Hunger Strikes and Self-Immolation (May 12th)

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How far would you go to stand up for what you believe in? Would you kill for your beliefs? Would you die for your beliefs? Would you, commit suicide, as a means of political protest?


Today, on this day, May 12, 1981, Francis Hughes starved to death in the Maze Prison during the 1981 Irish hunger strike. The Irish prisoners were objecting to the treatment they were receiving by the British prison authorities, and they were wanted political prisoner status to be granted to Provisional IRA prisoners. Following in the footsteps of India Independence leaders -most notably Gandhi, the Irish nationalists organized a Hunger Strike in 1980, and another strike in 1981. Bobby Sands (March 9, 1954 – 5 May 1981) was the leader of that 1981 hunger strike. Now, it should be noted, Gandhi was a pacifist and these IRA members were part of a violent terrorist organization. This narrative is not as an endorsement of the prisoners’ violence either in prison or before, but a recognition of a milestone in “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland’s history.


But how can a person shut down hunger? Hardwired into our being is a sense of self-preservation…

In 1975, Article 6 of the World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo stated that doctors are not allowed to force-feed hunger strikers. They are supposed to understand the prisoner’s independent wishes, and it is recommended to have a second opinion as to the capability of the prisoner to understand the implication of his decision and be capable of informed consent. Having said that, it is US Federal policy that 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.”


Apparently, some things are worth dying for, or at least risking one’s life for. And, respectfully, it seems to me that donning the uniform of our nation-state is relatively easy… After all, with the exception of the Vietnam era, there is a national admiration that goes out to those in uniform… and some perks too: Preferential boarding on Southwest Airlines, preferential hiring in some police departments, GI Bill, VA Housing Loans, etc., etc. Now, I’m not suggesting that soldiers don’t deserve it, nor am I saying that soldiering is not hard work. What I am saying, is that it’s not an incredibly difficult moral decision to wear one’s countries uniform. However, what if one doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the nation-state, then that’s a harder situation to put on the uniform, and perhaps it is an easier decision to raise weapons against the nation-state.


For example, also on this day, May 12, 1885, the four-day Battle of Batoche ended with a decisive rebel defeat. The rebels were the Métis people who had organized the North-West Rebellion against the Canadian government. The Métis are a people in Canada who trace their descent to First Nations peoples and European settlers, though only 1.7% of the Canadian population. They are now recognized as one of Canada’s aboriginal peoples under the Constitution Act of 1982, along with First Nations and Inuit peoples.


On this day, May 12, 1998, the Trisakti shootings, or the Trisakti Tragedy took place at Trisakti University, Jakarta, Indonesia. A planned non-violent protest against the Suharto government started at the university on the 12th May 1998. By 10:00, over 6,000 students, lecturers, and staff had assembled in the university parking lot; the demonstrators began the protest by lowering the Indonesian flag to half-mast.

While the demonstration was primarily a protest over the declining economy, it is worth noting that the Indonesian government had a history of repression as well. The 1965 Tragedy in which 500,000 Communists were systematically murdered; later declared a genocide by an international tribunal, which also found the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia were all complicit in the crimes.

The Papua Conflict between the Indonesian government and the indigenous populations of Western New Guinea (Papua) since 1962, the East Timor Genocide (1975 to 1999)… Indonesia seems to have a propensity to use military force -with weapons supplied by the US and US allies- on ethnic, religious and ideological populations.

And May 12, 1998, was no different. During a demonstration against President Suharto, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on unarmed protestors. Four of the students (Elang Mulia Lesmana, Heri Hertanto, Hafidin Royan, and Hendriawan Sie) were killed and dozens more were injured. The shootings caused riots to break out throughout Indonesia eventually, in fact, leading to Suharto’s resignation.


What about self-immolation: Remember Thích Quảng Đức, the famous Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death on June 11, 1963. [Photo Credit: (AP), Malcolm Wilde Browne]. He was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the American-supported South Vietnamese government of Ngô Đình Diệm. John F. Kennedy said in reference to the Thích Quảng Đức picture, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” That photograph of the self-immolation is as powerful today, as it was then…

Even today, we see Tibetan monks and even civilians using self-immolation as a tactic to bring attention to the Hanification of Tibet and the repression of Tibetan culture, religion, and political self-determination…


Even in the US, there have been a series of hunger strikes in the extrajudicial detention in the United States’ Guantanamo Bay detention camps, in Cuba. Apparently as early as 2002, then 2005-2008, and as recently as 2013, there have been hunger strikes by the detainees. Records show more than 80 inmates weight dropped below 100 lbs during the peak of these strikes. The organizer of many of these strikes, Shaker Aamer, was later repatriated to Saudi Arabia when the US Government admitted there was insufficient evidence for trial.


Self-immolation and hunger strikes. How far would you go to stand up for what you believe in? Would you die for your beliefs? Would you, commit suicide, as a means of political protest? Buddhists monks have done it. Today, on this day, May 12, 1981, Francis Hughes starved himself to death in the Maze Prison of Northern Ireland. Those Northern Irish Catholics also killed for their, albeit twisted means, but their belief in the right of the Irish to be independent of the UK, just like the Métis organized the North-West Rebellion against the Canadian government although the rebellion was ultimately defeated on this day, May 12, 1885. And May 12, 1998, was no different. Four students were killed and dozens more were injured while demonstrating against the autocratic rule of President Suharto…


What would you die for? I know many of us would die for our family and friends, but Americans are blessed to live in relative safety compared to the rest of the world. What ideas would you die for, what principals would you sacrifice yourself for. Many of us would also probably defend our own demographic tribes, such as our government, as well as justice for our ethnic, religious and racial communities… would that we stood up as easily for other ethnic, religious, national and racial communities. Today, the Rohingya of Burma are dying, today the civilians of Yemen are dying by American weapons being used by Saudi forces, today the Syrian Civil War continues into its year… civilians that don’t look like many of us, Muslims who don’t pray like many of us, people that don’t live in our neighborhoods… It’s easy to stand up for our community and our beliefs, too bad we can’t stand up for other communities and people with differing political or religious beliefs as readily…

And that’s what happened This Day in Today…
Today’s Tomorrow’s yesterday.
I am, Tom Keefe, the Babbling Professor!
Thank you for listening!

On Charlottesville: White Male Shadow Boxers


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Peter Cvjetanovic (R) along with Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va. on Aug. 11, 2017. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


Whether it be individual psychology, sociology, religion, or politics, identity formation is so fundamental to all of our human interactions. What we saw in Charlottesville is the expression of racial identity formation. White privilege versus true equality and equity. How are we to interpret these events? How can we make reason of the perpetuation of militant White extremism in the wealthiest nation on Earth?

I start with Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor is such a gift to logic and reason; Occam stated almost a thousand years ago that the simplest explanation is most often the actual explanation. What percentage of women were at the White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville this past weekend? How many first or second-generation Americans?

What we have is a sociological situation in which multi-generational Caucasian American males feel that something is fundamentally unfair, that the sand has shifted beneath their feet. And they are right; economic factors have shifted, and not in their favor. Those factors are automation, international trade, increased female participation in the workforce, and the increased chasm of compensation between the lowest paid employee in a corporation and the CEO.

Historically, this phenomenon is rooted in the Southern white male experience. As described in Thandeka’s book, Learning to be White (2000), there is a historical and artificial division between the white and non-white lower/middle classes. The Southern elites used racial stratification to instill a superiority complex in lower/middle class whites to distract from the economic stratification of the colonial and antebellum South. This continues to pervade our racial interpretation of class, economics, and status. And as the great factories of the North have oxidized into the Rust Belt, that mentality has migrated north as well.

And combined with this, in my opinion, in the mutt-ification and alienation of Anglo-Saxon and German Americans. It is my opinion that there is a deep-seeded sense of alienation among poor Anglo-Saxons who look at the nationalistic fervor of Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, etc., and wonder… why not me, why not us? These same WASP males look at immigrant populations, particularly Mexican-Americans who have maintained their culture/language and even the contrived celebration of Cinco de Mayo, and wonder… why not me, why not us?

Immigrant Catholic Latinos, Sikhs and Hindus from India and Pakistan, Muslim refugees, and warped perceptions of Affirmative Action…. and disenfranchised white males wonder… why not me, why not us? “Wasn’t this a Christian (Protestant) nation? Remember Antebellum and the 1950s, ‘we’ didn’t have all these problems… A purported Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage (apologies to FDR) … and many Anglo-Saxon Christians wonder… why not me, why not us?”

In Ohio, before WWI, Cincinnati had daily newspapers in German. In fact, German-Americans still make up a plurality of the US population demographically; most Americans are German. And Germans and Irish immigration waves entered the US at approximately the same time. But now, after two World Wars, who flies German flags in their front yards? Each St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is an Irishman, but when are we all German-Americans? And many multi-generational German-Americans wonder… why not me… why not us?

Indeed, many Anglo-Saxon and German Americans do not recognize their ethnicity; they identify as “American,” and see the embracing of ethnic and non-white racial identity as un-American. In homogenous nation-states, to the extent they even exist anymore, it is easier to see economics in class terminology, but here? In America, the great classless society, where everyone from the store manager to the CEO is “middle-class,” how can we see the economic realities of the New Jerusalem? In the America that was established not as a social ‘revolution,’ but as a conservative reaction to the threat to wealth, in the America that annexed the Mexican Cession to further the expansion of slavery, in the America that pointed its White Fleet guns at Japan, Opened Doors in China, and took the Philippines from Spanish-speaking Catholics… how can we NOT see economics in racial terms?

Only four of the Fortune 500 companies have an African-American CEO, and 43 of the 44 US Presidents have been Caucasian (remember Grover Cleveland counts as both the 22nd and 24th US President). So, given the racially-charged history of the United States, how does a multi-generational Anglo-Saxon or German American male look himself in the mirror and understand why he too is not a CEO or the President of the United States. “Why Alice, I oughta, one of these days! POW!”

And there you have it. In a culture in which females traditionally have measured their self-worth through family and relationships, and males have judged each other by “bringing home the bacon,” many Anglo-Saxons and German-Americans wonder… why not me… why not us?

They wonder, whatever did happen to the American Dream? “Did I do something wrong? I don’t think so; it must have been taken from me… you know… by those people who look different….”

As globalization came to China in the late 1800s, some Chinese resisted in what became known as the Boxer Rebellion. Westerners called the anti-immigrant nationalists shadow boxers for the shadow boxing techniques of the nativist movement. The nomenclature, shadow boxing, has lasted much longer than their rebellion against globalization. And that’s precisely what this new rise of the angry White Male Christian is, it is a movement of shadow boxers angrily fighting for a privilege that is not morally theirs, against an enemy that doesn’t exist, while Palpatine fuels their fire and consolidates wealthy and power with his national and international oligarchs.

These are the angry white males from Charlottesville. Personally, I neither agree, nor condone the hatred and violence that they have readily accepted. I reject their self-described victimization and jingoist perceptions of history, but I understand them. I understand, and feel, their pain. They are shadow boxing a phantom menace that they neither see, nor understand. And they collectively killed Heather Heyer. They killed those two State Troopers as true as if they had swiped their helicopter out of the sky themselves. They have killed.

We can kill too. Or we can stand in solidarity with the spirit of Heather Heyer, with the spirit of MLK, Caesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony, and Chief Joseph. We too can turn the other cheek. We too can love our enemy as our brother…. We too shall overcome.

Use your head, don’t wear blinders

Regarding Patrick Clark’s letter, “To quick to judge those who fight abroad” ProJo 7/1/6, I’d like to turn the title on its head. The problem is many people are too quick to protect their compadres. Yes, America’s legal system is based on the presumption of innocence, but we also have an independent grand jury system that identifies possible culpability. Whether they are policemen, priests or soldiers, there are certain professions which carry with them a certain amount of blind trust. [It is important to point out that there are many good men and women that have earned and deserve our trust.] However, many people seem to put blinders on when it comes even to the ‘bad apples.’

Whether its NYPD’s Justin Volpe who beat Abner Louima, RI’s own Dan Azzarone, Jr., or the convicted prison guards at Abu Ghraib, there are bad apples out there. When a grand jury, or the military equivalent, recommends a trial, it behooves the intelligent public to –not presume guilt- but trust in the system and allow for the fact that the persons MAY be guilty.

The knee-jerk defenses of accused soldiers, simply because they’re soldiers, are jingoistic and anti-intellectual. Instead of wrapping accused soldiers with the American flag, perhaps we should wrap their wrists in handcuffs and let the justice system do its job? The honorable soldiers, past and present, that I know separate themselves from these opportunistic criminals who don’t defend our country, but soil its reputation abroad.
Tom Keefe