Breaking the Death Fast

A couple of weeks ago I took the unusual measure of removing two posts from this blog. They were about the activist who calls himself “Start Loving.”

His name is actually Jay McGinley, and you can read more about his background and reasons for hunger striking on DC Mic Check. (I am quoted in the article.) McGinley is on Day 37 of a hunger strike in front of the Canadian Embassy, what he calls a “Death Fast,” because he does intend to continue it until death.

My decision to remove the blog posts came from a change in assessment about McGinley’s state of mental health. Initially, I ardently believed in what he was doing–bringing attention to the most pressing problem of our time, global warming. Many participants in Occupy DC, including me, have supported him throughout his hunger strike. Not just supported but gone to extraordinary lengths in providing him water and electrolytes, carrying away bottles of urine, charging his laptops, transcribing numerous videos, editing voluminous book manuscripts, and having long conversations into the night.

Not every hunger strike is a good hunger strike. It’s only after having spent a lot of time with McGinley that I came to the conclusion that this isn’t a good hunger strike. I was slow to come to this conclusion and didn’t want to. Out of personal affection I continued to visit him until recently. The bottom line is this: McGinley is a very intelligent man but also sick, and he’s becoming more and more delusional the longer he goes without food.

You’re not going to read this anywhere else. We want to praise someone who appears to be sacrificing themselves for a noble cause, and even major press outlets like the Los Angeles Times have interviewed and written about McGinley.

But I say, stop it. McGinley’s motivation and mental state are at issue. He’s getting an enormous amount of personal and press attention for committing suicide. It’s inherently immoral to encourage someone unbalanced to commit suicide. By giving him attention, this is what we’re doing. If he’s stopped somehow before he dies, he doesn’t deserve praise. If he dies, he shouldn’t be given the status of a martyr.

I write this not only to address this one case, but also because I believe it illustrates several weaknesses we as activists are susceptible to: cultivating rigid ideological conviction, extolling personal sacrifice to the Cause or Cause’s leader as proof of devotion, and believing that utter commitment is the gateway to effectiveness. All these are qualities of cults, in which individuals can become abusers and manipulators, or become vulnerable to being abused and manipulated.

This is what I wrote about the Occupy the Vote hunger strikers last December:

When you go on hunger strike for a cause, you put your body on the line. That’s why a hunger strike, as a nonviolent tactic of protest, can be so compelling. We all know the discomfort of hunger. Fewer of us know the pain and suffering of starvation. But we can imagine. The first, most basic thing we learn to do to survive is scream when we’re hungry. On a visceral level, hunger compels us.

So when a hunger striker overrides the primal command to survive and deprives him or herself of food for days or weeks, we turn and look and wonder: What conviction is so burning that it’s worth suffering or even dying for?

McGinley and his fast were compelling. When I first met him on Day 3 of his hunger strike, he inspired me with his uncompromising idealism and purported love for humanity. He’s truly awesome in his command and synthesis of information about carbon emissions. I wanted to believe that here was a holy man who had had a spiritual vision, who was suffused with love like the name he had taken on, Loving.

I visited him often, usually late at night, and enjoyed talking with him on a variety of subjects. He always greeted me with a cheerful, “Hello, Sister!” and soaked up long hugs before I left. I charged his laptop and brought him water and cough drops. I waited patiently and watched his things while he made trips to Starbucks to relieve gastrointestinal distress. He desperately wanted publicity for the Fast, so I edited a draft of a press release and looked up contact numbers for media outlets. I tweeted quotes, wrote articles and took photos that I posted on this blog.

And who wouldn’t want to support the cause he was trying to promote? We’re experiencing the effects of climate change now, and the Republican refusal to recognize the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing it, or that it’s happening at all, is maddening. Here was someone doing something about it, putting his life on the line!

For many of us supporting McGinley, the Cause took over. It was easy to overlook inconsistencies on his part. The greatest is the gap between his stated goal–publicity–and his actions to achieve it. While he made meticulous preparations for the hunger strike, he did nothing in advance to announce or publicize it, nor to my knowledge has ever contacted media himself but left it for others to do.

He refers to eight years of being exiled and ostracized by other environmentalists and people in general, and he indicated that he decided to undertake the hunger strike relatively quickly after having a vision. The isolation he underwent and the suddenness of his resolve also makes me think that his actions are part of a death wish.

More important to him than publicity, though, is the objective of getting more people to join him in fasting to death: “But all that matters on Earth right now, is that if there are 1000 people in the US that Love Humanity more than they Love their own life, that they come and join the Death Fast, now.” His mantra is “‘Till enough are seen dying.” The wish for others to join him in an apocalyptic vision and march to death is self-evidently insane. Indeed, in emails he chides his supporters for not following his example.

As lucidity wanes, he’s sent out numerous extended email rants:

Uh, I’m so stupid, I want you burned out on this mission, when you could find joy and passion in others that isn’t in this one for you?  Uh, no.  All of them are MY  missions too!

But as a consequence of your lack of passion, joy, and your predominant dissatisfaction with all that I’m doing, attempting, delivering… it is flaming me out.  I’m losing focus, feeling the weight of your dark moods, sadness, lack of passion, lack of delivery….  As I said from the beginning, and as is always true of the Potent Activist – I can do my part.  But there is a corollary I’d forgotten – not with the weight of those opposed to the mission for whatever good reasons, appalled at my execution of my part, etc, on my shoulders.  This is a lesson we must all remember going forward on future missions.  We need to help those that are trying, and avoid undoing that help by our gripes, moans, dis satisfactions, frustrations, etc; or find another mission where we can.  We’ve all been there, right?  Someone like me looks really tough, and maybe I am, but extremely delicate at the same time, because I keep myself exactly on the extreme edge, every second.  Every breath.

He often lashes out at his greatest supporters in Occupy DC. The alternation between harsh criticism and lavish praise is manipulative. He excoriated someone for speaking to a reporter unauthorized; later the same person is “the one of strong heart, [unwilling] to turn away from decency no matter what.” At one point he made a detailed list of one supporter’s personal flaws and shortcomings in carrying out the “mission.” Now that this follower has come back into the fold, he is part of the exclusive inner circle of the Death Fast. The criticism/praise dynamic extends to Occupy DC in general as well:

The Death Fast can’t survive any more “help” from Occupy right now
In the last two days somehow this became “our” campaign.  WHAT?  You mean “we,” in Occupy, that have honestly and clearly told me they were opposed, the messaging was wrong, the target audience was wrong, that have not sustained any but the smallest contributions, haven’t joined….???????  What kind of fantasy is this?

I will not fight you.  You can take the Death Fast over in the press.  Say it is Occupy DC’s campaign.  Whatever you want.  I’ll not fight you, and I’ll keep on. 

But later:

Thanks to friends at Occupy DC I’ve made it to day 37 relatively in tact, funcitonal [sic], and I’m fairly sure now, able to get the books completed sufficiently. Wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Framing the Death Fast as a  grand “mission” (“this is the most high stakes campaign on earth right now”) enables him to play on supporters’ devotion to a cause and appeal to their sense of self-sacrifice and fears that they may be one of the faint-of-heart.

Most recently, he has begged for all but the three most committed devotees to leave him alone and let him work–making the dozens of videos he posts on his site and writing two books–claiming that they are harming the mission.

My energy, powers of focus, etc are waning, but that’s par for the course.  IF you continue to comply with my wishes and allow the uninterrupted seclusion I need, I’ll be able to do my part. 

I will not allow interference with the mission, especially now that I’m entering a very very depleted, fragile zone for me.

Still, he relies on them not to go away completely:

I PRAY, IF THERE REMAINS ANYONE I’VE NOT YET TOTALLY DRIVEN AWAY, that you immediately read the draft and provide top level comments, major suggestions, major input.

It seems that despite my best efforts… I haven’t totally done my part yet of driving everyone away.  Thank goodness. Not totally anyway, yet.

Underlying everything is a contempt that none share his true commitment and join him in the Death Fast. (“The target objective is not one you see as worth your life, or even close.”)

There’s a natural tendency to adulate someone who is seemingly making the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the planet. But that doesn’t mean we should eschew skepticism or fail to examine our motives and the consequences of our actions. Supporters are well-aware of McGinley’s degeneration, yet they’ve promoted him to the press all the more. Because the cause is important, they fail to mention to reporters the ranting emails or the apple juice he drank while in the hospital. In ordinary circumstances, this is simply unethical. When it comes to someone who is disturbed and harming himself, it becomes a serious moral breach. I feel a responsibility for contributing to it, and that’s why I’m trying to set the record straight now.

UPDATE 6/2/12: McGinley announced that he will suspend his fast to finish the books he is working on: “Unless I consume moderate calories the books will not get done. The books must get done. I’ll be taking roughly half rations, about 800 calories per day until the books are done.  Weight loss will continue, but moderated, and my mind and strength should stay sharp and strong enough to finish.”

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