Sunday, 1 January 2006

Things that are lost on me, volume 32

Prompted in part by this BBC story on Winston Churchill’s position on whether or not Gandhi should have been allowed to starve if he went on hunger strike, and the Gitmo hunger strikes, I am forced to ask about the strategic considerations behind going on a hunger strike. If a prisoner voluntarily refuses to be fed for some basis other than the food itself (i.e. I could see why a Muslim might refuse to eat pork or non-halal beef), why does their captor have an obligation to feed them? More importantly, why does anyone care?


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.
[Permalink] 1. munowits wrote @ Mon, 2 Jan 2006, 9:33 am CST:

Damn, boy! You really ARE a libertarian, aren’t you?

Motorcycle helmet laws, seat-belt laws, laws against recreational drug use….It is the JOB, perhaps the SOLE job, of the nanny state to substitute its superior judgment for your foolish views about your own goals and behavior.

1. Prisoners cannot be allowed to punish themselves.
2. If a prisoner dies of starvation, there is no guarantee it was a hunger strike. Ditto suicide by other means. In both cases, raises questions about abuses by the detaining authority.
3. Finally, imprisonment is demeaning. But death by hunger strike is martyrdom. Can’t allow people to become martyrs, and further their cause.

Still, I think it is all of a piece. Nanny takes care of us, and wants what is best for us. And Nanny KNOWS what is best for us.


Well, not trying to be snarky, but I realize that the morality argument won’t move either of you (again…not trying to be too snarky, but I am beginning to believe that hardcore “libertarians” [of which I used to be one a long time ago in a galaxy far away] are the new postmodernists…or have at least appropriated the “there is no TRUE right or wrong” veins of thought). So I start by agreeing with Prof. Munger’s third point…that letting the person die will strengthen the position of governmental opponents…something the government doesn’t want to happen.

However…mainly because the government DOES care about Dr. Munger’s third point, a hunger strike MAY be the only way for a person in a position of RELATIVE powerlessness to effect change by (1) getting government concessions to end the strike because the government doesn’t want the opposition to be strengthened by getting a martyr…which would force them into greater concessions or (2) bringing national and international attention to a grave injustice…which may force change.

British occupation of South Asia was brutal and cruel (whitewashed limey versions of history aside). Also you can trace most of the political instability in the region to British occupation. Their occupation led to unrest…unrest led (eventually) to withdrawal…withdrawal (given the problems they had created or exacerbated) led to partition (including the idiotic rules regarding accession of principalities)...partition led to dispute over Kashmir (Hindu leader of Kashmir entered a “standstill” agreement with Pakistan [usually a precursor to accession] which felt that since Kashmir was 74% Muslim, it should go to the “majority Muslim” state that partition was supposed to create…the Hindu leader then negotiated with India and acceded to India…when Pakistan rattled a saber over this the Indian army came in force…to see why this is a bit of hypocrisy on another level, look to what happened regarding the accession of Hyderabad)…dispute over Kashmir led to multiple “wars” (i.e. MUCH armed conflict…I put wars in quotation marks because, I believe, only three of these conflicts qualified as “wars” under the [silly in my opinion] Correlates of War Project definition of war), thus causing an “enduring rivalry” (ala Goertz and Diehl 1992, 1993, 1995, 1995 and more).

(By the way…arguing that these tensions would have developed even if the British had never set foot on the sub-continent can not be logically proven since it involves an historical counter-factual)

My point? I’m not sure…oh wait!: the occupation was morally wrong…the behavior of the British during occupation was morally wrong…opponents, given so little access to traditional avenues of political power had to try and effect change through other means…including hunger strikes by beloved and charismatic leaders.

Munger pointed out why they work…I (attempt) to add why anyone (other than the government who might lose power and the “out” group who might gain power) would care: the atrocities committed under British occupation were immoral (of course if you believe that the colonization itself was immoral –a much more dicey position to defend—then you don’t even have to discuss the atrocities).

Yes, I believe people should care about moral and immoral actions of government and I believe that, yes, in egregious cases, a clear line divides moral and immoral

…I also believe in the tooth fairy, Easter Bunny, unicorns, and flying rabbits that can eviscerate knights.


For what it’s worth, I was more interested in the general case than the specific (i.e. Gandhi). It just seems to me like a rather dopey form of protest, particularly if it’s already made clear that you actually are on hunger strike (i.e. an unannounced hunger strike, which relies on the authorities to say that you are on hunger strike and thus might be “fake,” would seem to be more effective).


More to the point, there’s a strategic problem here. Why doesn’t every prisoner go on hunger strike if it’s an apparently effective means to get redress of grievances?

As for Gandhi specifically, I wonder how much he would have enjoyed Nazi rule over India (which, of course, was the logical consequence of the British conceding his demands).

[Permalink] 5. mungowitz wrote @ Mon, 2 Jan 2006, 2:11 pm CST:


1. You provided academic citations, multiple ones…in a comment….on a blog. Straight to K-mart with you lad: they have a post-christmas sale on lives, and you NEED one.

2. If you agree that the state USUALLY behaves unjustly, and that most prisoners (19 year old kids serving 20 years for selling drugs to other 19 year old kids) are in jail because of unjust laws, then I think you are STILL A LIBERTARIAN AFTER ALL!

Good on ya. Now, off to K-mart, before they run out.

[Permalink] 6. Scott wrote @ Mon, 2 Jan 2006, 2:24 pm CST:

Well, I think one possible answer to the first question of post 4 may be that it must be an issue that resonates beyond the individual. i.e. no one cares that Prisoner 493859 is incensed that he has to eat too much peanut butter. The public shrugs it shoulders when he is forcibly given an IV.

Meaning the purpose of the hunger strike is not to go hungry, per se, it is to rally public attention to force change. I think an underlying assumption is that the issue is one that some relevant segment of the population, meeting some size threshold, is concerned or could be made concerned about.

Since the effectiveness is in the public rallying effect, an announced hunger strike makes more sense from an efficiency point of view.

As for the Nazi thing…after reading Tetlock’s book on Expert Judgment, I just don’t put much weight on counter-factuals. That is not to say I don’t believe it could have happened. I mean I don’t put much weight on an argument against “reality X” that is based on “theoretical occurrence Y.” Not because the probability of Y happening was low, but because the secondary, tertiary, etc. assumptions about what actors 1, 2, or 3 would do or prefer are inherently unknowable.

[Permalink] 7. Scott wrote @ Mon, 2 Jan 2006, 2:30 pm CST:


Actually, I sat down and posted the first one because my daughters started watching the Rose Parade with mom and I wanted a reason to avoid going into work (plus, I have learned that citations, if you have time to post them, ward off the real trolls). I am posting now because the alternative is to read the papers I am supposed to be discussing at the Southern.

Which would you choose? :)

PS if one long posting on a blog indicated the need for a life…what does HAVING a blog indicate…much less the inability to stay away from blogging once one has claimed to have quit.

…not that that’s relevant to anyone here or anything :)


A discussant reading the papers before the conference begins? Perish the thought.

Heck, an author actually writing a paper before the beginning of the conference may be a noteworthy event… speaking of which, I’m going to be offline for a while… ☺

[Permalink] 9. Mungowinky wrote @ Mon, 2 Jan 2006, 6:48 pm CST:

oo, oo, oo! Scott, that really is a triple.

a. Reading papers BEFORE the plane ride to the conference? Yikes.
b. Noting, correctly, that if POSTING comments means you need a life, HOSTING means you need…well, probably Viagra just for starters. The K-mart life isn’t going to be enough.
c. Noting, also correctly, that if using citations wards off trolls, CRITIQUEING use of citations makes ME a troll, or worse.

I may not be able to sit down for a while. Sniffle. Ouchies.

[Permalink] 10. Scott wrote @ Mon, 2 Jan 2006, 7:00 pm CST:

C. ha!...if you want to see REAL trolls, check out the comments on any thread at…somewhere there are some empty bridges…

B. since I am splitting a room with Chris at the Southern, let’s hold off a while on his Viagra

A. Well, I thought about reading the papers on the trip to Atlanta…but since I’m driving…I am taking the wimp’s way out…

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