Everywhere Else, May Day Honors Workers; Here, It Salutes 'Loyalty'

May Day protest on May 1, 2013 in New York City.
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Today is May Day, the international celebration of workers' rights and labor solidarity that originated right here in the United States, as a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket incident in Chicago.

International Workers' Day is a big deal around the world, marked by demonstrations and officially recognized in more than 80 countries.

In the U.S., however, the holiday has been subverted by official decree. In 1921, during the Red Scare, an alternative designation for May 1 was created: "Americanization Day." According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars' database of Patriotic Days, "On May 1, 1930, 10,000 VFW members staged a rally at New York's Union Square to promote patriotism." In 1949, Americanization Day morphed into Loyalty Day, and in 1958 –- during the waning days of McCarthyism -- Congress made Loyalty Day official.

As if that weren't enough, the government also made May 1 "Law Day, U.S.A." -- a special moment for the reaffirmation of Americans' loyalty to the United States, and the cultivation of respect for the law. To be fair, the language of the relevant act does mention in particular "the ideals of equality and justice under the law" that should guide relations between citizens and countries, and President Eisenhower in his proclamation spoke of law's importance "in the settlement of international disputes."

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The president is requested to issue a proclamation on May 1 "calling on all public officials to display the flag" and "inviting the people of the United States to observe Law Day, U.S.A., with appropriate ceremonies". President Obama has complied, releasing a statement that emphasizes "our long journey toward equality for all," from the Emancipation Proclamation through the Civil Rights movement and up to Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That's about as progressive a spin as one can put on such a holiday, with its authoritarian name and origins in the darkest periods of domestic anticommunism. And in a post-War on Terror world, with at least 100 men hunger striking at Guantánamo Bay -- where half the remaining prisoners have been cleared for release by the president's task force -- the rule of law could sure use a shot in the arm.

But a lack of accountability for crimes like torture and warrantless wiretapping, to say nothing of improper foreclosure and securities fraud, isn't the primary problem our society faces. Economic inequality is out of control: Income and profits are growing for businesses, while workers' wages have remained essentially stagnant. People perceive this injustice, which is why you may well see Americans outside today marking May Day. Loyalty Day/Law Day U.S.A. observances will likely be harder to spot.