Monday, October 16, 2017

Male Genital Mutilation and the Masculinization of Boys

by David Balashinsky

A few months ago, the following comment appeared in my news feed on Facebook.  It was written by one of the giants and founders of the modern genital autonomy movement, Rosemary Romberg.  (Ms. Romberg is the author of Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma [Bergin & Garvey; 1985].  Here is a  link to some biographical information about her:  This is what she wrote: 

I've wondered if for some there's this male, macho idea of, "He's a boy so he can take it" mentality that comes into play with infant male genital cutting/mutilation. "Toughen him up from day one 'cause he's a boy and has to face a tough world."  (Ironically this is usually said by men who are total cowards about adult circumcision but think babies' feelings don't matter.)

Coincidentally, not long after seeing Ms. Romberg's post, I came across this column in the New York Times:  Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls by Andrew Reiner (NYT; June 15, 2017; here is a link:  In it, Mr. Reiner discusses the phenomenon in which parents shape their male children's behavior through often unconscious words and gestures that are intended to toughen them up (to use Ms. Romberg's phrase), a process to which Mr. Reiner himself refers as the "manning up of infant boys." The essay points out that studies show that this process begins in infancy:

For three decades, the research of Edward Tronick explored the interplay between infants and their mothers.  He and his colleagues in the department of newborn medicine at Harvard Medical School discovered that mothers unconsciously interacted with their infant sons more attentively and vigilantly than they did with their infant daughters because the sons needed more support for controlling their emotions.  Some of their research found that boys' emotional reactivity was eventually "restricted or perhaps more change-worthy than the reactivity of girls," Dr. Tronick noted in an email.  Mothers initiated this - through physical withdrawal.
So the "manning up" of infant boys begins early on in their typical interactions . . . and long before language plays its role.

Reiner also cites several studies that clearly suggest the extent to which gender - in this case, masculinity - is molded (if not created out of whole cloth) by the ways in which parents speak to little boys during their childhoods:

A 2014 study in Pediatrics found that mothers interacted vocally more often with their infant daughters than they did their infant sons. In a different study, a team of British researchers found that Spanish mothers were more likely to use emotional words and emotional topics when speaking with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons. . . .
[A]  2017 study led by Emory University researchers discovered, among other things, that fathers also sing and smile more to their daughters, and they use language that is more “analytical” and that acknowledges their sadness far more than they do with their sons. The words they use with sons are more focused on achievement — such as “win” and “proud" . . . .
 After visits to the emergency room for accidental injuries, another study found, parents of both genders talk differently to sons than they do to daughters. They are nearly four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful if undertaking the same activity again. . . .
Even boys’ literacy skills seem to be impacted by the taciturn way we expect them to speak. In his book “Manhood in America,” Michael Kimmel, the masculine studies researcher and author, maintains that “the traditional liberal arts curriculum is seen as feminizing by boys.” Nowhere is this truer than in English classes where . . . boys and young men police each other when other guys display overt interest in literature or creative writing assignments. Typically, nonfiction reading and writing passes muster because it poses little threat for boys. But literary fiction, and especially poetry, are mediums to fear. Why? They’re the language of emotional exposure, purported feminine “weakness” — the very thing our scripting has taught them to avoid at best, suppress, at worst.
As boys mature into men, stoicism and reticence - two of the cardinal virtues of masculinity - can subsequently be reinforced by women themselves.  What young man hasn't had the bitter experience of being told by a young woman to "stop acting like a girl" for being too emotionally demonstrative, or to stop being "so mushy" for talking too candidly about his feelings, or to "be a man" in the numerous other ways that men are expected to behave as men, rather than as just people?  Reiner continues,
Women often say they want men to be emotionally transparent with them. But as the vulnerability and shame expert BrenĂ© Brown reveals in her book, “Daring Greatly,” many grow uneasy or even recoil if men take them up on their offer.
Indeed, a Canadian study found that college-aged female respondents considered men more attractive if they used shorter words and sentences and spoke less.
 (Which explains a lot about my own sex life as a young man.)  
This finding seems to jibe with Dr. Brown’s research, suggesting that the less men risk emoting verbally, the more appealing they appear.

The connection of all this "toughening-" or "manning up" of boys and men to the phenomenon of male genital mutilation as practiced in traditionally sexist and patriarchal cultures such as ours is inescapable, obvious and, to me, at any rate, indisputable.  That is why I was instantly brought back to Romberg's trenchant comments (with which I could not agree more) when I read Reiner's piece shortly thereafter.  It occurred to me, therefore, even as I read it, that, as enlightening as Reiner's essay is, it could have been even better had it not omitted any and all consideration of the equally important role - both symbolic and actual - of male genital mutilation in the "manning up" of infant boys which begins even sooner than all the other physical and verbal influences that are brought to bear on infants, boys and men that Reiner cites.   Granted, Reiner focuses specifically on the ways in which boys are taught not to communicate their feelings.  But it does not seem like a great leap to reason that the culturally (or religiously) imposed act of genital cutting is as likely, if not more so, to play a role in altering the male psyche  (just as it alters the male body) as the various other acts of omission or commission that Reiner cites.  (I say culturally- or religiously imposed because it is now universally acknowledged in the field of pediatric medicine that routine infant "circumcision" is medically unnecessary.)  The pain alone that the infant must endure is now understood to  produce significant and lasting changes in neural pathways in the as yet developing infant central nervous system.  The American Academy of Pediatrics itself has acknowledged the "adverse sequelae" of exposure to "repeated painful stimuli early in life."  
These sequelae include physiologic instability, altered brain development, and abnormal neurodevelopment, somatosensory, and stress response systems, which can persist into childhood.  Nociceptive pathways are active and functional as early as 25 weeks’ gestation and may elicit a generalized or exaggerated response to noxious stimuli in immature newborn infants.  ("Prevention and Management of Procedural Pain in the Neonate: An Update"; Pediatrics - February 2016; Volume 137 / Issue 2.)
And what of the emotional trauma to the infant of being taken from the warmth, the nourishment, the scent and the embrace of his mother and strapped down, spread-eagle, and having the most sensitive part of his penis pried away and then cut off?  Is it reasonable to assume that this is unlikely to affect that neonate's subsequent capacity for emotional bonding and communication?  

And to what purpose?  No one in our male-genital-cutting culture should delude him- or herself into thinking that male genital mutilation is not an intrinsic part of patriarchal and sexist gender construction in which a male must pass through an ordeal of unnecessary pain and sacrifice in order to prepare him to take on his role - in childhood and as an adult - as a fighter and a competitor.  Reiner, himself, makes this point about how we masculinize our sons in order to prepare them for what lies ahead:
Why do we limit the emotional vocabulary of boys?
We tell ourselves we are preparing our sons to fight (literally and figuratively), to compete in a world and economy that’s brutish and callous. The sooner we can groom them for this dystopian future, the better off they’ll be.
Reiner's thesis echoes, uncannily, Romberg's observations about the role of male genital cutting in "toughening up" the infant male in order to begin preparing him to face "a tough world."  Here, again, we see the connection between the ways parents construct the masculinity of their infant sons in the earliest stages of their lives and the ways in which parents themselves are apt to regard the masculinizing ordeal of genital mutilation through which their infant sons must pass.  It is not uncommon to hear parents who have subjected their infant sons to "circumcision" to speak in glowing terms about "how tough" their "little guy" was throughout the ordeal.  (It is no coincidence that parents will often refer to their infant in this context as a "little guy" or a "little man."  I wonder whether, besides the preposterous masculinizing going on here, it is not at least in part because it is easier for them to live with the idea of causing bodily harm and suffering to a "guy" or a "man" than it is to a baby, especially when it is their baby.)  

Beyond literally "toughening up" the glans penis (thereby making it more "masculine"), there can be little doubt that, whether consciously or unconsciously, one of the primary purposes of male genital mutilation is the"toughening up" of the boy himself.  That deeply entrenched notions of gender and masculinity are intrinsic to this custom are, if anything, demonstrated all the more by the ridicule, scorn and contempt to which men who publicly express their resentment about having had part of their genitals amputated (needlessly and without their consent) frequently are subjected.  They are told to "stop whining." They are told to "get over it." (I, myself, was once told by a 20-something young woman on Facebook, in response to one of my posts, to "Quit fucking whining."  This was followed up with "Check your bullshit, you whiny bitch.")  But is this how we would talk to women who have been subjected to genital cutting and who courageously voice their objections to it?  Indeed, that women who oppose their genital cutting are considered "courageous" while men who oppose theirs are considered "whiny bitches" tells us everything we need to know about the role of gender-construction in these practices.   The double standard in the consideration that we accord victims of genital cutting based upon the sex of the victim goes to the very heart of the issues articulated in Reiner's essay and Romberg's observations.  

Reiner's thesis is essentially that boys and men must be allowed to own their emotions. I would argue that they must also be allowed to own their bodies.  That starts at birth.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Charlottesville, Trump, Republican Hypocrisy and the Art of the False Equivalence

by David Balashinsky

The right-wing propaganda machine - Fox, Breitbart, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Bannon, and their ilk - as well as the vast majority of the Republican Party, by supporting the campaign and presidency of Donald J. Trump, bear a moral responsibility for the horrendous display of radical anti-Americanism that occurred in Charlottesville this weekend.  They are responsible either by having actively supported Trump's bigotry with their words and their votes or by having tacitly supported it with their silence when they had the chance to speak up and chose not to.   Let's not forget that Trump ran on a campaign of bigotry and nativism in which he exhorted his followers to thuggery and mob violence.  Even now, Trump refuses to unambiguously disclaim and repudiate the neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and white nationalists who proudly marched in his name this weekend.  Instead, Trump seems to have taken pains to avoid alienating the white-nationalist segment of his base by refusing to explicitly identify them and by creating a false equivalence between them and those who oppose them.  This was Trump's mealy-mouthed and winking statement about the violence, as reported in the Washington Post: "The hate and division must stop and must stop right now.  We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.  On many sides."  Note how Trump goes out of his way to emphasize, with the rhetorical technique of repetition, the false narrative that the white nationalists and those who oppose them are morally equivalent.  That neo-Nazis, white nationalists and anti-Semites and those other Americans who happen to believe in the ideals on which this nation was founded - that all people are created equal - are all equally to blame.  As the Post reported, "Asked by a reporter whether he wanted the support of white nationalists, dozens of whom wore red Make America Great Again hats during the Charlottesville riots, Trump did not respond."  Let that sink in: Trump was lobbed the easiest sort of softball question in which he was offered the easiest of opportunities to explicitly repudiate white nationalists.  Yet this pretender to the Oval Office, who never shies away from criticizing or condemning anyone else, could not bring himself to repudiate the political support of white nationalists.

In a way, Trump's false equivalence here is perfectly fitting, given that the ostensible reason for this gathering of racist groups from around the United States in Charlottesville was to protest the impending removal  of the statue of Robert E. Lee from what is now known as Emancipation Park.  (One concise history of the efforts to remove this statue can be found here:  After all, those who defend the preservation of monuments to the Confederacy in public spaces seldom if ever do so on the basis of a defense of the enslavement of millions of black people.  Rather, they seek to create an alternative meaning for these monuments:  They represent the sacrifice of people who sincerely believed in the cause for which they gave their lives.  Or they represent the neutral and abstract principle of "states' rights."  Or, conversely, the campaign to have them removed from public spaces constitutes a misguided attempt to negate or rewrite history.  What all of these formulations have in common is that they disingenuously attempt to deny the actual meaning of these monuments: that the enslavement of millions of black people is a part of our nation's history that deserves to be honored and that the effort to preserve slavery by Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee was honorable.  By avoiding the real significance of these monuments, the monuments'  defenders attempt to position themselves and their opponents on the same moral plane.  This is the technique that has become fashionable in right-wing circles and that has been elevated to high art by the right-wing media as epitomized by Fox and Breitbart.  Thus, the moral distinction between supporting and opposing a monument to slavery itself becomes blurred or even effaced. Similarly, in Trump's version of what occurred this weekend, it was not specifically white-nationalist hatred, racism, bigotry and violence that were on display in Charlottesville but a generic, non-specific "hatred, bigotry, and violence," and there is enough culpability for that to go around -  isn't there? - "on many sides - On many sides."

But hatred of "non-whites" is not the moral equivalent of hatred of racists and racism.   And so back to Trump and the outbreak of violence over the significance of the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park.

If there were any doubt that a direct link exists between Trump's candidacy, his campaign rhetoric, his presidency and the full flowering of the neo-Nazi, white-nationalist movement that was on display yesterday in Charlottesville, the presence of all those MAGA hats should dispel it once and for all.  The neo-fascists, after all, make no bones about their explicit intentions "to take our country back" and they plainly have hitched their wagon to Trump the candidate and now Trump the president.   Here is what one self-identified Nazi, Michael Von Kotch, interviewed by the Post in Charlottesville yesterday, had to say.  The rally made him "proud to be white."  The Post article continues: "[Von Kotch] said that he's long held white supremacist views and that Trump's election has 'emboldened' him and the members of his own Nazi group.  'We are assembled to defend our history, our heritage, and to protect our race to the last man.'"   David Duke - ardent Trump supporter, white nationalist, and former head of the KKK -  responded to Trump's faux condemnation of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville by publicly reminding Trump of the debt tht he owes to his white-nationalist base.  Addressing Trump directly, Duke wrote, “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.” 

Trump and his fellow opportunistic Republican politicians are perfectly happy to exploit the strain of bigotry that, sadly, still runs through part of the nation's electorate when doing so assures them a win at the ballot box, in the state house or in congress.   But by doing so, they have opened a Pandora's Box of racism, white nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia and everything else that the "alt-right" stands for.  They cannot have it both ways.  They could have taken - as a few did - a moral stand against Trump last year, but chose not to.  Now they must acknowledge their own moral culpability in this national disgrace.  For Republicans - who acquiesced in Trump's candidacy last year and acquiesce in his presidency now - to shed crocodile tears about what happened yesterday in Charlottesville constitutes the height of hypocrisy.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Response to Ej Dickson: A Plea for Reason from a Jewish Man to a Jewish Woman

by David Balashinsky

This is a response to an essay by Ej Dickson that appeared on the site  Romper on May 11, 2017.  In the "About" section, the site describes itself as "a site for a new generation of women figuring out what motherhood means for us."  Here is a link to Ms. Dickson's essay:  For context, as well as giving Ms. Dickson the courtesy of hearing what she has to say in her own words, it is recommended that her essay be read before reading this reply to it.

I am addressing this post to you, Ej Dickson, in the form of an open letter, partly, because I want to respond to your post in Romper (I Circumcised My Son [and] I Don't Regret It One Bit, 11 May 2015)  as directly and as personally as I can.   Under the circumstances, for me that means writing as a Jewish person to a fellow Jewish person.  Even more significantly, it means writing as a Jewish man to a Jewish woman.   At the same time, I appreciate how personal and heartfelt your post was and I believe that it deserves a response in kind.  Finally, it is my sincere hope that I will have a better chance of reaching you (in the sense of my getting you to understand the genital-autonomy point of view) by speaking from the heart, just as you did.

But while I want to speak to you on a personal level for all of the reasons that I have just given, I also happen to think that a public forum, such as this, is an appropriate place for me to do so.  That is  because this is a conversation that needs to occur not only between fellow Jews, as you and I are, but among all people who care about basic human rights.  That includes not only the right to grow up in a world without anti-Semitism but the right to own and control one's own body.  My perspective is simple: the second of those two rights is fundamental and absolute and, without it, the first right is meaningless.

I will begin by acknowledging that you and other Jews are perfectly entitled to be suspicious of the motives of those calling for an end to circumcision, particularly when such calls come from quarters that are known to have espoused bigoted, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic attitudes.  Notwithstanding the fact that here in the United States, as well as around the world, Jews constitute a tiny fraction of those who both perform and are subjected to circumcision, there will always be anti-Semites who are only too happy to have yet another cudgel - now in the form of opposition to "Jewish circumcision" - with which to beat up on Jews.  But no matter what we do or don't do, you can be sure that the anti-Semites will hate us either for doing it or for not doing it: we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.  But that does not mean that the goal of ending circumcision is itself intrinsically wrong or anti-Semitic, even if it is being exploited by bigots and being pursued, disingenuously by them, for the wrong reasons.  After all, even a broken clock is right twice each day.  In actuality, the overwhelming majority of those who oppose circumcision are not anti-Semites and many of us are Jews.  Those who would hijack and exploit the genital-autonomy movement in furtherance of an anti-Semitic (or anti-Islamic) agenda must not be allowed to derail the genital-autonomy movement or to bring discredit upon it.   As I see it, that is why it is especially important that Jews take the lead in the cause of ending the barbaric custom of genital cutting (and barbaric it is): not only for Jewish boys but for all children, and not only circumcision but all genital cutting, including female genital mutilation and the non-consensual sex-assignment surgery of intersex children.

This brings me directly to a central objection that I have to your essay. Namely, that you mischaracterize the genital-autonomy movement as being primarily, even intrinsically, anti-Semitic. Nowhere is this mischaracterization as deftly achieved as when you write: "I can't speak for my fellow Jews having a pro-genital mutilation agenda because, contrary to apparent popular belief, I don't belong to a shadowy cabal of hook-nosed, curly-haired globalists congregating in a secret volcano lair somewhere conspiring to control the IMF and cut baby penises."   The implication here is that all genital-autonomy activists (or simply, intactivists) automatically embrace the entire kit-and-caboodle of anti-Semitic stereotypes and scapegoating as part and parcel of our objection to circumcision.   You further reinforce the notion that intactivists are mainly non-Jews bashing Jews over circumcision when you write that "in the larger conversation about circumcision, Jews and Muslims are often left out of the conversation altogether."  Both of these characterizations about the anti-genital-cutting movement are patently false.  Jews have been and remain proudly in the vanguard of the genital-autonomy movement.   This includes those who actively identify as Jews ethnically and culturally, religious Jews who identify as Jewish by virtue of their espousal of Judaism, and those who simply have Jewish roots and ancestry who, though no longer self-identifying as Jewish, acknowledge - without shame or apology - that Jewishness constitutes a part of their history and connects them to our collective past and present.   This wide and diverse group includes writers, intellectuals, physicians, attorneys and, yes, even rabbis.  People such as Leonard B. Glick (an M.D. with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and author of Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America),  Mirriam Pollack (an educator and author of Circumcision: Gender, Identity and Power), Rebecca Wald and Lisa Braver Moss (co-authors of Beyond the Bris), Peter Adler (an attorney with Attorneys for the Rights of the Child [ARC] and author of a number of articles including Is Circumcision Legal?), Anthony Levin (also with ARC, an attorney and writer and author of House of the Collective Unconscious), Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. (psychologist, educator, lecturer, director of the Circumcision Resource Center and author of Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma and Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective), and Norm Cohen (director of NOCIRC of Michigan).  All of these people have contributed groundbreaking and foundational (I'd say seminal but - well, you know) texts against circumcision on numerous grounds and in support of the right of all boys - not just Jewish ones - to own their own bodies and to grow up with their genitals intact.  Many other famous Jews besides, from Alicia Silverstone to Dustin Hoffman to Sara Gilbert to Howard Stern also oppose circumcision and have done so emphatically and publicly. There is also an active movement among religious Jews to replace the brit milah with the non-violent ceremony of the brit shalom (see Beyond the Bris). And there is an active online group of Jews who oppose circumcision.  On Facebook we can be found at Jews Against Circumcision.   If you think that we are not part of the conversation it occurs to me that perhaps you simply haven't been listening.  I sincerely hope that that will now change.

There are several other points in your essay with which I disagree and that I cannot let go unchallenged.  Some of these are matters of judgement - where disagreement is certainly possible - but others are not, such as when you state, incorrectly, that metzitzah b'peh is "banned."  Not only is this abhorrent and dangerous practice not banned but the New York City Board of Health recently watered down its already impotent (again, sorry) regulations concerning it.   As a result, innocent Jewish baby boys continue to be infected with a strain of the herpes simplex virus that can lead and has led to brain damage and even death.  (See my own essay on this shameful topic in which I discuss not only MBP itself but also the question of anti-Semitism as it relates to the genital-autonomy movement, On the Decision by the New York City Board of Health to Repeal the Metzitzah b'Peh Consent-Form Regulation, On Same-Sex Marriage, and On the Question of Anti-Semitism.)

Your post also misstates the current circumcision rate in the United States.  This tends to give the erroneous impression that circumcision is far more routinely practiced now than in fact it is.  The 81% figure that you cite actually refers to the percentage of males currently living in the United States who have been subjected to (or as adults chose to undergo) circumcision.  The actual rate of neonatal circumcision nationwide is now at about 55% and falling.  In some states, the rate of neonatal circumcision is in the low 20 percentiles range (and below 20 percent in Washington and Nevada).  Yet by making the current incidence of neonatal circumcision appear to be much greater than it is, your post subtly but falsely reinforces the notion that, because it is a norm, circumcision must therefore be normative.  It isn't.  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics, a trade organization the membership of which profits handsomely from performing circumcisions, concedes that infant circumcision is not medically necessary.

You also impart a gloss of normativity to infant circumcision when you generalize that most parents who subject their sons to circumcision do  so "largely for hygienic reasons."   In fact, far more significant is the anatomical status of the father.  In one Canadian study (Parents' Rationale for Male Circumcision, published by The College of Family Physicians of Canada) it was found that, when the father had himself been circumcised, close to 82% of respondents supported circumcision for their son whereas, when the father had a full penis, only about 15% of respondents supported circumcision for their son. 

Conversely, even allowing that "hygiene" is the most oft-cited rationale given by parents for subjecting their sons to circumcision (this same study put the figure at close to 62%), believing that a circumcised penis is more hygienic than an intact one does not make it so.  After all, consider, by way of comparison, a recent study published by JAMA Dermatology (Journal of the American Medical Association; Pubic Hair Grooming Prevalence and Motivation Among Women in the United States) in which it was found that, of the number of women who reported removing some or all of their pubic hair, close to 60% (the majority, in other words), reported doing so for hygienic reasons.  This is in spite of the fact that there is not a whit of evidence that a vulva denuded of its hair is more hygienic than one that is not.  In fact, "grooming" is actually harmful: dermatologists, gynecologists and even emergency department physicians (!) are reporting an increase in dermatological and other more serious health problems as a result of this practice.  As the New York Times noted when it reported on this study (Many Women Prefer to Groom, Citing Hygiene, and Baffling Doctors, by Jan Hoffman, NYT, June 29, 2016), "Pubic hair functions as a protective cushion for sensitive skin, and has its own hygienic purpose, trapping bacteria and preventing it [sic] from entering the vaginal opening."  Note, incidentally, that both those who opt for circumcision (of their children) and for female "grooming" (of themselves) specifically for hygienic reasons constitute about 60% respectively of the totals of these two groups.

This leads me to another of the reasons that you offered for having had your son's penis circumcised to which I must take exception.  Namely, "circumcising my child would likely decrease the risk of him being subject to locker room mockery, or, worse, to having his penis compared to a Sharpei by a cruel future sexual partner."  The same New York Times article that I cited just above about female "grooming" reports that, "Anecdotally, gynecologists say they are seeing girls as young as 13 take up grooming. . . .  The teenagers, doctors said, are influenced by locker room jeers [my emphasis]. . . .  'At least once a week I hear from a young woman that she thinks it's wrong to have pubic hair, that it's meant to be removed,' said doctor Jennifer Gunter. . . .  'Grooming has become so common that people think that's the norm.'"  Sound familiar?  And not only because of the locker-room mockery but, more basically, once a practice becomes normalized, its very normality makes it self-perpetuating as others succumb to the social pressure to conform to it.

Yet the notion that one should surgically alter a child's body as a kind of social prophylaxis against that individual's being mocked later on in life for having a normal human body should be offensive to you not only as a human being but as a Jewish woman.  It is to me, as a Jewish man, and this is only partly the reason why:  It is no secret that many Jewish women have been body-shamed for having the classic Semitic nose and have therefore chosen to undergo rhinoplasty, either to pass (as not Jewish) or merely to conform to WASPish standards of beauty.  My own sister was mocked in junior high school on account of her nose but she steadfastly refused to get a nose job, even when several of the young Jewish women among our acquaintance did.  My sister, to her credit, deemed such a surgery an act of Jewish self-hatred.  But in your son's case, you have chosen to validate those who would body-shame him on account of having a natural and normal penis, rather than teach him the values of self-acceptance and standing up for oneself.  Is this really how you believe we should be raising our children?  Are Jewish girls, then, to be subjected to nose jobs, proactively and without their consent, in order to spare them the jibes or mockery of others?  And what about the current obscene and bizarre craze of labiaplasty?  Notions of beauty, like its opposite, are fluid, ever-changing, and, probably more than we care to admit, socially constructed (hence their wide variation over the centuries, and even year to year).  Now that the human vulva, in all its splendorous variation, is being subjected to the same sort of social pressures to conform to arbitrary and rigid notions of beauty much as the rest of women's bodies are, are we to begin subjecting our daughters to proactive  cosmetic genital surgery in order to spare them the barbs or crude comments of "a cruel future sexual partner"?  If you would not cravenly yield to such social pressure with respect to your daughter's genitals, why should you with respect to your son's?

Your post also significantly errs on the matter of the sexual ramifications of both female and male genital cutting and, in so doing, perpetuates the false distinction between the two as a purely malevolent act when inflicted on girls but a benign one when imposed on boys.   The notion that female genital cutting  "is explicitly intended to render women devoid of any sexual sensation whatsoever" is simply false.  To be sure, modifying and controlling women's bodies and sexuality are intrinsic factors in the phenomenon of female genital mutilation, (as they are in the effort to deprive women here, in the United States, of access to contraceptives and reproductive-healthcare services) but FGM is also practiced for - and defended on the basis of - a variety of reasons, many of them identical to the reasons most commonly given for male circumcision here in the west, including hygiene, aesthetics, and tradition.  In fact, exactly what you wrote of male circumcision - that "there are legitimate reasons why some people, particularly Jews and Muslims, would want to circumcise their sons, and they are much more complex than many anti-circumcision advocates suggest [my emphasis]" - could be said of "female circumcision." 

The notion that male genital cutting is harmless and has no effect on male sexual sensation and function is likewise false.  The male prepuce is the primary sensory apparatus of the penis.  Once it's gone, all the sensation that it provides goes with it, never to return.  Almost as egregious is the harm that befalls the glans penis as a sequela to circumcision after its protective covering is removed for, without the prepuce to protect it as nature intended, the skin of the glans desiccates and keratinizes, making it even less sensitive than it was to begin with.  Indeed, that was the main reason that circumcision was practiced here in the United States during the nineteenth century: as a way to "cure" boys of their propensity to masturbate.  (If that doesn't constitute controlling male bodies and inhibiting male sexual pleasure, I don't know what does.)  Even the (otherwise) great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, recognized that circumcision impairs male sexual sensation and he, too (like some notable Victorian circumcision proponents), regarded that as one of circumcision's chief virtues.  The very mechanism by which circumcision is understood to confer a prophylactic effect with respect to STIs is the "toughening up" of the skin of the glans, making it less permeable to pathogens.  Does anybody with a modicum of common sense seriously believe that after walking around barefoot for 30 years the skin on the sole of one's foot will be as sensitive as the skin on the back one's hand?

Again - to keep this personal - while it is not my practice to discuss my sex life publicly, your blowjob comment, as well as the overall personal nature of your post, impel me to share with you something about my own experience and how I came to be an opponent of non-consensual circumcision.  I was well into my 50s before it even dawned on me that men are supposed to experience significant sexual sensation during PIV intercourse.  All this changed when I learned, to my horror and infinite envy, how good PIV intercourse feels for intact men.  Up until that point, because I had seldom questioned my own circumcision and just assumed that my sexual sensations were pretty much like everyone else's, I thought that the only significant physically pleasurable part of intercourse for the male was the orgasm itself.  That being the case, I could never understand what all the fuss about sex was.  In terms of sensation, PIV intercourse is certainly inferior to masturbation and every other sort of act I have tried.

Worse than this loss of sensation during intercourse - which I now regard as a birthright that was stolen from me - is the loss of shared intimacy that PIV intercourse, when experienced between a man and a woman within the context of a loving sexual relationship, ought to provide.  Again,  I always thought that women were just more romantic, emotional, and sentimental than men and that it was to this that their emotional response to PIV intercourse must be attributable.  What I did not apprehend was that, because women experience the full sensation and immediacy of intercourse (that is, those women who are fortunate enough not to have been subjected to genital cutting), they experience intercourse in the totality of its combined sensory, cognitive and emotional components.   It is as if women experience PIV intercourse not merely with their vaginas (and to a lesser extent with their external genitalia) but with their whole bodies and even with their hearts and souls (if you believe in souls).  In contrast, for me, when I have intercourse, I feel almost completely disconnected from my penis.  The inevitable result of this is that I feel largely disconnected from the woman whose body my penis is in.  In other words, I feel disconnected from her at precisely the moment that I should feel closest to her.  I attribute this to the fact that my penis was circumcised and its normal sensation and function seriously and irreparably harmed.  That makes PIV intercourse not a shared experience, then, but the exact opposite.  It makes intercourse lopsided and unequal.  Circumcision destroys the potential of PIV intercourse to be transcendent and unifying for a man and a woman and instead renders it something largely mechanical for the man.   This, incidentally, is yet one more reason that I am ardently opposed to male circumcision: that it inhibits true sexual intimacy between partners and reduces intercourse, for the male at any rate, to a form of masturbation in which he is essentially masturbating with the aid of a woman's body.  (Indeed, anyone who opposes pornography on the grounds that it takes the intimacy out of intercourse and reduces sex to a mere means to an orgasmic end, as opposed to being meaningful in and of itself, ought to oppose male circumcision for precisely these same reasons.)  How can it be otherwise, when the two partners are experiencing such unequal levels of connection to their own genitals?  

I come at last to the pith and marrow of both your essay and your reason for subjecting your son, Sol, to circumcision.  Here is how your phrased it: "Ultimately, I chose to circumcise him because he is a member of a religious minority that has been persecuted for millennia and continues to be persecuted today, and I don't ever want him to forget that."  That strikes me - a Jewish man who, probably like you, lost relatives in the holocaust and, probably like you, lost thousands more over the centuries in pogroms, crusades, and mass burnings over canards like well-poisoning and the blood libel - it strikes me as ludicrous in the extreme and even perverse that your answer to our collective history of persecution as Jews is to irreparably harm your son's penis.  That's your answer to our history of persecution?  Do you imagine that circumcision will act as a talisman to protect your son from future persecution?  It won't.  Is this supposed to be an act of defensive pessimism (at which we Jews excel)?  - an effective stratagem by which you hope to stave off greater harms that might befall Sol at the hands of others less benevolently disposed toward him than you are?  It isn't.   Do you, an agnostic, suppose that doing violence to your son's body will appease an unfeeling, unthinking universe?  It can't.  For the life of me I find it incomprehensible that someone as apparently thoughtful as you would reason in precisely the wrong direction: that because the world has been a cruel place for Jews (though not only for Jews, let us remember), you should beat that world to the punch and welcome your son into the world with cruelty of your own, particularly given how utterly unnecessary it is.

I am absolutely in agreement that Jews must never forget our history, our forebears, and that we have a duty to honor our legacy.  I will even agree that it is imperative that we do so because our very survival as a people on some level depends upon it.   But there is a difference between honoring one's legacy and traditions and practicing a slavish, unthinking submission to them. After all, there are many practices that the Jewish people have abandoned: polygamy, animal sacrifice, slavery, death by stoning.  And yet we didn't cease to be Jews when we abandoned those other ancient rites and practices. Circumcision in the 21st century is an anachronism that ought to go the way of animal sacrifice and stoning.  If we don't have enough self-confidence in ourselves as a people to venture forth into the future without clinging to this ancient custom we are unworthy of the sacrifices that our forebears made for us.  Yes, it's hard to let go of what is familiar, but that is how we grow as individuals, that is how we grow as a people, and that is how cultures, societies and civilizations progress.  If the Chinese could let go of foot-binding, if European colonial powers could come to acknowledge the immorality of conquest and enslavement and recognize the rights of indigenous peoples, if the United States could fight a civil war to end the "peculiar institution" of slavery, then surely the Jewish people can find it in themselves to give up the ritual genital cutting of its baby boys. We can do it and we must do it.  It is a moral imperative.  Moreover, I believe that we will do it.  For if anything at all can be said about the Jewish people, it is that we are forever adapting, forever reinventing ourselves, and forever striving toward greater enlightenment.  We have never been a stagnant people.  On the contrary, we were never permitted the luxury of getting too comfortable anywhere, so perhaps our peculiar history has pushed us in this direction.  Or perhaps it is simply our nature.  But, whatever the cause, this tendency is reflected throughout the entire trajectory of our history, from our humble beginnings through the accumulated body of Jewish thought, ethics, philosophy and scriptural interpretation throughout the centuries, to the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th through the 19th centuries), to Reform Judaism, with its emphasis on the evolving nature of religion and on the ethical- as opposed to the ceremonial aspect of religious practice, and right up through Jewish secularism.  We have had, I believe, an influence on the world way out of proportion to our numbers (which may be one of the reasons we are resented so much).   Indeed, it is regrettable but this also explains why we are blamed for circumcision by non-Jews when they cite the history of how circumcision came to be so common here in the United States.  But it is because of our unique place in history that we can and must lead the way toward sanctifying bodily integrity and away from sanctifying bodily harm.

This leads naturally to the question of why Jews should even practice circumcision in the first place and how necessary or even important it is to being Jewish.  That the practice of male infant circumcision among Jews is still largely (but, thankfully, increasingly not) a foregone conclusion is evident from the fact that, of the several reasons you, yourself, offered for having had your son circumcised, you did not bother to include any mention of Chapter 17 of Genesis.  On the other hand, you also self-identify as an agnostic, so the covenant in which Abraham and the Jewish people thereafter are enjoined to practice infant male circumcision should not carry a great deal of weight with you.  At the same time, and as has been pointed out by Jews themselves, circumcision is not necessary for and is not what confers "Jewishness" upon a male who is born Jewish.  Whether circumcised or not, he is still Jewish, so why bother?

I understand completely your desire to give your son a sense of who he is and a sense of belonging to a people that has struggled and persevered.  Beyond the positive aspect of this ritual - the induction of a new member into  the bosom of a family and, collectively, into the bosom of a people - I accept that you had Sol circumcised not "for religious or hygienic reasons but for overtly political ones."   I get that, for you, having your son circumcised was tantamount to an act of defiance against anti-Semitism.  But, speaking as someone who was circumcised and raised by a man who identified as Jewish yet largely refused to instill in me any sense at all of being Jewish myself and being a member of the Jewish people, I can tell you confidently that being circumcised is not what makes one Jewish.  (That, of course, stands to reason,  particularly here in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of boys and men who have been circumcised are not Jewish.)  It pains me deeply, therefore, to think that your goal in having your son circumcised - that he will "look between his legs and know that he is a member of the Jewish faith, and that by virtue of his birthright, he will forever be permanently marked as different" -  will not be realized.   This is because, ultimately,  having one's penis maimed is not where Jewish identity comes from.  You, yourself, are proof of that.  You do not seem to lack for the positive elements of Jewish identification and yet you certainly never were subjected to circumcision, let alone even had a penis to circumcise.   No - Jewish identification comes from one's upbringing, it comes from one's values, one's cultural and ethnic heritage and, in the case of Judaism, it comes from one's religious beliefs.  When all is said and done, despite his having been circumcised, if you do not give Sol all of those other things - if you do not inculcate in him a sense of his own Jewish identity and a sense of belonging to a tenacious and courageous people - he will not identify as Jewish and his being circumcised will have been in vain.  On the other hand, had you not had Sol circumcised but succeeded in raising him to understand who and what he is, he would be every bit as much Jewish as you or I.

I return once more, as a concluding thought, to your central argument: that you had your son circumcised as an act of defiance against anti-Semitism.   I maintain that the target of your defiance ought to have been the anti-Semites - not your son's penis.  Also, again, returning to realm of the personal and speaking as a Jewish man who was subjected to non-consensual genital cutting, I can tell you that this is how your son is more likely to see it when he grows up: your act of defiance was misdirected.  That instead of fighting against anti-Semitism in the arena of ideas, you fought it upon the terrain of his very body and it was his own genital integrity and bodily rights that were the only casualties here.  Do you really imagine that the anti-Semites who hide behind or exploit the genital-autonomy movement give a damn about your son's bodily rights and well-being?  On the contrary - they are probably laughing up their sleeves at you.  They are only too happy, I have no doubt, to see Jewish boys maimed.  Is unsatisfying intercourse all that you want Sol to associate with being Jewish?  Is his growing up with the knowledge that he was denied the fundamental human right of bodily autonomy going to make him a more committed and a more proud Jew?  Is going through life knowing that he was stripped of the basic dignity of bodily self ownership and, particularly, ownership of the most personal and private part of his body - his genitalia - supposed somehow to instill in your son a sense of dignity, strength, and character?   Again, speaking as a Jewish man who was subjected to non-consensual circumcision, I think it far more likely that your having subjected Sol to circumcision without his consent will have precisely the opposite effect.  And I can think of few people more in need of a sense of potency, autonomy, pride and self-affirmation than a people that has historically been persecuted, scapegoated and subject to cyclic episodes of mass murder culminating in attempted genocide.

But now let's consider this from another side.  What if circumcision can mean for Jewish men what you wish it to mean for Sol?  In that case, what if circumcision were a choice that your son had been allowed to make for himself?  What if he could have chosen - for every one of the reasons that you have given and especially as an act of conscious, Jewish self-identification  - to undergo circumcision when he turned 18 and was legally of an age to make such a decision for himself about his own body?  What then?  Would not circumcision have even more meaning for him?  Giving up a part of one's body, after all, is a sacrifice.  But it only has meaning for the one actually making the sacrifice.  You can no more imbue the sacrifice of your son's prepuce with meaning for him than I could demonstrate my own commitment to veganism (were I a vegan) by depriving my child of meat while gorging on it myself.   You can no more make a positive and defiant statement about Sol's place in the world by sacrificing a part of his body than a novice can make about her religious devotion by volunteering someone else to live a life celibacy while she pursues a life of debauchery.  In order to have any meaning at all, a sacrifice has to come from the one willingly accepting the loss.  Otherwise, it is not a sacrifice but a theft.  As the Supreme Court held in Prince v. Massachusetts (1943), "Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves.  But it does not follow that they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves [my emphasis]."

If you want to take a stand against anti-Semitism, stand up for the Jewish people.  Stand up for our shared culture, our heritage and our history.  Stand up for Jewish ethics as they have developed and continue to develop.  Stand up for justice, freedom, and democracy in our name.  Stand up for women's rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights in our name.  Stand up for refugees and displaced persons - (all displaced persons) in our name.  And stand up for the bodily rights of all children in our name.  That, to me, is what being Jewish  means in the modern world: living out the imperative to try to leave the world a better place than we found it.  None of these things - not a one -  is advanced in any way by cutting off part of your child's penis.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Bill Maher, racist epithets, contextual meaning, free speech, 'free speech,' and the confederate flag

by David Balashinsky

First, a trigger warning: this essay uses 'the n word' frequently.  I believe that the brouhaha surrounding Bill Maher's use of the phrase house nigger provides an appropriate context for a frank discussion of these two terms (the phrase in its entirety and the racist noun itself which is modified by house when used in that phrase).  Sometimes, painful topics need to be discussed and this is one of those times.

While it's always risky to use any word that can be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a racist epithet, there is a fundamental difference between nigger and house nigger.   Use of the word nigger situates the user himself in the present context as a racist (unless the word is being used by a black person, which I discuss below).  In contrast, use of the phrase house nigger situates the word nigger in the historical context of the South's enslavement and exploitation of African Americans.  One is a 'real time,' actual use of an epithet that is demeaning to blacks as human beings.  The other has almost the opposite meaning: it refers to a quasi caste system in which some enslaved black Americans were permitted the relative 'comfort' of  serving their white oppressors by performing domestic, indoor work as opposed to the far more brutal and difficult labor of field work.  That is how Maher used the term. 

Temporally removed, as we are, from the legalized enslavement of human beings based on their genotype (though not so removed that the wounds are not still open and not so removed that positive, concrete steps do not still need to be taken to at least ameliorate the lasting effects of the African diaspora and enslavement of millions of blacks, including some sort of reparations), invoking the term house nigger constitutes a critique of that system of organized enslavement.  The term, to my ears and, I think, to the ears of the majority of people who are familiar with it, refers to the system under which blacks were enslaved, exploited, raped, tortured and murdered.  There is a fundamental difference between using a term that refers to one element of a system that was based upon racism and using a term that is itself racist.  House nigger is an example of the former and nigger is an example of the latter.

Obviously, racism still exists and the existence of the word nigger both reflects and sustains that awful reality.  Thus, to use the word by itself is to participate in the perpetuation of racism.  But to situate the term within the historical context of the racist and economic system of enslavement of African- and African-American black people by the slave-holding states of the United States prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and the victory of the Union over the treasonous Confederacy, serves to remind us that the ultimate purpose of enslavement was simply to enable one group of human beings to enrich themselves at the expense of the rights and the very lives of another group of human beings.  It reminds us that slavery thrived here and that the system was based on racism.

Now, having said all this, and even if one accepts my reasoning, can it be assumed that everyone is familiar with the full meaning and significance of the phrase that Maher used?  I would say no.  That is one reason why Maher ought not to have used it and why his apology for having used it was warranted.

But, far more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that, thanks primarily to Donald Trump, we are living in a social and historical context in which the lid that had been kept on covert bigotry has been torn away.  We are living in an age when the use of insulting, demeaning and marginalizing language is more and more defended, thanks largely to Trump's repeated rejection throughout the campaign of 'political correctness' in tandem with his scapegoating and vilifying of Mexicans and Muslims (and to a lesser extent, of Jews) and now by Trump's supporters on the specious grounds of 'free speech.'  It is no coincidence that this very day a 'free speech' rally is to be held in Portland, Oregon by alt-righters (white nationalists and neo-Nazis), including such notable hate groups as the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and the Alt-Knights, ostensibly to defend the principle of free speech.  This is in the wake of several notorious instances this year in which racist, misogynistic and bigoted charlatans such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Charles Murray were shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking on several college campuses.  Obviously, someone has to create a 'safe space' where bigots can promote their racist and xenophobic worldviews and far-right hate groups are only too happy to answer the call.  Hence today's demonstration in Portland.

Trump has seriously torn the social fabric of the United States and it will certainly take generations to repair it, if it even can be repaired.  I wonder whether Maher's gaffe does not in fact reflect this new reality.  As the old-fashioned notion of concerning oneself with the feelings of others and moderating one's speech lest it cause needless pain and offense (quaint by today's standards) is increasingly discarded and dismissed as 'political correctness,'  a general coarsening of public speech and a breakdown in propriety - a shift in the border between what is permissible to say publicly and what is not - seems to be the inevitable result.  Trump didn't create bigotry but he certainly made it far more socially acceptable to give voice to it - whether through a careless and arrogant disregard for the feelings of others or whether because of an overtly militant bigotry which seeks to proclaim itself publicly, defiantly, and proudly.   Again, in this context, claims of 'political correctness' and 'free speech' are disingenuous: it is no coincidence that the neo-right, white nationalist movement has taken to dismissing as 'snowflakes' those who, inexplicably, object to being subjected to hate speech and thereby demeaned and marginalized.

Maher, of course, has always been about rejecting 'political correctness.'  His previous show, after all, was called "Politically Incorrect."   But, as always, context provides the key to determining when a term is meant or used disparagingly and when it isn't.  What was Maher talking about when he used the phrase for which he has drawn so much outrage (much of it faux outrage, as all of the outrage coming from the right is in this case)?  He certainly wasn't talking about the institution of slavery and the relegation of some enslaved people to field work and others to domestic work.  He just used the phrase metaphorically to explain his own unsuitability to the hard physical labor of field work.  But, other than the fact that his interviewee, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, had made this comment to Maher - "We'd love to have you work in the fields with us" - there was absolutely no reason for Maher to invoke the phenomenon of the 'house nigger' as opposed to an enslaved person consigned to field labor.  Field work is honorable and valuable work and, without it, most of us would have to do without much of what is grown and harvested on farms.  There was absolutely no reason for Maher to tie working in a field to slave labor.  This is why it was jarring and disconcerting to hear Maher use it, even leaving aside the question of whether the phrase house nigger is racist in and of itself.  It had absolutely nothing to do with the conversation.  So why did this particular phrase come so readily to him?  Given that there was virtually no contextual justification for him to use that phrase, does his having done so reflect his own latent or covert racism?  Does it reflect the coarsened, anything-goes tenor of today's public discourse?  Perhaps some of both - only Maher can answer the first question.  My sense is that it was thoughtlessness and insensitivity on Maher's part.

So when, if ever, is it okay to use 'the n word' or a phrase that includes it?  This leads me to the phenomenon of blacks using 'the n word.'  I understand that, in certain contexts, use of that word is meant to be descriptive of the inferior status of blacks in a white-dominant culture.  It does not appear to be an act of 'appropriation' or 'reclaiming,' as queer was reclaimed and 're-branded' as a self-designation by gay men back in the '80s as an act of defiance against a heteronormative and homophobic culture.  I think that that is why it is socially permissible for both gays and non-gays alike to use queer but not permissible for both blacks and non-blacks to use nigger.  When blacks use 'the n word,' as I understand it, they are speaking among themselves and within the context of their shared experience in a society in which racism remains entrenched and prevalent.  They are using the term not in order to neuter it or to confer legitimacy upon its use by non-blacks but the very opposite.  Nigger, when used by blacks themselves, should be understood to be a kind of shibboleth.  That is why the argument by some whites - "if it's okay for blacks to use 'the n word' then it should be okay for whites to use it" - is false.  It is a deliberately false argument when invoked by those who are actively racist and an ignorantly false argument when invoked by those who are passively racist.   Nigger simply has a different meaning and significance depending upon who is using it and why.

There is a vast difference between remembering history and celebrating history, just as there is a vast difference between acknowledging a history of racism by using words that reflect that history and  merely uttering racist words for the purpose of expressing racist thoughts.   Again, this is why context matters.  This is particularly relevant now, as the movement to do away with the living symbols of black oppression, such as the confederate flag and monuments to the heroes of the confederacy, gains traction.  The failure - or refusal - to distinguish between the act of remembering and the act of celebrating is a disingenuous way of perpetuating the original harm.  I mention this here because I see an analogy between the controversy regarding the civil-war- and post-civil-war-era symbols of the south and the movement to banish them from the public square on the one hand, and the controversy regarding Maher's use of  'house nigger'  and the impulse to banish 'the n word' from the public sphere, on the other.  If one seeks merely to document and remember history, then the appropriate location for the symbols of the south's rebellion over the issue of slavery is a museum.  If, alternatively, one seeks to perpetuate the legacy, the effects and the worldview of those who enslaved blacks, then the appropriate locations for the confederate flag and monuments to the heroes of the confederacy are flying over state capitols and in public spaces, respectively.   That is the difference between between a museum and a public space. A museum creates a context in which its contents are viewed critically.  If it is a historiographical museum, its contents are contextualized as artifacts.  The curator is, in effect, saying, "This is what was"; not "This is what ought to be."  In contrast, a public space presents its contents as a living statement of what is.  Its curator - the state - is, in effect, saying, "This is who and what we are."

Similarly, if one seeks merely to refer to the phenomenon of the 'house nigger' in service of a larger historiographical and didactic purpose, language, in that context, functions as sort of museum: a repository of a sordid past.  But if, alternatively, one seeks to perpetuate that past, then language functions in its capacity as a vital and immediate means of conveying racist sentiments.  That, I maintain, is the difference between the phrase that Maher used and 'the n word.' The problem, here, aside from the fact that Maher had no legitimate reason to use the phrase that he did in the first place, is that his show is much more public sphere than it is museum.  Indeed, that is why it's called Real Time.

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.