Hungry for a Cause

by Betsy Woodruff
Our intrepid reporter starves herself for immigration reform.

Earlier this week I fasted for a day, and it was just the worst. Before I launch into this, though, one thing really quick: I have no opinion I care to share on comprehensive immigration reform. If you are interested in finding people on the Internet with lots of feelings about the Senate Gang of Eight bill, you should have no trouble at all. This is not the article for that. And that disclaimer seems necessary because this is about immigration-reform fasts, and I’m going to try to do that without actually talking about immigration reform. Easy-peasy! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s the thing about Fasting for Families, the group organizing nationwide fasts for changed immigration laws: It’s just kind of an ontologically weird thing to do. You can take my word for it; on Tuesday I went 24 hours without eating because my editor thought it would be a good way for me to spend one day of my fleeting youth, and because apparently people on the Internet are interested in reading about what it’s like to not eat.

Something becomes immediately apparent when you’re twelve hours deep in a non-eat-a-thon: You never expected it to be fun, but it’s uniquely unpleasant if nobody knows about it. In other words, the substance itself of not eating accomplishes nothing besides making you really hungry and crabby. In the immigration-reform scenario, the fast itself becomes a medium for whatever you’re trying to communicate, and has little value external to what others ascribe to it.

And in that sense, it’s a really odd form of asceticism — not really ascetic at all, I guess, so much as transactional. Though the word “fast” can refer to any period of abstention from food, its connotative baggage is explicitly religious. And that’s why the “Fast for Families” brand is so interesting: Everyone digs religious imagery, and the implication of spirit-derived auctoritas is oddly compelling.

But the manner of fasting chosen by comprehensive-immigration-reform advocates is weirdly contra the history of asceticism. In St. Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers to eschew any PR perks of abstemiousness. “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites,” it reads. “They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.”

And that recalls one of the most eccentric ascetic saints from early Christian history: Saint Symeon the Stylite, a Syrian who was so annoyed by the number of people asking him for spiritual counsel that he climbed on top of a pillar and stayed there until he died. If you want to get trapped in a deep, weird Wikipedia hole, his page is a great point of departure. The point, though, is that in the Christian West, fasting has been understood as the opposite of performance art. In other words, don’t set up a tent in front of the Capitol Building and put out a bunch of press releases about how you’re not eating (which is what Fast for Families did). Your ends can be noble, and your means can be noble, but that doesn’t mean the two are logically or theologically connected.

All that aside, it’s certainly understandable why you’d alert the cosmos to your food-free status. As I learned this week, fasting is the worst, especially when the president isn’t patting you on the back for it. But that might be just me, as the whole not-eating thing isn’t really in my wheelhouse. There are two kinds of people in this world, as I see it: people who have day-long fasts from time to time for spiritual or political or health reasons, and people who go to two happy hours and then go home and eat a whole box of crackers while watching The League. High-five if you can guess which category I’m in.

But that’s not to say I didn’t prep like a champ. At about 11:30 p.m. on Monday, I shook off my eggnog haze and realized that I had only half an hour of eating before what I correctly predicted would be the worst day of my entire adult life (my life has been really hard). So I face-planted into a bag of Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered potato chips, which are the zenith of 21st-century Western Culture, and also scarfed down a whole bunch of dumplings. I think I ate some other things too, but I don’t totally remember; all I remember is that by the time I went to bed, I felt like I had ingested a bowling ball. And you know what’s amazing? I was still hungry the next day at 10 a.m.!


I’ve done some unpleasant things in the name of Journalism and Truth and the First Amendment and America, but this was definitely the worst, by a long shot. I basically spent the whole day trying to burn as few calories as possible. (N.B. Here are some things that burn calories: good posture, friendliness to coworkers, facial expressions.) I spent a significant percent of the afternoon listening to the Drive soundtrack on loop and looking at pictures of ramen on the Internet to distract myself from the growing chasm in my stomach. At around 4 p.m. I realized that I had been chewing on a Dixie PerfecTouch cup for a while in an effort (I guess) to trick my brain into thinking I wasn’t hungry. It was a blast and a half.

But that’s not to say I didn’t get anything done. Among other Hill Democrats, Senator Cory Booker (D., N.J.) did the 24-hour-fast project, but wasn’t super jazzed about talking with me about it when I asked him a day earlier on the Hill. In fact, as he was heading into votes that night, I asked how his fast went and he said, “Um, uh, I’ll let my staff talk about that.”

So I contacted his office and asked how the senator’s fast had gone and whether he had any tips for would-be fasters — I consider myself a pretty good profile in courage for typing out e-mails through the pain — but, alas, didn’t get a response. I take that to mean that the freshman senator from the Garden State probably also spent most of his fasting day listening to Kavinsky and being uncharitable to his coworkers.

I also assume that Senator Booker booked it home, glared at everyone on the Metro, and then curled up in the fetal position until 11:55 p.m., when he ran downstairs and put the last two frozen dumplings in the microwave so they would be ready right at 12:01 a.m., but that took a little longer than expected, so he broke his fast by face-planting into a box of crackers. No word from his staff on this, though.

It’s worth noting that I wasn’t fasting just for kicks ’n’ giggles; like the other immigration-policy-related fasters, I had a specific endgame, and that was for a friend of mine from the U.K. to get a green card. My friend won’t let me use his name because apparently he has a profile to maintain (Personal brands! Hah hah hah!), but he can’t move to America to take up a job offer because he can’t get a green card, and as a result he’s been harassing me to marry him for the last few months. I have zero interest in this because 1) I don’t really feel like it and 2) per the legal experts at Yahoo! Answers, green-card marriages are super illegal anyway. So my vision was that, presuming fasting is as effective as Fast for Families suggests, maybe if I didn’t eat for 24 hours I would get fewer annoying Gchats. Alas, it’s 24 hours post-fast and his green card has yet to materialize. Problem unsolved.

And, unsurprisingly, the comprehensive-immigration-reform-passage problem is equally unsolved. Maybe that’s because the effectiveness of fasting for health/spiritual purposes and for public-policy-alteration purposes is inversely proportionate (Cesar Chavez excepted). Maybe it’s because the heart of America is a big hard rock incapable of compassion for anyone at any time for any reason. Or maybe it’s because people get more stuff done more effectively when their bellies are full.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.