Thoughts on the heightened sensitivity that comes with age. My latest, in the new issue of Eclectica.
According to experts, there are 134 million demons or evil spirits in the world.
I learned this from a television newscast. I live on the top floor of a building in Brooklyn that faces south, and I pick up several New Jersey and even Philadelphia stations. This particular broadcast was coming from south Jersey.
The anchorperson, an attractive blonde, went on to recount in her detached anchorperson voice that the reigning pope (John Paul at the time), both in his former capacity of bishop of Cracow and as pontiff, performed and was continuing to perform exorcisms.
Then she broke for a commercial.
I immediately began to wonder about that figure 134 million. It seemed seriously inadequate, especially if you allow for all the guardian angels and other benevolent spirits flying about or attending to the divine throne in heaven. There are about 6 billion people in the world. That means that to have some sort of evil influence on each one of them, every demon would have to service about 45 people. I used to work for a big-city welfare department. I also counseled drug addicts. So, I have some idea of the maximum caseload a professional can competently handle. Fotry-five seems to be right on the edge.
Of course on any caseload there are always some clients who require only the minimum of attention. For demons, these would be the Hitlers and Stalins of the world and their small-time counterparts. Also, the Christian Right, hardline Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews, not to mention the hundreds of millions of ardent Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists and other godly folks, would be among the harder spiritual nuts to crack and might reasonably be put on a back burner.
That leaves us with a core constituency of perhaps twenty to twenty-five souls ripe for each demon’s picking. Not a number beyond the ability of any well-trained professional, especially when you consider that a demon, being immaterial, can go at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with no time off for paid holidays, sick leave or vacation.
This particular television station, by the way, was the same that used to flog a videocassette about the sins of the flesh committed by our then-sitting president. The commercial pulled no punches and spared no delicate civic sentiments. Bill Clinton was depicted as the willing slave of the Devil.
Since it was “experts” who came up with the number 134 million for the demons at large in the world, I didn’t question it initially. But then I got to thinking: Why 134 million and not 135 million? Or some other number entirely?
Until I remembered that at the beginning of the current era (A.D./C.E.) well-educated people took for granted the existence of demons and other various good and evil spirits. In fact, the experts of that day knew the names and rankings for each species, so to speak—Dominions, Powers, Thrones, etc. Each kind of spirit had a job to do for good or ill. Paul the Apostle and other intelligent men and women, Christian, Jew and pagan, never questioned their existence.
It was an age that prided itself on its science as much as we do our own, and had pretty much figured out how everything worked and where everything’s place was in the cosmos. Ptolemy, for instance, devised an ingenious and mathematically precise set of formulae to describe the workings of the universe based upon the obvious fact that the sun revolved around the earth, as did everything else in the heavens. Why shouldn’t the theologians and philosophers be able to classify the varieties of spirits and, with a little help from holy writings, calculate precisely how many there were?
The pope, as a modern man, uses aircraft, television and even public relations people to help him get across his message. The Ayatollah Khomeini preached his revolutionary call via audio cassette during his exile in heathen France before boarding a jet to assume civil power in Iran. And of course the most hardcore religious terrorists use weapons of a distinctly modern cast when they want to blow up a building or take out an abortionist.
So, I suppose it should have come as no surprise to find that well-groomed anchorwoman being able to precisely pinpoint the number of devils, minor and major, plying their trade. Nor should it have been a shock to find that commercial airing about Bill Clinton. Putting one and one together, it all began to make sense: 134 million evil spirits loose in the world; a degenerate in the White House; the pope (recently sainted John Paul) feeling obliged to personally cast out devils in his spare time. The planet is going to hell in a handbasket, and the bulk of us are worried about ephemeral matters like health care and climate change!
Thank God there are still people of faith as well as science keeping abreast of what is taking place in the invisible world. While physicists argue about how many quarks can dance on the head of a proton, god-fearing folks are passing along the much more important spirit count provided by the world’s front-rank demonologists, with special emphasis on those ensconced inside the Beltway.
Check these people out on your own local stations. Neglecting to do so would not only be unscientific but could be dangerous to your spiritual health.
The other day I heard an interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, currently on tour for the English edition of his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Pope Francis has himself just published a book called The Church of Mercy, mercy apparently being the theological flavor of the season). But I suspect the real reason the cardinal rated an interview on my local public radio station is because he’s known as “the pope’s theologian,” much as Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) was known as “the pope’s [recently sainted Pope John Paul's] Rottweiler.” Having Kasper in studio must have seemed like the next best thing to having the pope himself there and a golden opportunity to pick the cardinal’s brains about the course of Roman Catholicism under Francis’s papacy.
But first the host Brian Lehrer, a gentle but intelligent interviewer, questioned Kasper about the meaning of the word mercy and the reason for its being so high up on the new pope’s agenda. The cardinal happily distinguished mercy from compassion (active versus passive), mercy from justice (complementary), the biblical origins of the virtue (Sermon on the Mount, among others). After several minutes of Q&A, though, little light had been shed on the subject either for the host (who is Jewish) or for me or, presumably, for other listeners to the program. But Lehrer had not denied Kasper his ten minutes for flogging the book, which was after all his immediate reason for appearing on the show or, for that matter, his being in the US in the first place.
Lehrer then moved on to the questions he, and much of his audience Catholic and non-Catholic alike, wanted answers to: Did the pope’s emphasis on mercy and understanding mean there would be any change to the church’s position on birth control or homosexuality or divorced and/or remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist, etc.? To all of which Kasper replied in diplomatic and noncommittal terms. He said Catholics are already making up their own minds about birth control, though he reminded us the church is not against all kinds (presumably he was referring to the “rhythm” method). And in the case of Catholics who have divorced and remarried, that choice is their own responsibility.
If you’re one of those Catholics, ex-Catholics or non-Catholics who have been hoping for something truly different from this pope compared with his predecessors, if in other words you have been hoping for a reassertion of the kind of liberal attitude with which John XXIII shook up the church fifty years ago, I’d say the prospects are dim. John XXIII was an anomaly, a tragic mistake in the view of the church itself or at least that part of it that has put into power all popes since John XXIII and before.
The cardinal didn’t indicate anything had changed doctrinally for Catholics with the ascension of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papal throne. In case you missed it, just a couple months back Pope Francis threatened the Mafiosi of southern Italy with eternal hellfire if they don’t mend their ways. As long as the church continues to keep hell (and heaven) in the picture, no amount of mercy-talk will change the fundamental use of fear and reward with which the church has always kept the faithful in line. Justice requires a hell by this logic, but it’s the sinner who condemns her/himself to eternal torment, not God, as the church sees it.
Kasper and the pope are simply staking out the themes of the new papacy, much as candidate Obama put forth the themes of his candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember “Hope and Change”? The traditional John Paul/Benedict XVI authoritarianism (attended by the revelation of a church-wide, decades-long cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children) got nowhere in the developed world, however much the church’s continued harping on homosexuality, the use of condoms and an insistence on a males-only clergy appealed to the conservative mentality of the hierarchy and the faithful in Africa and Latin America where the church is doing quite well, thank you.
John XXIII’s papacy was an attempt to return the church to a more collegial governance combined with a “preferential preference for the poor” that spawned a Liberation Theology movement which the church itself, with the help of like-minded friends in the US government and its armed forces, has since been doing its best to suppress, sometimes with murder.
Two hundred years ago the papacy was a feeble office to which the rest of the church paid little attention. The Kings of France, not the pope, appointed that nation’s bishops, a shocking example of papal impotence by today’s standards. The revival of the papacy as a “unitary power,” to use the phrase favored by those who want the same kind of extreme authority for the president of the United States — a preeminent, unassailable last word in matters doctrinal and ecclesiastical — started, as best I can tell, with Napoleon’s agreement to put the pope back in the driver’s seat if he, the pope, sided with the Little Corporal in his Italian wars. The consolidation and expansion of papal power has continued under subsequent popes until today it is all but forgotten that ultimate power in the church used to reside in councils of bishops with the pope acting as first among equals. Today we assume the pope is not only the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals but is the sole initiator of policy in those areas. No synod of bishops can do more than humbly offer advice. The pope is dictator, elected by a body of cardinals themselves appointed by, yes, previous popes. And, the last I heard, no ordinary Catholic or even ordinary priest or bishop gets to cast a ballot for anyone. The church is no more democratic than was the politburo, which also “elected” the head of the Soviet Union.
There are many good people who serve humanity in the name of Jesus — nuns who look after the most destitute cast-offs, who literally each day moping up the waste of people who have no chance of recovering from AIDS and other degenerative diseases. I know someone who has held babies who would not live out the night, would die untouched and unloved by anyone but those nuns. Those women don’t make the nightly news broadcasts.
There are others too, some of them clergy, who lead lives of dedication to the poor and who sometimes lose their lives because they do. The popes and bishops rarely represent these Catholics. The hierarchy’s preoccupation is with the institution of the church, just as it was a thousand years ago when they had the power to execute anyone who deviated from the doctrine they laid down. Berdoglio/Pope Francis did not get elected pope to upset a two-thousand-year-old organization that is still recovering from the changes attempted by his predecessor half a century ago.
We get the leaders we are willing to settle for, whether it’s in Rome or Washington. We will get different ones when we demand them. But I have yet to hear anyone call for a democratization of the Roman Catholic Church (admitting that I don’t get around much in Catholic or any other religious circles). The idea, I suspect, is not even up for discussion, just as the idea of ordinary people taking over their own political and economic destinies is not up for discussion, the failure or Bolshevik communism having apparently proven the inevitability of corporate feudalism and top-down, money-driven politics.
At the risk of sounding like yet another pie-in-the-sky/pinko idealist living in La La Land, I suggest reading Rudolph Rocker’s Anarchosyndicalism, written (elegantly) in 1938 and as fresh and full of good, practical ideas as anything you’ll come across. All it proposes is what has already been demonstrated in other parts of the world as well as right now in many places in the US: that ordinary people are quite capable of ordering their own lives and of cooperating with their neighbors to their mutual benefit.
Meanwhile, if you’re still a Catholic, I suggest you start asking for the basic right of any human being to elect the people who claim to have the right to lay down laws by which they, the faithful, will get to spend that part of their existence called eternity. Democracy was good enough for the earliest version of Christianity. Why not now?
The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand in a recent interview said he was “becoming more and more convinced that the Nazi reaction, the antisemitic, Nazi reaction was not against the marginalized, it was the revolt of the marginalized against the center.”
This idea runs counter, of course, to the generally accepted version of the reason why the Nazis came to power. It also contradicts the still popular notion, however discredited, that there was something in the German character that was all but innately anti-Semitic. “Jews were at the center,” Shlomo goes on, “in terms of their way of life, they were citizens. They were Germans. They spoke German better than Hitler.” Unlike the Jews of eastern Europe, the Jews of Germany or France had no other, Yiddish culture. They were Germans and French whose religion, not ethnic identity, was Jewish, and that’s what they had been for more than a hundred years.
They were also urban and hence relatively well-educated. The people of the countryside in any nation feel a loyalty, even a primary loyalty, to their village or province that is impossible for a city-dweller. The word civilization derives from the Latin word “civitas,” meaning “city.” It may be a bit chauvinistic to say so, but civilization and hence national identity is primarily an urban phenomenon. Being urban, Jewish Germans like other city dwellers constituted the “real Germans,” as the diarist Victor Klemperer described people like himself, Germans who stood for the high culture and progressive thought that Klemperer himself represented.
Nazism for Sand, then, was a takeover by those outside the mainstream of national culture against those who represented the mainstream, not just Jews but anyone who stood for any point of view that was not in accord with National Socialist orthodoxy.
I wonder if we aren’t experiencing something similar today in the United States — not a Nazi or neo-Nazi revolution but a takeover of our government by our own marginalized minority against the mainstream. How else can we account for the dissonance between what pollsters tell us and how the government acts? Even before Obama came into office polled showed a 70% approval for single-payer national insurance — Medicare for all, i.e. But Hillary Clinton when confronted with this fact by the Harvard physician who headed up the single-payer movement at the time, told him to “Get real.” And Barack Obama took the single-payer option off the table before negotiations for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) even began.
A similar percentage of Americans in 2003 opposed attacking Iraq. It was the first time in US history a significant anti-war movement formed and took to the streets before a war began. Bush-Cheney bombed and invaded Iraq anyway.
Today we have a Republican House of Representatives that’s controlled by its most radical members who want to undo Social Security and Medicare and severely limit or abolish the social safety net that protects the least advantaged, especially those underemployed or unemployed. They hold to a doctrine that state assistance leads to chronic “dependency,” the same argument, indeed the same word, used by British parliamentarians in the 1840s to justify their allowing a million Irish to starve to death in a land that continued to export food to England.
The Democratic party, in thrall like the Republicans to large corporate backers, is under the influence of an equally marginal ideology.
Meanwhile, the American people, despite tens of millions of born-again Christians and others who espouse a radical conservative agenda, still back social programs and foreign policy that is at odds with what the government gives them. This looks to me like what Professor Sand proposes was the situation in Germany when the Nazis came to power.
How long will we tolerate our elected officials acting against what the American people want? Will we, like the German people, come to a point where our votes no longer count but are just plebiscites staged to provide cover for the Leader’s latest abridgment of our freedoms?
As it is, we can barely claim to be a democracy any more, according to a recent study out of Princeton University — hardly a bastion of progressivism. The system only works for those who oil it with big bucks. And if we think our salvation will come at the hands of a political messiah, the disappointments of Barack Obama’s two administrations should make us think again.
In our case the margin that is taking over our nation, or has already largely done so, are the financial and corporate elites, not an ideological cadre of malcontents. Those elites don’t have an ideology beyond a belief in what makes them even more wealthy. If useful idiots like Paul Ryan espouse a political theory that suits the one percent that control the wealth of the nation and through that wealth its politics, fine. But the one-percenters could not care less about Paul Ryan’s ideology fantasies. As long as he and his cohort support the practical business of money-making, he could spout Marxism or devil worship for all they care.
And the latest bad news is that the rich aren’t just earning a greater and greater proportion of the national wealth as earned income. The present generation of super-rich and their progeny are now raking in a greater and greater percent of the annual GDP as income from investment, as Thomas Picketty’s very popular new book Capital in the Twenty-first Century documents. This development is putting us in more or less the same position as those South American nations which for centuries were owned and run by a handful of families. The rest of us become reduced to the status of serfs and vassals. There’s a kind of runaway global financial warming going on that will soon become too powerful to effectively challenge. But, if we think the super-rich run America now, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, if Monsieur Picketty is right.
And, lest those among us with professional or other advanced degrees and/or six-figure incomes think this is only bad news for the laboring masses, assuming they can find jobs, we should consider if material security purchased at the price of personal freedom and democratic governance is worth it. As things stand now the intellectual classes already labor in the vineyards of the status quo. Is there some offal we will not eat, or is a ticket to a prestigious university and a life of middle-class privilege all we aspire to for our children and grandchildren?
America has perfected the art of controlling its population without the crude tactics of the Nazis or their mirror image the Bolsheviks. Our media self-censors as effectively as either of those fascist dictatorships muzzled their own press. Almost nothing gets onto the airwaves or into print that the ruling class does not want, and when anything unfriendly to it is allowed to appear it is spun as radically as anything in Pravda or Das Reich.
When the ruling class of the South lost the Civil War and their legal right to own other human beings, it didn’t take long before they — having themselves become the marginalized — found they could produce a similar labor force by simply arresting freed slaves and putting them on chain gangs. The practice continues today in our increasingly corporate-run prisons. Again, the margin — in this case the staff that make up the jailors and, in the case of privately run facilities, the owners and stockholders — has taken control.
We have already slipped into a semi-police state without most of us even noticing it. American citizens can no longer count on the protection of the Constitution to safeguard us against unwarranted searches, detention or even extra-judicial execution. The takeover which the Nazis of Klemperer’s time had to effect discretely until they had achieved absolute power has been realized in America by open acts of Congress and by acts of the president taken on his own initiative, beginning in earnest under the Clinton administration, as was documented and decried at the time by Nat Hentoff, and continuing under the Bush and, even more so, Obama administrations.
It may be springtime in America for the super-rich and their political enablers, but it’s going to be a long, hard winter for the rest of us and our progeny. Fascism may look more benign here than it did in the land of the Brown Shirts and the SS, but the results for our freedom and our republic may not be much different.
America has changed less radically in the last 80 years than has Germany, but it has changed nonetheless and in essential ways. We no longer legally discriminate. But we have not allowed those who wear our own version of the yellow star, those whose skin color makes them “black” ( a word that means different things to different people, the only common thread being ancestry from “dark-skinned” Africans), to entirely take it off.
Read my essay in the current Eclectica. Let me know what you think.
The longer I live on this planet the more it seems to me we’ve got it wrong about the sort of critters we really are. Even though we’re more or less willing to give up the idea we’re immortal spirits trapped in physical bodies — a notion David Hume saw through almost two hundred years ago — we cling to our reason and consciousness as setting us apart from the rest of creation like members of a middling caste that can at least feel superior to those below it on the social scale.
I’m not even talking about the revelations (science now provides “revelations,” a function once exclusive to holy writ) that our free will is as predictable as a crossing light if you apply electrodes to the right parts of the cranium. Rather, I’m referring to mind itself, the thing we experience on a moment-by-moment basis, the thing we like to think is separate from, if not entirely free of, our feelings or emotions. Hence we speculate on the possibility of a computer achieving something like human consciousness. No one but Hollywood script writers assume cyber-consciousness would be accompanied by emotion. Mind, reason, we like to think, can function by itself given the right algorithms and sufficient chip speed. Emotion is something left over from our more primitive days before the great evolutionary leap forward that gave our prefrontal lobes command and control.
It ain’t so. We are feeling animals, not thinking ones, or at least not as thinking as we like to believe we are. Other animals think. Probably all of them do. You could even say that plants think. One of mine recently outfoxed me when I tried to prevent its putting forth a powerful-smelling flower in order to reproduce itself. It got wise to my trick in the past of cutting off the shoot before it could fully bloom and stink up the room. This time it put forth the shoot hidden in the back of the plant where I didn’t notice it, and it did so entirely out of season in the autumn when the daylight was waning instead of in the spring when it had previously bloomed. And the clever little bugger almost succeeded. I smelled something but didn’t immediately recognize what it was until the shoot was almost in full flower and only then after skeptically searching through the dense leaves and discovered it sequestered deep down in the dark recesses of the plant. Tell me this isn’t intelligence, if not exactly conscious thought.
I don’t know what kind of affective life that plant has, though I worry when I cut off its withered leaves. But I do know so-called animals have a very rich emotional life. Yet, we have denied animals, even cats, dogs, horses and other domestic animals, the possibility of having true feelings and have treated them more or less the way we would treat a vegetable or a stone. In the real world, though, we and they are identical in this respect, whatever our specific and superficial differences. A dog doesn’t think as I do, he thinks as a dog. But he seems to feel pretty much the same things I feel, and it’s his feelings, not his thoughts, that make him who he is, just as mine do me.
My consciousness gives me the illusion of operating at a distance from my emotions, those dark, animal chemical states left over from a deep past which other species have not been able to break free of. This sense of separation between emotion and consciousness is an illusion, but it’s a powerful illusion, and it must have been given a great boost when the mutation that took place tens of thousands of years ago changed us into the sort of people we are today. It made possible art, philosophy, science and, of course, language, the latter being our distinguishing attribute, or so our wise men and women keep telling us.
But just as we were wrong for so long about the mind’s being a spirit, we are just as wrong about its being the essence of what makes us human. And we are probably just as wrong about the quality of the so-called animals’ interior states.
We can see this same failure on our part to recognize other species’ likeness to ourselves if we look at the way we view human civilizations that have not had the same tools for recording themselves as our own have. Unless a people has left behind a written, architectural or some other discoverable proof of their intelligent life we assume they had none, or none comparable to our own. Until a couple hundred years ago the civilizations that lay beneath the sands of Mesopotamia were mere backdrop to the high achievements we accorded ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures, firstly and especially because the Greek and Hebrew cultures form the bases for our own but also because until fairly recently we had nothing from any other that compared with the Bible or the Homeric epics.
Now we know that the Bible is largely a product derived from those buried civilizations, that ancient Israel, which disappeared as a state about 750 BCE, and Judea, which only came into its own after the sixth century BCE, were, like every other culture, products of contact with the great civilizations surrounding them plus their own local contributions to those derivations. For millennia we lived without any major literary text that predated the stories in the collection of Hebrew texts we call the Bible, until in the mid-19th century the epic tale of Gilgamesh emerged from beneath the sands covering the ancient city of Nineveh. Yet, Gilgamesh, like the Book of Genesis, is itself a compilation of tales put together from material dating all the way back to the Sumerians many centuries earlier, predating either the Bible or the Iliad by a thousand years.
My point being that it’s only because we can express ourselves, put into literary or some other artful, recordable form our thoughts and feelings, that we claim a priority for our own or other recorded civilizations in what used to be called the Great Chain of Being. We write, paint, build, invent, compute…therefore we are. If it were only thought that proved our existence as human beings, the great majority of human beings who have occupied this planet could not be considered existential human beings, because they left behind no record of themselves, any more than a dog or a cat does. The peoples (we dare not call them “civilizations” if they left no sophisticated records) who have lived without acquiring the art of writing and built no monuments to themselves we dismiss as irrelevant to human history. An oral culture may in fact surpass that of one that is literate or at least one that has a scribal class (all cultures have been 95% illiterate for much of their development, the ancient Greeks being the first to achieve something like 10% literacy), but we have no way of knowing such a civilization apart from the artifacts it created and so discount it as “primitive.”
An oral culture that dies out or is subsumed by one that either incorporates or rejects its body of oral art becomes a non-culture. In effect, it never existed. It is the literate cultures, in the West the Greek and Hebrew, that we see as the great achievers because, like us, they not only produced significant art and thought but, more importantly, they recorded themselves. If other cultures also recorded themselves, as did the one that produced that version of Gilgamesh that lay buried for so long under the sands of Nineveh, but remained unknown or underexplored because we believed we had all the art and literature of the ancient world that mattered, they may as well have not existed at all, even if, as in the case of the Sumerians, they were seminal to all the civilizations that followed them in that part of the world. We already had the intellect of the Greeks and the revealed Truth of the ancient Jews, so why go digging in the desert to see what may or may not turn up when we had such low expectations of finding anything comparable there?
But all peoples in every age have led full, rich emotional lives whether they had the means to express those feelings or not. Less “civilized” societies must have also been less encumbered by the illusion of a disembodied consciousness and lived in their bodies more comfortably, or at least without the fantasy that they were essentially different from the other living things around them. The notion of a separate entity — call it “soul” or “spirit” — marks the beginning of our ignorance about our true nature and even about how we live on a moment-to-moment basis. Art is our best way of expressing this life, what it means to be human/mammalian. Art is accessible to the consciousness but cannot be experienced except in a much deeper part of ourselves. Do other animals also express themselves in some similar way? For the most part we have worked hard to prove they do not, and that unwillingness to share a common life with our fellow creatures has hobbled even our most rigorous scientific efforts. After all, it’s only in the last century that some parts of the world have admitted the female sex to humanity. We have a lot of catching-up to do with our more furred and feathered brethren, especially the domestic, edible versions for whom, in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, “every day is Treblinka.”
Descartes should have written, “I feel, therefore I am,” but he was victim to more than two thousand years of Western hubris. And, by “feel” of course I’m talking about the very rich and complex total state which we subdivide at our peril into “consciousness,” “subconsciousness,” “emotion,” etc. Even Descartes, when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” was really describing an experiential rather than a purely rational state. That’s why the proposition he stated seems self-evident: it’s compelling, like the experience of free will, and the experience of a compelling notion is hardly something that can be called abstract or purely rational. We exist because we experience existence. We have free will because we experience choice. In that we are not a whit different from any other creature with a brain. We just prefer to believe we are. But, then, I suppose if dogs or cats could express themselves in a way we could understand as language they would also claim preeminence over every other species.
Imagine if there were no such thing as circumcision — or, if you prefer, as I do, “genital mutilation” — either female or male. No history of it anywhere among any ethnic or religious group. And then one day someone reported finding a group deep in the highlands of Papua New Guinea or the wilds of Utah practicing it on their young children and newborns.
We would, most of us, be outraged, just as most of us are now outraged by the practice of the cutting of female genitalia whether it is performed in Africa by an old woman with a rusty knife or by a top-flight surgeon in a fancy Western hospital. And, yet, a lot of intelligent, even well-educated people who approve of female circumcision in both those places do so on grounds that it is a revered and time-honored tradition. Most of us find their attitude appalling, given the frequent consequences of female circumcision — sexual dysfunction (which, we are told, is ultimately its purpose, i.e. the reduction of female sexual desire) and the incontinence that is its unintended but not infrequent consequence.
Less criticized, in fact more frequently defended and even, in the case of HIV/AIDS, promoted, is the practice of male genital cutting. It is, of course, a less radical procedure than what is practiced on young women, though female circumcision from what I understand varies from the removal of part or all of the labia major to complete excision of the clitoris. Male circumcision means removal of the foreskin, the tissue that covers the sensitive area just behind the crown or tip of the organ. That area in an uncircumcised penis becomes exposed during an erection and contributes greatly to sexual pleasure during intercourse.
Or, so I am told. I wouldn’t know because I was circumcised at birth, not for religious reasons but because it was until very recently standard medical practice for newborn boys. Why?
There seem to be many answers to that question. The usual medical — really pseudo-medical — one is hygiene: an uncircumcised penis is more prone to infection. Odd, that we should not only have survived as an organism for so many millions of years without evolution correcting for this defect in the male anatomy if it has been serious enough to cause modern doctors to do so with such regularity. You would think the males whose penises got infected during the course of that evolution would have died out at such a high rate that nature would have selected for a penis without foreskin, though the opposite seems to be the case, and not just among humans, as any pet owner or visitor to a zoo can attest.
I suspect the main reason for widespread secular male circumcision in the 19th and 20th centuries was moral: male, like the more drastic female circumcision, decreases sexual pleasure and therefore, the reasoning goes, reduces the incidence of masturbation, which was considered a serious physical and mental danger to human health once modern methods of surveillance in boarding schools, prisons and other mass-residential institutions was introduced. About 1800 “an epidemic of masturbation,” to use Michel Foucault’s phrase, seems to have broken out all over Europe, thanks to that surveillance.
Medical texts in the 19th century depict side-by-side portraits of the Masturbator — thin, stooped, slovenly, wild-eyed, a physical and mental wreck — and the non-Masturbator: upright, clear-eyed, healthy. Not just men were under suspicion. Girls had their fingernails inspected for the tell-tale erosion caused by pubic fluids, and even in the late 19th century clitorectomies were performed on middle class women for the purpose of curbing their sex drive while during the same period physicians treated high-strung, “hysterical” women — the word means something like “womb crazy” — with something they called therapeutic “manipulation.” Sigmund Freud, otherwise fairly original, is said to have inspected the trousers of boys brought to him for traces of dried semen. And, in the mid-20th century the high school catechism in use at Jesuit (also considered otherwise progressive) high schools listed the effects of masturbation, among which were “insanity and even death.”
Just in case you think male circumcision is a more or less benign procedure, ask a nurse who has assisted at one. They describe babies howling in pain. Some of these professionals say they refuse to participate in circumcisions after experiencing what they are really like.
Nor do we hear much about what happens when a circumcision is botched in a hospital, though recently there has been coverage of the more frequent injuries done by the mohel, the man who does the cutting at a Jewish circumcision ceremony (Muslim male circumcision is usually done medically). I have no idea what the incidence of fistulas is, but I can tell you from personal witness a fistula can result in the loss of the entire crown of the penis, ending virtually all sexual feeling in the organ.
I don’t know what the doctor who cut my penis or the doctors who cut my sons’ penises a generation later were told in medical school was the reason for this procedure. I discussed the matter beforehand with the man who performed it on my younger son (the idea of doing so never occurred to me nine years earlier, such was the degree of acceptance for the procedure). Sensing my misgivings, he smiled and suggested he do a “partial,” whatever that meant. But doctors have notoriously recommended procedures and practices in other matters — breast milk bad, formula good (1930s); women with radiation sickness living near atomic-bomb proving grounds diagnosed as neurotics (1950s) — on the grounds of good medical science only to have their theories later exposed as politically, racially or morally motivated. Think of the Eugenics movement in the early part of the 20th century, endorsed by many of the people we regard today as secular saints, from Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger to Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes…and, of course, Adolph Hitler. Thousands of Americans were sterilized, and millions of would-be immigrants were denied entry into the US after 1925 — a large part of whom could have been spared the Nazi slaughter — as a result of an act passed by Congress after testimony before appropriate committees by well-credentialed members of the scientific community.
Circumcision has been around for a very long time (it’s dated to at least 15,000 BCE), at least in the form practiced by what we drolly refer to as homo sapiens. Australian aborigines, who separated from the rest of us about 40,000 years ago, circumcised themselves in their adolescence, sometimes vying with each other for who could cut more off. Circumcision was already common in ancient Egypt and the area of the world we now call the Middle East at the time the ancient Israelites adopted it. What possessed the man or woman who first got the idea that it would be a neat thing to cut off some of their own or their child’s sex organ is beyond me, just as it is beyond me why there is still so much tolerance for the practice today in the United States. But, then, we put up with a great deal in the name of either religious freedom or science (which is frequently anything but), even when that involves violating the right of a minor to her or his bodily integrity. The BBC recently ran a piece about a young woman, a British Muslim opposed to female circumcision, who went out onto the High Street and asked non-Muslim pedestrians to sign a petition in support of female circumcision. She approached nineteen people, as I recall, and only one failed to sign the petition, some of them saying they don’t approve of the practice but, since it is “your tradition,” Muslims should be allowed to go on with it.
But there are push-backs current as well. Not all Muslims feel obliged to have their sons, never mind their daughters, circumcised, and there is a group called Jews Against Circumcision numbering in the thousands in the US. And, of course, there is a worldwide campaign being waged against female circumcision/genital mutilation, which is still widespread in both the more remote and most cosmopolitan parts of the world.
But I don’t think it’s wise to separate the horrendous practice of FGM without addressing its male counterpart (leaving aside for the moment the question of AIDS prevention, which can perhaps be argued on medical grounds and on a temporary, voluntary basis in places where AIDS is epidemic; the argument for circumcising males in order to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer may also be worth addressing but not as a way of simply ending the discussion). In both cases mutilation is taking place for no good reasons that outweigh the risks, according to a growing number of medical professionals, some of whose numbers were of this opinion even at the height of the practice of male circumcision in American hospitals. And, unless you subscribe to the notion that sexual pleasure is not a serious reason for anything or believe that males have enough of it anyway without demanding what nature provides for when left alone, there don’t seem to be any reasons left for the practice except religious ones. We already hold parents accountable for withholding medical attention for religious reasons from a seriously ill child. Why would we not hold them accountable for mutilating their child’s sexual organ?
15,000 years seems long enough to be held captive to this cruel, gruesome practice. No one I know would support FGM, but male circumcision, though far less drastic and usually less horrific in its consequences, is mutilation nonetheless. To allow one while condemning the other is not only illogical, it’s counterproductive because when you make exceptions for one group of victims and not another the result can be bad news for both. If we want the maximum support of men for the abolition of female genital mutilation, we should not pretend their own experience of genital mutilation is not worth addressing just because it’s not as extreme as FGM or because by addressing it we will step on the toes of one group or another. Circumcision is genital mutilation in both cases. Pretending otherwise is like denouncing racist or anti-religious murders when they are perpetrated against one group or religion while remaining silent about lesser violence against another.
It just makes no sense.