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Politics, Imposed Privation and Human Rights



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Peter Quinn’s recent review of several texts in a Commonweal article entitled, “Hunger Games: Who Gets to Eat and who Decides,” offered an analysis of the ways in which human society has deliberately employed hunger and starvation to produce specific social outcomes during the last century or so (May 16, 2014, pp.19-23). Quinn makes clear that in a little more than 100 years (1845-1961) the number of individuals perishing from famine and starvation exceeded that total in all of previous human history. The Irish and Chinese famines of 1845-1851and 1958-1961 respectively, resulted in record levels of mortality, relative to those nations’ populations. None of the cases of vast starvation and hunger examined in the texts Quinn reviewed resulted from an absolute lack of food. That is, none arose because there were not enough meats, fruits and vegetables available to assist the malnourished. None occurred by accident or serendipity alone, either.

Instead, all were the product of political and governmental leaders’ choices and intentions. As Quinn observed, these deaths occurred because “… hunger shook hands with administrative bureaucracy, economic theory and political ideology.” In Great Britain, English leaders combined a fealty to the view that governments should not intervene in markets with a faith that saw the Irish famine as punishing moral wrongdoers who required such social “reform” if they were to be created anew. Sir Charles Trevelyan, an assistant secretary of the Treasury, saw Ireland’s potato blight as a chance to cure the “chronic dependency” of the Irish people. Accordingly, in 1847 Parliament shut down relief efforts and soup kitchens to facilitate the already occurring “social change” the famine was imposing. A combination of ideology and political power wrought the ruin of countless lives, the deaths of more than 1 million individuals and the emigration of 2 million more in less than a decade. Trevelyan and his fellow representatives exacerbated rather than ameliorated the suffering in the name of their certainty that the ends of a purified society justified the ugly means afoot to secure it. Parliamentarians routinely alleged the dependence and laziness of the Irish citizens they otherwise were consigning to death or exile. Ideology justified doing nothing to alleviate food insecurity, hunger and starvation on an unprecedented scale.

Quinn noted in Russia, Josef Stalin shot tens of thousands of people and deported 1.7 million more to the Gulag while starving more than 5 million Ukrainians and Russians in a deliberate effort to engineer a massive shift in his nation’s economy from 1928 to 1933. During World War II, Adolf Hitler in 1941 approved a hunger plan that was never realized as a result of the Allied victory that would have systematically starved 30 million Slavs and imprisoned 70 million more in the Soviet Arctic. Meanwhile, as the conflict proceeded, the Reich routinely placed prisoners on starvation diets designed to kill in three months. More than 2.6 million Russian prisoners of war perished in this way during the war.

During World War II as well, Japan inflicted a terrible toll on China via the deprivation and starvation of at least 15 million civilians. In addition, Japanese “requisition” of Indo-Chinese rice in 1944-1945 led to widespread starvation in Vietnam that killed between 1 and 2 million people. During 1943-1944 the Bengali famine resulted in the deaths of 3-4 million Indians and Quinn quoted Prime Minister Winston Churchill who, still overseeing that nation as part of the British Empire, blamed those suffering hunger for their fates, arguing, “… the Indians had brought these problems on themselves by breeding like rabbits and must pay the price of their improvidence.” As if these examples were not sufficiently chilling, Quinn reported that Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in China, the product of his despotism and rigid ideology, directly contributed to the deaths of 30 million people. Typically, Mao blamed those whose demise he ensured for working insufficiently hard when they died of starvation as a direct result of his fantastical and equally cruel economic and social policies.

In short, the last century saw multiple nations employ hunger deliberately as a policy tool, occasioning the deaths of millions. And in each case, as Quinn concluded in his essay:

Whether adherents of Marxism, the Manchester School, or National Socialism, in both war and peace those in charge of modern famines agreed that it was the victims who were at fault. Irish peasants were lazy and superstitious; Ukrainian kulaks, greedy and reactionary; Slavs and Jews, filthy untermenschen. In the eyes of the Japanese, Chinese peasants were incorrigible and primitive; in Mao’s view they were ‘regressionists’ who lacked ‘adequate psychological preparation for socialist revolution.’

It is at once deeply sad and frustrating to learn more about these grotesque and vicious chapters in human history. They surely offer a lesson to our own nation’s lawmakers now engaged in ideological claims making and scapegoating that echo the pronouncements used so frequently in the past. Republican lawmakers have consistently labeled the poor and hungry citizens in our nation the morally suspect architects of their own situations in Party policy statements and budget proposals (always aimed at reducing public support in often draconian terms on grounds also of a belief in the superiority of the market) in recent years. That rhetoric has grown increasingly harsh over time. Those receiving nutrition assistance and income aid are reviled as “dependent” and as “takers,” with no acknowledgement of their humanity or the contexts in which they live. This language could be taken verbatim from the historic episodes noted above.

Indeed, the story employed today to justify policy stands is ever the same as that which Quinn found in the histories he reviewed. In all current cases, the individuals the GOP targets for rebuke and intentional retribution are characterized as somehow “less than” the policy-makers and their constituencies. Indeed, the very vulnerability of poor and hungry citizens is turned on them as a weapon of contempt. Such a stance in our context finds Republican lawmakers refusing to consider extending unemployment benefits in a period of unprecedented rates of post-recession joblessness on the justification that such support is preventing the lion’s share of those receiving it from pursuing gainful work. Likewise, legislators have reduced supplemental nutrition assistance benefits on the basis of an ideologically derived certainty that these, too, are unduly generous to a wasteful and dependent population.

In short, this social trope or narrative imaginary never changes. Policymakers who see the world through purist ideological lenses—of whatever sort—are ever willing to impose high and sometimes horrific costs in the name of those beliefs, while rationalizing their actions as necessary because of the purported flaws of those targeted. This behavior has historically deprived millions of their lives through starvation and caused millions more to suffer needlessly. Understood in these terms, ideology should be considered the bane of humanity and the crutch ever employed by leaders of all stripes to justify acting in evil ways. Those targeted are always depicted as “less than” and their rights (and frequently, lives) are cruelly undermined on that basis. It should go without saying, but it nonetheless must be said, that the United States, a free society formally dedicated to human rights and equality, should not and cannot tolerate such political behavior. It can only result in human degradation, and if the past is any indicator, on a large scale. One may hope the American citizenry will soon tire of ideologically justified fantasy narratives that allow elected leaders to target some people for social engineering in forms that routinely inflict deep individual harm and worse while also tearing at social bonds. History teaches that the costs for human freedom and human rights of this sort of politics are shockingly high.

Publication Date

May 18, 2014