Law And Grace In Best Picture Nominee ‘Les Miserables’
I take my political debates into the movie theatre with me. Suspend disbelief? That I can do. Suspend political/cultural/religious debate? Never. It’s probably a good idea to let go once in a while, but just because that’s a good idea doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.
So, here is what I read on National Review Online before going in to see Les Miserables, and what was in my mind the whole time:
“All decent people have a measure of sympathy for those who, driven by desperation, come illegally to the United States seeking work to provide for themselves and their families. That they so frequently work at low wages in miserable conditions and that they are vulnerable to every kind of abuse is reason for deeper sympathy still. But the solution to their plight is not to abandon the law, any more than the solution to the plight of Les Misérables is to legalize the theft of bread. The rule of law exists to alleviate misery, not to mandate it.”
When I read that from my former colleagues over at NRO, it was kind of a shock. Have they actually read Les Miserables, I wondered? Well probably not; it’s an extremely long novel. But there are shortened versions and a couple of movies and the Broadway musical. The story is well known to say the least. And it does have a lot of light to shed on current questions of political philosophy, especially the place of outcast members of our society such as illegal immigrants. But it seems to lend very little support to the cause in which NRO has enlisted it, which is to crack down on legal forgiveness of illegal immigrants.
Jean Valjean broke the law; he stole bread to feed his sister’s family. He was arrested for that, tried to escape, was rearrested, eventually paroled, stole silver settings from a Bishop, stole a coin from a boy (in the book, not in the musical), tore up his papers, forged new ones and lived as an ‘illegal’ with a falsified identity; actually, more than one false identity as a fugitive from the law, at one point seeking sanctuary in a convent.
The parallels to the life of an illegal immigrant are, while not perfect, very strong. His initial crime involved an escape from severe poverty and misery for the sake of his family. Illegal? Yes. Immoral? Yes. Understandable and forgiveable? Yes, and yes. For the most part his other crimes are attempts to live in a system which overreacted to his initial crime.
Prison guard (later Inspector) Javert is the voice of the rule-of-law principle run amuck. Valjean broke the law, and nothing else matters, not the cruelty and injustice of the whole ugly system, not the good deeds which Valjean has done while being an illegal, not the community which depends upon him for the fruits of his labor. Valjean, as he says, is a ‘criminal’ and that’s that. You can almost hear him growl, “What part of criminal don’t you understand?”
But you can almost hear the audience answer: “The part of criminal we don’t understand is why this good man can’t simply be forgiven?” Crimes can be forgiven. In fact, the real historical figure on which Jean Valjean was based was in reality pardoned. Pardons and amnesties and commutations and various nullifications are not violations of the rule of law. They are part of the rule of law. They arise from the same legal traditions as statute and penalty. They are the elements of law through which mercy is mixed with justice to bring forth, not chaos, but higher justice in accordance with a higher law.
The Bishop sees Valjean as condemned by the law but capable of being saved by grace. He bends the law for a higher purpose. The gardener at the convent in Paris who offers Valjean sanctuary, knowing that he is a fugitive, but also knowing what kind of man he is, is acting according to a higher law.
It is obvious to everyone except Javert that no genuine good would be served by depriving Montreuil-sur-Mer of its highly capable mayor and chief industrialist. In fact, even the slight distraction caused by the presence of Javert at Valjean’s factory leads to tragedy. Fantine, a worker at the factory, is discharged by an incompetent and merciless foreman, when it is discovered that she has a secret daughter, but not a husband. Valjean, who would have shown mercy and resolved the situation with much better results, is focused on avoiding detection by Javert. Fantine, unemployed, but with a daughter to support, sinks into more and more desperate measures, eventually prostitution, disease and death.
Fantine’s heartbreaking story is in a moral sense a microcosm of Valjean’s. An initial mistake, a misapplication of her love, is followed by a lifetime of marginalization, secrecy, judgment and retribution. Fantine was a good worker at the factory. The interest of the factory was not served by her dismissal, nor was that of the owner, nor of the customers, nor of the community, which had no shortage of underclass castoffs. The foreman’s moralistic (not moral) act of retribution placed an economic ‘wedge’ between Fantine and the community marketplace which left both poorer. The illegitimate daughter, Cosette would be an orphan. Valjean would be racked with guilt. The proper thing to do with Fantine, who acknowledged her mistake, would be to forgive her and let her lead a productive life, to bring her out of the shadow of secret motherhood into the light where she could be helped, saved from the exploitation of her daughter’s ‘care givers’, and fully restored to the community. The mob of judgmental proto-Dr. Lauras down on the factory floor would lose their power, which is as it should be.
Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’s stepson, once said to me something like this: “If a young woman unwisely bestows her affections and becomes pregnant, and Christians shame her, they’re causing future abortions.” I think that’s right.
The long-distance Javerts in the tough-on-immigration movement need to take a good long look at Les Miserables, whether the book, the movie or the musical, and see the bit of Javert in each of us. Many men and women from Mexico committed the moral equivalent of breaking the glass and stealing bread to feed their families, when they snuck into this country to find work. Some are part of a habitual criminal class, but many are otherwise peaceful and productive citizens. They babysit our kids, or pick our tomatoes, clean pools, build houses and send money home to Mexico. Their ongoing crime is to use false identities to cover up their initial crime. They use falsified social security numbers rather than falsified passports, because we do not yet live in a society which requires us to present our ‘papers’ to the local authorities. Of course, it is the Javert contingent in our political discussion which is pushing for some kind of EZ paper, card, number system to see who has a right to work and who doesn’t, imposing such a system on all of us in order to get at the illegals.
One does not have to legalize stealing bread to forgive Valjean: one must only forgive the relatively small evil of stealing bread in order to avoid the greater evil of keeping a good man in a position of perpetual fear.
One does not have to legalize border jumping in order to forgive the migrant farm worker and the nanny, one must only forgive the relatively small evil of working illegally in America to avoid the greater evil of tearing families apart, of economies disrupted, of terrible racial tension and mass deportation. Not every illegal immigrant is a Valjean, worthy of legal forgiveness, but many, many are, and it’s time to bring them out of the shadows. It’s time to turn aside from our inner Javert.
Article originally published on Forbes.com.
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