May Day and Stephen Colbert

Today is May Day. Of all “holidays,” May Day has the most interesting history and tells us the most about how those in power oppress the powerless. Originally a pagan holiday in Europe celebrating the end of winter and the return of the sun and fertility of the soil, the celebration was outlawed by the leaders of the Catholic Church who saw it as a threat to their authority. The celebration went underground and revelers who were willing to stand up to Papal authority would don costumes and animal masks to avoid identification.

When the Church realized that it was not able to completely eradicate the celebration, it “institutionalized” May Day by allowing village trade guilds to have a feast day. In England, a village May Queen was selected. A phallic Maypole was raised and the single men and women would dance around it holding on to ribbons until they became entwined with their new love.

This “sanitized” version of May Day was condoned by both Church and State because it served as a “safety valve” for the common folk. If they were able to “blow off steam” in a relatively harmless way, they wouldn’t feel the need to rebel against those in power. But, during the popular rebellions of the 1600’s, May Day was outlawed and, again, went underground where it was kept alive in the most rural and remote villages in England.

Our modern celebration of Mayday as a working class holiday evolved from the struggle for the eight hour day in 1886. May 1, 1886 saw national strikes in the United States and Canada for an eight hour day called by the Knights of Labour. In Chicago police attacked striking workers killing six. The next day at a demonstration in Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality a bomb exploded in the middle of a crowd of police killing eight of them. The police arrested eight anarchist trade unionists claiming they threw the bombs. To this day the subject is still one of controversy. The question remains whether the bomb was thrown by the workers at the police or whether one of the police’s own agent provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from charging workers.

In what was to become one of the most infamous show trials in America in the 19th century, but certainly not to be the last of such trials against radical workers, the State of Illinois tried the anarchist workingmen for fighting for their rights as much as being the actual bomb throwers. Whether the anarchist workers were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They were agitators, fomenting revolution and stirring up the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph Fischer were found guilty and executed by the State of Illinois. 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.

Because May Day was a worker’s holiday, a time to show solidarity and oppose oppression, those who had political and economic power tried to subvert it’s meaning. For example, in 1961 Congress designated May 1 as “Law Day.” The latest affront to the true meaning of May Day was in 2003 when George W. Bush, in a true Orwellian moment of “Newspeak,” declared that May 1st would from now on be officially known as “Loyalty Day.” May Day was on the verge of disappearing.

That is why the immigration protests today are so refreshing. Working class people have refused to let the meaning of May Day be taken away from them. Of course, the protests today could be like the officially sanctioned May Day celebrations of the past. They might easily serve as nothing more than a safety valve, an opportunity for immigrants and their supporters to “let of steam” while nothing really changes. But, on the other hand, they have the potential to be much more.

Stephen Colbert

What does any of this have to do with Stephen Colbert, you ask? Bear with me and I will try to explain. I hope you have had a chance to see Colbert’s epic skewering of Bush and the press corps at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner last weekend. If you haven’t, quit reading and go here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Traditionally the Correspondents’ dinner is one of those orchestrated events where those in power (Bush and his adminstration) allow those who do their bidding (the WH press corps and celebrity friends) to engage in lighthearted banter at the President’s expense. Of course, this is sanitized satire led by Bush himself. Remember hunting under the table for WMDs at last years event? Just like the official May Day, it is all about “letting off steam” and proving that those in power have a sense of humor.

Into this “Gentlemen’s Club” steps Stephen Colbert, who decides to transgress the boundaries of official decorum and tell truth to power. As Mash at dKos said, “Standing at the podium only a few feet from President Bush, Colbert launched an all out assault on the policies of this Administration. It was remarkable, though painful at times, to watch. It may also have been the first time that anyone has been this blunt with this President. By the end of Colbert’s routine, Bush was visibly uncomfortable. Colbert ended with a video featuring Helen Thomas repeatedly asking why we invaded Iraq. That is a question President Bush has yet to answer to the American public. I am not sure what kind of review Stephen Colbert’s performance will get in the press. One thing is however certain — his performance was important and will reverberate.”

Of course, the MSM has been silent or has marginalized Colbert’s performance (see Peter Dous’ analysis), but the bloggers are keeping it alive and are inspired by it. I imagine the media will also marginalize the protests today about immigration, about Darfur, and about Iraq, but it is also possible that we will look back on this May Day as one that re-energized the original purpose of the day. It may be that the May Day demonstrations and Colbert’s performance will be just the first of many mass demonstrations and individual acts of bravery necessary to start us on the road to meaningful change.


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