Giles Fraser versus the liberal mindset


Giles Fraser is angry about the German court decision that religious circumcision of infants is a violation of their right to bodily integrity (although he doesn’t say that, but substitutes “against the best interests of the child”). He’s outraged that Merkel had to say  “I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practise their rites.”

Yet the circumcision of babies cuts against one of the basic assumptions of the liberal mindset. Informed consent lies at the heart of choice and choice lies at the heart of the liberal society. Without informed consent, circumcision is regarded as a form of violence and a violation of the fundamental rights of the child. Which is why I regard the liberal mindset as a diminished form of the moral imagination. There is more to right and wrong than mere choice.

Well there’s a non sequitur. Of course there’s more to right and wrong than mere choice, but when it’s a matter of snipping off a bit of the penis for purely religious reasons then informed choice really is preferable to its absence.

He was circumcised at eight days old. His son wasn’t. He regrets that.

I still find it difficult that my son is not circumcised. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, himself a survivor of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, famously added to the 613th commandments of the Hebrew scriptures with a new 614th commandment: thou must not grant Hitler posthumous victories. This new mitzvah insisted that to abandon one’s Jewish identity was to do Hitler’s work for him. Jews are commanded to survive as Jews by the martyrs of the Holocaust. My own family history – from Miriam Beckerman and Louis Friedeburg becoming Frasers (a name change to escape antisemitism) to their grandson becoming Rev Fraser (long story) to the uncircumcised Felix Fraser – can be read as a betrayal of that 614th commandment.

And I have always found this extremely difficult to deal with. On some level, I feel like a betrayer.

I can sympathize with that – but what he’s overlooking (rather distastefully, when you look closely) is that that’s about him, and that it doesn’t give him the right to snip off a bit of his infant’s penis. His son could still get circumcised – but it would be his decision, about his body. It seems to me it’s a good deal more of a betrayal to force that decision on someone else.

As I argued in this week’s Church Times, one of the most familiar modern mistakes about faith is that it is something that goes on in your head. This is rubbish. Faith is about being a part of something wider than oneself. We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. “We” comes before “I”. We constitutes our horizon of significance. Which is why many Jews who consider themselves to be atheists would still consider themselves to be Jewish. And circumcision is the way Jewish and Muslim men are marked out as being involved in a reality greater than themselves.

Yes, but, again – that shouldn’t be forced.

I know what the problem with that is. If it’s not “forced” – if it’s not the child’s world from the first moment – then the roots are much shallower. It’s not such an embracing “we.” Lots and lots of parents – probably most – want that embracing “we.”

But then, most people don’t get enough exposure to a “shallower” kind of we, which makes possible an expanding and exciting set of “we”s as the child matures. Informed choice really is a pretty good idea.

H/t Tauriq M

Comments

  1. mcbender says

    As somebody who grew up Jewish, I am actually rather offended by the Jewish conceit that they (we?) must constantly maintain a victim mindset with respect to the Holocaust and do X or Y or Z for the sake of remembrance (and moreover to force everybody else to acknowledge their victimhood). Yes, the Holocaust was a terrible atrocity and is important to remember, but I think it is quite often taken too far.

    Case in point, this argument. “Our ancestors were tortured and experimented on and starved and killed en masse, therefore we must cut up our children”. That strikes me as a colossal non-sequitur and, in fact, could be viewed in a certain way as a betrayal: “the Nazis didn’t respect our ancestors’ bodily integrity; let’s violate the bodily integrity of our children!” There’s probably a Godwin in there, but I feel entitled since this is a reply to a Godwin.

    Yes, many atheists (including myself) of Jewish descent still identify in some ways as Jewish; that doesn’t mean we’re all happy about having had bits of our genitalia removed. I cannot imagine any adult person with a penis opting for this procedure, which is probably why they’re so insistent on doing it to babies who can’t consent.

  2. says

    It’s a horrid little article.

    Nowhere does he actually try put forward an argument against the Court’s ruling or reasoning: he just asserts something, something identity and his personal “feelings” on the matter. Replace circumcision with cyclopcision or foot-binding (like I did during a lunch-break) and it comes out as a truly bizarre, horrible article.

    Like the awful Brendan O’Neill column, the ruling and topic seem to be an excuse to focus on opponents you dislike. For O’Neill it was new atheists; for Fraser it’s liberals. Both Strawman, then lump the ruling in line with goals of both groups. If we read articles like this and O’Neill’s as, say, extended comments on a news report, I think I wouldn’t be alone them out as trolls.

  3. says

    Haha: no worries. Which article were you claiming I pointed you to? If it’s a good article, then I totally did! Thanks for the edit.

  4. Nathair says

    It is a little unfortunate that it happened first in a German court. Lots of extra baggage there. Other than that this decision looks like pure win to me.

    I notice that cropping your dog’s ears or docking his tail is already illegal in Germany but slicing off part of you baby is just now getting similar legal attention (and drawing Fraser’s outrage). What does that tell us?

  5. says

    Finally, an issue about which I can be objective, impartial, and above the fray! Woohoo! Now who am I supposed to attack on the back of a T-shirt? “I’m not an uncircumcised man, I’m just a man.”

    Honestly, don’t see the big deal about the circumcision. My understanding is that it isn’t particularly harmful, or particularly useful, with some small number of rare instances of both. So not particularly invested in legal rulings either way. On the other hand, I’m all sorts of anti-religion especially when it seeks to impose itself on others. So on that level I guess I’m against circumcision, or at least entirely unconvinced by the religious argument and slightly horrified that someone would consider elective surgery on another person to be an expression of their own religious freedom.

  6. sailor1031 says

    WTF is the matter with people that they think their foreskin (or lack of it) is what determines their identity? And what kind of a freak is their deity that he insists on it? Why not ear-cropping? Why not ritual finger amputation? Why not a little butterfly tattoo on the left butt cheek? After all being circumcised is hardly restricted to judaism. It is also required in islam. I wonder how doG can tell the good guys from the bad guys this way….

  7. Christopher Hülsbeck says

    It is absolutely possible to live your life as a Muslim or Jew without some twisted pervert mutilating your genitals at an age when you cannot speak for yourself.

  8. callistacat says

    “Honestly, don’t see the big deal about the circumcision.”

    @Improbable Joe
    Isn’t it painful? Do they administer pain medication or anesthesia on the child? If they don’t then it is a big deal. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t see ANY reason a child should have their privates cut into with sharp objects.

  9. Ruth says

    @Improbable Joe

    There’s some evidence that circumcision dulls sexual sensation. It’s difficult to assess, both because it’s obviously subjective, and because very few men are able to compare the two states, but surely even the possibility should be enough to reject it.

  10. AndrewD says

    Whilst I have’nt been back to look, yesterday he was getting a powerful response from liberals in Comment is Free. They all disagreed with him.(I read the Guardian on my Kindle and rarely look at Comment is Free but made a special trip yesterday)
    I think he should move to the Cristian, conservative House magazine a.k.a The Daily Telegraph

  11. John the Drunkard says

    There is a national slant to the issue than many readers may not be familiar with. In the US, we have had decades of routine circumsision of newborns. For crackpot ‘medical’ reasons, not religion.

    Here, circumcision has been so normalized that folks who would call the police if their neighbours baby daughter has pierced ears hem and haw about male genital mutilation.

    Mutilations has been so near universal that many victims, and more tragically, parents of victims, simply cannot feel the moral repulsion they should. It takes a big leap to follow the natural outrage that FGM inspires into thoughts about your own body, or your child’s.

  12. Brigadista says

    We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves.

    Yes, yes, yes we are. This is something that I have railed against for years. There are no christian children, or muslim children, or (to be topical for a moment) Scientologist children. There are just children. They need to grow up and learn and absorb and experiment but not be branded like some steer with the badge of the Lazy Z church from the moment they have enough breath in their lungs to scream for food. They need to be encouraged to think for themselves, and decide what works for them. Then they can maim themselves if they still feel the need for a badge.

  13. says

    Honestly, don’t see the big deal about the circumcision. My understanding is that it isn’t particularly harmful, or particularly useful, with some small number of rare instances of both.

    except that physicians are the ones primarily performing these operations on newborns, and they are doing so despite how it violates various ethical mandates for the profession. Go read the AMA code of conduct and tell me that a (cosmetic) operation on a baby is anything but a gross violation of medical ethics.

  14. Sili (I have no says

    So not circumcising his son is a bigger betrayal that his own abandoning the faith of his forebears?

    This does rather take IOKIYAC to new heights.

  15. Sili (I have no ) says

    It also seems the good reverend has forgotten to read Galatians:

    2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.

  16. Sili says

    It is a little unfortunate that it happened first in a German court. Lots of extra baggage there. Other than that this decision looks like pure win to me.

    I think it’s starting to burble here in Denmark as well, now. At least I’ve seen headlines and comments by the über-rabbi.

  17. says

    McBender:

    As somebody who grew up Jewish, I am actually rather offended by the Jewish conceit that they (we?) must constantly maintain a victim mindset with respect to the Holocaust and do X or Y or Z for the sake of remembrance (and moreover to force everybody else to acknowledge their victimhood).

    You may want to read Rick Perlstein’s review of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism:

    What I didn’t realize was how deliberately establishment Jewish leaders of this period substituted victimhood – the sense that Jews always and everywhere were at risk of being wiped out, should they drop their guard – for liberalism, “as a strategy for defending Israel,” and as “the defining ideology of organized American Jewish life.”

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