For 33 years the musical Les Miserablès has been quietly warning the world what happens when the uneducated and starving poor become desperate, but most of us miss that part. We’re too busy being captivated by the stirring music, the tragedy of Fantine, the cold-hearted justice of Inspector Javert, and the moral transformation of Jean Valjean.
But when Les Miserablès was first published in 1845, Victor Hugo had more on his mind than the makings of a future musical that would charm the world. He wanted to write about les miserablès, the miserable ones, who filled the streets of Paris; and he wanted to rub the noses of the rich and educated elite into the lives of the illiterate, starving, sick, penniless, and desperate ones who lived brutal and unhappy lives beyond the manicured gardens of the rich minority.
When France’s beaten down majority chose upheaval over starvation, the resulting revolution lasted ten years. During one ten-month period alone historical records show 40,000 people, mostly clerics and aristocrats, suffered death by guillotine, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI among them.
The point? That throughout history the poor and downtrodden, often starving and uneducated, can be driven by desperation into violence to achieve the basic human needs denied to them. History teaches that only children starve in silence.
That the way it was in Victor Hugo’s France and that’s the way it is today, because human beings are still human beings, and desperation is still desperation.
As it happens, you and I are living through the greatest migrant crisis since WWII. The flood of over a million refugees into Europe has taxed the resources and moral will of an entire continent. The United States responded with a mostly symbolic yawn.
But now the great 21st century migrant wave is beginning to crash on our own doorstep with increasing strength, as our neighbors to the south, from Mexico to Panama, face varying degrees of rampant crime, crushing government regimes, and the widening cracks of social and economic collapse.
And so they come, hundreds of thousands of them, making their dangerous and uninvited way north to America, where even our poorest citizens seem rich by comparison.
Yes, these gate crashers come without invitation. I’ve heard people wonder out loud why they bother to make the effort, given the cold and hostile reception they will receive upon arrival. The answer, as Victor Hugo would tell you, is obvious. The cold hostility you face at your border interception is nothing compared to the starvation and death behind you. What parent wouldn’t risk everything to spare an avoidable early grave for his child? You would do the same. So would I.
The truth is that we lucky ones who have never hit the final rancid bottom of life’s barrel can never truly understand les miserablès. We’ve never been that poor, that desperate, that hungry. We can’t relate to the daily visceral pain that defines their lives, and so in our denial we dismiss it like a child covering his ears singing nonsense tunes.
Victor Hugo described it all—the suffering of the powerless and the selective deafness of the powerful—in 1854. And then as now, when the frustration and anger finally spills into the open we react with the necessary force to stifle the outburst, but then act as if we’ve cured a disease instead of smothering a symptom—as if throat cancer could be vanquished with enough cough suppressant.
I’m not suggesting we throw open the gates and let everyone in. But as things get worse (and they will) we should work harder to understand what’s driving the migrant wave. Perhaps by working with our neighbors to help improve their own countries ours would benefit as well—a subject for another column.
But in the meantime it’s worth remembering that the words ignorance and ignore both come from the same Latin root. It’s true that these Third World poor are often ignorant due to circumstance, but we chose to ignore their plight by choice. When the history of our time is written, I wonder which group will be judged more harshly?