Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Month: February, 2013

What I Want My Daughter to Learn from Les Miserables: A Top Three List

Over the weekend, my husband and I took our 8-year old daughter to see the musical Les Miserables. I debated whether she was too young, with songs like “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House,” not to mention [spoiler alert] . . .

. . . Gavroche’s death — which was one of many, of course, but I wondered what she’d think about witnessing the imaginary violent death of a boy her age.

Then, I remembered that I was listening to the music at 8 years old and didn’t think about it again. (My parents went to see The Phantom of the Opera when I was in 3rd grade and brought back cassette tapes of the music; an avid lover of books, I remember being entranced by the idea of story in song and started collecting the soundtracks from every musical on Broadway and piecing together the stories).

I decided that 8-years old is the perfect age for Les Mis. At eight, Arina still values our opinion. Mom and Dad are still cool. Arina was actually impressed to hear the two of us sing the soundtrack back and forth to each other the week before the show, while making dinner. So, she took the opportunity to go very seriously. She nodded solemnly when Scott told her that the experience would be magical, that afterward she’d feel more deeply [“right here,” he had said, pointing to her heart]. And, happily, she sat transfixed, mouth agape, for the entire 2 1/2 hours.

Saturday was my fifth time seeing Les Mis, but this time was special, because I thought, throughout, about what I hoped Arina was learning. Without further ado, and in no particular order, my top three list is as follows:

1) Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert represent the best and worst of religion, respectively. Sometimes, my mother bemoans the fact that we have yet to find a church we feel comfortable attending, now that we’ve moved to such a small town. Our church is currently in Springfield, Missouri, since we tune in each Sunday to CCCSpringfield’s youtube channel and have struck up a friendship with the minister there, Dr. Roger Ray. We’ve decided to attend when we can, at least twice a year; we joke with Roger that we’re like those families who only come to church at Easter and Christmas, but since we’re of the progressive Christian variety we visit instead (1) after a tragedy, in order to be part of a sympathetic community and plan acts of social justice (we decided on our first visit after the Sandy Hook massacre); and (2) whenever the academics are in town (a conference is currently in the works for August, and hopes are to bring in John Shelby Spong as keynote speaker).

Until then, I reminded Mom that taking Arina to see Les Mis is worth a month, and more, of Sundays — since Valjean represents the best religion has to offer.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that some version of “love your neighbor as yourself” appears in so many religious and philosophical traditions; see the lovely slideshow: “The Golden Rule in World Religions.”

The musical/film/story opens with Valjean. Cliff notes version: V. steals bread, is imprisoned for 19 years, is unable to obtain work b/c he was imprisoned, is apprehended by the police for stealing something worse than bread (i.e. silver) from an aging, hospitable bishop.

The Bishop covers for Valjean, telling the police that he not only gave him the silver in his possession, but silver candlesticks as well that Valjean “forgot” — a literal example of “if someone takes your coat, give him your shirt as well.” Touched, Valjean becomes ridiculously good afterward: rescuing a prostitute; adopting her child; waltzing into the middle of a battle to save his daughter’s boyfriend, etc. He is, in effect, the embodiment of the Golden Rule, and is symbolic of a Christianity that is compassionate and generous, self-sacrificing and brave.

If Valjean is the embodiment of the Golden Rule, Inspector Javert is the embodiment of the Ten Commandments, all “Thou Shalt Not,” and if you do . . . well, you’ll get jail or hell, whichever comes first. And, yet, as Nathan Newman explains in “The Enduring Radicalism of Les Miserables,” Javert isn’t bad

“It is not just because the hero Jean Valjean is a good man that he saves Javert’s life, but because Javert on his own terms is a good man as well — just dedicated to protecting a very bad system.  Instead of personalizing politics in a bad guy the hero can kill, this is a movie where a Javert defending the system is instead confronted with the system’s own failings — and can’t live with having dedicated his life to defending a lie.”

Javert is, in effect, the embodiment of the Law, and is symbolic of a Christianity that is judgmental and unyielding, literal (with no room for interpretation) and sure (with no room for doubt).

I was thrilled to discover that Jean Valjean is Arina’s favorite character, even above the ones I expected her to pick (e.g. the little girl Cosette, with whom I assumed she’d most identify). When I asked her why, she said: “because he makes things right.”

2) We must both recognize and speak the fact that “she needs a doctor not a jail.”

Valjean’s empathetic imagination not only gives him insight about the plight of those around him but also inspires him to speak up for those too weak to speak up for themselves — despite the fact that, by doing so, he puts himself in jeopardy, because the Law (i.e. Javert) is always trying to capture him. This is nowhere more dramatic than when he steps out of the darkness and argues with Javert, who is in the process of carting off the prostitute Fantine to jail; Valjean uses his position as mayor to insist on mercy, saying “she needs a doctor, not a jail.”

When looking at Fantine, Javert sees someone breaking the law; when looking at Fantine, Valjean sees someone in pain. To Javert, she is worthless; to Valjean, she has value beyond measure, despite the broken state in which he finds her. I hope that Arina will see through Valjean’s eyes rather than Javert’s. I think she must, since her story has its own Fantine, a birthmother who was addicted and homeless and died young and alone.

I came across a cringe-worthy status update on Facebook this week: “A homeless man outside the grocery store asked me for a dollar. UGH! Get a JOB like the rest of us!” I thought of Fantine and Oksana and wondered what Arina will think when she’s an adult and hears such comments. I thought of Victor Hugo, who penned the novel Les Miserables in the mid 1800s and who, despite being a national hero, asked to be buried in a poor man’s hearse, to be given a pauper’s funeral — because he understood something in the mid 1800s that many fail to understand in 2012: that everything worth knowing is found among “the least of these.”

3) Families have little to nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with the loving connections we make to others.

At its core, Les Mis is one of the best portrayals of the bond between adoptive parent and adopted child that’s out there, because the little known fact it brings to light is that the bond could not be stronger if biology were involved. Valjean meets Cosette, a child in need, and provides for her; they become a family immediately, because they choose to do so and because it’s the right, the natural thing to do. The child becomes, as Valjean explains, “the best of my life.” Cosette is Valjean’s and Valjean is Cosette’s — and more. At the end of the musical, Fantine’s spirit ushers Valjean’s to the next life, because Cosette and Valjean and Fantine all belong to each other, inextricably and wonderfully bound not by biology but by love. Just like Arina and Oksana and I belong and are bound to each other.

I’ve realized, in this fifth viewing of Les Miserables, that it is a nearly perfect production. The only criticism I have, the only way it falls short of what I believe was Victor Hugo’s vision, is in its limiting view of heaven. Hugo believed in love and grace and redemption for all. So, in the last scene, when Fantine takes Valjean to join the heavenly song, and we see Gavroche and Eponine and all the young revolutionaries holding hands and singing together, we notice that Javert is missing. He shouldn’t be. I think that Valjean would expect, and even look forward, to seeing him.

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Disingenuousness and High Horses

Nothing puts me on my high horse as quickly as disingenuous behavior. In the gun control debate that is still raging fiercely on social media sites like Facebook, I find that I am less annoyed (still annoyed, but less) with those Wayne LaPierre types who make their stance known than I am by those who flirt with the issue, posting something now and then to support whatever they see as the conservative standpoint and then immediately hemming and hawing as to their intent.

Example: This week, a video of Obama from 2008 showed up on Facebook pages. To introduce this video, one Facebook poster wrote:

“Obama: I Will NOT Take Your Guns away

I’m not a huge 2nd amendment activist, but I do believe in honesty. I only like flip flops on my feet!”

Curious, I watched the video, only to hear a version of nearly the exact same thing Obama said in his recent gun control speech: that he is not looking to take away handguns, shotguns, and hunting rifles. (Instead, he is asking Congress to ban military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines as one of many measures that may make mass shootings like the Sandy Hook massacre less likely to happen.)

Although I normally stay away from conservative Facebook pages like the plague, I admitted in a comment that I didn’t understand the post, since Obama has continued to say the same thing in more recent speeches. The poster replied: “I’m just saying I hope he was honest in his campaign speech and his current intentions. That’s all.”

Disingenuous.

Still, satisfied that my question had at least been acknowledged and addressed, I gave the poster a “thumbs up,” much to Natalie’s chagrin:

“I wouldn’t let that fly for one second. I’d ask, ‘You said, “I only like flip flops on my feet!” So, who flip-flopped? Your implication is that Obama did. Your next post implied that Obama did not. So . . . the only flip-flopper I see is you.'”

But I was eager to move on and away, although the thread seemed loathe to let me do so. Another commentator addressed me by name and informed me that our 2nd amendment means we must have the same weapons our military does to defend ourselves against the government.

When I pointed out that we have long ago lost the ability to defend ourselves against the government, he cried straw man and moved into argument #2, which was my apparent “skewed” understanding of the 2nd amendment.

When I pointed out that I had recently read the 2nd amendment in preparation to teach a section on gun control in my Rhetoric and Composition class (more recently I suspect than anyone on the thread had done, if at all), the original poster cried red herring! He proceeded to assert that just because I teach critical reading and rhetoric doesn’t mean I understand it, which explains — of course — his eagerness to cry fallacy. I listed my qualifications, which only prompted him to say that he wasn’t challenging or even referring to my understanding and teaching.

Disingenuous, again.

The conversation continued to devolve, but not before reminding me of the following five truths:

(1) For some conservatives, change in any form is “bad:” The original poster’s implication, that Obama would be “bad” if he reneged on comments made four years ago reflects why the conservative party may be headed, as House Speaker Boehner lamented recently, “for the dust bin.” Change is sometimes necessary to address current problems. Obama did not flip flop on the particular point in question, but even if he did: to reexamine previous assertions, to consider changing in response to a string of mass shootings (Tuscon, Aurora, Oak Creek and Newton), is more noble, not less.

(2) There seems to be both a worship of and fear of the US military: How many times have I rolled my eyes over discussions of reducing the deficit, when the GOP has refused to give an inch on military spending, despite the fact that the US spends a ridiculous amount compared to other countries? Because of the GOP, we have an unmatched military and arsenal of weapons; and, now, in the gun control debate, some conservatives are insisting on keeping their assault weapons and high capacity magazines so that they will stand a chance against the “monster” they created, should it turn monstrous.

(3) “Literal” interpretation, whether of the Bible or the Constitution, is problematic: At one point, a commentator insisted that as a “CITIZEN” for whom the Constitution was written, he has a right to teach me the 2nd Amendment. I think he must be mistaking me for Piers Morgan.

As Natalie pointed out in private discussion: “No, he’s not the citizen for whom the Constitution was written unless he’s MUCH older than he claims. The Constitution was written pre- these sorts of weapons.”

Back in December, I read a New Yorker article about the fraught history of both 2nd Amendment interpretation and the NRA. As Jeffrey Toobin explains, “For more than a hundred years . . . according to the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.” Then, a powerful group of conservatives “pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms,” and ultimately won.

Toobin concludes, “Conservatives often embrace ‘originalism,’ the idea that the meaning of the Constitution was fixed when it was ratified, in 1787. They mock the so-called liberal idea of a ‘living’ constitution, whose meaning changes with the values of the country at large. But there is no better example of the living Constitution than the conservative re-casting of the Second Amendment in the last few decades of the twentieth century . . . In other words, the law of the Second Amendment is not settled; no law, not even the Constitution, ever is.”

Recognizing historical/cultural context is important, as is the willingness to change when change is needed (see, again, point number 1).

(4) Higher education is desired, but also dismissed and scorned: Most of my conservative peers with young children will mention the college funds they’ve started for them while simultaneously dismissing and even ridiculing college instructors.

In this Facebook interaction, both the original poster and a commentator attacked my reading and argument, and then seemed particularly offended when I mentioned that I’ve been trained on a professional level to do both.

I’m no Constitutional scholar, so the 2nd Amendment isn’t my expertise — but critical thinking and language is. I don’t presume to know about accounting or nursing or any range of other professions. In fact, I often poke fun at my utter lack of knowledge in any field other than the one I practice.

My trade is words. I read them; I interpret them; I write them; I live them.

I caused quite the stir when I corrected a sarcastic remark addressed to “ms. Fisk” by saying “Dr. Fisk.” The original poster implied this was a “high horse” thing to say. But, after 10 years of higher education and a dissertation, I’ve earned my title.

(5) Facebook is sometimes like a return to high school: One of my more brilliant, entertaining Facebook friends (Jonathan Alexandratos: I’m looking at you) said the following after several people challenged one of my Facebook posts about gun control:

“I think I’m having flashbacks to, like, Middle School gym class! And I don’t want to be mean to anyone, naturally. (People this underemployed aren’t allowed to be mean.) But after a while it just sounds like the prison is telling me all the other wonderful uses for the electric chair. ‘Lots of us use it to cook eggs on!’ ‘It’s a stunning example of Bauhaus art…’ ‘Sometimes? It’s just a nice, warm place to sit.'”

I was indeed teased in middle/high school and never imagined that the teasing would continue by many of the same people (now in their 30s, for God’s sake) with the advent of social media sites like Facebook, but here we are. During the past few days, I’ve opened my news feed to thinly veiled references about needing a “Dr,” in quotation marks, for this or that.

Here are the differences, though, between Facebook and high school; and they’re important ones: First, I’m not bothered by the teasing, as I was in middle/high school. I’m transfixed by it at times; it’s a curiosity, for sure, to think of how little some people change with the passage of time, how easily they fall into the same habits.

Secondly, you may call it a “high horse,” if you will, but I prefer to think of it as being confident enough not to be demeaned and, instead, to assert both my worth (something I was too shy to do in high school) as well as the worth of others unfairly forgotten or ignored.

Some of these “others” are Sandy Hook parents whose testimonies in the gun control debate are given second fiddle to people like Bill Stevens, a Newton resident who channeled Charlton Heston in an address to Connecticut lawmakers. As a last word, the Facebook poster heretofore referenced tagged me when posting Stevens’s video, one entitled “Sandy Hook Father Owns Congress,” and commenting “Wow and Amen.”

Two things:

(1) To say “Amen,” to add a religious dimension to an argument against any additional gun control and in favor of the proliferation of military style assault weapons, high capacity magazines, and hollow point bullets (weapons of mass murder, if you will) is to blaspheme the “Prince of Peace” you claim to follow. I continue to be amazed that the very Facebook acquaintances who post devotionals and gospel songs on a near daily basis also post arguments that are so clearly a perversion of the life and example of Jesus.

(2)  Bill Stevens neither owned Congress, since he was not on Capital Hill, nor has a right to the title of “Sandy Hook father” solely because his daughter goes to another Newton school in the Sandy Hook district.

When I said as much, the poster corrected the former (the bit about Congress) but refused to correct the latter, saying, “He is from Newtown, daughter went to school a mile or so down the road . . . close enough to a Sandy Hook father to me!”

Saying that Stevens is a “Sandy Hook father” is a disservice to the actual Sandy Hook parents, like Veronique Pozner, speaking out for change. Veronique (mother of 6-year old victim Noah), also, was at this event. She insisted on seeing her son’s body, despite the fact that the coroner warned her against it (his jaw and left hand were mostly gone), and she insisted on both an open casket (with a cloth below Noah’s closed eyes) and on the governor seeing the body. She explained “If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him.”

Neil Heslin (father of 6-year old victim Jesse), also, was at this event. He said, “I tried to think of a reason why we would need guns and weapons like that for hunting, and the only thing I could think of is maybe deer management . . . I ask that we ban those weapons and I ask that we look more into mental health, education and the people who have those weapons. There should be strict background checks.”

Bill Wheeler (father of 6-year old victim Benjamin), also, was at this event. He said, “Thomas Jefferson described our inalienable rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I do not think the order of those important words was haphazard and casual. The liberty of any person to own a military assault weapon and high-capacity magazine and to keep them in their home is second to the right of my son to his life.”

Peter Paradis (father of 29-year old victim Rachel), also, was at this event. He said, “I am a gun owner; Rachel enjoyed shooting as well. We don’t need 30-round clips to kill a deer, we don’t need AR-style rifles to go target shooting. We need action.”

As Saki Knafo writes about this particular event, “As with the earlier hearing on gun violence, opinions were mixed on whether the legislature should pass stricter gun control measures, like a ban on semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines. But none of the speakers whose children died in the shooting opposed such measures, and some vehemently argued in favor of them.” Of all the Sandy Hook parents, Mark Mattioli (father of 6-year old victim James) focused more on mental health than gun control, although even he addressed the necessity of more strictly enforcing existing gun control laws (the NRA has weakened the regulatory ATF agency to the point that it can, at best, “recommend” gun sellers do such things as keep records and not sell to drunk people).

In short, there is a difference between Stevens’s designation as “Sandy Hook parent” and Veronique Pozner’s, et al, and I said as much. The poster’s response: “In your OPINION. I have my own opinion.”

No. That Pozner is a “Sandy Hook parent” and that Stevens is not is a matter of fact, not opinion. There is a body of a six-year old boy to prove it. To suggest that there is no difference is: at best, disingenuous; at worst, morally bankrupt; and, in either case, a very definitive third strike against the Facebook poster in this week’s debate.