Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Anti-Circ, Antisemitism, and Genital Mutilation

. . . In Aleppo once
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state
I took by the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus.

—Othello, Act V

Mom, nobody wants to hear about shmeckel-snipping!
—Lizzie DuPree


Those lines from Othello were first spoken at London’s Whitehall Palace, in front of King James I, who by this point in the play (late in Act V) was probably napping into his pointy beard and ruffled collar. James was a great patron of the arts, but not a great one for sitting through them; none of the post-Elizabethan monarchs were what you would call intellectual powerhouses. Who knows, maybe the Duke of Buckingham discreetly elbowed him in the ribs for Othello’s dramatic death scene.

Of course, everyone in that room, and on that stage, would have been uncircumcised. (Including the actor playing Othello’s wife Desdemona. I think “uncut with tits” may now be its own separate channel on xtube.) Circumcision was unknown among European Christians. In fact, uncircumcision had been seen as a sign and mark of Christianity, dating back to Saint Paul’s fulmination against it back in the New Testament, in the book of Galatians. Circumcision, some recent converts to this Messianic sect argued, was still necessary as a covenantal act. Paul, the great apostle of baptism as the Christian covenantal sign, rejected that point of view. He railed against those “Judaizers” who wanted to make Christian converts be circumcised, wishing that they would castrate themselves. And he despaired that his converts were being turned from spiritual to physical matters:

"Are you so foolish, that, whereas you began in the Spirit, you would now be made perfect by the flesh?" (Gal 3:3)

"Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all." (Galatians 5:2)

This rejection of circumcision by Christians held good for many hundreds of years. It was never a popular procedure anyway—it’s not like people in the ancient world lined up around the block for it. It was always a distinct (and distinctly weird) practice of the Jews, who were weird anyway, because pork was the cheapest, best, and most available meat of the ancient world, and what freaks would refuse to eat it? So while none of the actors on that stage, good Christians all, would have been circumcised, Othello the character was.

That’s the bit of wordplay in his final soliloquy here: he is supposedly talking about some random Turkish guy he met in Syria once (he probably means Arab, but the two are interchangeable, from Shakespeare’s point of view, much the way Americans use “Mexican” to mean “brown person from anywhere south of Houston.”) But in fact the “circumcised dog” who is about to get all smoted upon is none other than Othello himself. And Othello, of course, is circumcised because he was born a Muslim – a Moor, in Elizabethan parlance. Circumcision was a common practice among Muslims, mentioned in the hadith (sayings of the Prophet and collected customs) though not in the Qur’an. Probably it’s one of those Jewish practices picked up through Islam’s powerful association with Judaism—remember that the direction of Muslim prayer was originally Jerusalem until the Jewish tribes of the Arabian peninsula managed to piss off the Prophet so severely that he decided they could all go fuck themselves, and the camel they rode in on.

So peen-slicing was for Jews and Muslims, but never Christians. What changed? Well, a number of things. Around the turn of the last century, circumcision began to be popular for male infants, for a variety of somewhat bizarre reasons. The germ theory began to take hold of the public mind, and anyplace where bodily fluids (and therefore germs) could accumulate was held to be dirty. Circumcision was also touted as a way to prevent infection from syphilis and various other uritogenital diseases. Finally, circumcision was seen as a way of eliminating promiscuity, “excessive venery,” and masturbation. I’m sure we all know how well that last worked out. I’ve yet to read a study correlating circumcision rates with the rise of the American hand lotion market, but if the whole promotion of circumcision in this country turns out to have been a capitalist-industrialist plot funded by cigar-smoking robber barons of industry at Johnson and Johnson, I for one will be unsurprised.

Circumcision rates in this country are falling off from their peak about fifty years ago; I think the latest stats say it’s about half and half now, for all male babies born in the US. As Americans learn there are better ways to prevent syphilis (and masturbation), I expect those rates will continue to fall. And like any cosmetic adjustment to the human body, those rates will be driven by what people get used to seeing around them. In other words, as more and more little uncircumcised boys romp on the soccer fields of America, more and more anxious suburban parents who just want their kids to look like everyone else’s will choose to forego the procedure. And as those little kids grow up and have their own kids, “looking like Daddy” will mean fewer and fewer circumcisions in American hospitals.

For Jews and people whose religious tradition mandates it, circumcision is an option that makes cultural sense; for everyone else, I don’t much see the point. In fact, I would think Jews would be against universal circumcision. After all, there’s not much point to your sign of distinctiveness if everyone else has it, too. Maybe lots of Jews promote universal circumcision because they can remember how that identifying mark has been used against Jews in the past, or maybe they are made as nervous as I am by the “intactivist” movement that paints circumcision as a barbaric, bloodthirsty, and abusive practice. And the subject is recently in the news because of a proposed ban in San Francisco against the practice, which besides making outlaws of Jewish parents, would jail doctors for performing a routine medical procedure.

I’d like to give the majority of those activists the benefit of the doubt. Most likely they are unaware of the historical context of their actions. Ignorance of historical context does not, of course, excuse one: if I call an African-American man “boy,” and explain it away by saying I just mistook his age, that doesn’t lessen the gut-slam of everything my blunder just invoked. If I stick a Confederate battle flag bumper sticker on my car, I don’t get a pass if I say that I just thought it was a pretty design. Awareness of the context of our speech and actions is a sine qua non of adult behavior.

Jews react to circumcision bans as precisely that level of thuggish racism, because in the course of their history Jews have in fact experienced circumcision bans as racism. And it’s a little hard to swallow the whole line about “this isn’t racism, it’s just concern” when Matthew Hess, one of the chief proponents of the SF bill and a leading “intactivist” produces images and cartoons like this. Still not seeing the racism? How about taking a look at Monster Mohel? Yeah, now come talk to Jewish groups about how this movement isn’t anti-Semitic in the least.

Of course, what is being proposed in San Francisco is nothing new. The first ban on the Jewish practice of circumcision was enacted by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, whose objective was to stamp out Jews by stamping out Jewish practice. Laws forbidding circumcision were promulgated in the wake of the Second Jewish war in 135 CE, a particularly bloody and hard-fought revolt Hadrian had just succeeded in (finally) winning. It wasn’t the first time Jews had tried to throw off the Roman yoke either, if the name “Second Jewish War” didn’t give it away. So Hadrian decided to nip this problem (so to speak) in the bud: no more circumcision would equal no more Jews. He also outlawed the teaching of Torah, a prohibition Jews defied just as stubbornly. Rabbi Akiva’s students begged him to stop teaching so publicly, and he pointed them to the riverbank teeming with fishermen. “It is dangerous to be a fish in that water,” he said. “But as dangerous as the water is, he will surely die out of it. It is just so for a Jew and Torah.”

Hadrian also had some other cool and highly effective ideas for humiliating Jews, like renaming their capital city after himself, refusing them the right of residence in it and naming their land after their ancient Biblical enemies the Philistines – hence the new and expanded province of Syria-Palaestina, and the birth of Palestine as a term for Israel/Judea.

The desire to stamp out Jews and the banning of circumcision are historical partners, from Hadrian in the second century to the Nazis in the twentieth. Those who campaign against the practice need to be aware of this vicious historical partnership, and need to know that Jews are going to hear all of those historical resonances as an existential threat, which of course it is. There is no Judaism without circumcision. Judaism is the only religion for which circumcision is the non-negotiable entrance requirement, and so it has been (according to Jewish tradition) since the time of Abraham. There’s just no mechanism for “doing it another way.” Circumcision is and always has been the baseline identifier of the Jewish people, for good and ill. It is the covenant marked in our flesh, the inescapable, undeniable proof of who we are. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some Jews who have abandoned the practice, just like there are some Jews who really enjoy their pepperoni pizza. But it’s surprising; even totally secular Jews who might think nothing of that pizza have qualms when it comes to giving up circumcision for their sons. Many a mohel can tell about awkward phone calls from uncertain, completely assimilated parents who still can’t quite, can’t entirely, forego that badge of Jewish identity for their children, when it comes right down to it. Because when it comes right down to it, they know brit milah for what it is: the dividing line between Jewish and not Jewish, between continuance and death.

In addition to being ignorant of history, you also have to be more than a little ignorant of medicine to oppose circumcision. The medical consensus seems to be more or less neutral on the subject. Circumcision, for inhabitants of the first world with plenty of access to regular bathing and condoms, probably carries little benefit in terms of protection from infections. On the other hand, neither does it do any substantive harm. It’s a bit like having your earlobes snipped off; no real difference to you other than a cosmetic one, but if you don’t have a compelling reason to cut off healthy tissue from your body, why would you? No scientific study has found any evidence of significant difference in developmental and behavioral indices between the circumcised and the uncircumcised male, as confirmed in this British Medical Journal’s study of the matter. There is, however, a huge difference between circumcision performed on an infant a few days old and an adult. The adult procedure is major surgery, with all the attendant risks. So all those proponents of delaying circumcision until the child is old enough to make the decision on his own are doing him no favors, but in fact setting him up for more pain and risk.

There’s an even more ominous angle to the recent surge of anti-circ activism. The term circumcision itself is out of vogue with opponents, who prefer the term “male genital mutilation.” By itself it just seems slightly hysterical, but again, context is key: those who use this term are deliberately invoking female genital mutilation, a practice that resembles male circumcision about as closely as trimming your fingernails resembles amputating your arm. In female genital mutilation (FGM), the clitoris is most commonly completely excised, along with most of the inner labia. What remains of the female sexual organs is then sewn together, creating a tiny hole through which urine and menstrual blood can pass and of course setting the child up for a lifetime of pain, infection, and sexual misery. Cutting off the penis and removing most of the scrotal sac would be the equivalent action. The practice is brutal, revolting, and mandated by no religion other than misogynistic custom.

To draw a verbal equivalency between circumcision and FGM is to participate in that misogyny. It trivializes the real suffering, the excruciating pain, the lifelong irreparable harm, these young women are subjected to. That kind of equation is like telling someone in a developing country you can empathize with their lack of access to clean water because of that horrid week you experienced during your recent kitchen reno when the contractor had shut off your plumbing and was like, totally not returning your calls and you had to camp out at the Sheraton. The only possible response is: bitch, please.

When anti-circ activists gleefully appropriate the images and language of racism and misogyny, they play a dangerous game. On the other hand, they do make it very easy for those of us who are not ignorant of the history of anti-Semitism, of medicine, or of misogyny to see exactly what they are about.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Duchess, Fat Stone Age Chicks, and Me



Gabrielle d'EstrĂ©es, Duchess of Beaufort and Verneuil, was (depending on how you look at history) either the mistress of King Henri IV of France, or the world’s most famous nipple-pinchee. You probably know the painting even if you don’t know the story: two women sitting naked in what appears
to a cloth-draped tub, the one on the left reaching over to pinch the nipple of the one on the right. It’s the sort of painting that makes you think, all right, the decision to sign up for that 8 a.m. Art History seminar may not have been a total waste.



The interpretation of the anonymous painting goes like this: Gabrielle’s sister (the pincher on the left) is grabbing a fingerful of titty to show the viewer that Gabrielle is pregnant, and that these fertile breasts will soon be squirting warm mama-milk for a future King of France – a King, rather than just another bastard son of a mistress, because Gabrielle (the pinchee on the right) is holding King Henri’s coronation ring. This is supposedly an indication that Henri will soon be getting his annulment for his marriage to Marguerite de Valois. This annulment seems to have been a done deal. You can imagine King Henry VIII of England (he of the six wives and the religious troubles) spinning in his corpulent grave at how goddamned easy that Frog King has it, getting his annulment rubber-stamped while poor Henry had to get jerked around for years waiting for his, and then still had to go start his own Church anyway just so he could finally marry his mistress (and then behead her for being a totally irritating slut, but hey, marriage is hard.)

Gabrielle was Henri’s closest friend, as well as his chief adviser and confidante. By the time of this painting, they had been together eight years, she had already borne him three children, and she regularly kicked his ass on policy questions—the whole “Paris is well worth a Mass” thing, where Henri converts to Catholicism to unite his kingdom and secure inter-religious peace? Yeah, that was her idea. Edict of Nantes, promoting religious tolerance for Huguenots? That was her too. So confident was Gabrielle that the annulment and her subsequent marriage and coronation would come off, that she is said to have remarked, “Only God or the king's death could put an end to my good fortune.”

Actually, eclampsia did that.

Within months of this painting’s completion, Gabrielle would be dead from complications of her pregnancy—what we would call eclampsia today, a condition of late pregnancy in which the patient experiences multiple tonic-clonic seizures, hypertension, liver failure, pulmonary edema, and eventually death. Onset can be sudden, and there is no cure other than removal of the placenta; eclampsia and pre-eclampsia do not occur in the absence of a placenta. No one in the sixteenth century knew that, or could have done anything for her if they had, surgical techniques for termination of a late-term pregnancy not being what they are today. Battlefield amputations and various limb-hacking surgeries, they did okay with, if by “okay” you mean a fifty-percent survival rate and unbearable agony; internal organ surgery, you’re S.O.L. for at least another three hundred years.

Of course, today we’ve perfected the life-saving surgery, but still managed to make it hard to come by, and if the current crop of Republican presidential nominees had their way (I’m looking at you, Rick Santorum), I would be as dead as Gabrielle if I developed eclampsia in the next few days, since in that particular worldview abortion is always the ending of a life, and the ending of a life is never justified. A baby’s life, that is; the mother’s life and wellbeing are apparently expendable, a negotiable commodity in a way that male life somehow never is.

One of my favorite moments in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is when we get to visit a museum full of Paleolithic objects, and see a whole array of fat little statuettes, the most famous of whom is known as the Venus of Willendorf—christened by some turn-of-the-century wise ass, no doubt. These figurative, mostly headless carvings of the female body are the oldest human representations that exist on the planet, the oldest carvings of people we’ve got, and this is what we chose to make. I’m picturing Og and Ug sitting around the campfire of an evening, fondling the mammoth tusk from the day’s kill, and Og says, you know what this makes me think of? A fat-ass chick with giant boobies, that’s what. And Ug nods thoughtfully and says, yeah man, I can see that.


And the thing is, there are TONS of these artifacts—tons in terms of how much Paleolithic art we have, which is of course not a lot. And while I’d seen these in individual collections before, I’d never seen a whole tabletop of them arrayed together until Herzog’s film, and it struck me that maybe I should have stayed awake more in that 8 a.m. seminar, because it had never occurred to me before that these women aren’t fat: they’re pregnant. When would Paleolithic man ever have seen an overweight woman, or an overweight man for that matter? Hunter-gatherer societies are not known for their high incidence of obesity. Even if you could somehow manage to cram enough undercooked meat and berries into your mouth to get overweight in the first place, that spare tire tends to make running the hell away from the saber-tooth tiger or rampaging wooly mammoth quite a bit harder. But of course, they would have seen plenty of pregnant women—women whose hips ballooned, whose thighs spread, whose breasts swelled, whose whole-body fat deposits enlarged. Fat equals fertile, and fertile equals magic; you don’t have to be superstitious Paleolithic man to know that when a live human being comes out of somebody else’s body, that is some freaky shit.

So the thing is this: men have always spiritualized pregnancy. Seriously, how can you not? But what makes me uncomfortable is that while sure, pregnancy can and does have a spiritual dimension for women too, for the most part we experience pregnancy as a tremendously, overwhelmingly physical reality. What appears to men as an act of God, is for us an act of our intestines, our liver, our lungs, our bladder, our blood and bone and viscera. So this spiritualization of pregnancy, as deep and instinctive and understandable as it is, historically has signaled danger for women. The same impulse that led to the creation of those numinous little statuettes, leads to the anti-choice fulmination and bombast of the fat white guys on the floor of legislatures in southern and midwestern states. To Og, and to those legislators, women are magic baby boxes, and messing with the mojo brings bad juju from the Sky God, or something like that. No doubt I’m oversimplifying what I’m sure they, and people who agree with them, see as highly complex and subtle arguments. But it’s hard not to over-simplify and show contempt for reasoning that shows contempt for you; it’s hard to be even-handed when it is your own body, and your own sovereign right to it, that is under attack. When it’s your life, you’d be surprised how worked up you can get.

On the edge of my second trimester with this pregnancy, I bled out. It was kind of astonishing, what that looks like, what blood in such massive quantities on your own bathroom floor can look like—big slippery gelatinous clots of it, dark maroon and brown and nothing like the vivid siren-red smears of my imagining. I remember hunching on the floor, sobbing sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry to my panicked husband, because I felt I had let him down, let everybody down, had failed in the most fundamental duty to my family and the human race. I remember lying in the emergency room, praying for an end to the pain, praying that some motherfucking apathetic nurse would come increase my morphine drip.

I survived, and what’s actually surprising, so did my baby. I remember seeing him on the ultrasound that night, this tenacious little speck of a thing, clinging to the upper wall of my uterus while the deluge continued around him, like a stubborn spider who refuses to be washed down the drain. Well, if you can hang in there, so can I, I remember thinking. It’s a dangerous business, this pregnancy. Medicalize it all you want, surround it with the comforting blip of fetal monitors and maternal EKGs, but it’s still what it has always been—a dirty dangerous business in which we die, a lot of us. Take a look at this map for an idea of how many. (Note as well those countries with the lowest maternal mortality rates; funny how they all seem to be those “socialist” countries where healthcare is a universal non-privatized right.)

We take our life in our hands every time we consent to see a pregnancy through to its end, which is why our consent – our consent at every step of the journey—is the sine qua non of a civilized and grateful society that respects what we are undertaking to do for the common good, for the furtherance of this marvelous, complicated, messed-up, strange and wondrous species. Our lives as women have value, and not just contextual value; if today I am rushed back to the emergency room with eclampsia, I would hope no doctor would say, you must save her, she has three children and everything to live for! I hope that someone would say, save her because she is a human being, because her life has individual value, and it does not have more value than that of the strung-out childless meth whore crouched in the hallway slowly bleeding out from her own botched abortion.

After the death of Gabrielle d'EstrĂ©es, King Henri was by all accounts heartbroken. She had begun seizing on the ninth of April, and within hours gave birth to her fourth child, a stillborn son. Henri was at the Chateau de Fontainebleau, and she was in Paris; by the time he reached her on the tenth of April, she was as dead as her baby. He went wild with grief. He draped himself in the black of mourning, an unprecedented gesture for a French monarch; he gave her the funeral of a Queen, the queen she would have been, and forced all the French nobility to march bare-headed in her funeral procession to her requiem mass at St. Germain l’Auxerrois. And after his annulment went through, he did in fact marry again—a politically expedient marriage to Marie de Medici, who gave him six children, among whom was Henrietta Maria who went on to become Queen of England and widow of King Charles I, who lost his head on the chopping block of Revolution. Kingship is a dangerous business too. Power of any sort is, and historically the only way women have managed to get any is with our reproductive organs, which is to say, with our life.

In two weeks or less (please God, not more) I will give birth to my own fourth child, a boy. I don’t know much about him. I know he likes music—high-pitched vocals or thrumming bass, doesn’t much matter. Or, he really hates music, and is just banging on the walls of my uterus to try to find the off-switch. I know he likes movement; whenever I lie down I get a couple of swift kicks like you might give to your sputtering lawnmower to get it going again. Odds are he’ll be as ginger-headed as the rest of my crew; odds are he’ll be just as stubborn and particular and strange. His life will be full of challenges and problems, but he will never have to face the peculiar challenges of pregnancy or childbirth. He will never hear his rights to his body made the subject of reasoned debate, about which reasonable people might disagree. I’m as glad for him as I am scared for my daughters, who will come to sexual maturity in the state of Georgia. I’m out of the baby-making business, after this, but they won’t be. I hope—I pray—we can do better for them than we are doing now, in our legislatures and our mean-spirited laws and our politicians’ ridiculous demagogic and supremely unhelpful proclamations. I hope we can do better for all of us.