Friday, June 3, 2011

Anti-Semitism in San Francisco's Circumcision Debate

Is Glenn Beck onto something with regard to San Francisco's proposal to ban male circumcision? We usually take the Teary-Eyed One's theories about a dark global conspiracy involving lefty academics, socialists, the Obama Administration, and Islamic militants with a giant grain of salt. But these days Beck is anxious about what he sees as an international movement to wipe out the state of Israel, and he's pointed to the San Francisco proposal as a sign of growing anti-Semitism within the activist left. Well, if this Chronicle report on the anti-circumcision literature circulating in the city is any indication, he might have a point.

Yes, this is real anti-circumcision propaganda in San Francisco.
Among the materials being circulated in support of the ban by its author, Matthew Hess, is a comic book called "Foreskin Man". The comic's cover features a blond superhero preparing to save a baby from an evil bearded rabbi, while one of the rabbi's henchmen holds the blonde mother back. (Click on the Chronicle link if you don't believe us.) There's also a "Foreskin Man" card set available through Cafe Press that features "Monster Mohel" (see right). The back of this card reads "Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the infantile penile flesh of an eight day old boy," and "[Intactivists] will have to pry the scissors from his cold, dead hand." To paraphrase George Carlin, this reminded us of propaganda we saw in a History Channel special on the 1930s, but we had a hard time understanding since the narration was in German.

We know enough liberals that we're not surprised when they don't care about religious freedom or the rights of parents. But there is something different about this circumcision ban. Our two blog posts on the subject have received an unusual number of comments that, well, we weren't comfortable printing (you'll have to trust us on this one). And this story only underscores the possibility of darker motives behind it.


  1. I agree about this anti-Semitic propaganda. It's a disgrace.

    However, on the proposal itself, anarchists will disagree, but libertarians who accept a legitimate role for government in protecting individuals from harm can (and should) endorse protecting children from non-therapeutic circumcision. Surgery in that scenario is an affront to the individual liberty of the child. It is objective physical harm. The child doesn't need and may not want to be circumcised. It is not an infringement on parental "rights" because parents don't have a legitimate right to impose any surgery they desire on their healthy children, even if there are culturally-agreed-upon potential benefits. They're not agreed upon by the child until he can consent.

  2. It's a tricky question. By your logic, parents don't have the right to care for a newborn in any way, since a child that young isn't capable of communicating consent. But that logic doesn't lead anywhere: infants would die without someone to care for them and make early decisions on their behalf. As such, the counterargument is that the parents of a newborn infant are the best people available to provide that care and make those decisions. And if one of their decisions is for circumcision, whether for downstream health benefits or as part of religious rite, I'm uncomfortable with any broad-brush effort to second-guess them. Particularly if that effort is coming from an anti-Semite from San Francisco.

    That's, of course, assuming one is having an honest debate on the issue of rights where circumcision is concerned. This propaganda suggests that that isn't the case with this bill.

  3. That's not the logical standard I'm applying. Feeding a child doesn't fall under non-therapeutic. It's need-based, if that's easier. A child needs to eat. A child doesn't need his healthy genitals altered.

    Parents are the best people to make decisions and provide care. But with what limits? If their power is plenary, then the concept of rights is omitted. The child is property. We don't recognize a parental right to abuse or kill, so there are limits. The question here is where the line should be, not should there be a line.

    I've been involved in challenging circumcision for a long time, so I've been aware of the Foreskin Man propaganda since it came out late last year. I fought it via e-mail then. But there's only so much anyone can do in a loosely organized movement. I'm hoping Hess will be shunned now. He will be by me. It's not perfect, but it's something.

    That said, the proposed law's wording should be read separately, if possible. Can it stand on its own as impartial and fair without the anti-Semitic propaganda? I think it can. It applies to the general population, since ritual circumcision is a small minority of circumcisions in America. The corresponding California prohibition on female genital cutting/mutilation uses the exact same language. We don't think that violates parental rights or infringes on religious liberty for those parents who mistakenly believe it's part of their religion. We wouldn't invalidate the law because a few people who support it are hostile to the religion itself.

    The problem is that any issue related to religion will bring out the rabid minority who are against the religion itself alongside those who are against the issue only. Personally, I'd make the law less restrictive. I think males under 18 are capable of choosing circumcision and should be allowed to do so, if they wish, for whatever reason appeals to them. Still, the principle of individual liberty/choice isn't invalidated just because a few idiots are involved.

  4. I appreciate your perspective, but "need" is an inherently subjective concept, so I think your distinction is muddier than you're acknowledging. For many Jewish parents, circumcision is an essential element of their family's covenant with God; as such, many people around the world might view it as a necessity. As far as whether parents' rights are plenary over their children, if pressed I'd say this is largely true: an infant isn't capable of giving or refusing consent to anything, and Hoppe would say that rights can't exist without that capability.

    I'm not insensitive to the concerns of people who dislike circumcision, but I think a government ban is the wrong way to go about expressing those concerns. Why does the element of parental choice have to be eliminated? If "intactivists" were pursuing their cause with the OB and pediatric medical societies, that would be one thing: why not encourage physicians to discuss the pros and cons with parents, so that their decision on whether to circumcise a child is as informed as possible? The freedom to choose isn't being abrogated in this case. But everything I've been reading about these folks suggests that they won't be satisfied by anything less than an outright ban.

  5. It is indeed unfortunate that anti-Semitics have jumped into this. The Equal Protection Clause, part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The laws must apply to all. If it is illegal to cut a girl's genitals, then it MUST be illegal to cut a boy's. If it is perfectly legal to cut off a boy's healthy foreskin, then we MUST allow girls to be infibulated. Period. End of discussion.

  6. Doctors make money performing circumcisions. They sell foreskins for medical uses. They are loath to CUT OFF this income.

  7. "Need" is objective in the context of the proposed law. Either need for surgical intervention exists, or it doesn't. Where it doesn't, we can't know what the child would want, even if raised by parents who believe it to be a religious commandment. Prohibiting non=therapeutic circumcision is the only way to protect liberty for the individual.

    However, I'm willing to grant that "need" is a subjective concept for the purposes here. Harm has subjective elements, but it also has objective elements. The surgery itself causes direct bodily harm to the child by removing healthy, normal tissue and nerves. The wound it creates causes scarring. Other objective harms may result. It isn't inconsequential. Protecting children from that harm is a valid role of the state.

    Our courts have repeatedly established limits on parental power, even in cases where religion is involved. If that's the wrong view, and children do not have rights because they do not possess capability, then should we interfere when parents harm their children in other objective ways? A punch to the face? Snip off a toe? What's the limit that puts non-therapeutic genital cutting on one side and other harms on the opposite side?

    Parental choice has to be limited where the child has an individual right. Non-therapeutic circumcision abrogates the child's freedom to choose or choose not to alter his normal body for his own reasons. (California law already protects this right for female minors.) Not all males circumcised as infants will care, but some will. There's no concern for individual liberty if some individuals can be violated to perpetuate the indifference of the majority. Parents would still be able to circumcise, but only if their son suffers a malady that might be resolved by it. That's the standard we apply to female genitals, and the rest of the body for all children.

    For what it's worth, activists are trying to educate OBs, physicians, and their medical societies. It's changing, but very slowly. Too often, it's the wishy-washy "leave it up to the parents" that wins. What about the child? Circumcision isn't nothing. Also, American medical societies do a lot more fence-sitting than non-American groups. Here, it starts with the status quo of parental choice and works to defend that to avoid upsetting the majority. I'm happy to keep pushing in that direction, but I'm not willing to idly allow more boys to be harmed while we wait.

    To put it succinctly, I wish someone had "violated" my parents illegitimate freedom to choose so I'd still have my legitimate freedom to (not) choose circumcision. I know that's not the standard libertarian view on children, but the standard libertarian view is wrong.

  8. @ Anonymous: I'm sure this is the lucrative source of income that doctors can't afford to let go of. Well played.

    @ Tony: Sorry, we don't have rights because the government lets us have them. It's simply not possible to form an indisputable argument that the government has the right to decide whether an infant's caregivers can allow an elective medical procedure to be performed on the infant. By what authority (apart from force) can the government claim the right to choose on the infant's behalf? Letting the government define our rights sets a very dangerous precedent, unless (like many lefties) you believe that the government has unlimited discretion over citizens, up to and including our use of our bodies. If you don't believe this, then you can't be comfortable seeing the state act on behalf of people whose motive seems to be hatred of Jews. Parents aren't perfect, but I'd still prefer they be the ones deciding, rather than this activist in Santa Monica: "If you raise your child to be smart and practice safe sex," circumcision is unnecessary. "If you're raising a dumb kid who won't use a condom, then go ahead and cut off two-thirds of his nerve endings and one-half of his penile skin."

  9. I'm a libertarian, not a "leftie", in case that's not clear.

    I'm not saying we have rights because the government lets us. I'm saying we all have natural rights, boys included, by virtue of being alive. Government's role is to protect those where they're violated, regardless of the violator. It can and does violate rights, of course. Here, the government isn't choosing for the child. It would be protecting the child and his rights until he could choose for himself, even if he chooses to get circumcised. If my rights are being violated, I'm not sure why it should matter if it's my parents or my government violating me. Everyone has a natural right to be free from harm. There is no corresponding "right" to grow up circumcised. That's the only right being created by government (through inaction).

    As for the proposal, the comic book's creators are pushing anti-Semitic nonsense. I reject that as fully as I can. (I have two posts about it at my blog.) After the damage they're doing to my advocacy for the principles I value, they'll be shunned, disappear and take their unenviable Google search profile with them. My principles will still be the same and easy to state. Non-therapeutic genital cutting on a non-consenting individual is wrong, regardless of the child's gender or the intent of his (or her) parents. The fact that some people tie that up with filth is unfortunate, but it doesn't alter the principle.

    I have a few questions: If parents should decide instead of the child, should California repeal its law against non-therapeutic genital cutting of female minors? That grants the state the power to restrict parental choice. What about laws against child abuse? I assume you have a limit beyond which you can endorse the state having some power against the parental choices, since I don't think you're an anarchist. What is that limit, assuming it exists?

  10. OK, my bad.

    I don't know if I'm an anarchist (I like to think I live in the real world), but I'm definitely not a consequentialist: no matter how noble the end in mind, it can't justify the means. As far as rights, I share Hoppe's skepticism with regard to "natural law" theories; human nature is too fuzzy and variable a concept to provide a clear set of rules constituting natural law. When you wrote, "If my rights are being violated, I'm not sure why it should matter if it's my parents or my government violating me," you touched on the reason why this is so tough to argue about: strictly speaking, force is impossible to justify. Partly because of the ends-means issue, but also because the only way to truly justify an action is to provide an irrefutable argument in support of it, and force is essentially a refusal to argue. In other words, you can't justify something by refusing to justify it. The only way circumcision could be considered immoral and a violation of rights would be if it were imposed against the child's expressed wishes, without consent (by the way, this is where the analogy to female circumcision falls apart, as it's almost never performed on infants). Therefore, a government ban on circumcision can't be justified: even if you view the practice as aggression, using force to stop force is an amoral action, nothing more. In that sense, when you talk about female circumcision or child abuse, there's nothing special about the government using force to stop them; I could use force to stop those actions myself, and it wouldn't be any less justified than the government's action.

    Again, I hear what you're saying, but I think you're spinning your wheels arguing that a government ban is the only solution.

  11. what difference is it if it's done on infants or in early childhood? They're both the same in that neither gave consent. Your argument is absurd.

    You wrote: "The only way circumcision could be considered immoral and a violation of rights would be if it were imposed against the child's expressed wishes, without consent"

    this DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS with your earlier views that infants or children can't decide for themselves and would die if not protected and thus it's the parents "right" to circumcise if they believe it's necessary.

    neither is male or female circumcision done with consent or in accordance with the child's wishes. The analogy fits just fine. Your contradictory arguments however are Absurd.

  12. @ Anonymous: Bullshit. A young child can absolutely give or refuse consent to something like circumcision. Saying "no" is refusing consent; if the parents insisted and had it done anyway, it would be an immoral act and I would agree with you. But an eight-day-old boy can't communicate "no"; therefore, the act can't be said to be done without his consent. It's amoral, nothing more.

  13. I think we're closer in agreement than it may seem on general concepts, but I'm not sure I understand the distinction that you think permits force by parents because the infant is unable to verbally communicate "no". An infant is unable to verbally communicate "no" to being punched in the face, having other parts of his body surgically removed, or worse. Are those amoral? Why is it reasonable to assume that an inability to verbally communicate "no" translates to a "yes" from the child? Is it reasonable to consider other forms of communication, such as struggling or crying during the surgery, valid forms of communicating "no"?

    A hypothetical: a newborn's parents die, so the state cares for the child. Is the state permitted to force anything on the child until adoptive parents can be found because the child can't communicate "no"?

  14. I'm not assuming it translates to "yes"; I'm only saying that a newborn is incapable of communicating a clear "yes" or "no". Unless someone is verbally saying "no" or giving you clear hand-signals of some sort (e.g., waving arms), they aren't communicating consent clearly. And the ethics of acting in the absence of consent or refusal are indeterminate; they aren't justified, but they aren't immoral either. By your logic, it would be immoral to deliver Vitamin K injections or Hep B vaccinations at birth, since newborns always cry when they receive them.

    Regarding your hypothetical, whatever the state does to that newborn would be an amoral act, no more and no less. The agents of the state might burn in hell for what they're doing, and what they're doing might cause a revolution (i.e., non-state individuals intervening forcibly to stop them), but those are separate issues. Intervening violently to stop the state would, moreover, also be an amoral action: you're free to do so if you're that offended by what the state is doing, but you're not justified in doing so, because by resorting to force you're refusing to justify it. And you would need to be ready for the state to respond with force to what you're doing.

    All of which is water under the bridge, because we're still miles away from any argument that justifies government force to halt circumcisions.

  15. I disagree, obviously. So it's back to limits on parental action. What are they? Are there any?

  16. So it's back to limits on parental action.

    Not really. You're the "libertarian" who wants to broaden the set of circumstances under which the government can use force against private citizens. And you haven't offered an argument establishing that force can be a moral act under any circumstance.

  17. I have. The state's legitimate role is to protect rights. Children have rights. Non-therapeutic circumcision violates the child's rights with no competing parental right. Therefore, state action to restrict the objective harm to the child is legitimate. That is a libertarian position.

    Your position is different. You don't agree that that limit is there, because of some unclear idea about the child lacking the ability to consent to an action thus rendering an objective harm-causing act "amoral". I don't think that's coherent, so I'm trying to understand what limits you think there are to parental action, if any.

  18. Dude, if you don't grasp how weak your argument is, I can only do so much to help. First. saying "That is a libertarian position" is not an argument. Libertarians disagree about a lot of things, and "The state's legitimate role" is at the top of the list. Trust me, there's no libertarian Scripture that I'm blaspheming here.

    The problem with your argument is that it boils down this: I think X is a human right (where X=no infant circumcision), therefore it's a right for all people at all times, therefore the government is justified in using force to enforce that right for all people in society at all times. This is no different from lefties who argue for compulsory health insurance using the notion that access to health care as a basic right. It's also the same way neocons defend things like the PATRIOT Act: hey, if it keeps us safe from terrorists, who are we to complain?

    So let's unpack the fallacies at work. First, there simply has to be a more secure basis for defining "fundamental human rights" than your assertion. As far as male circumcision, a Jewish family might argue that you have no right to tell them how to raise their child. So whose assertion is right? There's no way of knowing, and it's a slippery slope to assume that your assertions necessarily apply to everyone else, and that it's okay for the government to violate their rights because it accords with your assertion. This is why I like Hoppe's argumentation approach to defining ethics: logic is a much better foundation for rights than subjective assertions referring to an ill-defined "natural law".

    And your argument that the government is justified in applying force to stop male circumcision is still nothing more than arguing that ends justify means. A just act isn't just because of what it achieves, and an unjust action can never be justified by its results. After all, what does it mean for an act to be "justified" or "ethical"? When it's contradictory to argue against it. This is why force is unjustifiable. If you're trying to justify something, you're arguing in favor of it, yet the act of arguing with me presumes that you believe I have a basic right to exist without being subjected to violence. The moment you resort to force, you're not arguing anymore, so you're not justifying anything. I'm not sure why this seems like such a crazy argument to you: most libertarians believe in the concept of non-contradiction, and, you know, Aristotle and Kant were pretty smart too.

  19. If I thought libertarians agreed on everything, I would've written "That is the libertarian position." I wrote that it's a libertarian position. It was not intended to be an argument itself, but rather, a summary of the sentences that preceded it.

    Of course if I think X is a human right, I think it should be respected, even with the force of the government in its rightful role if someone intends to violate that right. (The latter part since I've already established that I'm not an anarchist.) I've explained why I view this as a human right to each individual rather than a parental right to be carried out on a child. You disagree. I think you're wrong, obviously, but instead of simply repeating myself when I believe you're smart enough to understand what I've written, I asked you to explain what you believe the limits are on parental rights, if any. Maybe you're right, but I won't be able to consider it if you rant rather than answer my question.

    I can assume, if I use your statements so far. "So whose assertion is right? There's no way of knowing, and it's a slippery slope..." From that I infer that you don't think there are limits that are universal. They seem to be merely the arbitrary opinion of each parent. If someone disagrees, it's not anyone else place to step in. I'm not willing to declare that's what you believe because I think that position is monstrous. There are no limits there that would make children anything more than disposable property. I asked directly so that you may state your position.

  20. That's the gaping hole in your argument, though: my thoughts on the limits on parental behavior are a secondary matter. We're asking whether the government is justified in seizing up to $1,000 of someone's money or imprisoning them for up to a year to punish them for performing circumcisions. Since it's impossible to argue that force is justified without contradicting yourself, force can't be justified, so the answer is no. So my opinions aren't relevant to the question of whether the ban is justified. To quote the "Bad Teacher" movie, that's the only argument I need.

    I'm not sure I'm an anarchist, but the consequentialist reasoning that many minarchist libertarians use has always bugged me. Logically speaking, it's no different from statism. Your political philosophy seems to be "Government needs to stay out of our lives, except in areas X, Y, and Z, where the ends justify the means." This is exactly how the most totalitarian lefties and neocons view government, and why most libertarians can't defend their politics to statists. Personally, I think arguing to expand the government's authority to use force (in a situation where doing so will infringe on religious freedom) based on the desirability of its outcomes, even when you know that that force isn't justifiable, is "monstrous".

  21. Sorry, I was out-of-town without an Internet connection.

    Force can't be justified? I disagree with that. If someone is breaking into my house with a gun and the police show up, they are justified in using force against the intruder if he continues threatening me (or them). If someone is kicking me in the head, then the police are justified in using force to stop that.

    Do you think the state has a legitimate police power?

  22. In a strict sense, no; justification requires argument, and the decision to use force is in essence a decision to stop arguing. Once again, the ends don't justify the means.

    I would frame your question differently: if an armed intruder breaks into your house, why are the police more justified in using force against him/her than you are? In other words, why don't the same rules about violence apply to everyone?

  23. I don't think the police are more justified in that scenario than I would be. My hypothetical is based on the presumption that I'm in a scenario where I can't defend myself. If I had the means, I am justified in using force there. The police are, also. At some point debating someone threatening to violate or violating my rights becomes ridiculous. I'd say it's fairly quick when force becomes justifiable, by anyone trying to stop the violation.

  24. Justification: I do not think this word means what you think it means. The act of justifying an action is inseparable from the act of arguing. That doesn't mean there aren't circumstances in which acting without argument is a good idea. An armed intruder in your house isn't justified in their action, but in a strict sense, he or she is only presenting a technical problem for you to solve. Of course, if the policeman wants to solve that problem for you, that's his or her choice as well. But action outside of communicated norms of behavior, (again) strictly speaking, is not justifiable, because the actor is refusing to justify it.

  25. Parents aren't justified in circumcising a healthy son because he is healthy and has rights. Circumcision is currently an accepted norm, but that doesn't make it unassailable. I don't believe you're arguing that we should turn the clock back to social norms of centuries long gone, so the idea that a present norm may eventually be unacceptable shouldn't be foreign. 200 years ago, slavery was the accepted norm. State action would not have been justified under your theory, yet we don't now accept slavery. You can't proceed as if our knowledge and behavior is solidified and forever static. Yet, that's the argument you're making here.

  26. Reading comprehension. The question of whether circumcision is or isn't justified is separate from the question of whether a government ban is or isn't justified. I haven't argued that circumcision itself is justified, just that the use of government force to ban it can't be.

  27. Is a government ban on infant abuse/murder justified? An infant cannot consent or object to it. I literally cannot follow your logic, so could you clarify? You're saying that because an infant cannot speak or shake its head (though it wails miserably when hurt, like during circumcision) then aggression used against it isn't aggression, but a few years later it qualifies as aggression because the child can consent or object? I'm sincerely confused and would like your clarification. I just found this blog and it's very well-written and interesting so I'm just wondering what your position is.

  28. This post might help.

    What I'm getting at is this: what does it mean to say that an action is justified? To my thinking, justification is inseparable from argument. If you and I debate whether some action is ethical or proper, one of four things can happen: we can agree, we can disagree and go our separate ways, we can disagree and keep arguing, or we can stop arguing and settle things with force. But if I resort to force, that means I've stopped trying to justify anything, by definition. So there's a contradiction in positing the use of force as "justified." Whether it's the force of my fist or the force of the government seizing property and imprisoning people makes no difference.

    Many libertarians get tripped up on the idea of an absolute, positive right to physical freedom, and that force to defend that right is always justified. But an absolute right to physical freedom leads to other contradictions (e.g., why can't I put my fist into the same physical space where your head is?), and is ultimately incompatible with the concept of private property. Ultimately, force - all force - boils down to the choice to treatment other people instrumentally, as a means to an end. Are there circumstances in which the consequences of not applying force are so dire that it makes a lot of sense? Sure. But even if I think my reason for using force is very noble, I'm still treating another person instrumentally. More importantly, I can never know a priori whether that action is justified, because consequentialist ethics always justify action after the fact. As such, force - which seems great in some cases and awful in other cases - would seem to fall outside the category of ethics, if no rules exist that define force in the context of proper behavior.

    Ultimately I think the only place to find those rules is in the first instance, where we reach agreement on some ethical proposition. If we agree that X is a proper action, then doing X is ethical, and not doing X is unethical. But that requires communicating in a way that can be understood without reasonable doubt.

  29. Well constructed argument GSL. I think i found my new time-killer right here on this blog.

  30. How many Libertarians can dance on the head of a pin?


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