During the death throes of Herbert Hoover’s presidency in June 1932, desperate bands of men traveled to Washington and set up camp within view of the Capitol. The first contingent journeyed all the way from Portland, Oregon, but others soon converged from all over—alone, in groups, with families—until their main Hooverville on the Anacostia River’s fetid mudflats swelled to a population as high as 20,000. The men, World War I veterans who could not find jobs, became known as the Bonus Army—for the modest government bonus they were owed for their service. Under a law passed in 1924, they had been awarded roughly $1,000 each, to be collected in 1945 or at death, whichever came first. But they didn’t want to wait any longer for their pre–New Deal entitlement—especially given that Congress had bailed out big business with the creation of a Reconstruction Finance Corporation earlier in its session. Father Charles Coughlin, the populist “Radio Priest” who became a phenomenon for railing against “greedy bankers and financiers,” framed Washington’s double standard this way: “If the government can pay $2 billion to the bankers and the railroads, why cannot it pay the $2 billion to the soldiers?”Go read the whole article. There is a lot to be learned from this article by Frank Rich. It is well worth your time.
The echoes of our own Great Recession do not end there. Both parties were alarmed by this motley assemblage and its political rallies; the Secret Service infiltrated its ranks to root out radicals. But a good Communist was hard to find. The men were mostly middle-class, patriotic Americans. They kept their improvised hovels clean and maintained small gardens. Even so, good behavior by the Bonus Army did not prevent the U.S. Army’s hotheaded chief of staff, General Douglas MacArthur, from summoning an overwhelming force to evict it from Pennsylvania Avenue late that July. After assaulting the veterans and thousands of onlookers with tear gas, MacArthur’s troops crossed the bridge and burned down the encampment. The general had acted against Hoover’s wishes, but the president expressed satisfaction afterward that the government had dispatched “a mob”—albeit at the cost of killing two of the demonstrators. The public had another take. When graphic newsreels of the riotous mêlée fanned out to the nation’s movie theaters, audiences booed MacArthur and his troops, not the men down on their luck. Even the mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, the owner of the Hope diamond and wife of the proprietor of the Washington Post, professed solidarity with the “mob” that had occupied the nation’s capital.
These efforts to domesticate and contain the protests are unlikely to succeed. It is not frustration that’s roiling America but anger, the anger of a full-fledged class war. Try as polite company keeps trying to ignore it, that war has been building in this country and abroad for much of this decade and has been waged in earnest in America since the fall of 2008. But the crisp agenda demanded of Occupy Wall Street will not be forthcoming. The inchoateness of our particular class war is central to its meaning. America is not Tahrir Square or the riot-scarred precincts of North London, where everyone knows at birth who is in which class and why. We pride ourselves on being a “classless” democracy. We abhor ideology. When Americans left and right, young and old, express anger at an overclass, they don’t necessarily agree about who’s on which side of that class divide. The often confusing fluidity of class definitions, especially in an America as polarized as ours is now, may make our homegrown class war more volatile, not less.
The tea-party right finds the hippie-scented movement in lower Manhattan repellent, but it and Occupy Wall Street are two sides of the same coin. “Take Back America,” the initial tea-party battle cry, would work for those in Zuccotti Park as well. The disagreement is about which America needs to be taken back, and from whom.
But while Romney is a class enemy liberals and conservatives can unite against, perhaps nothing has revealed how much the class warriors of the right and left of our time have in common than the national outpouring after Steve Jobs’s death. Indeed, the near-universal over-the-top emotional response—more commensurate with a saintly religious or civic leader, not a sometimes bullying captain of industry—brought Americans of all stripes together as few events have in recent memory.
Some on the right were baffled that the ostensible Marxists demonstrating in lower Manhattan would observe a moment of silence and assemble makeshift shrines for a top one-percenter like Jobs, whose expensive products were engineered for near-instant obsolescence and produced by Chinese laborers in factories with substandard health-and-safety records. For heaven’s sake, the guy didn’t even join Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in their Giving Pledge. “There is perhaps no greater image of irony,” wrote the conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, “than that of anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-materialist extremists of the Occupy Wall Street movement paying tribute to Steve Jobs.”
Monday, October 24, 2011
A Trip Down Memory Lane
Here is a bit from an interesting article in the NY Magazine. It looks at the march of the "bonus army" in 1932 and compares with with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations today.