Like its annual predecessors dating back to at least the 1880s, the first day of May in 2012 is again proving to be an international day of protest, focused primarily around the issues and interests of labor and the working classes. The New York Times and The Atlantic are just two of the many media outlets today presenting collections of May Day protest images online. In recent decades, such protests have been much more a tradition in Europe and elsewhere around the world, but the origins of this international labor day actually are mostly rooted here in the United States, focused around the infamous “Haymarket Affair" that took place in Chicago, 1886-87. Here are just a handful of additional links, written in three different historical contexts, that discuss the origins of our modern, global May Day:
Today’s politics of “austerity”, the “Tea Party”, the “99%”, “Occupy”, “Arab Springs”, and more, make 2012 a particularly ripe year for broad social protest both within the USA and beyond. Many of the issues under debate today resonate strongly with the issues around which the first modern May Days were organized, but our interconnected global context makes today’s protest movements different as well. These differences include the ways in which ideas and images are crafted and shared, as well as the ways in which public spaces are surveilled, law and order enforced, and disturbed senses of “peace” restored. Thus, in the context of a lengthier article on the “science of civil war,” The Economist described the work of MIT’s Peter Gloor using “sentiment analysis” of social-media postings to track the momentum of social protest movements:
Dr Gloor has found that, in Western countries at least, non-violent protest movements begin to burn out when the upbeat tweets turn negative, with “not”, “never”, “lame”, “I hate”, “idiot” and so on becoming more frequent. Abundant complaints about idiots in the government or in an ideologically opposed group are a good signal of a movement’s decline. Complaints about idiots in one’s own movement or such infelicities as the theft of beer by a fellow demonstrator suggest the whole thing is almost over.
While this is not exactly the spin that Gloor had in mind, in light of our annual theme, it’s hard to avoid the simplistic conclusion that happy protesters are successful protesters. While driven by frustration with the status quo and tapping into reservoirs of passionate anger, perhaps the movements that ultimately prevail are the ones that best harness the indomitable spirit of hope. Certainly, few statements of protest have resonated through the generations as powerfully as, “I have a dream” and “Sí, se puede.”
This week’s edition of The Economist features two short articles of direct relevance to our annual theme, “Health, Wellness, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The first article takes a look at the world of healthcare, profiling an innovative South African insurer that has been able to contain costs, and thus premiums for its clients, by promoting preventive measures through application of a concept from behavioral economics: the “nudge”. The idea is that society can effect good behavior by constructing a “choice architecture” that nudges people to make better choices without dictating specific outcomes or even significantly impinging on their sense of personal freedom. In the case of South Africa’s Discovery group, its clientele participate in a reward program modeled after the ubiquitous frequent-flyer concept in the travel industry, expect people earn
miles points by exercising, eating well, hitting personal targets such as lower body weight or blood pressure, and the like. And just like frequent-flier miles, these points can be exchanged for a wide range of perqs, including reduced insurance premiums, discounted groceries, and even free vacations.
Besides speaking directly to our annual theme of Health, this story also highlights a major trend in global affairs. More and more of the world’s innovative ideas, along with the fastest economic growth, is coming from so-called emerging markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, rather than the core countries of the 20th Century. As the article notes, Discovery has rapidly grown into South Africa’s largest health insurer and is now expanding its model to the United States and Britain; the direction of innovation has reversed. Thus, while the cover of this same issue of The Economist features a picture of the late Steve Jobs—icon of 20th-Century American innovation—one does wonder where the next Steve Jobs will come from. Perhaps he, or she, also will be American, either by birth or by immigration, but it seems increasingly likely that the world’s next great innovator will instead hail from the likes of Brazil or India or Turkey instead.
The second article considers happiness, in the context of the ongoing Great Recession and its impacts on next year’s U.S. Presidential election. Citing a recent paper by the Princeton economist, Angus Deaton—which itself was based on the daily survey of subjective well being conducted by Gallup—the average American’s level of overall happiness has been remarkably stable throughout the last four years; there was a notable decline in self-assessed well-being when the financial crisis first struck in 2008, but it recovered quickly in early 2009 and has remained essentially unchanged ever since. One of the implications for Deaton is that happiness, while an important concept, perhaps is ineffective as a measuring stick for shaping public policy. How useful, after all, is a measurement that is more sensitive to “the arrival of St Valentine’s Day than a doubling of unemployment”?
From the perspective of global citizenship, a second observation by Deaton is even more significant. Half of the respondents who take Gallup’s survey are first asked a series of questions about politicians and related political issues, before then proceeding to the section of the survey where they self-assess their happiness and well-being. These randomly selected respondents who first answer questions about politics report significantly lower levels of happiness than the other respondents, who don’t get asked such questions. Just thinking about politics, it seems, bums us out. On the surface, this is not a very encouraging conclusion for those of us who advocate for democratic civic engagement and see it as a necessary stone on the path toward happiness. But Deaton’s observation might also suggest that what we need as global citizens, in the pursuit of life satisfaction and personal happiness, is active political engagement. Simply reading or watching or listening to the news, and occasionally talking politics with our friends and family—and maybe even voting every now and then—is not enough. True civic engagement, and true global citizenship, involves a commitment to something far more active and substantial.