Monday, September 05, 2011

The Political Economy of Fasting

Political action that focuses inward is a powerful and equalizing tool in all but the most violent societies. It is a basic right to claim control over your own body, where Doing is intermixed with Being. Fasting as a personal (sacred) political act is often done to gain sharper spiritual understanding (as with the Buddha) or as a means of aligning oneself with (profane) public notions of physical beauty. Fasting as a public political act was understood as such long before Gandhi and has a great and storied history in the development of human civilization. Gandhi however refined the act of fasting as a means to achieve public/political ends. What is important to understand is that Gandhi actual took to fasting not just in protest against the acts of a colonial or authoritarian (or even democratic) government, but also where he had a point of view that was unpopular, such as against retaliatory violence among religious groups. Fasting was not a means to pout or sulk, but to introspect, to bring about change, and not necessarily a change that the person fasting wanted. In this sense, fasting is a superior and public form of protest rooted in an examination of the self. It seeks to explore the public realm based on an acute interrogation of the physical body, a ritual of detoxification that focuses the mind. Recently in India a public figure took to fasting as a means of political protest. In these populist times, there was a focus on the individual, his authoritarianism, his lack of respect for democratic institutions, and his unsavory friends. Rahul Gandhi, scion of the great Kashmiri-Italian dynasty of Gandhis that rules India by proxy, even made a speech in parliament about how he was torn between his concern for Anna's (the man fasting) health and the damage being done to democratic institutions (he doth protest too much!). Depending upon their point of view about corruption in India, many people in India saw this as a good, bad, or ugly thing. The 24 hour cable media in India variously saw it as a business opportunity, an entertainment spectacle, and an urban middle-class civic uprising based on cult of personality. The much more sophisticated Western media saw it as an extension of the "Arab spring" sweeping through roughly that part of the world. (Meanwhile, in the US, another democratic nation, the very same media sees no connection, correctly, between the Arab spring and tea party negotiations on the debt ceiling, or foreign students that protested in Pennsylvania because they were not paid for work at a Hershey's factory while on an exchange visa....but I digress.) Fasting is a legitimate means of protest; much like recalls and referendums in parliamentary democracies, but requiring more personal sacrifice than inking a ballot. Parliaments are simply the temporary gatekeepers of public opinion, and elections are just one means of expressing that public opinion. Fasting as a means of influencing a legislative outcome is an old tool in the democratic toolkit and it is less frequently used because it asks more of the protester. It can galvanize public opinion as it did in India recently, and it can question legislators in a way that a hundred thousand signatures on a petition cannot. In taking sides with personalities and parties in the most recent episode where fasting has been used as a means to an end, we must not forget the importance of fasting itself, in our private and public lives.

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