The following post was written about eight years ago, but still resonates today. It remains my third most frequented post by readers, but I felt with the concerns of today, it deserved a reprise.
My wife and I have long been fans of the musical Les Miserables, so yesterday we took two of our children to see the recently released movie with Hugh Jackman as the lead character of Jean Valjean. We were not disappointed and enjoyed the movie immensely. Of course, a few people have noted some of its imperfections, yet on the whole, it is a very moving experience and fills in a few details that the play could not.
As an aside, I also enjoyed the dramatic movie made a few years ago with Liam Neeson in the role of Valjean. As for the recent musical version, I would encourage you to see it , whether you have seen the play, early dramatic movie or not. If you have seen the play, you will be even more moved by Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing how life has killed her dreams. The music is so wonderful, sometimes the everyday tragedy of social injustice shown in the play is overshadowed. If you have not seen the play, you will also find it enjoyable as did my teenage children.
I wanted my kids to see it for its storytelling and musical beauty, but it was also very good for them to see what poverty and injustice looks like. They have accompanied me on occasion to help with homeless families, but to see it from an omnipotent perspective like this fills in the back story and context for those in need. I mention this as Les Miserables, when translated to English means “The Miserables.” It also is reflective of a world we still live in, even in the United States with over 50,000,000 people in poverty.
There are many stories to be told in Les Miz, but to me there are three main themes of social injustice that resonate today. First, Fantine personifies the lot of many in the movie and in real life here in the US, that many live paycheck to paycheck, especially those in impoverished settings. It won’t give away too much of the story to say Fantine loses her factory job and has to turn to a life of prostitution to provide for her daughter. In the US, 47% of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That includes many who are beyond poverty levels, meaning even the lower middle class have just enough money to make ends meet. Those in poverty are living on a wing and a prayer trying to make ends meet, with a significant majority paying more than the needed 30% of their income for housing and utilities to maintain a reasonable standard of living. It should be noted that 40% of all homeless people in the US are mothers with children, the fastest growing segment in the US. To further illustrate this tragedy, of the homeless families the non-profit agency I volunteer with help, 89% are single parent women as head of household.
Second, another social injustice theme is the one between Valjean, an ex-convict who paid dearly for stealing a loaf of a bread and the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe in the movie) who relentlessly chases him for breaking parole. A quick sidebar, Valjean could not get a job with his “scarlet letter” of papers he had to carry with him. However, Valjean repays the kindness and decency afforded him by a priest (played by Colm Wilkinson in the movie who was the original Valjean on the London stage) by doing the right thing and treating others like he wants to be treated. The injustice is the fervent belief by Javert that a thief is always a thief and could not change. What Valjean demonstrates and later tells Javert “you are wrong and always have been wrong.” Valjean, like many, is conflicted with trying to do the right thing and taking advantage of the circumstances to hide from the law. By doing the right thing at great personal sacrifice and cost, he shows Javert you can change. He also learns the priest’s lesson of treating one another with decency and dignity. “There but by the grace of God, go I,” was not said in the movie but lived by Valjean.
Third, and most powerful, is the overwhelming discontentment by those in poverty. There are many more than just Fantine who are exposed to the extreme poverty of the streets. The movie does far more than the play ever could to show the filth and sickness brought about by living in such conditions. If you had a job, it was more about economic slavery, working a tireless, repetitive factory position. You dared not complain or you could be let go or “sacked” per the movie and replaced by another. If you did not have a job, without significant welfare help, people had to beg, borrow and steal. Or, in Fantine’s case, she first sold her possessions, her hair, her teeth and then her body as a prostitute.
Scrolling forward to today’s time, I have written two posts about Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” This could have been the title to “Les Miserables.” One of the misconceptions noted in the Smiley/ West book about poverty, is poverty is not due to a lack of moral virtue. It is not defined by people who do not work hard. Poverty is the lack of money, period. The homeless families we help have jobs, sometimes more than one. They work hard trying to make ends meet and do the best they can. In these earlier posts, I have encouraged people to also read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. She lived the life of minimum wage jobs in America on purpose to see if she could get by. Her major conclusion – minimum wage jobs perpetuate poverty.
If you are earning at that level, you are beholden to a life of eating cheaper poor food, the inability to afford healthcare, jobs where you are on your feet all day which affects your health and a general lack of sleep as you try to be a worker of multiple 15 – 20 hours jobs and being a parent. And, you dare not complain, as someone else can be brought in right behind you. In Les Miserables, this is why the people rebel. They “have-nots” are tired of being taken advantage by the “haves.” This is also a major lament I have with LIbertarians and many Republicans. We need some regulations to keep things fair. Otherwise, employers who tend to chase cheap labor, will always find someone cheaper to use and let you go. We need some laws to keep things fair for the worker. If you want to advocate a true Libertarian life, go read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Robber Barons treated people just like the “haves” do in Les Miserables.
This is all about social injustice. Unlike people who perpetuate stories about welfare queens, etc. painting many with a broad brush of a few, we need to help people in need. I am all for empowering people to succeed. I am all for giving people opportunity to succeed. Yet, they have to climb the ladder of success. There are many who are not given this opportunity and are shunned as undesirables. They are treated with disdain and without any decency. Let’s lift others up and give them a chance to succeed. Like Valjean, let’s be enablers of success for others. I believe in the words “a community’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of its less fortunate.” The less fortunate could also be termed “The Miserables” or in French, “Les Miserables.”