In praise of circumcision: Curbing male barbarism

Men may soon complain that they’re being objectified.

In recent weeks, national public discourse has steadily focused on the male sex organ. First, California ballot measures advocating for the ban of male circumcision caught national attention, sparking intense debate between proponents of the religious ritual (“It has health benefits!”) and those who oppose it (“It’s genital mutilation!”). And then, in a discomfiting display of his own Semitic snip, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) injudiciously Tweeted a picture of his package to an online coquette, unleashing a flurry of online-liaison confessionals and prompting calls for him to resign from Congress.

Before that, the spotlight shone squarely on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose stunning sexual appetites led to emasculating consequences.

How ironic, then, that tales of male sexual deviance are met with reminders of religious restraint. God can be so calculating. All these “peccant peckers,” as Christopher Hitchens calls them, have men, in general, in a pickle.

Naturally, a first line of defense is to protect one’s private part.

During a friendly Tweetin’ tussle last week with his producer Eli Roth, actor Russell Crowe expressed his contempt for cutting: “Circumcision is barbaric and stupid,” he direct-tweeted to the “Inglourious Basterds” star.

“Who are you to correct nature? Is it real that God requires a donation of foreskin? Babies are perfect. [I have] many Jewish friends, I love my Jewish friends, I love the apples and the honey and the funny little hats but stop cutting yr [your] babies.”

That Crowe, who won stardom (and an Oscar) for playing a Roman gladiator, is unable to distinguish between real barbarism and a religious ritual that profits health is mildly dispiriting, especially when one of circumcision’s central aims is to curb male barbarism. Men are supposed to be reminded of God and, one could argue, moral behavior, in the very place they are most likely to betray religious ideals.

“Circumcision is the indelible symbol that a man can be more than just an animal,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, said. “The fact that you seal your connection with God and with tradition into that organ makes it incredibly difficult for that organ to be used as a weapon of manipulation or destruction. For men, this is the center of being: Is masculinity to be defined in terms of power and violence, or control and strength? What you see in the news is what happens when men make the wrong choice.”

All the hullabaloo over men behaving badly has proved an opportune moment for women, who are foisting their feminist critiques about different gendered approaches to power.

“[M]aybe feminists have learned that male development stops at power,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about a string of prominent men — Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, et al — involved in high-profile sex scandals.

On ABC’s “This Week With Christiane Amanpour,” a roundtable discussion on sex and politics became an exercise in female moral superiority.

“You’d be hard pressed to find a sex scandal involving a female politician these days,” Amanpour began, “which begs the question: What if there were more women in politics and in positions of power? Would they change the way business is done from Washington to Wall Street and beyond?”

The panel included a former Bush administration official and, strangely, Cécilia Attias, the former first lady of France and Nicolas Sarkozy’s second wife, who ran off with her lover during their marriage. But the discussion resorted to clichés: Women don’t cheat “because we don’t have the time”; “the perils of too much testosterone”; “women are attracted to [men in] power,” etc. By contast, an essay in Sunday’s New York Times suggested that while women enter politics more nobly to “do something” with their power, the seemingly shallower sex does so to “become something.”

“Women run because there is some public issue that they care about, some change they want to make, some issue that is a priority for them, and men tend to run for office because they see this as a career path,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told The Times.

Women are seizing upon this man-down moment to vent long-held beliefs and assert hard-won power. Soon, they have learned, all will be forgotten; men will be forgiven their transgressions (see: Clinton, Spitzer) while their female co-conspirators languish in disgrace (see: Monica Lewinsky, Tiger Woods’ mistresses, call girls, porn stars, college students and housekeepers).

The double standard endures, and women are fed up.

“In five decades, we’ve moved from the pre-feminist mantra about the sexual peccadilloes of married men — Boys will be boys — to post-feminist resignation: Men are dogs,” Dowd wrote last week.

Leave it to men, then, to enlarge ideas about the nature of their desires. The actor Alec Baldwin, whose own animal-ish impulses qualify him to comment, defended Weiner on The Huffington Post: “[H]e probably spends a great deal of time going to meetings, raising campaign funds and seizing upon every opportunity to remind people of how great he is as a public servant and a human being. It’s exhausting,” Baldwin wrote. “He exists under a constant pressure cooker of self-analysis and public appraisal. Like other politicians, he needs something to take the edge off.”

What powerful and public men crave may not be merely sex but a release from responsibility. Sometimes the only way to feel like a man is to act like one. Properly understood, circumcision is the sole barrier between instinct and utter ruin, and men could use a pointed reminder that sometimes inertia is more intelligent than impulse.