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Crazy As They Need To Be: Circumcised Women Who Support The Practice

| Mon Dec. 3, 2007 12:55 AM EST

This weekend, the American Anthropological Association will hold an annual meeting that ought to make quite a bit of noise for such a seemingly staid body. Interestingly, international groups which oppose "this procedure" will be debating anthropologists who support it. Among the dissenters? African anthropologists who have personally undergone, and defend, female circumsicion. Organizers note in the New York Times:

The panel includes for the first time, the critical "third wave" or multicultural feminist perspectives of circumcised African women scholars Wairimu Njambi, a Kenyan, and Fuambai Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonean. Both women hail from cultures where female and male initiation rituals are the norm and have written about their largely positive and contextualized experiences, creating an emergent discursive space for a hitherto "muted group" in global debates about FGC [female genital cutting].

Well, this particular tactic is already working: much as I want to, I haven't allowed myself to type the phrase "female genital mutilation". Way to stifle debate and go all PC on us. Now it's not just blacks shutting whites up, it's Africans shutting every Westerner up.

This was one of the few issues that American blacks bothered to notice about Africa and now we find ourselves roped off in the pit of disapproval with The Man, our 'colonialist' critiques guilty until proven innocent. Having had to deal with it throughout my career as a non-conforming black public intellectual, I sincerely hate to speculate on the psychological forces at work in 'circumcised' women singing its praises. Still, I have to wonder if these womens' (there goes PC again; I really want to say 'victim/survivors') sanity might not depend on making this particular lemonade. If you've been circumcised, and you live in the West, you have two choices: celebration or mourning. Even more dangerous: anger. Who knows which any of us would pick.

Just like veiled women who embrace their robes and enforced seclusion as expressions of feminism or cultural pride, however, these women have a long way to go in creating a counter narrative that makes the West look on the bright side of female circumsicion. We might shut up and just leave Africa to its own devices (jagged soup can lids and bacteria-ridden thorns). But I doubt that even these brainy, politicized women living in the collision of two such different worlds can accomplish more than that. Which isn't to say that these well-educated culture warrior-women aren't indeed creating an "emergent discursive space" it won't be easy to speak truth back to the power of. This is what a western education can do in service of the unspeakable:

Dr. Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, was raised in America and then went back to Sierra Leone as an adult to undergo the procedure along with fellow members of the Kono ethnic group. She has argued that the critics of the procedure exaggerate the medical dangers, misunderstand the effect on sexual pleasure, and mistakenly view the removal of parts of the clitoris as a practice that oppresses women. She has lamented that her Westernized "feminist sisters insist on denying us this critical aspect of becoming a woman in accordance with our unique and powerful cultural heritage." In another essay, she writes:
It is difficult for me—considering the number of ceremonies I have observed, including my own—to accept that what appears to be expressions of joy and ecstatic celebrations of womanhood in actuality disguise hidden experiences of coercion and subjugation. Indeed, I offer that the bulk of Kono women who uphold these rituals do so because they want to—they relish the supernatural powers of their ritual leaders over against men in society, and they embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly the authority of their mothers and grandmothers.

The "authority of their mothers and grandmothers" to mutilate their daughters in unanesthetized and unsanitary rituals meant to please men and reinforce male control over female sexuality? It appears to be Dr. Ahmadu who is doing a bit of de-contextualizing here, making the ritual stand apart from the reason, and the gendered hierarchy, in which it occurs. Ok, I'll go there—putting women in charge of circumcising other women is little different from slave masters putting loyal slaves in charge of whipping the rebels. It's no different from any other gut-wrenchingly hideous job categorized, and despised, as "women's work". That the women made something exultant from the entrails of oppression is no different than what the slaves did with chit'lins.

In the same way that this issue has reinforced how important it is to control the language of any particular debate (e.g. fgc vs. fgm), it's also helped reinforce the importance of not being guilted into silence in dealing with the Third World. If these women can prove to us that female circumsicion, whatever it used to be, isn't now barbaric and foundational to female oppression, fine. But we must not allow the debate to center on the festivities surrounding the circumsicion itself, however rockin' the party that day. The practice must indeed be culturally contextualized—do women hold office, are they educated like males, is there a dowry system, will the panelists daughters be circumcised?—however much further trauma that might cause those who survived and now support it.

Claiming that women in circumsicion cultures uphold the traditions because they want to just rhymes too closely with the good ol' boys who claimed that their 'nigras' were happy as clams until the 'outside agitators' and 'civil rightsers' got 'em all confused. Which, if memory serves, is also what the slave masters, and many slaves, said. Free your minds, African women, and your clitorises willl follow.

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"Arabs Tend to Wear Red Shirts," Said the Man in the Red Shirt

| Sun Dec. 2, 2007 11:05 PM EST

You may have seen that National Review posted some glaringly false claims about Lebanon by a contributor, W. Thomas Smith, Jr. (If not, Thomas Edsall has written up the basics here.)

Now National Review is trying to explain what happened. Here's their online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez:

Reviewing National Review

| Sun Dec. 2, 2007 10:03 PM EST

Several months ago one of National Review's blogs ran posts by contributor W. Thomas Smith, Jr. from Beirut. Smith described several things—"a sprawling Hezbollah tent city" with "some 200-plus heavily armed Hezbollah militiamen," and "4,000 and 5,000 HezB gunmen deployed to the Christian areas"—that appear not to have existed. Thomas Edsall has the details here, with more here from David Kenner.

This in itself is no judgment on National Review. While some publications do better fact-checking than others (Mother Jones is one of the best, in my experience), no one can produce 100% error-free journalism.

What does matter is how editors react when problems are brought to their attention. Glenn Greenwald explains what's happened to date here. National Review's online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez was alerted to the implausibility of Smith's claims six weeks ago by two journalists with experience in Lebanon. Yet she appears to have acted only when she realized Edsall would be writing about it. (ADDED CLARIFICATION: Mitchell Prothero, a Beirut photographer, writes here that he contacted National Review "more than six weeks ago." Harper's publishes here an email sent by journalist Chris Allbritton on October 6th calling Smith "a liar." However, it's unclear who at National Review would have received it. Lopez posts here her version of events, which does not mention Prothero or Allbritton.)

This reminds me of my own experience with Lopez. In October of last year, she wrote a post about the Johns Hopkins study estimating the number of deaths in Iraq since the invasion as 655,000. Lopez printed email from "A Hill Guy" reading:

Romney to Give the "Mormon Speech"

| Sun Dec. 2, 2007 8:03 PM EST

Political observers have been wondering for a while if Mitt Romney will make a big speech on the topic of faith. He will do so this Thursday (according to CNN, which is calling it the "Mormon speech"). I don't know if it's because unwelcome whispers about Mormonism are circulating amongst the Republican base, or if it's because Romney is no longer the frontrunner in a state he thought he had sewn up. Whatever the case may be, tune in Thursday morning. And bring the popcorn.

Giuliani Corruption/Sex Scandal Metastasizing

| Sat Dec. 1, 2007 9:08 PM EST

This Giuliani scandal keeps getting better and better. First Politico found that when Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York, he billed the costs of his extramarital love trysts with Judith Nathan, his then-girlfriend and now-wife, to obscure city agencies. It was also shown that Giuliani billed his 2000 campaign expenses and his then-wife Donna Hanover's travel expenses to the same obscure agencies. The Giuliani campaign has had a hell of a time explaining the mayor's actions.

Then ABC discovered Nathan, as the mayor's girlfriend, was given a city car and police driver that she used as a personal "taxi service." Then CBS found an anonymous source who claims "Nathan forced police to chauffeur her friends and family around the city—even when she wasn't in the car."

And then the Daily News decide to pile on. They went to current mayor Mike Bloomberg's girlfriend/partner (they've lived together for six years) and asked her if she has a driver or security detail. "I don't have security in Bogota or Nairobi or Moscow when I travel there on business," Diana Taylor said. "Why would I need security in the safest city in the world?" An investment banker, Taylor takes the bus to her office and rides the subway to business appointments.

This thing could keep going through Christmas. It's the scandal that keeps giving and giving.

It's Hard Out There For a Daredevil...

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 8:46 PM EST
knievel.jpg

Breaking news: Evel Knievel is dead at 69. As we remember the 1970s stuntman and orthopedic-surgery poster boy, let's also remember his unwitting contribution to our slang lexicon: He helped make it legal to call someone a pimp. In 2001, ESPN's website ran a photo of Knievel with a caption saying that he "proves that you're never too old to be a pimp." Knievel sued for defamation. The case made it to the Ninth Circuit Court, which ruled against Knievel, finding that ESPN had tagged him a pimp not to suggest that he managed prostitutes, but rather that he was, as the kids say, "cool." "It was most likely intended as a compliment," concluded the majority. Knievel's decision to try to jump over the majestic canyon of the First Amendment seems even more bizarre considering that, according to his AP obit, he used to brag about having been a "swindler, a card thief, a safe cracker, a holdup man." (Photo: evelknievel.com)

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What Would You Ask Senator Obama?

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 6:46 PM EST

I'd like to second Kate Shepherd's sentiment over at TAPPED. She writes, "Time has an interview with Obama that really could use some better questions..." Time offered up seven less than thought-provoking questions, so uninspiring in fact that I was moved to poll several of my fellow Mother Jones edit staffers for some better queries. Here's a few we came up with:

1. Why does your health insurance plan include mandates for kids, but not adults?

2. Ethanol is increasingly viewed as a wasteful form of fuel that sacrifices nourishment for gasoline. How would you move the U.S. away from defaulting to ethanol as an alternative fuel and towards cleaner, more sustainable options?

3. What's the first question you'd ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

It's fairly frustrating when the people with the best access to the candidates aren't delivering.

What would you ask Obama? Tell us, in the comments.

Edwards' Message to Dem Insiders: Tear Down the Wall!

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 6:20 PM EST

john_edwards.jpg Most of the Democratic presidential contenders took a break from campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire on Friday to gather outside of Washington D.C. and make their pitches to Democratic Party bigwigs.

Before the news broke that Hillary Clinton campaign workers had been taken hostage in Rochester, New Hampshire, Bill Richardson, John Edwards, and Barack Obama addressed the Democratic National Committee's fall meeting in a hotel ballroom in Tysons Corner, Virginia. None of them altered their messages dramatically for the insider crowd, and John Edwards, who had all of the day's best moments, broke out a new speech that even intensified his attacks on the Washington system that included many of the people in the audience.

At the start of his speech, Edwards declared, "There's a wall around Washington and we need to take it down. The American people are on the outside. And on the other side, on the inside, are the powerful, the well-connected and the very wealthy."

America's health care woes, the economic insecurity of the middle class, even the war in Iraq—Edwards tied them all to this wall, the barrier that protects the status quo and conventional wisdom from being challenged. Seeking to distinguish himself from his rivals—he shares most policy positions with both Obama and Clinton, and shares with Obama a professed desire for reform in Washington—Edwards asserted that only he possesses the fighting spirit needed to tear down the wall. His critiques of Obama (too admiring of bipartisanship) and Clinton (too intimate with the powerful) were not that subtle:

Dreaming of a Green Xmas: Compost Bins, Carbon Offsets, and All

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 5:44 PM EST

'Tis the season—media pubs are rolling out their holiday gift-giving recommendations (see Salon's very pricey list here and The New Yorker's even pricier male gift guide here), people can be found discussing Secret Santas, and office holiday parties are already in full swing. So, in this era of carbon neutrality, it's no wonder, retailers are already making a play for the green Christmas market. According to the Wall Street Journal many companies are looking to package their gifts in a more ecofriendly fashion by offering biodegradable packaging or none at all. Different websites are dedicating pages to greener giving ideas, pushing soy-based candles and compost containers that will be shipped to you in biodegradable peanuts. Customers of Gaiam.com can offset the carbon emissions of shipping their gifts through the company and TerraPass, a carbon offset group, has gift certificates so you can offset the emissions of your friends and families (you know, if they aren't as environmentally conscious as you are).

It's hard to not be a Grinch about this whole thing, though, because it all still seems like consumption—or ways to make yourself feel better about consuming. For instance, Gaiam.com recommends that you buy a reusable shopping bag and then offset the shipping cost for $2. So, if I send my dad a reusable shopping bag nearly 2,000 miles (Broomfield, CO, where Gaiam's HQ is, to Boston, MA, where my dad lives), it is only going to cost me $2 to neutralize the effects? I find that very hard to believe, but I suppose the whole "are carbon offsets really green?" is a whole other discussion. But, when you consider the miles driven to malls and the non-reusable/-biodegradable wrapping that goes on at the likes of Macy's, shopping online and then offsetting shipping seems like the responsible thing to do.

Although, how about just not consuming at all? That seems like the greenest possible holiday season for Mother Earth...

Rudy Finds Another Explanation for Love Trysts Billing Scandal; Again Proven Wrong

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 5:39 PM EST

RudyWingman.jpg Rudy Giuliani is still coming up with new explanations for why he billed New York City agencies for extramarital love trysts in the Hamptons. The campaign have taken multiple stabs in the last few days.

According to the campaign, Rudy's security decal billed their travel and lodging expenses on these trysts to obscure city agencies (like the Loft Board) because there were unreasonably long delays in getting paid back by the NYPD. Says the AP:

Joe Lohta, who was deputy mayor and budget director under Giuliani, said the billing practice was necessary because the police officers did not make a lot of money and their department took up to two months to repay them for their travel expenses. So Giuliani's office got a credit card and paid it off with funds from the various agencies.

Except the head of the NYPD isn't buying it. According to ABC News:

The current New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said today he knew of no problems with the delay of payments before Giuliani was mayor, when Kelly served under Mayor David Dinkins, or since.
"I don't recall anybody, any statements about delay," Kelly told reporters.

Try something else, Rudy?