The Liberal Message of Les Miserables

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 MiserableThe WretchedThe Poor OnesThe 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.