This election season, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ted Cruz and Les Misérables.
In case you didn’t know, Cruz is a big fan of the musical, which is set during the 1832 Paris uprising.
My introduction to the story and music of Les Mis came courtesy of the 2012 film, and even then, as Barack Obama was beginning his second term in office, I was struck by how timely was Les Mis’ exploration of social injustice and economic inequality.
From beginning to end, poverty and injustice are principal characters of the plot. Jean Valjean and Fantine cannot escape the marks poverty has left on them, and those scars pass down to the next generation, which fights, loves and dies in an effort to overthrow a system that perpetuates the injustices inflicted on their parents.
“At the end of the day,” the ensemble cast sings early in the musical, “you’re another day older, and that’s all you can say for the life of the poor. It’s a struggle, it’s a war, and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving. … One day less to be living.”
The callous indifference of the power elites to the suffering of the underclass is clearly unsustainable.
“Like the waves crash on the sand,” the song continues, “like a storm that’ll break any second, there’s a hunger in the land. There’s a reckoning to be reckoned, and there’s gonna be hell to pay at the end of the day!”
Entwined around these themes of injustice, oppression and poverty is the question of God. Does God care, do God’s followers care, is Christianity something that effects change or sedates the masses?
“Here in the slums of Saint Michele,” the orphan Gavroche sings, “we live on crumbs of humble piety.”
Later in the song, disease-addled prostitutes fight over a street corner and beggars seek “a crust of bread in Holy Jesus’ name,” but young revolutionaries have replaced Jesus with Lamarque, the “one man” who “speaks for the people here below” – so long as he stays alive.
“With all the anger in the land,” one revolutionary wonders, “how long before the judgment day? Before we cut the fat ones down to size? Before the barricades arise?”
At the very beginning of the story, Jean Valjean’s fellow prisoners, like those on the outside, have lost hope: “Look down, look down, you’ll always be a slave. Look down, look down, you’re standing in your grave.” And Jesus is nowhere to be found in a poignant call-and-response: “I’ve done no wrong! Sweet Jesus, hear my prayer.//Look down, look down – sweet Jesus doesn’t care.”
. . .
Although Victor Hugo’s novel is set during a specific, short-lived insurrection, Paris during the 19th century experienced several such uprisings once the idealistic French Revolution ended in the Terror and the rise of Napoleon. Most famous was the 1871 Paris commune, an experiment in socialist governance that ended when French soldiers invaded their own capital and massacred thousands of people.
Paris, in other words, was a front line in the war between capital and its workers. Les Misérables, as its very title indicates, takes the side of the miserable poor, impoverished by an economic and political system in which the wealthy grow wealthier, cloaking their abuses in a pseudoscientific social Darwinism and pseudoreligious Christian individualism.
The result is a stifling atmosphere drained of grace and replaced by a tenacious preservation of “law and order” in which the laws benefit the few and order is maintained on the backs of the many. As the police commissioner Javert sings: “And so it has been and so it is written on the doorway to paradise, that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.”
The price must indeed be paid, but the only servants suffering it are those without the power or the money to pass the cup to the lips of their weaker neighbors.
This is the musical that Ted Cruz enjoys so much he’s been known to sprinkle his speeches with references to it.
. . .
In many ways, 21st century American democracy is quite different from the emerging, highly contested republican notions of 19th century France. Nevertheless, the basic themes of Les Mis seem more relevant than ever.
Increasingly, our economic and political systems, which in the 20th century seemed to be advancing toward egalitarian democracy, have begun retreating from that ideal, embracing a creeping oligarchy and rule by a right-wing minority that must contort its stated principles beyond recognition in order to maintain power and further enrich its allies.
Likewise, large segments of American religion seem more comfortable providing “the crumbs of humble piety” than any serious assessment of a system that distributes its largess so unequally. The immigrant Jesus of “the least of these” has been torn from his altar and replaced by a god of grievance and paranoia whispering to its followers that they can be made great again if they only become a little more exclusive, a little whiter, a little richer. If they just build the wall a little higher.
Ted Cruz, who voted to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars from the working and middle classes to the wealthiest class – Ted Cruz, who voted to strip health insurance coverage from millions of people without any kind of workable replacement – Ted Cruz, who read Dr. Seuss on the floor of Congress to shut down the government rather than implement the duly enacted law of the land – Ted Cruz, who consistently opposes rescuing our children and grandchildren from the ecological disaster we are leaving them so long as any such measure might decrease the profit margins of the disaster’s chief perpetrators – is the very personification of the spirit of oligarchical corruption and religious hypocrisy condemned in Les Misérables.
That Cruz can enjoy a musical whose very essence repudiates the principles he claims to hold makes me question how sincerely those positions are truly held.
Cruz, after all, has a troubling tendency to sacrifice principle in favor of ambition. Nowhere was this on display better than when he followed his seemingly principled refusal to endorse Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention when the conventional wisdom saw Trump as headed to a landslide defeat (and after Trump had insulted Cruz’s wife and father) with a sycophantic embrace of the same man last month in service of his quest for a second term as senator.
If two things are clear from those who attended Princeton with Cruz, it’s that he loves Les Mis, and that he always intended to run for president – the goal wasn’t to achieve a specific policy or to help people; it was to serve his own ambition.
Cruz, in other words, is nothing so principled as the misguided villain Javert. Rather, he’s no better than Thenardier, the loathsome “master of the house” whose every action – from sheltering Cosette to roaming the sewers plucking jewelry off the bodies of dead revolutionaries and trying to blackmail Marius on his wedding day – is motivated by naked self-interest.
Ted Cruz, like Thenardier, is the personification of the worst impulses of his time: avarice, hypocrisy, a disregard for even the slightest vestige of integrity.
I don’t vote against candidates; I vote for them. I’m not voting against Ted Cruz later this morning; I’m voting for Beto O’Rourke, who unlike Cruz has managed to articulate a political philosophy based on helping others rather than fear and grievance. O’Rourke also seems to treat others around him with respect, no small thing in an age where would-be Thenardiers seek to line their and their friends’ pockets while keeping the vote away from those most likely to stop them.
. . .
Throughout Les Mis, the ominous threat of revolution becomes increasingly pronounced. At the end of Act I, it’s at the doorstep: “Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again! When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!”
Revolutions come in many shapes and sizes. Even Karl Marx, he of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” whose entire career was inspired by the European Revolutions of 1848, later argued that a working-class revolution could and would come peacefully over time, through political reforms rather than fire and blood.
There can be little doubt, however, that the United States is torn between competing revolutions – one, led by neofascists and their opportunist enablers, claims to restore a society that never existed while lining the pockets of its leaders with money taken from the powerless, while another seeks to fulfill at long last America’s founding rhetoric of liberty and equality by expanding recognition and opportunity to all people, not just the privileged groups who benefit from power their ancestors earned through the use and abuse of others.
Which revolution will win? In the end, that is a question you and I can help answer.
There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.
Tomorrow is here. Go vote.