Conservatives and Candlesticks…

…How Les Miserables is the celebration of conservative principles

As expected, the epic screen adaptation of Les Miserables has taken the world by storm and is worthy of all Oscar accolades.

Unlike the stage production – as good as it is – this film soars to new levels matched only by the grandeur of the musical score. But despite the genius casting, the masterpiece music, and the brilliant cinematography, at the heart of the film is a testament to the human spirit and its ability, under the right conditions, to overcome adversity and rise to new heights.

For over 150 years philosophers and literary experts have attempted to decode the meaning behind Victor Hugo’s narrative of Jean Valjean. Was the 1862 original classic a condemnation of the social injustices of the industrial revolution? Was it a scathing rebuke of idealistic revolutionaries? While this debate still lingers, there is little ambiguity regarding the character of Jean Valjean – the tale’s protagonist.

Valjean is the embodiment of individual responsibility and personal freedom–which carries him from defeatism to victory. For this reason, Jean Valjean is the anecdotal rebuttal to every liberal argument made for big government.

Right from the onset, Jean Valjean, recently released from prison, scours the countryside for a job, a piece of bread, someone to take compassion on him. While the 21st century Valjean most likely would have made a beeline straight for his local welfare office for government assistance, the 19th century Valjean seeks refuge in a church parish. Even in the days before the cable news outlets made a sport of mocking and marginalizing the Christian faith, it was the church that extended charity to societal castoffs.

Up until the mid-1960’s, when the government inserted itself into the remaking of the “Great Society,” charity typically came from individuals, churches, and private non-profits, not through coerced government-funded programs which laid the foundation for a welfare state.

Perhaps the most pivotal moment of the film is when the bishop offers forgiveness to the wayward Valjean, hands him the silver candlesticks and challenges him to “become an honest man.” Here we see into Hugo’s enlightenment roots as he elevates the power of the individual above his lowly stature. The bishop, requiring nothing in return – no servitude, no payback, not even a thank you – demonstrates a rare confidence in Valjean’s ability to change his station in life and lift himself out of poverty.

The bishop offers Valjean a hand-up but, unlike today’s entitlement programs, Valjean is expected to do his part in restoring his own dignity. What a lesson to the leaders of our day! When is the last time our president looked at American citizens and encouraged honesty, integrity, hard work, and a promise of upward mobility?

Instead we hear excuses, class warfare, victimization, put-downs and chastisement of the corporate heavy hitters. POTUS could have channeled a bit of the bishop during his recent State of the Union speech, but instead he leaned on the tired class warfare storyline that’s become his meme.

Through the bishops charity, Valjean becomes a self-made capitalist whose fair business practices initiated a renaissance in the small coastal town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Hugo’s classic tale details the impact that Valjean’s success has on this small town, transforming it from an impoverished coastal village to a thriving mini-metropolis. Valjean becomes the paragon of unforced charity, building schools and hospitals for the working class and using his power and money for good. He is the quintessential capitalist turned philanthropist.

Sadly, were Jean Valjean alive today, he would be attacked by our President and the Occupy Wall Street crowd as the evil one percent. They would rally against him accusing Valjean of building his business on the backs of his laborers and earning more than his fair share. The government would disregard his charitable giving and instead decry him as selfish and unjustifiably rich. The president would deny that Valjean built his factory and instead credit someone else for building it.

Then the president would rally his union cohorts to protest outside Valjean’s house harassing him until he agrees to unionize his workforce. And if that didn’t work, the government would tax and regulate Valjean’s factory out of business. Fortunately for Valjean, he lived during the era of the July Monarchy, and not under the tyranny of the Obama administration.

The beauty of Les Miserables is its interweaving of personal struggles and triumphs undergirded by both faith in the mercy of God and in the charity of mankind.

The leaders of our day would do well to look toward Jean Valjean as a citizen who, though born into hardship, managed through the charitable acts of his fellow man as well as personal fortitude, to pull himself out of his circumstances and raise his station in life. Valjean then goes on to thrive as a small business owner, providing goods and services, running a reputable business and giving back to the community as a responsible citizen.

How tragic that in today’s 21st century America, we must look back to the oppressive French monarchy for a glimpse of the power of personal responsibility and individual liberty.

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