Monday, May 6, 2013

Profound Ambivalence About May the 4th

We have just passed May the 4th, which in current parlance has become the closest thing that the geek subculture has to a national holiday. For those of us who spent our childhoods (and adulthoods!) learning every nuance of the Star Wars universe, reading tons of Bradbury/Heinlein/Asimov, and watching way too much Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica/Babylon 5/Firefly/etc., this is a pretty cool thing. It's kind of an "in joke". The date itself doesn't signify anything - unlike July 4 or Cinco de Mayo, there's no historical event on May 4 that geeks are harking back to. It's just become cool to go around, within the geek crowd, wishing each other "May the Fourth be with you".

I'm definitely hip to that. Geekery is my native culture, as many of my friends can attest. I still play role-playing games (the real pencil-and-paper kind!), I've watched every episode of Babylon 5, Firefly (not that hard), and Star Trek: Next Generation, and I'm bringing my kids up in the same mold. My son chose to play a piece of video-game theme music at a violin recital. To paraphrase Spock, I am now and always have been a geek. So the idea of a secret, in-crowd-only holiday seems pretty neat.

In much of the rest of my life, however, I am a conflict scholar. In that world, dates and history have meaning as markers of events that took place in the past. Like July 4 or 9/11, they can become touchstones that anchor how we understand the world and the stories that we tell about ourselves and our values.

In that world, May 4 does have meaning. On May 4, 1970 Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of unarmed protesters and bystanders on the campus of Kent State University, killing four and injuring nine others. It was a terrible tragedy, compounded by the fact that no one was ever held to account - not the guardsmen who pulled the triggers, nor their commanding officers (one of whom must have ordered them to carry loaded weapons that day), nor anyone else in the chain of command. The shooting and the events surrounding it remain in dispute to this day, but they form an anchor point in a dark and difficult period in our nation's history.

I was privileged a few years ago to take a tour of the campus led by a member of the faculty who was present that day, and who watched events unfold. The experience was a moving one, both for the sense of loss and because we have never come to grips with that time. This was not the only example of students injured or killed by American troops that year - two were killed at Jackson State, and several were bayonetted in Arizona, that same spring. To walk the same grounds, to see the bullet hole left in the modern steel sculpture (the artist apparently refused to repair it, preferring that it stand as a testimony), to see the memorials marking where the slain fell - there is a powerful meaning there, even if we can't quite agree on what that meaning is. That we should choose to largely forget those events - as everyone outside of the Kent State campus has - is a terrible loss.

In an ironic aside, those who could most benefit from this narrative have apparently forgotten it, too. The most ideological wing of the NRA, which claims the purpose of the Second Amendment to be first and foremost protection from a tyrannical government using force against its own people, never mentions this story, even though it is the closest we have ever come since the Civil War to the state using military force against American citizens. Because the protesters were on the left, however, and the NRA on the self-identified right, I would guess that tribal loyalty precludes them from using the one real case of what they apparently most fear they could point to.

We don't have a common understanding of what happened at Kent State that day, and given the current indifference we probably never will. But those events are too important to be forgotten. And yet, forget them we have. And so while I think it's really cool to have a holiday of sorts for the Geek Nation, I'm sorry for the history that we've paved over to make space for it. And so, I think, I'll never be quite as enthusiastic a supporter of May the Fourth as my fellow Geek countrymen.


  1. I had no previously thought about May the Fourth "infringing" on 5/4/1970. Thank you for this post. We have, as a country, tried to put Kent State in that "out-of-bounds" area not to be talked about. I agree that it is too important to be forgotten.

  2. BTW, May 4 is a big day in China. May 4, 1919 protests erupted nationwide over news that the Treaty of Versailles had turned German holdings in China not back to China but to Japan. Regarded as the birthday of modern Chinese nationalism.

  3. Thanks for this Bill. You should be a preacher or at least publish this in a local newspaper or even the NY Times!