Monday, November 19, 2007

What Hunger Strike

What Hunger Strike
By Armin Rosen

For the past 10 days, everyone has called this a “hunger strike.” But let’s not get carried away: the 1981 protest among accused Irish Republicans at Maze Prison, during which 10 people (including an elected member of Parliament) starved themselves to death in a failed attempt at improving their living conditions—that was a hunger strike. Of course our “strikers” never mentioned Bobby Sands or any of the other Irish protesters, even though Sands’ belief that “everyone, Republican or otherwise, has their own particular part to play” sounds an awful lot like what our own “strikers” had been telling us this past week. But Sands also said something that might have struck them as a bit distasteful: “We must see our present fight right through to the very end.” And he did.

So did Potti Sreeramulu, the Telugu activist and Gandhi disciple whose fast until death contributed to the creation of the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh in 1956. And, for that matter, Gandhi might have as well, a fact that proves the dronish mindlessness of our “strikers’” mantra-like invocation of him: Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist because of his decision to fast until death unless India agreed to transfer money to the Pakistani government. So India’s refusal to help strengthen the fledgling government of Pakistan might have killed Gandhi if Nathuram Godse hadn’t gotten to him first.

What these examples tell us is that a hunger strike is an extreme act of coercion, a drastic attempt at leveraging a recalcitrant authority structure, and a paradoxical demonstration of moral strength. The hunger striker’s increasingly emaciated body shows that he will willingly suffer in the name of creating a better and more just world. But the hunger striker is also gradually fading from a world that he sees as anything but better and just, an inevitability stemming from the same reformist self-determination that necessitated the hunger strike in the first place.

University Professor Gayatri Spivak brilliantly explored these phenomena in a now-controversial lecture on suicide bombers. “Suicide bombing ... is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself—the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others,” Spivak said. A hunger strike is the empowering mirror-image of this: hunger strikes are indeed deliberately self-obliterating, and Spivak’s “confrontation” is played out through an intensely personal (and in Gandhi’s case profoundly transformative) process of deciding just how far the striker is willing to go and why. And a hunger striker certainly separates himself from a debased and unjust world in the interest of affecting change, a separation achieved through the somewhat alienating extremity of his tactics and the looming possibility of death.

Our “hunger strikers” did little to emulate Sands’ or Sreeramulu’s example. This wasn’t a “confrontation between oneself and oneself” as much as it was a cheap public stunt. Not a hunger strike, but a “hunger strike”—a ten-day act of political theatre that shamefully co-opted the language and methods of previous, infinitely more genuine movements of social liberation. If this had been a hunger strike, and if the hunger strikers had really cared about Manhattanville, they would still be outside, starving. When it was announced on Thursday night that the administration had made no progress on expansion, the “strikers” should have countered with the simple fact that the human body can go without food for about 30 days—which would have given Low Library another 20 days to take them seriously.

They made no such statement, and the fact that hunger striking is an inherently self-destructive and morally coercive tactic was an inconvenient one for the strikers and their supporters to face. There was never any commitment to take things “through to the very end.”
But in a hunger strike, a lack of commitment to the extremes implicit in one’s very methods translates to a lack of commitment to the kind of change that those methods are meant to achieve. So why have a hunger strike in the first place? Maybe the “strikers” were trying to produce a galvanizing, 1968-style moment of general anger and discontent. Or maybe they were half-expecting that the administration would completely cave on ethnic studies and Manhattanville.

Yet the University’s previous commitment to allocate $20 million to the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, as well as CB9’s explicit and early opposition to the strike, made this a faint possibility. The hunger strikers presumably knew this—Bwog reported that CB9 “Chairman [Jordi] Reyes-Montblanc sent strike organizer Andrew Lyubarsky an email on the day the strike started asking them to not go forward with their ‘extreme’ action.”

But they went through with it anyway. They selfishly went through with an artificial crisis situation that was never going to accomplish anything other than generating hysterical, polarizing “debate”—debate that was itself radicalized and cheapened by the “strikers’” cheap and radical tactics. My congratulations to all of them.

The author is a sophomore in List College.

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