So the ever snarky team at the Washington Post Style section decides to do a feature story about male circumcision.
(Cue: rim shot and cymbal splash)
It does sound like the start of one of those jokes: “So a priest, a rabbi and a televangelist walk into a hospital …” There are just so many bad puns that can be used in this circumstance, starting in the headline: “Rallying in the Name of the Unkindest Cut? Sharp Rhetoric Abounds In Circumcision Debate.”
I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?
The good news is that reporter Dan Zak knew that there was more to this story than laugh lines. Thus, we have this excellent summary of what’s going on, as he covers a protest rally by “intactivists” at the White House:
How intactivists define circumcision: a cruel, traumatic and unnecessary surgery (the American Academy of Pediatrics says the benefits are not sufficient enough to recommend the procedure) that causes enduring sexual and psychological injury to a helpless infant who can’t give his consent.
How much of the medical community defines circumcision: a simple, nearly painless operation that removes an obsolete part of the body that can increase a man’s susceptibility to infections and sexually transmitted diseases (circumcision reduces the risk of getting HIV by 60 percent, studies show).
How religion defines circumcision: as a covenant with God, as conveyed to Abraham.
It’s a lopsided fight, but each side has doctors and lawyers. Each side has data. Each accuses the other of denial. One side is labeled as a bunch of baby-cutting sex criminals. The other is labeled as sex-obsessed, fanatical loonies who are duping the public.
Now for that bad news: if you are looking for serious content about the circumcision wars, other than about matters linked to the sexual revolution (and medical issues linked to it), then this is not the story for you. If you want puns and painful sidewalk exchanges between demonstrators and people yelling at them, then you’re in the right place.
There does seem to be an awareness that the sexual issues themselves have taken on a pseudo-religious dimension. Take this passage, which seems to jump out of nowhere, near the end of the feature:
There is, of course, a serious, disturbing side to this. Leading the pack are two 21-year-olds, Jason Siegel and Zachary Levi Balakoff, who are on Day 3 of a hunger strike. They say they won’t eat until genital mutilation is exposed. Go ahead, ask them why. They’ll tell you, for many minutes, about the “entire realms of exquisite feeling” they are missing by not having foreskins and the corresponding nerves. The “giant monstrosity” of circumcision “envelops” their entire lives.
“If we have to die, then that’s what’s necessary,” Balakoff says. They say they’ll sit in front of the Capitol until they starve.
Clearly, religion plays a major role in this culture, when it comes to mothers and fathers making decisions on this issue. Would it help to know what several major faiths — other than, obviously, Judaism — teach on this issue? Then again, it would be good to ask what Reform Judaism teaches on the subject. As you might expect, that’s a complicated question.
What are the trend lines today among Catholics? Evangelical Protestants? Mormons? The few liberal mainline Protestants who have children? How about the Muslim rites? The opposition among Buddhists and Hindus?
This is a case where the Post did dedicate quite a bit of dead tree pulp and ink to a complicated, emotional story. The reporter and the editors had enough space and could have covered the serious content, along with a few of the laugh lines. Why mention the religion angle, acknowledge its power, and then ignore the relevant facts?
Then again, if sex is a religion for many modern Americans, then the story is fine and no cuts or surgery is required.
Illustration: The icon of the feast of the circumcision of Jesus.