Hunger as politics

I’m just back from ACIS’s 2013 meeting, where, inevitably, famine and hunger strikes were often on the agenda.  I’m also in the process of designing a course on popular politics, which I’ve conceiving of as means of acting politically open to those traditionally excluded from formal politics. This semester, I’m also sitting in on a class on humanitarianism at NYU, which pushes me pretty far out of my 19th century comfort zone.  We’ve been talking a lot about whether enumerated rights give oppressed people resources to fight their oppression, or whether oppressive regimes will always find ways to loophole their way out of those enumerated rights (as an aside, I just finished We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which is rife with heartbreaking examples of the ways in which the international community convoluted itself to avoid acknowledging genocide in Rwanda).  So, both in light of the panels I heard this weekend, and in light of this class, this op ed in today’s New York Times is particularly apposite.  If we agree that freedom from want is (or should be) a universal right, what do we make of the freedom to willfully starve onesself?

Hunger strikes are political tools with long shadows – those used by people who have little or limited access to other forms of resistance.  Suffragettes in prison used, and died as a consequence of hunger strikes.  Irish Republican political prisoners starved and died in the H-Blocks.  While the World Medical Association sees force-feeding in response to hunger strikes as a possible assault on bodily integrity, the United States’ policy on the treatment of prisoners stipulates that “It is the responsibility of the Bureau of Prisons to monitor the health and welfare of individual inmates, and to ensure that procedures are pursued to preserve life.” and when “a medical necessity for immediate treatment of a life or health threatening situation exists, the physician may order that treatment be administered without the consent of the inmate.”

My own work is so much about the political utility of acting to prevent hunger, that I sometimes forget the political utility inherent in hunger – and public displays of hunger in particular.

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