The first presidential debate is Wednesday night. Will there be any real philosophical fireworks? Probably not.
One reason the debates can be such a cognitive slog is that the “issues” rarely have moral substance. Moderators tend to toss out toy topics that fall into two categories. First are open questions people pretend to care about, like deficit management. Second are the closed questions people once cared about, like birth control.
Sure, the deficit and birth control, squeezed with enough force, can emit fumes of divisiveness. But neither has the immediacy and heft to promote actual acrimony. A real humdinger election issue—think abortion or nukes—should power dinner-table filibusters. It should divide families, make people cry, engender yearlong silent treatments.
Along with cars and other factory goods, is America just not pumping out real issues these days?
Maybe. Still, I can see one twisted sleeper issue that has blockbuster potential: circumcision. The practice of trimming the penile foreskin of baby boys.
Proponents like it because it’s customary in many circles, and evidently inhibits the spread of AIDS. Opponents call it MGM (male genital mutilation) and object to it as superstition retroactively rationalized by science. The American Academy of Pediatrics now advocates circumcision for health reasons. But while religious figures like Rabbi Harold Kushner have further argued that the procedure is painless and inconsequential, the late Christopher Hitchens, citing the procedure as pleasure-dulling and traumatic, called it “the compulsory mutilation of the genitals of children.”
Didn’t see that coming, did you? Hang on. There’s real promise there. For starters, neither candidate will mention it—ever. As long as he’s in politics. As long as he lives.
Circumcision is repressed as a subject because, at this very moment, it’s that hot to the touch. And I’ll tell you how we know. We don’t know what Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh think about it. And your friends: even if you know who they’re going to vote for, even if they have “We Built It” tattoos, who knows where they fall on the incendiary foreskin debate?
Circumcision, for now, lies too deep for politics. One day, when it’s emptied of its unspeakably powerful emotional implications and turned into a soundbite, it might decide elections.
For now it’s just mortally significant.
Is anti-circumcision a left-wing cause, for people who favor organic food and green politics and natural childbirth? Or is circumcision a religious and ethnic issue, one that divides Jews and Americans from the rest of the world, where circumcision is not customary but increasingly recommended? Is rejecting circumcision a position for nature freaks, hedonists, child advocates, Californians, Europhiles, non-conformists, climate-change-deniers who further deny that circumcision helps prevent the spread of AIDS?
Is it a gender issue, for men who seek parity with women in the laws that prohibit nonconsensual, nonmedical genital alteration? Is it a world health issue? Is it, perhaps, an anti-ethnic issue, with anti-circumcision the position of those who see circumcision the way Ron Paul and others see the Fed—a historically Jewish or Jewish-inflected institution that is part of a conspiracy against their personhood, their freedom, their…manhood? Their very penises, and those of their sons?
What a tangled psychosexual web we weave. As with abortion, transvaginal this and that, or the dozen issues surrounding sexual orientation, what seems natural to one side horrifies the other. Religion and ethnicity come into play, and ancient rivalries, and lizard-brain subjects involving physicality and sex and death and what disgusts you and what makes you feel free.
Last week, an anti-circumcision group lobbed e-grenades at an Amazon bestseller that seemed to advocate for circumcision. “Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It,” by the journalist-epidemiologist team of Criag Timberg and Daniel Halperin, was sailing up the list of top books when it was brought to a standstill by a “one-star campaign,” a form of interference in which activists flood a book’s reader reviews section with negative reviews.
Why? Tinderbox lays the blame for AIDS at the feet of European imperialism, but that wasn’t the problem. Rather, using statistics from the World Health Organization and others, the book cites male circumcision as a preventive measure against HIV infection.
That was enough for the anti-circ crowd to storm the Bastille. But they didn’t ambush the Romney campaign or the Obama bus. They didn’t even hurl questions at the candidates on Twitter. Rather, the activists took their outrage to the digital sphere and threw their clogs—as the original saboteurs did—into the workings of the machine, of Amazon, of the Internet.
That’s how today people weigh in on what horrifies them, what inspires them—the subjects the candidates won’t touch. It would be fascinating to see circumcision come up in the debate Wednesday night. Even to see a heckler bring it up.
Especially to see a heckler bring it up. Anyone up for the task?