I really enjoyed the movie version of Les Miserables, the musical. It was a masterful interpretation of Victor Hugo’s literary classic, with superb acting. The message of this film, at its core, is one of forgiveness, charity, and democracy. In a word, it can be called liberal.
This makes me wonder why so many conservatives celebrate this musical. Yes, there is a spiritual theme that many on the religious right may find appealing. Yet I can’t understand how they miss the overwhelming liberal message in this story.
The title can be translated from the French as The Miserable, The Wretched, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims. The story illustrates the horrors of poverty and unbridled laissez faire capitalism, including child servitude and horendous work conditions (hostile workplace, sexual harassment, etc.). It also captures the evils of an undemocratic, heavy-handed state, including cruel treatment of prisoners and a murderous response to popular protest. Remember, it is liberals and progressives who struggled to do aways with these practices; and it is conservatives who want to return to an unregulated market with little or no safety net.
There is also a revolutionary theme in the story. “Do you hear the people sing/singing the song of angry men/it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.” The revolution is about restoring power to the people. It is liberals who promote political equality; and it is conservatives who over-represent the interests of big business and the wealthy.
Jean Vajean is a man who was reformed, not from his 19 years of prison time, but through the compassion of a Bishop. The Bishop gave Valjean a valuable collection of silver, and Valjean was able to escape from poverty and crime to become a business owner and government official. Valjean did not deserve this handout (“entitlement”) from the Bishop, and the Bishop had no reason to expect that the silver would be put to good use. But this unexpected act of charity gave Valjean an opportunity to become an honest, self-reliant man.
It is liberals who believe in equal opportunity for all; who believe rehabilitation is more effective than jail time; who believe we need a safety net to prevent extreme poverty and suffering. It is conservatives who want to dismantle the safety net so they can lower taxes on their rich donors; they want a heavy-handed state with a military that is bigger than all others combined; they want to strengthen the prison industrial complex, and they want to criminalize drugs, illegal immigration, but then go soft on white collar crime.
In my last post, I wrote about the contradiction between the conservatives’ reverence for Christmas on the one hand and the fact that their beliefs closely resemble Christmas villains like Scrooge and Mr. Potter on the other hand. I think there is a similar dissonance in how they watch Les Miserables. They are likely to see a religious theme; that God blesses people for their righteousness. Yet, the story does not fit that interpretation. The story does not fit into that world view about God punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. Instead, it captures real life. And it seem to be urging viewers to be more charitable to others, especially the undeserving—through private acts of charity, forgiveness, donating to good causes, and yes, supporting government-run “entitlement” programs and regulations that prevent our society from returning to the horrific conditions of the industrial revolution that is captured in Hugo’s work. That is a powerful Christian/liberal message, one that many conservatives talk about at church, but vote against in every election.
For years I have enjoyed watching classic Christmas films during the holiday season. Among my favorite holiday films are “Scrooge” (the musical) and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” One day it hit me that these two classics were condemning greedy, conservative businessmen as villains. I find it more than ironic that modern conservatives claim Christmas as their own, and believe that there is a “war on Christmas” (however ubiquitous it might be!), yet the villains of so many Christmas films are greedy businessmen whose harshest lines sound strikingly like today’s Republican Party. Conservatives need to learn from these films. They both have powerful themes about self-awareness, making a difference by giving to others, and valuing people.
(I want to be clear that my comparison is not to say that business people are bad, that wealth is bad, or even that conservatives are bad; it is greed and anti-social behavior that are bad for society.)
In Scrooge, you have pre-conversion Ebenezer Scrooge, who cares about nothing but his own money. He has come to hate people, and would rather see the poor dead than help them. In “It’s a Wonderful Life, you have Mr. Potter, the greedy banker who cares only about accumulating more wealth, even at the expense of ordinary people. I think these two characters both personify modern conservatism. (Yes, I was tempted to add the Grinch.)
Why are Christmas villains so often conservative businessmen? I suppose nothing could be a better contrast to the message that Christ preached than someone who thinks only of their own needs. For a person who not only fails to consider the needs of others, but whose greed causes them to harm others for their own benefit, this is the ultimate antagonist to the message of giving that we celebrate at Christmas. These villains illustrate a powerful contrast to New Testament messages to loving your neighbor, give to the poor, the love of money is the root of all evil, don’t judge others, etc.
For roughly 70 years, there was a consensus about the role of government in the United States. From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era and the Great Depression, our values about government intervention were recalibrated to embrace a balanced approach to the free market and the welfare state. While we embraced the power of markets, it was also widely recognized that there are winners and losers in the free market system, and we wanted a system that cared for those unable to care for themselves and minimized suffering. With the implementation of the New Deal and the Great Society programs, government was able to prevent millions of seniors, children, veterans, and the disabled and mentally ill from slipping into poverty.
But over the past 30 years, conservatives have united around several ideas that have destroyed the previous consensus about the role of government. First, conservatives have pushed the idea that welfare is evil, that it creates dependency, and requires hardworking people to pay into a system that redistributes their property to less deserving people. Second, they have made business their sole constituency. Virtually every policy they promote is in the service of the business community, which is sometimes counter to the interests of ordinary people (e.g., deregulation in finance, environmental protection, etc.). Third, they are anti-democratic. They obstruct legislation even when there is a clear majority vote; they realign election boundaries to their own benefit; and they change election rules to make it harder for people to vote—especially people that may not be voting for their party. As Republicans and their media outlet (Fox News) have used fear and anger to lead their followers into supportting their message, they have been allowed to dismantle important aspects of the 70-year consensus about the social safety net and the broader role of government. This has led to a number of negative outcomes that affect all of us, including massive inequality (to the level of some of the worst in the 3rd World), a Great Recession, crippling political polarization, and big business abuses of people and the environment.
Today’s conservatives need to spend some time this season thinking about the villains of Christmas. They need to look inward at how they have been led to believe things that are uncaring and insensitive, and have supported representatives who are steering our Nation in a direction that harms the most vulnerable in our society. Here are my favorite examples of Christmas villains.
From the film Scrooge: Trying to collect Christmas donations
2nd Portly Gentleman: What may we put you down for, sir?
Scrooge: Nothing, sir.
1st Portly Gentleman: Ah, you wish to remain anonymous.
Scrooge: I wish to be left alone, sir! That is what I wish! I don’t make myself merry at Christmas and I cannot afford to make idle people merry. I have been forced to support the establishments I have mentioned [i.e., prisons and workhouses] through taxation and God knows they cost more than they’re worth. Those who are badly off must go there.
2nd Portly Gentleman: Many would rather die than go there.
Scrooge: If they’d rather die, then they had better do it and decrease the surplus population. Good night, gentlemen.
[walks away, then turns back]
Here’s the version from the book:
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” replied Scrooge.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. … It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Mr. Potter: Have you put any real pressure on these people of yours to pay those mortgages?
Mr. Bailey: Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.
Mr. Potter: Then foreclose!
Mr. Bailey: I can’t do that. These families have children.
Mr. Potter: They’re not my children.
Mr. Bailey: But they’re somebody’s children, Mr. Potter
Mr. Potter: Are you running a business or a charity ward?
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