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.