E.B. White on the “Bonus Army” in 1932

The Bonus Army protests ended badly for these veterans. Here you see a clash with police. Later, Gen. Douglas MacArthur moved in with tanks and tear gas. Two protesters were killed.

You may find this interesting. In light of what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street, The New Yorker dug up some pieces that E.B. White wrote about the “Bonus Army” demonstrations in 1932. TNY noted that “While deeply sympathetic to the plight of the jobless in the Great Depression (see this Comment from earlier in the year), White was largely dismissive of the Bonus Army.”

The piece went on to quote White directly:

In a democracy, there are a thousand, ten thousand groups…. Each has its own particular sorrow and its grievance; there exists no common tyranny against which to rebel, not even the tyranny of hard times. If you mixed bonus marchers with Kentucky miners, they would probably spend the rest of their lives arguing about what to rebel against.

I could identify with that. With White’s attitude, that is. One of the things that bothers me so much about political parties is that they are aggregations of people who pretend their aims are the same, and mesh perfectly — when they don’t.

But even more pertinent to the protests we see today is this bit: “there exists no common tyranny against which to rebel.” To see the OWS as coherent, as having a point, you have to believe that there is some identifiable They that is oppressing the demonstrators.

But I could also identify with this sympathetic observation from a week later:

Being out of a job perforates the walls of the mind, and thoughts seep off into strange channels. To say that the country is as rich as it ever was is a joke: something is gone that used to be here—the spirit of millions of men is gone, and a man’s spirit is just as real a natural resource as gold or wheat or lumber.

While I don’t see it that darkly, I do see the world as vastly changed from what it was a generation ago. Different for my children than for me. Funny thing was, I felt like things were harder for us than for our parents. Yeah, we had more stuff as a generation — but it took two salaries even to be in the middle class, which had not been true for our parents’ generation.

Anyway, just some tidbits for thought…

9 thoughts on “E.B. White on the “Bonus Army” in 1932

  1. Phillip

    No common tyranny? Well, I wouldn’t use the word tyranny necessarily, nor need we point at a specific “They” so much as a specific “It.” White was wrong then, but of course the Bonus Army was just the first wave of what became the electoral landslide of the next two elections, the implementation of the New Deal, and the modification of what had been fairly unbridled capitalism into something more approaching a social democracy, balancing the dual (and NOT necessarily complementary) halves of our American essence, capitalism and democracy.

    You hit the nail on the head in talking about needing two incomes to stay in the middle class, etc. That’s true, and now even that is not a guarantee of middle-class-ness in our country. The specific aims of OWS may be vague around the edges, but I think Kristof’s main point holds…and even for the TP for that matter, though their remedy is different. The game has become too rigged. I hate to say it, but Palin’s phrase “crony capitalism” is exactly the problem. To me, capitalism followed to its ultimate end, without checks and balances, is inherently antithetical to democracy, because power will always accrue towards wealth.

    I admire much about libertarianism, as often expressed by our friend Doug here, but I ultimately couldn’t buy into that philosophy because I believe it, like many other -isms, represents an unattainable Utopian ideal, and as Isaiah Berlin tells us, Utopianism in itself is a huge danger to mankind. It’s utopian because even if government is hands-off and does not “pick winners and losers” as the saying goes, there still will be winners and losers, and with no state checks on the power of wealth to determine the path for all, one will end up with the same (or worse) situation of government run by the wealthy and powerful, FOR the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

    To me, all you can do in a capitalistic democracy is continually adjust the mechanisms of state (i.e., democratically chosen) control over a generally free market system. And it seems that the system has tilted too far in one direction. That is the general sense of OWS, and again for much of the TP. If we could find a political leader who could bridge some of the cultural divide between the two groups, we might be able to create a true supermajority in this nation for some common sense goals.

  2. Herb Brasher

    [Like] What Phillip said.

    Being nearly a good Calvinist, I’m wary of Utopian ideals that do not take into account the selfish bent in human nature.

    I’m wondering if the American experiment could only have continued and survived in the urban era with the social democratic adjustments of the 1930s.

  3. `Kathryn Fenner

    <3 Phillip.

    Free market capitalisn is the best system going for creating wealth, but it is really poor at distributional equity. You have to redress it somehow, or the disenfranchised will reinstate a Hobbesian jungle, and kill the freedom of the market. In a really capitalist society, the capitalists drive around in bullet-proof limos and hide behind gated compounds while the rest of the society scraps and scrounges...many "developing" nations are like this.

  4. Brad

    That’s not capitalism; that’s oligarchy. You find it in totalitarian systems with a small “inner party” with exclusive access to foreign goods, or in strongman-type dictatorships. And despite what OC thinks, that’s not what we have.

  5. Brad

    For capitalism to thrive, you need a thriving middle class (and NOT the bullet-proof oligarchs). Businesses need customers and skilled workers. There needs to be lots of free economic activity.

    This, by the way, is why all of those people turned out for that announcement Friday. Far from being just the “politicians” Doug universally despises, it was a cross-section. Yes, there were politicians of all stripes — and one of the wonderful things about an event like this is that Democrats and Republicans are happy to celebrate together, which is a good thing for the Republic.

    But there were all sorts of representatives of business and academia. People I run into everywhere — Rotary, church, on Facebook, Twitter, etc. It was sort of like the last episode of “Seinfeld,” when all these memorable characters from previous episodes crop up. Everywhere you turn, recognition. And they are people you don’t normally see together.

    (At one point, Page Ivey — now with USC, formerly of the AP, formerly of The State — and I were standing near Bobby Hitt, and she remarked that it was like being in The State’s newsroom in the late 80s. I said something about The State having sent two writers, and she corrected me — yes, Jeff Wilkinson is still with The State, but Chuck Crumbo was with Columbia Regional Business Review. THAT publication had sent two — Chuck, and Jim Hammond, also formerly of The State. By the way, Chuck had also once worked at the Wichita Eagle, where I had been in the mid-80s. Memories of past lives, everywhere.)

    Even Walid Hakim from OC fit into that category. He and I sit on the Community Relations Council board. He’s a nice guy and a very dedicated, helpful board member. I enjoy conversing with him. He, too, was attracted by the promise of new economic activity, if only to protest it.

    It was particularly fitting that so many ex-newspaper types were there (and I didn’t name all of them I saw). A weakened newspaper, which is what The State and so many others were going into 2008, is like a canary in the coal mine for the local economy. If things slow down, or suddenly seize up the way they did in September of that year, the already-distressed newspaper keels over. Newspapers, relying almost entirely on advertising for life, are enormously dependent upon their communities thriving economically.

    I’m acutely aware of it in the marketing game as well. As was pretty much everyone there. We can feel the fluctuations more easily than a lot of people with fixed salaries who have never seen volatility up close and personally. We all truly welcome the promise that a large new industry brings — especially one that pays a lot of people well — and how that can positively effect everyone in the community. And we have greater appreciation than my friends with The Nerve have for a community, as a community, taking on some small risk in order to encourage such growth — and an expanding industry can be one of the best kinds — in their midst.

  6. Brad

    Because for capitalism to work, everyone needs to thrive — blue collar, white collar, and yes, the Fat Cat investors. Lots of people able to buy cars and shop in the stores, and pay taxes so that we can pay for the governmental services that provide the framework for healthy economic activity — roads, parks, schools, laws that uphold private property rights.

    One more point — for private and public to function together so that the whole community benefits, it is essential that people in the community have some faith in, and respect, those institutions. That is one reason why I so consistently denounce movements that are built upon the delegimization of such institutions. That includes the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the Libertarian Party, the Sanfordistas in the Republican Party. Any movement that has its BASIS in lack of trust of these institutions.

    Yes, by all means, point to problems with the system, as Nicholas Kristof did in that column that Phillip brought to my attention. Point to things we can fix, to make the system better.

    But there is nothing worse than unfocused outcries against the system itself. Because a free and open republic in which capitalism can thrive to the benefit of all classes is the best hope mankind has yet come up with for mutual benefit in a community — or rather, in a complex web of communities, which is what we actually live in.

    Man is a social animal. He does not thrive in isolation. And he interacts through institutions, from the family to the federal government, from Mom and Pop shops to large corporations. The idea is to work together to keep those institutions healthy and functioning as they should for the benefit of all, not to try to tear them down or make them pariahs or shrink them until they’re small enough to drown in a bathtub.

    The movements or philosophies that would do those things are the enemies of our communities, and therefore the enemies of every one of us. And I stand against them.

  7. Phillip

    “Yes, by all means, point to problems with the system…Point to things we can fix, to make the system better.” That only works if our politics works well, and you more than anyone I know have continually pointed out the myriad ways in which it is NOT working well. We may be at a point where a serious popular (nonviolent) upheaval is the only thing that will focus the attention of lawmakers upon the urgency of the problem.

    I don’t think that OWS, taken as a whole, represents an “outcry against the system itself.” I took Kristof’s main point to be that was OWS is NOT fundamentally anti-capitalist, just that people feel the system has turned against them and that it needs to be fixed, not discarded. Oh sure, there are a few old-time Marxists coming out for the party, but I don’t think that represents the movement as a whole, and especially the majority of Americans who sympathize with what they are expressing.

    Your whole Unparty point of view speaks to this terrible dysfunction in our politics, certainly on a national level: do you really expect a seismic shift in the way those politics are conducted without the nation and indeed world becoming aware of the depth and breadth of the frustration, disappointment, and yes anger out there? There is nothing wrong with people taking to the streets to express that as long as it’s done non-violently. There HAS to be a serious national conversation about our future. That seems to me what OWS is trying to jumpstart, nothing more. And the Tea Party had every right also to march: I disagreed with them not because they marched, but just because I think their solutions would make things worse.

    OWS is fertile ground for the Unparty, Brad. You should be out there recruiting, instead of pooh-poohing them.

  8. Brad

    You know, I had that thought yesterday, briefly. Then I moved on to other thoughts.

    This is complicated for me… I’m for the American Revolution, not the French. I’m for drawing up the Constitution and selling it with the Federalist Papers, not for storming the Bastile. (And within the American Revolution, I’m a John Adams guy, not a Thomas Paine guy. Adams was sort of the embodiment of principled, conservative revolution, if that makes any sense. Paine represented the part of our revolution that found expression a few years later in France.)

    I believe deeply in the system that the Framers envisioned, and it was one that depended upon good-faith deliberation. What militated against it from the start was factionalism, which Adams deplored, as do I.

    There are times when we have to face that the system isn’t working for a particular purpose. And if it isn’t working, it’s because of the gridlock brought about by ideological factionalism. If there are nefarious types — Fat Cats or socialists or whatever; pick your flavor — what they are probably doing is funding the political parties, because they are what is crippling the system.

    The answer, when the system does break down, is not to march in the streets. Nor is it to align yourself with one party or the other, the way so many Tea Partiers have done.

    An example of something that is an acceptable alternative to the system, to me, is the BRAC process. I hated facing up to the fact that Congress was incapable of making rational decisions regarding which military bases should stay open and which should not, but there it was. It worked, and it didn’t take a revolution to make it happen.

    In South Carolina, we’ve tried and tried to duplicate that with a TRAC to bring about comprehensive tax reform. But in SC, we have a special problem, which is different from the federal problem. Here, we have a system that in superficial ways may look like the one devised by the Framers, but which is very different. Our system was designed, from the start (with the help of John Locke), to prevent change. 300 years and several constitutions later, it still works beautifully at doing that. (Some of you will recall that I spent most of 1991 and part of 1992 detailing that failure.)

    It’s not lobbyists, or big business, or big government, causing that problem. It’s the intentionally dysfuntional system we have, which was intended to serve the interests of 17th and 18th-century planters, a class of people that no longer exists.

    Anway… Phillip, I want to bring your attention to a post I put up today to delve into the above discussion…

  9. Mark Stewart

    What do ya mean? Those planters are the “one percenters”!

    But I digress: I, too, question this entire OWS thing; it seems even more contrived than the 1980’s European greens protesting nuclear arms on the doorstep of the Soviet Union.

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