Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables in 1862. Upton Sinclair wrote of Hugo’s work:
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
It seems almost criminal that here in America, 150 years later, in what is supposed to be the most civilized and advanced country on earth, all the root causes of Hugo’s work are not only alive and well, but have promoters; promoters known as the Republican Party.
The title itself tells the tale: Les Misérables: The Wretched, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims, as Wikipedia tells us.
Yeah. Those still apply.
Fight. Dream. Hope. Love.
But they should not. They do not have to.
America made strides in the eighteenth century with the writing of the U.S. Constitution, enshrining the democratic ideal of power deriving from not God-appointed kings but from the people themselves. The nineteenth century saw the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation free the slaves; the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 gave blacks citizenship. the Fourteenth Amendment further protected Americans from the excesses of local democracy, a weakness the Constitution itself had been meant, in part, to address , by protecting our civil and political rights, which come to us by way of the U.S. Constitution, from being abridged by the states.
The twentieth century saw further advances: in 1920, thanks in great part to the efforts of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, women obtained the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Once upon a time, the Democrats tried to make a better America for all Americans. Plutocracy and it’s pet, unregulated crony capitalism, led America and the world over the precipice of the Great Depression, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was there with an answer for the victims.
The New Deal recreated America, providing a safety net for older Americans with the Social Security Act of 1935; FDR also gave us the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which addressed the evils of child labor as well as protecting laborers in other ways, including a 44-hour work week and a national minimum wage. The New Deal leveled the playing field and removed injustices. America prospered because FDR’s “social engineering” narrowed the gap between the rich and the poor. More people could participate in the pursuit of happiness because the fetters imposed by the rich to artifically seperate Amercans on the basis of wealth, had been removed.
Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society made further improvements to the victims: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 addressed discrimination, ethnic, religion, and gender-based. There was also the introduction of Medicare, created under Title XVIII of the Social Security Act; and Medicaid, established through the Social Security Amendments of 1965 (adding Title XIX to the Social Security Act).
Roe v. Wade, 1973, based in part on the Fourteenth Amendment that did so much good for so many, gave women the right to have an abortion by emancipating their wombs. It may take a village to raise a child, but it should not be up to the village to decide for the woman and her mate whether or not a pregnancy should result in a child, let alone a busy-body preacher.
The Republican Party of 2012 rebelled against the New Deal. They rebelled against the Great Society, and along the way, against the Fourteenth and Nineteenth Amendments as well. In fact, the Republican Party announced that it was the party not of all Americans, but of the upper 1 percent of Americans where wealth is concerned.
The Republican Party said if that 1 percent were rich enough, the rest of us would be happy too. All our efforts, said the rich, should be turned to making the rich richer.
History has time and again showed that thinking to be flawed. Les Miserables, as Upton Sinclair wrote, addressed the many injustices that result from this sort of thinking. If the top 1 percent are made richer, the only people who have what they need are the top 1 percent. The only people who are happy are the top 1 percent.
Nothing trickles down. Nothing has ever trickled down. Including justice. Ask history’s victims. They will tell you.
The attitude of the rich toward the poor is all too often one of disdain, the very same disdain showed by Mitt Romney in his infamous 47 percent comments.
Republican attitudes toward lesser human beings trend toward those supposedly of the Roman emperor Caligula ((“let them hate, so long as they fear”), or French Queen Marie Antoinette (“Let them eat cake”), and American (and by the way, Republican) government trader Andrew Jackson Myrick, who said of the starving Dakota tribes on their Minnesota reservation ( ”[S]o far as I am concerned, let them eat dung.”).
The “haves” of history are all too uninterested in seeing to it that the “have nots” also “have”.
To a great extent, the election of 2012 was about who would have and who would not have, but more importantly, about whether or not everybody had an equal right to have. Republican ideology, particularly Tea Party ideology, embraces the idea of Social Darwinism, that if you are rich it is because you deserve to be rich and that if you are not, it is because you are inferior and do not deserve it.
The Constitution mitigated against such artificial distinctions of worth by declaring that we all have equal rights before the law.
Hilary Clinton, another Democrat, embraces the old African proverb (one that would have been understood by those starving Dakota tribes), “It takes a village to raise a child.” President Obama, when he said, “You didn’t build that,” was embracing the same concept, the idea that we are all in this together, a community acting together for the common good. Whether on the local or on the national level the idea holds true: I make things better for me by helping make things better for you.
The Republicans embrace the robber baron mentality that led to the Gilded Age, which, incidentally, is the same attitude that led to the Medieval world of lords of peasants: it takes one rapacious (often literally) individual: I make things better for me by you helping make things better for me.
The Founding Fathers were by and large successful, wealthy men, landowners and merchants and lawyers. But they had the idea that their wealth gave them the ability to above petty politics and to make things better for everybody. Theirs was a generally inclusive America, though there were obvious omissions (slaves, women, Native Americans, etc). Those omissions have, if not completely, since been corrected.
Those battles were fought. Those battles were won, if not always decisively.
And then the Republican Party of 2012 decided we should fight those battles again. The Republican Party of 2012 decided that robber barons were still viable. It’s no wonder robber barons, like the Kochs and others, should think so. Its no wonder they spent hundreds of millions of dollars to unfairly weight the election in their favor. To buy the political power for themselves that the Constitution gives us all.
And it’s not through lack of effort that they failed.
America rose up in 2012 and shouted a resounding no, a no that applied to a great many of these issues, a no that, if properly acted upon, could, in time, perhaps, make Les Misérables resonate less with future generations, and make injustice of the sort we have seen through most of history, a historical curiosity, a bleak chapter in the history of humankind.
A dim memory of a dim way of thinking.