June 5, 2020

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

Indeed—The more things change, the more they remain the same.

The French journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, penned the expression in an 1849 issue of Les Guêpes (The Wasps) and it has often made its way into contemporary commentary ever since. It was and, indeed, has turned out to be a prescient observation. The social, scientific, and economic changes that have taken place, especially in America and most of the western world since those words were first written nearly 130 years ago have been extraordinary. Positive change in virtually every field of endeavor and, particularly, in the overall human condition has been almost beyond comprehension. That is, of course, a good thing.

Sadly, what John-Baptiste Alphonse Karr also understood and articulated so well, is that some things change at a painfully, agonizingly, slow pace, if at all.  Chief among the change-resistant behaviors of mankind are the meme-induced and often irrational biases that assault the senses almost from the time we are born. From earliest childhood, we listen and we hear, we see and we observe, we absorb that which we hear and see, and thus we learn. And so it often is with relations between races and between religions.

History demonstrates, however, that positive change stubbornly persists, albeit often at a dreadfully slow pace. While there have been demonstrably positive changes in the way we are willing to assess and judge people of other ethnicities, as well as the merit of new ideas, old prejudices, like old habits, often evolve glacially. I once asked Abe Foxman, with whom I had the privilege of working when I chaired the Midwest region of the Anti-Defamation League and he served as the League’s National Executive Director, what he felt was realistically achievable with respect to racial and religious tensions. He sadly responded, “I’ll settle for tolerance.”

I remember, vividly, the riots in 1968 in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King. That’s what they were—riots. Entire swaths of cities were literally looted, burned, and destroyed, with nothing left but rubble. Those riots were not offshoots of overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations such as those that have taken place in American cities year after year. By my count, there have been major citywide protests, mostly over racial discrimination and law enforcement excesses, in forty of the last fifty-two years since the King assassination. The motivating cause of nearly all of these demonstrations has simply been a plea for justice.

And, yes, as we have witnessed during the past two weeks, calculated disorder by both outside and homegrown thugs are often a staple whenever a community hosts a significant demonstration. They tend to be violent and destructive and they undermine the legitimacy of demonstrations and provide excuses for those in high (and not so high) places who are simply opposed to public protests and community demonstrations.  

“The Glory and the Dream,” William Manchester’s marvelous two-volume history of America from 1932 through 1972 reminds us, vividly, that some things, indeed, never seem to change. Manchester meticulously recounts President Herbert Hoover’s decision in 1932 to clear the nation’s capital of those pesky World War One veterans who came to Washington to plead for their bonuses ($1,000) to be advanced to them because of the severity of the great depression (the bonuses had been approved by Congress in 1924 but weren’t payable until 1945). Politically, it was deemed an inconvenient time for such a demonstration. After all, it was an election year.

Everything about their expulsion was heartbreaking, not only because of the brutality with which they were sent packing but also because of the spurious justification that officialdom fed to the American people to justify the decision to eject them. Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, berated his aide, Major Dwight David Eisenhower who argued that the expulsion was political and not an appropriate military affair and that it was highly inappropriate for a General (4-star, no less) to become involved in a street brawl. Major George S. Patton, Jr., however, had no problem with the expulsion of the World War One veterans as he led the 3rd cavalry down Pennsylvania Avenue brandishing naked sabers.

President Hoover referred to the bonus marchers as insurrectionists and definitely not veterans. He called them Communists with criminal backgrounds. He said that it was his impression that less than half of the demonstrators had ever served under the American flag. D.C. Police Chief Pelham Glassford, a recently retired Brigadier General and himself a combat veteran of the Great War, objected and was hastily “retired.” The government spoke with a singular voice to condemn the veterans and to impugn their motives. The Administration was determined to dampen any sympathy for the World War One vets.

Estimates varied greatly as to the number of bonus marchers who were actually veterans. Belatedly, the Veterans Administration released an exhaustive survey of the bonus demonstrators and determined that 94% were veterans, and that 67% had served overseas and that 20% were disabled. Despite the Hoover Administration’s efforts to cast aspersions on the demonstrators, public sentiment for their cause only grew with time.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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8 responses to “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”

  1. Jerry Kessler says:

    Great summary. The Veterans march on Washington remained a politically charged topic in elections for many years. While the Veterans request for $1,000 in todays values seems relatively small, in fact $1,000 then was an extraordinary amount in 1932. For purposes of releavence the average household income 1932 was only around $1,300. Much of the reason that it failed to gain public support at the time, and remember this was deep into the recession, that giving someone almost a full years income was something most already struggling households could not accept.

    In a small way a similar reaction has come about currently in that those filing for unemployment compensation, in addition to their regular weekly benefits, are receiving up to an extra $600 per week. This results in some, possibly many, being,paid much more than what they regularly earn. Some would say this encourages them to stay unemployed.

  2. qua says:

    While change comes at a snails pace there is no doubt that it has
    or was in the process. Evidence is the youth of today mostly
    marching in the protests, but the overwhelming capture of the
    meaning of racial justice has been taken over by the mob and the
    tactics most people find offensive.
    To make Mayor’s kneel and Federations kneel in acceptance and
    corporate blackmail again in favor is truly not making racial
    relations better only inciting the sides.

  3. qua says:

    I might add we used to be a Nation referred to as a
    Melting pot” but today one would have to characterize
    America as a Boiling pot”. Sad reality.

  4. Michael Gong says:

    “You have to be carefully taught to hate…”

  5. ELIEZAR BENJAMIEN aka LEOARD SHERMAN says:

    I am physically ill for what has happened on the street of my city and of my country I see these mobs, terrorists and looters destroying the property of and the lives of decent hard working Americans, and I ask myself how many if any in these mobs at all have ever seen the greatest words ever written since Moses delivered the Ten Commandments, ITS CALLED THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES IN ORDER TO FORM A MORE PERFECT UNIION, ESTABLISH JUSTICE,INSURE DOMESTIC TRANQUILTY, PROVIDE FOR THE COMMON DEFENCE , PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE AND SECURE THEBLESSINGS OF LIBERTY TO OURSELVES AND OUR PROSERITY,DO ORDAIN AND ESTABLISH THIS CONSTITUTION FOR THE UNITED STATES

  6. Hal Gershowitz says:

    Response to Mr. Kessler: Mr. Kessler is, as always, factually correct. We would add, however, that the typical World War One veteran had previously served in combat for a salary of $360.00 a year for which he faced the gruesome realities of that horrible war. One hundred and eighteen thousand of them never returned from the killing fields.

  7. jim katz says:

    And did you know that FDR after taking office had Elaenor spend tha better part of a day with the vets. This was done without troupa or the Secrect Service being with her.
    Elaenor then reported back to her husband and FDR had congress meet its obligation. source: john meacham HOPE THRU HISTORY podcast episode 1

  8. Harold Gershowitz says:

    Response to Mr. Katz: Well, not quite. FDR vetoed the bill to pay the bonus marchers, and Congress overrode his veto and paid the vets nine years early.
    Actually, when the bonus was originally approved in 1924 it was for only $500, but with interest to be accrued, which is why the bonus would have been $1,000 when the vet’s were expelled in 1932.

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