Lydy Nickerson ( lydy) wrote,
Lydy Nickerson

May Day Rant

The Congress, by Public Law 85-529, as amended, has designated May 1 of each year as "Loyalty Day," and I ask all Americans to join me in this day of celebration and in reaffirming our allegiance to our Nation.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2003, as Loyalty Day. I call upon all the people of the United States to join in support of this national observance. I also call upon government officials to display the flag of the United States on all government buildings on Loyalty Day

Gods, I don't know if I'm more nauseated or infuriated.

May Day is actually a very old tradition. I'm deeply suspicious of anything that alleges to be a "pagan rite." However, May Day appears to be well documented as an ancient celebration of spring and fertility. I'm always suspicious of accounts of how May Day was celebrated in the pre-Christian era. However, it looks like May Day may have started as a Roman tradition. There are records showing that May 1st was celebrated in honor of the Goddess of Flowers (whose name I can't go snatch off the web site I found this at, as it's overloaded). One of the forms of celebration was to decorate the city with flowers. May Day was associated with various goddesses, it would seem, including Maia, wife of Mars (Ares), and Diana the Huntress. For several hundred years at least, it has been a bawdy, exuberant, rowdy, irreverent celebration. I saw the band Steeleye Span in Chicago, once. Maddy Prior, introducing a May Day song, "Padstow", said that she remembered going to a May Day celebration and being flabbergasted by listening to old women, really old women, women as old as, well, women as old as she is now, telling dirty stories and getting drunk.

In the United States, in the 1860s, following the Civil War (no, really, this is all relevant), workers began to organize for an 8 hour work day. In 1886, the Chicago police attacked striking workers, and killed six, on May the First. On May the 4th, a demonstration in Haymarket Square turned violent, and the police killed 8 of the demonstrators. The police claimed that a bomb had gone off, which is why they responded so brutally. The state of Illinois went on to charge, convict, and execute Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph Fischer, in a trial that was clearly a show trial, concerned with the political beliefs of the accused, rather than their guilt or innocence regarding the bomb. In Paris in 1889 the International Working Men's Association (the First International) declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs. (As I write this, I wonder how many of my readers will think that a brutal repression of a demonstration is something only to be expected, a normal course of events.)

That was 150 years ago, which is a tolerably long time, certainly long enough to become an established tradition. It was, and still is in many parts of the world, a celebration of the workers, something like our Labor Day, except that May Day celebrates solidarity and group action. You know, "The Union, the guys who brought you the week end."

This country has always been wonky on the subject of unions. While unions clearly have their plusses and their minuses, they have been instrumental in increasing the quality of life for people who have to work for a living. Organizing in order to be a strong enough force to bargain with a large and powerful corporation seems perfectly reasonable to me. A single person doesn't have a lot of leverage. A thousand people do. Excesses? Of course, but don't even start with me. I grew up near Homestead and I went to school with the daughters of coal miners and steel workers. For every abuse or corruption you can cite about labor, I can find 10 for management.

In a neat trick of propaganda during the Red Scare, people became convinced that all socialism was the same as what was going on in the Soviet Union, and that all unions were not merely socialist, but covertly working with the USSR. All of this brings me to:


I'm not going to go into the loyalty pledges, black balling, McCarthy, or HUAC. There is endless information on the Web, documentaries galore, and whole libraries of books dedicated to the topic. What I will say is that the words "Loyalty Day" instantly remind me of that portion of American history. And that makes me shiver.

Language doesn't determine how we think, but it does influence. "Incline but not compel," so to speak. Public debates have been won and lost by re-labeling an issue, and arguing semantics instead of politics. Propaganda does work, and it works in part through language. My own experience is watching the words "child abuse" come into being in the 70s. Suddenly, there started being words to describe my home life. What had been unthinkable and unspeakable became news and psychology and political movements, and, alas, endless silly stuff. Such is language.

As I said, the US has always been wonky on the topic of unions and organized labor. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day by Presidential Proclamation. He pre-empted May Day, changed its name, and what a name he chose. It sounds like the key turning in the lock of a prison door. May Day, an irreverent and by its nature anti-authoritarian holiday, is suddenly crushed under the weight of Law and Order. A day that has been, for nearly a human lifetime, a traditional day to protest against oppressive governments and to commemorate the deaths of political activists at the hands of the police magically turned into a day to celebrate those very ideals which our government betrayed most throrougly, in response to the Haymarket Riot. They prostituted the law for their own agenda, made of it rags with which to cover their naked hatred.

So, today is another piece of naming magic. Now, it's Loyalty, not Law. The law is not always enforced fairly, but the rule of law is one of the most important structures necessary for a free society. While it can get dicey here and there, generally people can agree on whether or not I am obeying the law. Who can say if I am loyal? What must I do to be considered loyal? Loyalty is so often a game where the people in control keep on raising the bar, until all the people they don't like are on the other side.

How effective is any of this? How powerful is the renaming of holidays? In all honest truth, I don't know. I do know that back when we had Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday as holidays, specific mentions of those men were always made on those days. You knew who you were celebrating, and sometimes you even got curious enough to find out why. Now that they've been combined, and called "Presidents' Day," I hear nothing about presidents on that day. Is it merely that the times have changed? They still talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday, but then, he's within living memory, which is different. Still, however weak or powerful the naming of days may be, the concept of "Loyalty Day" gives me daymares and nausea.

Happy May Day.
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