Conservatives and libertarians often warn about the dangers of the nanny state. But San Francisco could be taking nannying to a new extreme. In May, the citys department of elections certified a referendum for the November 5 ballot that would criminalize male circumcision. The measure, sponsored by so-called intactivists, would make circumcision of a male under 18 a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and a jail sentence as long as one year. Exemptions in cases of a clear, compelling, and immediate medical need would be permissible. Religious exemptions for Jews and Muslims would not.
The referendum qualified for the ballot with only 7,743 signatures, or less than 1 percent of the inhabitants of the city and county. Intactivists belong to a body integrity movement that seems to have originated in San Francisco. The referendums public champion, Lloyd Schofield, is cagey about his background, telling the San Francisco Chronicle only that he is 58 and has worked in the hotel industry. The Chronicle story carried the headline, Meet the man behind SFs proposed circumcision ban, but aside from a photo, disclosure of his past employment, and mention that he has a website, failed to tell much about him.
The rise of intactivism in San Francisco has run roughly parallel with a revival of nudism in the city. Naked people occasionally parade through the Castro district and unclothed bicyclists appear at AT&T Park, where parents and children wishing only to watch a baseball game become victims of exhibitionism. The intactivists and the nudists are more or less allied, according to George Davis, the naked guy candidate for mayor in 2007. (He lost, winning only 644 votes to 105,596 for the victorious Gavin Newsom.) Davis, who touts what he calls a Free Body Culture, has been arrested at least six times for public nudity. Asked about the proposed circumcision ban, Davis said he supported the idea in principle and compared circumcision with tattooing an infant. But he said he would probably not vote for the measure in November, and predicted it would go down to defeat because of the comic books.
Ah yes, those comic booksForeskin Man, Numbers 1 and 2 disseminated online by the intactivists and produced by another obscure individual, Matthew Hess. Hess also reportedly wrote the ballot initiatives language. His comic books are startling in their anti-Jewish content. Foreskin Man is a blond-haired, muscular superhero who flies through the air to rescue infants from circumcision. The first issue of Foreskin Man features a physician, Doctor Mutilator, who undergoes a Jekyll-Hyde transformation into a bestial creature when performing a circumcision. The image recalls the contributions of the Nazi luminaries, Joseph Goebbels and Julius Streicher. Foreskin Man complains how the pro-circumcision lobby . . . (has) all of the well connected doctors and lawyers, a familiar Jew-baiting stereotype. The hero then breaks the windows of a hospital and assaults the doctoractions that dont need a referendum to qualify as criminal.
In the second issue, which also may be purchased as a set of cards, the villain is Monster Mohel, a hideous-looking figure in Hasidic garb, accompanied by two goons in Jewish outfits carrying automatic weapons. Once again, Foreskin Man physically attacks the Jews, then takes the child Glick away from his parentsthat is, kidnaps himand hands him over to the intactivist underground, a happy band of bikers and pneumatic women who promise to raise him as one of our own. It is a nanny state nightmare: that of the nanny who makes off with the child in her care.
Debra J. Saunders, the Chronicles conservative columnist, phoned Hess to ask if he intended to foster anti-Jewish prejudice. She recorded his weaselly demurral: Were not trying to be anti-Semitic. Were trying to be prohuman rights. Hesss argument is quite old. Bigots and anti-Semites have for centuries claimed they dont hate Jews (or Muslims, or Armenians, or gypsies . . .); they merely wish to secure their own rights. And though the term fascist is now greatly overused, glorification of child-stealing, attacks on doctors, and other violations of public order are unarguable indicators that enthusiasts of a cause have strayed from crank abstractions to activist law-breaking of the kind not preached by Gandhi or Martin Luther King.
Interviewing Schofield or Hess is a waste of time. The comic books speak for themselves. Jewish, Muslim, and other groups have formed a Coalition for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, with support from most city and county elected officials, as well as Catholics and other Christians. If the referendum passes, it will almost surely be tossed out as a violation of the First Amendments free exercise clause. Hopefully, San Francisco voters wont let things get that far.
Stephen Schwartz is a widely published journalist and author who worked from 1989 to 1999 as a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle.