that ". . . existing scientific evidence is not sufficient to recommend routine circumcision [my emphasis]." The AAP's position statement goes on to say that "because the procedure is not essential to a child's current well-being, we recommend that the decision to circumcise is one best made by parents in consultation with their pediatrician taking into account what is in the best interests of the child, including medical, religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions [my emphasis]." As is obvious, the AAP's position statement professes to represent not exclusively medical best practices but instead adopts a position in support of what it concedes is not a medically necessary but rather is essentially a cultural practice. Again, I would remind you that to argue on behalf of circumcision on the basis of "religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions" not only is not appropriate on the part of a medical organization but these are the very same justifications that have been used and continue to be used to defend the practice of female genital mutilation.
Nary a mention of the significant and growing opposition to circumcision within the medical community itself, as opposed merely to the opposition among human rights groups such as Bloodstained Men, was made by you in your report. Yet this, too, is information with which your viewers should have been provided. Indeed, when reporting on this topic, the countervailing weight of the medical opinion in opposition to the AAP's tepid but unmistakable endorsement of infant circumcision is information that is required of any legitimate news outlet by the principle of fair and balanced reporting. Your failure to include it thus conveyed the erroneous impression that Bloodstained Men is out of step with medical opinion and, therefore, a "fringe" group. It is not. Its tactics may be "fringe," but on the question of the ethics and validity of nonconsensual infant circumcision, Bloodstained Men stands foursquare within the majority of world opinion.
I observed above that your story merely recycled long discredited sound bytes and misinformation regarding the risks and efficacy of infant circumcision when you stated, "Risks include bleeding, swelling, and botched procedures. Benefits include prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and transmission of some sexually transmitted diseases including HIV." Let's look into the purported benefits of circumcision a little more deeply.
A reduction in the risk of penile cancer is one oft-cited benefit, and one you mentioned yourself. Yet the American Cancer Society itself has written that "circumcision is not of value in preventing cancer of the penis." In fact, penile cancer is so rare that a male is more likely to develop breast cancer than penile cancer yet, curiously, infant boys' breast buds are not routinely amputated along with their foreskins. Another claim is that circumcision can reduce the risk of the adult male or his sexual partner's contracting an STD or the human papilloma virus (HPV). But not only are there far more effective measures that can be taken to prevent these, such as the use of condoms and the administration of the HPV vaccine, but these measures do not sacrifice a functionally important part of the male genitalia. (It is also unethical and irresponsible to imply that one need not use a condom simply because one has been circumcised.) Still another medical justification for circumcision is that it reduces the risk of an infant's getting a urinary tract infection (UTI), but girls are ten times as likely as boys to develop UTIs and, when they do, girls are routinely administered antibiotics as a remedy. Why is genital surgery indicated prophylactically in boys to lessen the risk of developing a UTI while the far less invasive and far less risky intervention of administering antibiotics is employed to treat UTIs in girls? Given that UTIs are far more common among females than males, the "cost-benfit" justification for male circumcision becomes even weaker. As for its role in reducing the risks of contracting HIV, this medical myth comes primarily from two African studies that purported to demonstrate the efficacy of prophylactic circumcision. Yet these studies have been roundly criticized for their methodological errors as well as for their hyperbolic claims as to the reduction in HIV transmission rates. What these studies reported as a 60% reduction was in fact a relative reduction as opposed to an absolute reduction. The actual reduction in the rate of transmission was found to be in the neighborhood of one and a half percent.
In sum, there is a veritable mountain of peer-reviewed research and authoritative medical opinion that not only does not support infant circumcision but positively condemns it. Yet you chose in your coverage to omit this fact entirely and that is why I say that your reporting here was biased and superficial and that your viewers were not well served by it.
I commend you for encouraging parents to do their "homework" and to seek information from "reputable sources" but I am bewildered by your own failure to do the same in preparing this story. I would also urge your viewers, if they seek information from their OBGYN or pediatrician about infant circumcision, to ask them why men in Europe, where circumcision is rare, have lower rates of STIs, including HIV, than men in the United States, where circumcision is common. They should also ask their OBGYN or pediatrician to describe and explain both the anatomical and histological structures of the male prepuce. Likewise, parents should ask their OBGYN or pediatrician to explain the centrality of the male prepuce to male sexual sensation and response, as well its functional role during intercourse. And they should ask about the fact that women partners of men who have undergone circumcision (either volitionally, or who have been subjected to it without their consent, as most of us have) frequently report problems with intercourse including painful intercourse. In this regard, parents may also wish to ask their OBGYN or pediatrician why the AAP did not look at a single study on the long-term effects of circumcision on male genital function and sensation when it revised its position on circumcision. Finally, parents should ask their OBGYN or pediatrician about the normal development of the penis and at what age the prepuce (or foreskin) naturally detaches from the glans (to which it is fused at birth) and at what age it is appropriate to retract the prepuce in the course of performing normal hygiene. If their OBGYN or pediatrician cannot answer any and all of these questions to their satisfaction, they may wish to take their medical consumer business elsewhere. At the very least, if their OBGYN or pediatrician cannot demonstrate a basic knowledge of the structure and function of the male prepuce, parents should be deeply skeptical about the wisdom of allowing her or him to amputate it from their child's body.
A final word. In your report on this demonstration and the position of Bloodstained Men, you made no mention whatsoever of the ethics of this invasive, traumatizing, painful, medically unnecessary, controversial and increasingly discredited surgery. Your only oblique references to this aspect of the subject were the observation that Bloodstained Men considers male genital cutting "cruel" and your quotation by Mr. Guiremand of Bloodstained Men that nonconsensual circumcision "violates the right of someone to have control over [his] own body." I find it troubling that you did not pursue this line of inquiry in your report. After all, it is precisely the ethical dimension of nonconsensual circumcision that is at the very heart of the movement to eradicate it. In this respect, the movement to end non-therapeutic male genital cutting is no different than its sister movement to end non-therapeutic female genital cutting. Thus, not only from the standpoint of balanced medical reportage but from the standpoint of serving the public interest by highlighting the ethical dimension of a medically unnecessary and nonconsensual yet routine amputation, you missed an important opportunity. I would urge you, therefore, to look into this topic further and see what medical ethicists such as Brian Earp, physicians such as Morten Frisch and Adrienne Carmack, and legal scholars such as Peter Adler have to say about it. I hope that you will follow up with more detailed, more balanced, and more enlightening coverage of this topic for your viewers in the near future.
David Balashinsky