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Law And Grace In Best Picture Nominee "Les Miserables"
Townhall ^ | 01/12/2013 | Jerry Bowyer

Posted on 01/12/2013 10:55:45 AM PST by SeekAndFind

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 atNRO, it was kind of a shock. Have they actually readLes 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.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; News/Current Events; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: grace; immigration; law; lesmiserables

1 posted on 01/12/2013 10:55:56 AM PST by SeekAndFind
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To: SeekAndFind

I find this to be a false analogy - Jean Valjean did not sneak in to England or Germany, access the resources of their citizens, have them pay for his child’s schooling, food and education and demand that they speak his language. He did not continue to steal as time went on, rather he spent his life saved by grace and living a good life in his native France.

This article is a lot like saying Joseph and Mary were homeless when the were in Bethlehem. Rather than being homeless, they were reservationless! They had a home in Galilee.

2 posted on 01/12/2013 11:22:42 AM PST by JMS
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To: SeekAndFind
don't blame anyone for seeking a better life...if you live in a rat hole country, its understandable...

but you can apply to come here legally..

its not like the French citizenry were being charged SS and Medicare and Income tax so they could have a retirement when they got old...

but we are....

we have invested in our country and we expect to not have to go broke, do without medicines, or heating our homes or sending our kids to college because the govt is GIVING IT ALL AWAY TO ILLEGALS.....

that is OUR Money...not theirs....

so immigration and illegals are not what they used to be...who came here and got nothing....

they come here now and get everything that WE have EARNED...

3 posted on 01/12/2013 11:26:29 AM PST by cherry
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To: SeekAndFind
And this folks, more than any other reason, is why we are doomed: a country founded on reasoned principle and rational discourse, now finds even its supposedly "conservative" defenders "arguing" entirely on the basis of emotion with intellect nowhere in sight.

The parallels to illegal immigration in Les Misérables are nonexistent, and one must ignore entirely the most important and pernicious aspects of our current crisis in order to twist the two into any kind of concordance, however rough it may be.

The problem is not a single Jean Valjean. The problem is fifteen million of him. The problem is not venial, easily forgivable crimes committed by a few of them, but the enormous number of violent felonies committed by a very large percentage of them; and these crimes are not committed to cover up their initial transgression.

But as serious as those two problems are: the sheer volume and sheer violence of a significant number of illegals is, these pale in comparison to the real problem, because the truth is that illegal immigration has destroyed the rule of law. It has corrupted everyone with whom it has come in contact; a Mexican government which has no will to clean up its own problems and hangs on as a failed state because of money flowing in from illegals, American Agriculture, which is no longer innovating in mechanization and automation to nearly the degree found in Europe because of the availability of slave labor, American hotels and restaurants and retail chains whose slave labor is subsidized at the expense of other taxpayers, and worst of all, an American political system now thoroughly warped by a belief that pandering to greedy businessmen and the dependent children of illegals has no consequences for a country already desperately in the throes of fiscal self destruction.

The real crime of illegal immigration is the evil, corrupt system on both sides of the border that created and supports it. There was no such apparatus to support the petty crimes of Jean Valjean.

The author, who claims never to take a holiday from his principles needs to reexamine them. They are shortsighted and silly, and unworthy of an American who claims to be conservative. Next time, he should actually try thinking about an issue instead of crying over some treacly confusion of chemicals inside his brain.

4 posted on 01/12/2013 11:27:22 AM PST by FredZarguna (In a well-regulated FReeper den, the right to create and deploy antimatter shall not be infringed.)
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Whether we like it or some time this country will need to deal with it's illegal immigrant problem...

Obviously, we need to put a plan together to let the productive, law abiding, self sufficient, tax paying people here illegally a path to citizenship...

The illegal scum who are sucking off the system...deport...or make it so hard to live by cutting off their benefits they self deport..

Of course easier said then done especially with liberals in charge of vast populations areas in this country..

5 posted on 01/12/2013 11:37:41 AM PST by Popman
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To: Popman

For every illegal that comes to the US..a citizen looses a job and a struggling middle class tax payer pays more. Every illegal or anchor baby we pay health care for comes out of health care for our own citizens. There are victims of illegal immigration.

6 posted on 01/12/2013 11:48:03 AM PST by Oldexpat
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To: Oldexpat
I certainly understand that...and agree

In no way I am supporting letting more illegals in...

I specifically was referring to the ones here already...that are part of the country giving into it and not taking away...That number is probably small as compared to the overall number of illegals...

The only way we will get a fence built on the border is to keep Americans in rather than illegals out...

7 posted on 01/12/2013 11:55:46 AM PST by Popman
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Well, it is a true story for many, but hardly all. But I take his point, which is that the law must discriminate. What many people propose is a simple utilitarianism, which does not want to do the heavy lifting to achieve justice. Which is why our criminate justice system is so messed up, with 95% of the cases being plea bargained. Lots of Jean Valjeans in the pen.

8 posted on 01/12/2013 12:08:53 PM PST by RobbyS (Christus rex.)
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To: SeekAndFind

I have never heard of this man Bowyer before. After reading this I despise him for trying to equate invaders in our country to a man in need. I do not work and raise children so that I, and they, may be robbed by the IRS to support invaders to this country. By trying to create a moral equivalent this man Bowyer has shown himself to be a quisling at best, a traitor at worst.

9 posted on 01/12/2013 12:12:03 PM PST by raybbr (People who still support Obama are either a Marxist or a moron.)
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To: Popman

The solution to the problem is to deny government handouts to everyone not born a US citizen, even legally naturalized citizens.

10 posted on 01/12/2013 12:46:26 PM PST by TexasFreeper2009 (Obama lied .. the economy died.)
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To: SeekAndFind

Right or wrong, fair or can’t unscramble scrambled eggs.

11 posted on 01/12/2013 1:32:15 PM PST by avenir (I'm pessimistic about man, but I'm optimistic about GOD!)
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To: TexasFreeper2009
The solution to the problem is to deny government handouts to everyone not born a US citizen, even legally naturalized citizens.

The solution to the problem is to deny government handouts to everyone

Fixed it...

12 posted on 01/12/2013 1:39:13 PM PST by Popman
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