Michael Halberstam was the older brother of the prominent journalist David Halberstam. By trade, the elder Halberstam was a cardiologist. He died way too soon as the result of a gunshot wound he sustained during the robbery of his D.C. residence.
Dr. Halberstam seems to have been the wittier of the two brothers. In his spare time he wrote the unjustly neglected satirical novel The Wanting of Levine (1978) about the first Jewish president. Even if it petered out toward the end, the novel nevertheless proved prescient in at least one respect — as Ira Stoll observed in the 2017 New York Sun column “Trump’s Electoral Triumph Was Imagined in a Novel Written 40 Years Ago.”
Halberstam’s novel came to mind this week in connection with President Biden’s nomination of Dr. Rachel Levine to be assistant secretary of Health and Human Services. Dr. Levine testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP!) Committee in support of her confirmation this past Thursday.
She seemed to me the embodiment of a satirical take on identity politics. One can’t help but wonder whether the proximate cause of her selection is that she is yet another of the “firsts” about which Biden has bragged. She is biologically male, but identifies as transgender female. She will be the first avowed transgender federal official to be confirmed by the Senate.
Biden nominated her on the proposition that in Levine the woman and the moment have met: “Dr. Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic — no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” Biden said in a statement. Biden added: “She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.” Biden’s reference to her as a “historic choice” is the key.
In her appearance before the committee Senator Paul inquired about the use of puberty-blocking drugs and surgical amputations for minors with gender dysphoria. Starting with our general condemnation of genital mutilation from social custom or pressure, Paul raised the question whether minors should be permitted to have themselves altered (video below).
The Washington Post has yet to cover Amazon’s suppression of Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally on this question. The Post nevertheless went ballistic condemning Senator Paul for his line of inquiry. According to Post columnist Monica Hesse, “Thursday was a day of historic firsts, of alarm and outrage” — all (the alarm and outrage, anyway) thanks to Senator Paul posing this question:
Dr. Levine, you have supported both allowing minors to be given hormone blockers to prevent them from going through puberty as well as surgical destruction of a minor’s genitalia.
Like surgical mutilation, hormonal interruption of puberty can permanently alter and prevent secondary sexual characteristics.
The American College of Pediatricians reports that 80% to 95% of prepubertal children with gender dysphoria will experience resolution by late adolescence if not exposed to medical intervention and social affirmation.
Dr. Levine, do you believe that minors are capable of making such a life-changing decision as changing one’s sex?
Levine provided a classic Washington response: “Transgender medicine is a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and standards of care that have been developed.” It was a nonanswer. Nevertheless, as they say, she persisted. She graciously added that “if confirmed to the position of assistant secretary of health, I would certainly be pleased to come to your office and to talk to you and your staff about the standards of care and the complexity of this field.”
Committee chair Patty Murray provided the unintentionally humorous conclusion to Senator Paul’s futile inquiries: “Senator [sic] Levine, thank you for answering the question [sic].”