MAY DAY 2.0 (2007)

Who knows, perhaps that’s what the twenty-first century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small. Perhaps right now, this very minute, there’s a small god up in heaven readying herself for us.

– Arundhati Roy
The God of Small Things

It’s May. After months of cold, wet weather, the Earth’s axis is tilting in your direction. Flowers are doing their botanical magic act, eating light and dispensing oxygen. All things that bloom, blossom and buzz are grooving to the jazzbo riff of springtime, that ancient tune of sun, sex and symbiosis. There’s no better time to ponder the various meanings of May Day and its transformations through time.

In many pre-Christian pagan cultures, May 1st was reserved for rites honouring nature’s fecundity. According to Wikipedia, “The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian Europe, as in the Celtic celebration of Beltane and the Walpurgis Night of the Germanic countries.” Encyclopaedia Britannica traces May Day back to the old Roman Floralia, or festival of flowers: “Celebrations included a May king and queen, a Maypole and people carrying trees, green branches or garlands.”

Across Europe, the Church grabbed up ancient pagan sites and dates, sending the old rites down the memory hole. With the Christianization of Europe, May Day became a denatured, springtime event, observed on school grounds and in churches. However, the fertility imagery appears to have flown under the radar of a few schoolmarms; in particular, the dance around a phallic maypole topped with streamers.

Yet echoes of the pre-Christian past still reverberate through today’s holidays, particularly during Christmas and Easter. The latter derives from Anglo-Saxon fertility rites of the goddess Eostre or Ostara. The fabled Easter egg originated as a symbol for springtime germination, and the rabbit, with its penchant for reproduction, was an obvious choice for fertility. This solves the puzzle, at least partly, of what an egg-dispensing hare has to do with Christ’s resurrection – a resurrection prefigured in Osiris, Tammuz and many other pre-Christian Gods.

Today, neo-pagans and Wiccans celebrate their own version of the original pagan holiday on May 1st.

May Day also has a more recent inflection as a labour-related holiday. In 1899, the International Socialist Congress designated the first of May as a global celebration of working people. To this day, International Workers’ Day is celebrated in many nations throughout the world, with the notable exception of the US and Canada. While May 1st still represents the optimistic associations of working people’s solidarity, it also carries the baggage of twentieth century totalitarianism. It remains an important official holiday not just in Europe, but in Communist countries such as the People’s Republic of China, Cuba and the former Soviet Union.

With left-wing interests doing their thing with May 1st, it was only a matter of time before right-wing interests got their hands on it too. As Wikipedia notes, “It was the Nazis, not the social democratic parties of the Weimar Republic, who made May Day a holiday in Germany. Through this proclamation, the Nazis tried to take up the connotations of International Workers’ Day, but did not permit socialist demonstrations on this day. Instead, they adapted it to fascist purposes.” In 1933, one day after the May 1st festivities, “… the Nazis outlawed all free labour unions and other independent workers’ organizations in Germany...” How’s that for social programming, Karl Rove?

Official efforts to deconstruct May Day didn’t stop there. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1st both as Loyalty Day and Law Day. Many years earlier, The US had instituted September 1st as its official Labour Day. These initiatives were attempts to disassociate activism from the radical left and it certainly seemed to have worked on Canadians. In Canada, Labour Day on September 1 is notable for being the last holiday before school opens. 
It’s been a long, strange trip for May Day. Considering how the date has been co-opted by interests left, right and religious, there must be something deeply scary about a day originally devoted to the generative power of nature.

This brings us to the third variation of the “May” and “day” combo: Mayday, the international radio distress signal. A Mayday situation is one in which an aircraft, vessel, vehicle or person is in danger and requires immediate assistance. The call is given three times in a row – “mayday mayday mayday” – to ensure it is heard and understood under noisy conditions.

If the 24-hour news cycle is any indication, the entire planet appears to be in a mayday situation, the only difference being that the sinking ship and the rescue vehicle are one and the same. A tough situation for any clever monkey, but evolution is a blind process, or so we’re told. Today’s geopolitical situation is only a few degrees of separation from the power politics found at Jane Goodall’s Gombe reserve, except with more sophisticated threat displays, and business lunches instead of bananas.

Our collective behaviour may not be hard-wired, but it’s persistent. Scientists insist we’re half-ape, and spiritual leaders insist we’re half-angel. There may not be a contradiction here as much as a difference in focus. For empathy and cooperation are as much primate behaviours as aggressiveness and competition. Nature is ambiguous and Trickster-like. We carry the jungle’s darker places within us; we also carry its areas of light.

Myth may be more helpful than anthropology here. There is a Hasidic parable about the “righteous ones” who toil unnoticed in their work of “tikkun olam,” which is Hebrew for “repairing the world.” According to the tradition, there are only 36 of them around at any given time. These 36 righteous ones perform acts of kindness, helping out the poor and the powerless, leaving as quietly as they arrive, with only their good deeds as evidence of their presence. Tradition holds that through the actions of these 36 people, God sustains the world from generation to generation.

As the righteous ones themselves are always unaware of their role, any one of us could be among these 36, and we each must act as if we were, for the fate of the world may depend on us. Conversely, we must treat every person we meet as if they are one of the 36, to strengthen them to carry on.
The actual number of righteous ones is up for debate. Is it really closer to 36 thousand, or 36 million? According to writer Jack Kornfield, when someone asked Gandhi why he continually sacrificed himself for India, he replied, “I do this for myself alone. When we serve others, we serve ourselves. The Upanishads call this ‘God feeding God.’”

Gandhi’s sentiment and the story of the 36 may sound like impossibly noble goals, but we’d do well to remember that myths and parables deal in different truths than the who-what-when-where of journalism. This isn’t the stuff of the 24 hour news cycle. The quiet acts of altruism that knit the world together go mostly unreported.

In his essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty, historian Howard Zinn examines a historical “catalogue of huge surprises,” like the fall of the Berlin Wall, evidenced when powerful interests have been routed by people power. Zinn finds reason for optimism, in spite of the apparent “… overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it.”

Zinn argues that some things “… less measurable than bombs and dollars” have proven a powerful counterforce, over time: “moral fervour, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience – whether by blacks in Alabama and South Africa, peasants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam or workers and intellectuals in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union itself.

“If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something,” he continues. “If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.”

Yet it’s vital to differentiate small, selfless acts from the ego gratification of faux-heroism. For there’s nothing scarier than the starry-eyed do-gooder in flight from his or her own shadow. The greatest horrors in human history weren’t initiated by selfish, greedy, violent people. They were committed by true believers who were convinced they had a gig redeeming humanity.

The judges of the Inquisition acted in the belief they were saving human souls from the fires of Hell. Hitler’s henchmen believed they were doing humanity – or the Aryan race, at least – a favour by executing Jews. Stalin’s followers demonstrated how the joyous spirit of Soviet May Day celebrations could shade into the Mayday nightmare of the “Show Trials” and collective farms.

We are witnessing a similar horror now, as God-fearing believers in the “war on terror” rationalize all sorts of insanity and inhumanity, including torture, on the farcical proposition that democracy can be introduced anywhere in the world from the barrel of a gun.

Yet in spite of our post-monkey mania for false idols and quixotic quests, our drive to cooperate remains as strong as the drive to compete. This spirit still animates the worldwide labour celebrations of May Day – the belief that people can work together for a better future for all, by eliminating market extremes. Ideological extremes aside, that dream lives on. And if there was ever a time needing worker solidarity, it’s now. In March, the computer outlet Circuit City announced the elimination of 3,400 jobs across the US to pursue the hiring of less-experienced, lower-paid staff. In their magnanimity, the company is offering the fired employees the opportunity to reapply after a 10-week interval – at minimum wage.

With outsourcing overseas, even journalism jobs are up for grabs. Over the past two years, the news agency Reuters has moved much of its operations from its Western base to Bangalore, India. Reuters is simply the most visible player in so-called “remote control” journalism. Last November, the Herald Tribune reported that the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio had “… announced its intentions to shed 90 graphic design jobs and ship out the work to Affinity Express [a production facility] in Pune, India.

There is a kind of mad, race-to-the-bottom logic at work here, as domestic pain and instability translates into shareholder return. Labourers everywhere lose in this game, eventually. Managers in India, and their employees, were understandably pleased when the first wave of white collar jobs arrived from North America in the nineties, only to be disappointed when corporations pulled up stakes a few years later, to access workers at lower wages in China. It’s like a game of musical chairs, with another seat eliminated with each round.

Who will be the final ones working for peanuts? China’s oppressed subjects in Tibet, perhaps? Australian aborigines? Rust Belt Americans? Genetically modified gorillas?

The attack on workers’ rights in the US is especially ironic considering that a holiday embraced by anarchists, socialists and communists all over the world pays tribute to Americans who stood up to fight for their rights and freedom. Labour unrest, initiated in Chicago on May 1, 1886, led to the Haymarket Riot three days later, inspiring the creation of International Workers’ Day, a day celebrated across the world, but not in the US or Canada.
If springtime is all about rebirth and resurrection, perhaps it’s time we dusted off a much-maligned holiday and upgraded it to May Day 2.0. The bounty from labour and capital is ultimately drawn from the harvest, so why not merge the worker and nature angles? They’re a natural fit. We’d still keep Earth Day, but it would be a preliminary event leading up to the planetary celebration on May 1st, when we’d celebrate not just the Earth, but all beings that struggle on it – from the threatened creatures of the coral reefs to the disappearing tigers of Southeast Asia to the sweatshop workers of “free trade zones” to the native survivors of Canadian residential schools to endangered white collar workers.

May Day 2.0 will be about all creatures that creep, crawl, fly, swim, slither, stride or strut. But not for any that goose step.

“Cultured people are merely the glittering scum which floats upon the deep river of production,” said Winston Churchill. The glittering scum will be welcome at May 1st celebrations, along with sensibly-partying proles. Policy wonks will give stirring speeches, reminding audiences that economy is built on ecology. Labour activists will tell us that corporatism fails as surely as central planning, and that mixed economies allow the best expression of human skills and talents.

Anthropologists will argue that life, which feeds off life, does indeed have a cannibalistic quality, but that it doesn’t necessarily doom us to a predatory-prey relationship with our own kind. Population experts will talk about the need to limit our numbers. The animal rights activists will weigh in on behalf of the furred and feathered, and argue for the small, ecological footprint of vegetarian diets.

There will be trading and bartering on May Day 2.0, but no cash or credit. This inclusive day, as I imagine it, will welcome all faiths, all schools of thought and all political stripes. The words of the 13th century Afghan poet Rumi will decorate signs around city parks: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

And everyone will meet there. Tibetan lamas will speak on the duty to liberate all beings from suffering. Hebrew mystics will explain the Kabbalah. Muslim clerics will note how the Koran honours the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. The liberation theology crowd will emphasize Christ’s love for the sinners and the poor. Needless to say, the seminars and shmoozing won’t put a crimp on the pagans’ maypole dancing and mead-drinking. Catching the buzz, Hindus will be chanting, Sufi dervishes twirling, Taoists flowing and Buddhists ommmmming. Rastafarians will be sucking on spliffs the size of rolled-up newspaper flyers. And because some things are eternal, Irish Catholics and Protestants will still be arguing, but they’ll only have access to water pistols and face paint.

There will be music playing at May Day venues all across the world, from gospel to Zydeco to speed metal. Believers and unbelievers alike will be dancing their butts off, like holy fools. Even the unfunkiest of Quakers will bust a move, joining the atheists in a stiff-limbed jig.

On May Day 2.0, we’ll officially recognize that one of the best things we got from our primate past is our sense of rhythm. We’ll understand the need to keep time with the natural cycles of the planet, not the quarterly reports of conglomerates. Through musical solidarity, we’ll celebrate what connects us all, that luminous something that still shines through the cracks in this broken world. And for at least one day of the year, we’ll not just hope for it to be true, but feel it to be real.

Geoff Olson