Better than being an irrational hermit

I’d planned to examine yesterday’s Best of the Web Today yesterday, but the Phillies are in town and the game didn’t get rained out as expected. That’s okay, because the absurdity of Mr. Taranto’s logic hasn’t faded. In the section titled “Rational Fools,” he discusses libertarians who believe we must keep an absolute protection on civil liberties while trying to prevent terrorism. The entirety is ridiculous, with Mr. Taranto reaching a conclusion that is nowhere on the map of his initial argument, but a few bits stand out.

Mr. Taranto begins by focusing on this passage from a recent editorial:

Richardson R. Lynn, dean of Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, had an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the other day in which he argued against any limitations on civil liberties in the name of preventing terrorism. This passage is especially revealing of the mindset of civil-liberties absolutists:

Even if a totally preventive legal system did work, should we adopt it? The horror of losing friends and loved ones in the inexplicable violence of terrorism is surely one of our deepest fears. But someone has to say: There are worse things.

Naturally Mr. Taranto can’t think of what might be “worse things,” although he acknowledges what I perceive to be the proper context for “worse things”. Seemingly, no “worse things” for individuals justifies eroding civil liberties for all. Mr. Taranto accuses Mr. Lynn of thinking only of the abstract notion of what is good for society, yet somehow fails to see that he’s doing the same in believing that erasing civil liberties for all is acceptable if it protects the good for one. Reverence for civil liberties can be absolute, but is the belief that any measure against the whole is reasonable as long as it protects any less absolute? In preventing terrorism there can remain no element of the risk of living. We must live in a safe world. Nonsense.

It is entirely rational to accept some level of terrorism, crime or disorder rather than live in a police state that claims to guarantee perfect safety.

That is from Mr. Lynn. Mr. Taranto responds with this:

Like Dukakis’s arguments against the death penalty, the truth of this assertion is debatable (and never mind that no one is seriously proposing a police state). But also like Dukakis’s answer to Shaw’s question, it misses the point in a profound way. Human beings are not “entirely rational.” If we were, we wouldn’t worry about losing loved ones in terrorist attacks, because we wouldn’t love anyone.

If you believe in all of the civil liberties protected by the Constitution, you also believe that human beings shouldn’t love anyone. Emotionally safe, sanitized, and encased in bubble wrap, so there is no interference in pursuing the libertarian dream of drugs, hookers, and firearms. Mr. Taranto may believe that libertarians live in a dream world that doesn’t exist, but I’d rather strive for a dream world than live in fear.

Or a police state. The defense against our march to police state is laughable. Of course no one is seriously proposing a police state. That’s what makes the erosion of our civil liberties so awful. For more than two centuries, our liberties were the goal of conservatives, but now they must be sacrificed for safety. Yet, no one wants to claim credit for the damage done. Blame the terrorists, for they are the ones who hate our freedom. Passing blame doesn’t change the reality of what’s being done to us, by us. Saying we want a police state is not necessary to enact a police state, or at least policies indicative of a police state. Implementing police state policies in secret speaks loudly enough for me.

Mr. Taranto concludes:

Wisdom entails not only rationality but also due regard for human feeling. In this regard, civil-liberties absolutists seem totally oblivious. Fear is the enemy of civil liberties. If America suffers another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11, Americans will become more fearful–a reaction that is not entirely irrational–and civil liberties will become more vulnerable. Civil libertarians’ lack of concern with preventing terrorism may be “entirely rational,” but it sure is foolish.

Americans will become more fearful. I don’t doubt that, as the initial reaction to any attack will not be rational. But we’re nearly five years beyond September 11, 2001. Shouldn’t there be room for some rational discourse, with respect for our principles? I understand that the answer in practice is no. However, why do we accept our leadership selling fear? That may be due regard for human feeling, but by Mr. Taranto’s logic, it also makes our leadership the enemy of civil liberties.

A dose of overwrought fashionable blather

I missed this entry about circumcision while I was on vacation, but there is a specific point worth addressing¹. I’m paraphrasing, but the author concludes that male circumcision is acceptable because it has medical benefits and that it is not comparable to female circumcision. The author is wrong on both counts, for the many reasons I’ve discussed over the last year. But that’s not what I want to address. Specifically, this jumps out as the key point:

I favor the elimination of severe female genital mutilation, including clitoridectomy and Pharaonic circumcision (infibulation). But conventional circumcision of male babies is simply not the same thing. The female homologue of this practice would be the removal of the clitoral hood, which would confer no medical benefit.

My short response is simple: Please provide proof that removal of the clitoral hood (and female circumcision, in general) would confer no medical benefit.

That short response doesn’t necessarily clarify why that’s enough to challenge the statement, so I’ll explain. The Auvert study hypothesized that Langerhans cells in the foreskin permit easer HIV transmission from females to males. Given that Langerhans cells reside in mucosal membranes, of which female genitalia has an ample supply, is it foolish to believe that an intact clitoral hood could provide a transmission path for the disease in women? Would it be objectionable to remove the clitoral hood of female infants if we could prove a connection between those Langerhans cells and HIV transmission? Has anyone studied this, or is the question too objectionable?

Bottom line: I agree that female circumcision is an abomination. Even though the qualitative analysis is significant, I can ignore it for the moment and disqualify most forms of female circumcision from my argument. But I’ll leave removal of the clitoral hood, since the author clearly agreed that it’s equivalent. If the potential medical benefits justify ignoring any human rights claims for male circumcision, what’s different about female circumcision? Shouldn’t we study the effect of removing the clitoral hood in preventing transmission of HIV? If the results show an unequivocal benefit, a criteria male circumcision has not yet met, shouldn’t we not only permit, but also encourage, removal of the clitoral hood?

I support neither male nor female forced circumcision, as I’ve said many times, but if the answer to either of my last two questions is “no,” that warrants an explanation beyond because. I’ve explained my position. Expecting the same from those who are willing to allow surgical alteration of healthy (male) infants is reasonable.

¹ I would’ve commented at the original entry, but I do not have a blogger account. I’m not interested in registering for a blogger account.

Seattle Factoids

For anyone thinking of visiting Seattle, here are a few tidbits of knowledge I picked up:

  1. Mighty O donuts makes the greatest vegan donuts doughnuts the planet has ever known. In eight days, Danielle and I inhaled 2½ dozen doughnuts. Granted, I consumed more, but they were good. Like crack, even. Every time we were in our hotel room, they called our name. So. Good.
  2. The locals refer to the city as the People’s Republic of Seattle. I don’t know if this is meant affectionately, but you can imagine I’d never live there. It’s a wonderful place to visit, though.
  3. The common perception that it rains a lot is a myth. I lugged a rain jacket and umbrella across this continent based on this lie. Don’t believe it. We encountered zero drops of rain on our vacation, including more than five days spent in Seattle.
  4. I’ve never been to San Francisco, but I imagine it feels like Seattle. I’d never ridden on roads that slope at an 88° angle before, but now I know what it’s like.
  5. Not Seattle-specific, but taught by the aforementioned hills, I can report that the Saturn Vue is possibly the worst car ever designed. How can an automatic transmission require two feet to operate the pedals to avoid slamming into cars behind you? (Side note: The hills weren’t really 88° angles. The engineers at Saturn inspired that bit of exaggeration.)
  6. As a DC resident I was susceptible to Seattle’s hatred of jaywalking. I obeyed all the signals to avoid the $55 ticket, which police will apparently issue at 7am Sunday morning on an empty road.
  7. Mount Rainier is big.

Now you know.

What about ethics?

I’m on vacation, so I shouldn’t be blogging this. However, vacation is the only reason I’ve waited as long as I have. William Saletan is wrong on circumcision. Consider:

For thousands of years, we humans have lovingly mutilated our children. We give birth to them, swaddle them and then cut their genitals. Some people condemn these rituals; others defend them. Now reports from Africa are shaking assumptions on both sides. Our mutilation of girls may be killing them. Our mutilation of boys may be saving their lives.

Read that with an ounce of logic and it’s clear where his analysis is lacking. The manner in which humans practice the two forms of mutilation dictates that, not the validity of the surgical procedures. We cut girls to an extreme not generally practiced on boys. But the qualitative comparison, the surgical alteration of a non-consenting child without immediate medical indication, is the same. The quantitative analysis so favored by those dismissing that comparison does not change its validity. Pretending that quantitative analysis alters that is the folly that offers protection to girls while boys must surrender healthy foreskins to avoid potential problems that will most likely never materialize.

In discussing the growing movement to protect boys legally, as girls are now protected in the United States by the Female Genital Mutilation Act, Mr. Saletan offers this challenge:

But scientific rebellions against religion have a nasty habit of becoming religions themselves. First come the myths. Last month, Dan Bollinger, director of the International Coalition for Genital Integrity (ICGI), launched Project: OUCH!, a “collection of first hand accounts” by victims of genital mutilation. The first account, written by Bollinger, described a recurring “flashback of my circumcision when I was three days old.” It was a moving story. But according to brain researchers, such memories at that age are impossible.

I’ve read Mr. Bollinger’s site, although I offer no opinion on the validity of his flashback. My only belief is that both sides should exercise skepticism. Until recently, accepted medical opinion stated that infants do not feel pain. However, the higher burden rests with those who wish to circumcise infants. Their position involves the permanent removal of healthy tissue without the consent of the patient. In any other medical decision, doctors would refuse to conduct such an operation. Yet, male circumcision gets a free pass, even though it is radical surgery. Whether it’s religion, societal norm, or potential benefits, supporters must exercise caution. The ethical implication must be included. It is most often ignored.

Then comes the ideology. Foreskin advocates say uncut men are “intact,” “natural” and “normal.” Circumcised men, by implication, aren’t. Technically, according to Doctors Opposing Circumcision, it’s up to you whether to “go through life with incomplete genitalia.” But what kind of man would choose that?

Uncut, or uncircumcised, implies that cut is the normal, correct state of the penis; the foreskin at birth is simply a defect to be removed. This is wrong. We do not say that clothes are undirty after we wash them. This is why you see [sic] after uncircumcised in my entries. They sound ridiculous, but unintact, unnatural, or unnormal better describe the circumcised penis. Circumcision is common, not normal. If that makes me guilty of ideology, fine. But, again, the burden of proof lies with those who wish to cut.

As for Mr. Saletan’s rhetorical question, I’m not sure how he can approach that question and then not challenge the assumption that male infant circumcision is reasonable. The fact that the majority of the intact adult population never needs circumcision, nor seeks it, is telling. So why do we believe that it’s reasonable to circumcise male infants? (Mr. Saletan returns to this in a few paragraphs.)

Half the time, anti-circumcision activists talk like antiabortion activists. They’re pushing federal legislation that would impose a prison sentence of up to 14 years on anyone who “cuts or mutilates the whole or any part” of the foreskin of a boy younger than 18. (Call it the “partial bris” bill.) They’re planning lawsuits to intimidate doctors and ban infant circumcision.

The language Mr. Saletan mocks is already in the Female Genital Mutilation Act. Worth noting.

The rest of the time, they talk like radical feminists. They’re outraged that we deplore female mutilation but tolerate male circumcision. They call this sex discrimination and a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause. The ICGI has even proposed an international legal code equating removal of the foreskin with removal of the clitoris.

Have these people lost their heads?

“Guilty”, but that’s not my point for excerpting that text. Removal of the foreskin is not equivalent to removal of the clitoris. I do not need to push that fallacy to make my point. Removal of the foreskin is similar to removal of the clitoral hood or the labia¹. Type I female genital mutilation without excision causes no more damage than male circumcision². Should we allow that, since quantitative analysis seems to be all that matters? The answer seems to be yes, unless supporters of male infant circumcision wish to finally stop arguing the foolish notion that female circumcision is heinous, while male circumcision is parental choice. Hypocrisy or female genital mutilation. Supporters of male infant circumcision choose one or the other with their stance.

The stakes in that question are becoming deadly serious. Of the 5 million people who contracted HIV last year, two-thirds lived in sub-Saharan Africa. Four years ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development analyzed 38 studies, most in Africa, and concluded that circumcised men were less than half as likely as uncircumcised men to get HIV, apparently because of the susceptibility of foreskin. Last fall, a randomized controlled trial in South Africa found that circumcision reduced female-to-male transmission of the virus by 60 percent. “Male circumcision provides a degree of protection against acquiring HIV infection, equivalent to what a vaccine of high efficacy would have achieved,” the authors wrote. It was, they observed, “the first experimental study demonstrating that surgery can be used to prevent an infectious disease.”

It’s easy to “win” your argument by throwing out impressive statistics. Consider:

RESULTS.–We observed one probable instance (1%) of female-to-male transmission compared with 20% transmission rates in the female partners of infected men. All couples were sampled in the same way. Male index cases were more likely to be symptomatic than female index cases. CONCLUSION.–The odds of male-to-female transmission were significantly greater than female-to-male transmission. The one case of female-to-male transmission was unique in that the couple reported numerous unprotected sexual contacts and noted several instances of vaginal and penile bleeding during intercourse.

I don’t offer this as a definitive gotcha, only as an indication of how statistics may not tell the entire story. The 60% reduction in HIV transmission number is fascinating, but it must be considered in the proper context. Female-to-male transmission is not the most common form of transmission. Why is it acceptable for supporters of circumcision to use the least common³ form of sexual transmission as the sole basis for a radical policy, while circumcision opponents can’t use the least common form of female genital mutilation as the basis for comparing the qualitative and ethical similaritie
s of the two procedures? My position is not the crazy position.

Think about that: surgery as a vaccine. Drug researchers would kill for an HIV vaccine half as effective as circumcision. Condoms and abstinence often aren’t effective because they require diligence. Circumcision works more reliably for the same reason that foreskin enthusiasts hate it: It lasts forever. Using the new data, scientists estimate that over the next 20 years, circumcision in sub-Saharan Africa could prevent 6 million infections and 3 million deaths.

I must beat the personal responsibility drum again. Boys 1 through 999 shouldn’t have to lose a foreskin because boy 1,000 can’t be bothered to wear a condom. The diligence argument is collectivist nonsense, pushing the benefit to the group above the protection of the individual. The Constitution has no exception voiding its protection of individual rights just because irresponsible behavior may occur.

What do you do when mutilation turns out to save lives? Anti-circumcisionists can’t bear it. Years ago, they denied the HIV-prevention effect. When evidence from Africa defied them, they changed the subject to Europe. When evidence from Europe defied them, they changed the subject again. Some say a link between circumcision and HIV can never be proved. Others ignore it. Others insist it’s unethical and false. It can’t be true. It’s heresy.

Mr. Saletan is throwing everything and hoping something sticks. He provides many links to anti-circumcision arguments in the Slate version of his essay. I’ve probably duplicated some of the arguments he tries to diminish. I’m not going to rehash them here, but instead offer the suggestion that doubters use the search feature on the main page of Rolling Doughnut to review what I’ve written about circumcision. Poke holes if you can. I have not denied any results, as Mr. Saletan accuses (indirectly, of course, for he did not link here), nor do I feel denial is necessary..

The strongest argument against circumcising babies to prevent HIV is that they’re too young to consent. But we vaccinate babies all the time. Should we treat circumcision like a vaccine? At clinics across southern Africa, men are lining up, pleading to be circumcised. They want protection. Can we assume their sons would want the same thing?

The comparison of circumcision and vaccination is a diversionary tactic with no basis in reality. We vaccinate against communicable diseases, not individual choices. The former is a public health issue (although we still allow parents to decline), while the latter is purely individual. As such, there is a reasonable explanation for parental decision on vaccinations, while limiting there choice on circumcision to medical necessity. Lack of diligence does not result in polio. Many of the alleged protections for male circumcision have less invasive solutions (i.e., the same ones we use for females), but they also have an element of parents educating children about responsibility and consequences. That is especially true of HIV. But it’s easier to cut.

To the specific example of men lining up, this is wonderful if they choose circumcision because their behavior or their perceived threat of exposure puts them at risk. I have never argued that adult circumcision should not be allowed. I’ve gone so far as to say that men should choose to have themselves circumcised if they believe it will help. Choice is the ultimate issue here. Those men have it. Their sons, and now with another bogus justification, our sons, do not. The lack of a stampede among intact European and American men to have themselves circumcised suggests that their sons would not want the same thing. The child’s cries during circumcision are also a reasonable indicator of his wishes.

Next weekend in Seattle, critics of genital mutilation will convene an international symposium on circumcision. The program lists 40 sessions. Not one mentions AIDS or male circumcision in Africa. Something’s sorely missing from this conversation, and it ain’t foreskin.

That symposium is why Seattle is on my travel itinerary this week. Even though I want to hear everything discussed on Friday, I’m willing to step out at 3:00pm PST for however long it takes to explain to Mr. Saletan “Traditional Male Circumcision in West Timor, Indonesia: Practices, Myths, and their Impact on the Spread of HIV/AIDS and Gender Relations”. That’s on the schedule at 2:40pm. It’s not listed on the schedule, but I’m sure HIV will come up at 4:40pm on Friday during “Circumcision in the Mass Media”. I suspect “Coding, Reporting, and Analyzing Circumcision Data” on Saturday at 9:00am will include some discussion of HIV, as well.

Mr. Saletan thought he was making a point because the discussion does not center on AIDS in Africa. However, he does not indicate that his support for male infant circumcision as an HIV preventive is limited to Africa. Surely he does not believe the two cultures are the same. As such, he is guilty of the same omission of facts that color his argument with shades of grey. Instead of making his point, he demonstrated how circumcision supporters are leaving the foreskin and its functions out of the conversation on circumcision. HIV/AIDS is only one aspect of this discussion.

¹ This editorial by Dr. Paul Tinari posits the following:

The cells of the labia are also susceptible to HIV infection, so what role does female circumcision play in reducing the rate of HIV infection?

I don’t have time to find studies verifying this claim, but it’s worth considering. If it’s possible, should we fund research here? If research finds a link, should we repeal the Female Genital Mutilation Act and begin circumcising infant females? I know it’s preposterous, so why isn’t male circumcision objectionable? Neither or both are the only choices. I choose neither.

² I also have no need to push the belief that Type I without excision is common. It is not. Most female genital mutilations are severe. I offer this example only as proof of our hypocrisy in ignoring any qualitative analysis. For more info on the various types of FGM, click here.

³ I’m excluding female-to-female, even though I assume it’s the least common method of transmission. Since it does not involve a penis, it is not pertinent to this discussion.

It’s now been 19 years? How?

With Tom Glavine facing an unfuture certain (it appears he’ll be back soon), I’d like to repost this from two years ago. Today is August 22nd, the anniversary of Glavine’s first major league win. Although I despise the New York Mets, I can’t root against Glavine just because he now plays for the Mets. I want him to succeed, and being so close to the magical 300 wins, I want him to reach that milestone. He might be the last for awhile. So, to celebrate this day, here’s my entry from 2004:

17 years? How can it be 17 years?

Today is the 17th anniversary of the first Major League Baseball game I attended, an epic battle between the bottom-feeding Pittsburgh Pirates and the bottom-feeding Atlanta Braves. I was excited at the time because I finally saw Dale Murphy play in a game that counted. I’d seen him play in exhibition games in Richmond, but that wasn’t the real thing. So I was excited.

I was also excited to see Tom Glavine pitch that day. He’d made his major league debut on August 17th, a game he lost to Houston in the Astrodome. When the game started, I thought maybe, just maybe, he could win his first major league game, the very game I was attending. Nine innings later, Jim Acker threw the last pitch to finish off Glavine’s first win. That was cool.

With 258 additional wins since August 22, 1987, Tom Glavine is still pitching, putting the final touches on his Hall of Fame resumé. On the day he is inducted, I’ll tell the nearest snot-nosed, unappreciative kid who lacks a sense of history that I saw Glavine’s first win. That kid won’t care, but I’ll enjoy being the grumpy curmudgeon. I may even mumble. If I were that guy today, I’d probably mumble that I can’t believe it was 17 years ago.

He’s won 28 games since I wrote those words. Only 13 to go. Good luck, Tom. (Just don’t get any of them against the Phillies.)

The perfect time to visit Vancouver

Wonderful. Only I can hit Vancouver in the midst of a record heat wave. The newscasters were aflutter this morning with reports that the city might face record highs today. I can’t believe my poor luck. What will I ever do if the temperature continues to hover around an excruciating 85°F?

Must. Find. Ice.

My brother’s first day of college

My brother was supposed to start college today, but his first days of classes at Virginia Tech were cancelled because an escaped inmate (allegedly) shot and killed Montgomery County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland. The inmate also shot another police officer. The Virginia Tech campus is in lockdown, as a result. Welcome to college.

I don’t say that to be flippant or funny. It’s not funny. Sitting in my hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, I’m watching the news show Hokies running from Squires Student Center after an alleged sighting of the inmate. That turned out to be false. I barely remember my first day at Virginia Tech, but now the 2010 class of Virginia Tech has the memory of being forced indoors to their dorms under guard of a SWAT team because this scumbag would rather kill police officers than face charges of attempted robbery.

My thoughts today are with the deceased men and their families.

Vacation Update

The potential implications of “free” WiFi at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas aside, I’m thrilled that it’s here. I’ve missed catching sports scores and news, although gambling, Penn & Teller, and George Takei made it much easier. There will be more from the trip, but for now I want to post a picture of the reason Danielle and I stopped in Vegas on our way to Seattle.

George Takei

Stories, and maybe a little audio, to follow. Oh, my.

Behold, Vegas Vacation 2006

Posting will be rare to non-existent for the next ten days. Danielle and I will be flying (without gels and liquids) to Las Vegas tonight, followed by time in Seattle and Vancouver. I haven’t had a real vacation in two years, so I’m looking forward to being away from computers. That belief should hold until we land in Vegas tonight, when the shakes kick in from withdrawal. But I don’t know how spotty my Internets access will be, as well as my down time. So, there it is.

I do promise to post pictures from the Star Trek convention, if I can. Everyone needs a little bit of George Takei in their life. I can’t wait to meet him.