Further thoughts on hunger strikes and assassinations

         Perhaps the most important point in the post on the University of Missouri here was the first: a placing of Jonathan Butler’s unusual and courageous hunger strike in the context of the long history, starting with Socrates, of individual, nonviolent actions against the crimes or harms of one’s own people.  Socrates went to his death for questioning in Athens. Asking questions is the starting point of both philosophy and more importantly, decent democracy.  In such a democracy, critics of prevailing policies – ones which are often tyrannical or McCarthyite, that is, pursue a particular interest rather than a common good – can instigate public discussion and deliberation.  What Socrates did, thus, fought for a democracy 
    In this context, the claim that Socrates sought to be a “philosopher-king” in the sense of a sole ruler, influential in Al-Farabi, Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss, is, in fact, a misunderstanding of a satire from Plato’s Republic.  That proposal  reflects the interests of a soldier, Glaucon.  It is then read mistakenly and without internal evidence, back into Socrates’s speech at his trial. See here and here.
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      Tyrannical Athenian democrats sought to silence Socrates with a death sentence.  And yet,  though having broken a(n unjust) Athenian law against questioning the gods – many of the stories of the gods include crimes against humans, for instance, Zeus’s rape, in the form of a swan, of Leda – and being unwilling to accept a penalty of not asking, Socrates accepted the rule of the laws overall.  He understood that the decision of the assembly to put him to death was an unjust application by “men.”
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     As John Rawls saw, in A Theory of Justice, sections 53-59,  Socrates’s defense in the Apology and his willingness to go his death in the Crito paradigmatically illustrate Rawls’s fine definition of civil disobedience within a democracy: (nonviolent) resistance to an unjust law within an overall context of fidelity to the laws.


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    In 1908, Gandhi published his own translation and commentary on the Apology in Indian Nation, a newspaper he edited in South Africa.  He called the six part series  “Story of a Soldier of Truth.”  Gandhi saw himself as a citizen of the British Empire – a subject of laws to be equally applied to each person  –  and not, at the time, as a democrat.   Though resisting imperialism and discrimination, he was, in this respect, less insightful than Socrates. Gandhi emphasized the grand courage of Socrates’s willingness to do what is right – Socrates’s quaffed the poison, he says, “like a sherbet”; yet, oddly, Gandhi does not understand the fundamental issue of questioning in a democracy (I am the first scholar to comment in detail on the translation – see, for example, here and here).
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     As an American involved in the civil rights movement, I had seen mass nonviolent resistance, as, for example, to Bull Connor in Birmingham, as part of a broad movement from below.  I had not taken in the aspect of Socrates, so realized in Gandhi’s hunger strikes, of taking individual actions against the outrages (or what one regards as the outrages) of one’s own people.  For while hunger strikes are best as part of a collective struggle, for instance, among women campaigning justly for suffrage like Alice Paul against President Woodrow Wilson in 1917, a predecessor of Gandhi – see the contemporary New York Times article “Miss Alice Paul on Hunger-Strike” here – or among prisoners, tortured, detained for years without trial and frequently innocent of any crime, held by the United States at Guantanamo, they are often solitary acts.
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      Now Gandhi saw himself as the moral leader of a movement, one against the British (to transform both the Indians and the British), but sometimes against his own movement.  He exemplified hunger strikes as a method of protest.   In the strike wave, for example, which Gandhi supported upon his return to India in 1921,  police in a village murdered strikers; some strikers murdered policemen.  Gandhi then went on a hunger strike to curb his own movement, which lapsed for nearly 10 years.
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        Even more strikingly, the British policy of divide and rule had broken a united India asunder, at independence, creating India and Pakistan.  In India, Hindu supporters of independence brutalized, murdered and chased out Moslems.  Exemplifying his internationalist rule for satyagrahis – if you are a Hindu, defend with your life a Moslem attacked by a Hindu mob – Gandhi went on a hunger strike to stop this.
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     These are not only solitary acts.  They are solitary acts which nonviolently appeal, against the crimes of the moment, to the conscience of a people.  They are, in this respect, like Socrates’s solitary appeal at his trial (Socrates did not try to create a mass movement, though he had philosophical followers). Comparatively, if one meditates only on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” and American civil rights experience, one can miss this decisive Socratic/Gandhian aspect of nonviolent resistance.
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      Yet Socrates found, to his surprise, that his words nearly resulted in a majority vote for acquittal among the 500 Athenian citizens present at his trial.  Hunger strikes appealing to conscience in a divided community can have a significant political effect.  In Missouri, for instance, the racism that charged the atmosphere was no longer, morally and legally, acceptable.  Black students were harassed daily, and yet Jonathan Butler’s strike could crystallize a movement, galvanize broader moral action.
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     In referring to Gandhi’s hunger strike against Hindu murderers of Moslems, I edited out a sentence about the assassination of Gandhi by the Hindu fanatic, Nathuram Godse, and a connection of this to today’s Hindu fanaticism – murdering 5 Moslems for supposedly eating a cow in Gujarat –  and the noble opposition to it by Arundhati Roy and others.  Tom Rowe wrote to me:
    “Hi Alan: Good essay.  Just one paragraph is misleading—as you know, Gandhi was assassinated by an extremist Hindu rather than dying during a hunger strike.  Warm regards, Tom”  (h/t Paul as well).   
      Here is the initial version (I italicize the two sentences I cut from the final version):
     “First, Jonathan Butler, a graduate student, went on a hunger strike to the death about it.  This is a profound example of what Gandhi learned from Socrates and enacted, going to his death, by fasting in support of Moslem lives against murderous Hindu mobs at the foundation of India.  The monster who assassinated him is a predecessor of the mobs in Gujerat who just slaughtered 5 Moslems for allegedly killing a cow.  For Gandhi’s translation of Plato’s Apology, see here and here.  
      (Arundhati Roy sent back an award to the racist government of Prime Minister Modi last week  – a government which failed to criticize/egged on these murders – and spoke eloquently against it. See here.)
      Exemplifying this classical form of nonviolent protest, Jonathan Butler courageously acted against such oppression.  Lost among publicity about the football team, it was his fast unto death – look at the photo of him above being taken to a hospital last Monday – which was central both to a larger nonviolent movement and great changes.”
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     What Jonathan Butler did was a part of a growing, but at the time not overriding movement against racism at the University of Missouri.  His action uniquely galvanized support from the Racism Lives Here encampment/protest to a boycott by the football team, black and white.  Hunger strikes can sometimes play, as Butler’s did, a unique role in making people realize the seriousness of both a public moment and the need for everyone to stand up/join with a movement to defeat grotesque injustices.
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     If one takes in less sustenance than strikers often do, hunger strikes can result, pretty quickly, in physical decline and even the death of a striker.  Jonathan Butler did, evidently, risk his life to fight for justice.

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