After a long day, there’s nothing quite so refreshing as finding Les Mis soundtracks added to YouTube. And not just songs from the actual soundtrack but some of my favorite bits that didn’t make it, such as Gavroche’s song at the beginning of Act II. There’s a bit that really struck me:
There was a time we killed the King.
We tried to chance the world to fast.
Now we have got another King,
He is no better than the last.
This is the land that fought for liberty;
Now when we fight we fight for bread.
Here is the thing about equality:
Everyone’s equal when they’re dead.
Take your place, take your chance:
Vive la France! Vive la France!
It’s glorious in its own right, but it also seems a little too similar to what I see going on in my own country. Am I the only one who can imagine a child at an Occupy protest yelling:
Take your place! To the square!
Vive l’Amer! Vive l’Amer!
One of the lessons I take from Les Mis is that revolutions of this order never work, they’re always trying to change the world too fast and unless the heart and soul change along with the institutions we’ll soon have another king no better than the last. That doesn’t mean the economic situations don’t need to change. Fantine’s situation was hideously wrong, and it was made all the worse because of sexism and other kinds of discrimination. Gavroche’s anger at seeing the way his family had no means and could only get by at all by stealing comes from persistent poverty that isn’t really their fault (though his mum and dad are hardly moral paragons). The women in the factory scene say it well: they’re lucky to be in a job and not a bed. So institutional problems are wrong, and they need to be addressed. Any story that starts with people unfairly imprisoned at the beginning of act II is obviously not about a just society.
But Les Mis isn’t ultimately about the post-Napoleon France’s version of Occupy. In my first reaction to the film over at FB, I said “It’s more than a bit weird how much Les Mis makes the Occupy movement’s point, and simultaneously proves how insufficient it is on its own.” I think the movie gets the fact that societal inequalities require action, and not just from us as individuals but as a people. But since we are all affected by it unequally and as most people are driven at least to a degree by what affects them personally, it’s not so surprising that group responses are usually incomplete. In fact, Javert’s willingness to stand up for a stranger and risk jail to do it is treated as a pretty noteworthy deed.
And at a more basic level, unless we’re able to figure out what drives us to set up king after king, we’re not going to get anywhere. This is the radical message of social justice I see as a Christian in the Bible, though actual Christians have done a horrendous job of acting on it. As long as people are happy to simply put bandaid solutions on systemic problems rather than make the radical changes that would take away the need for that charity, the poor will always be with you. That doesn’t mean those bandaid, short-term solutions aren’t often needed. But in themselves they really aren’t enough. And until we actually get to where we see no more Gentile and Jew, Christian and Muslim and atheist, woman and woman, heterosexual and homosexual and anything in between – good luck getting past a fight for bread to a land of milk and honey, where we all really could eat cake. These days, that looks very much (to borrow a phrase from the Lord of the Rings) like a “when the king comes back” problem.
Ah, well. As I said it’s been a long day and today’s counseling session was a bit gruelling. Maybe I’m waxing poetic because my brain’s worn out. But in case these musings on the current health of the body politic resonate, I thought I would share them.
A video of this song is behind the cut.