… but a worldview makes one of them bad.
I watched Les Miserables earlier this week. I had never seen the stage musical or even heard any of its songs. Although I read Victor Hugo’s book many moons ago, back then I probably would have simplistically considered Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman in the film) the “good guy” and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) the “bad guy.”
Watching the movie, I was struck instead by how much alike they are. Both are diligent, dutiful men. Both have an extreme sense honor, honesty, and justice. Each believes he’s doing God’s work and refuses to be deterred from doing it, no matter what the cost or danger.
The one thing that divides them is that Valjean has to break the law to live as a good man. And Javert — to whom the law is a sacred principle — absolutely can’t conceive that Valjean, a lifelong lawbreaker, could possibly be a good man.
He repeatedly refers to Valjean as dark, evil, thieving and dangerous. He asserts that bad men like Valjean never change. Even after Valjean has saved his life, he calls him a devil; after that he just can’t understand what kind of “devil” Valjean is.
And of course, Outlaws like Valjean are dangerous — to the systems men like Javert stand for. And perhaps all the more dangerous when they’re as strong and principled as Valjean.
In the opening scene, when Valjean is being paroled after 19 years on a prison slave gang, Javert insists on calling him “24601” (his prison number), refusing to give him his name, no matter how strongly Valjean asserts his identity. (Is that familiar, or what?)
He’s not only reminding Valjean “You’re a prisoner forever,” he’s telling him, “To me, you’re not even human.”
In his final moment in the story, Javert, realizing that Valjean is truly something that doesn’t fit into his rigid, law-and-order worldview, can’t bear to live with the revelation. He can’t change. He can’t flex. He can’t function.
And of course one key to Javert is that, while Valjean was born a peasant, Javert himself was born to a prisoner in a jail.
So Javert, who perceives shame in being so lowborn, gains all his personal validity from one thing: the state. Specifically the state in the form of its laws. Without their surity, he’s nothing. He’s extinguished.
Aside from inflexibile attachment to false beliefs, the problem with being Javert — a hauntingly contemporary problem — is that even if law were a good thing in theory, being a rigid law enforcer in an unjust society, is a terrible thing.
And today, as Jonathan Simon notes, our legal system is a system of Javerts even as we think we idolize Valjean. Simon wrote a book called Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear). He gets what you probably get but most people don’t — that crime (of which terrorism is the latest bugaboo, following switchblade knives, juvenile delinquency, drugs, serial killers, etc.) is the state’s route to power.
Unlike the honorable Javert, to “control crime” today’s law enforcers constantly commit crimes. Like Javert, they serve as functionaries to those who obliterate the greatest universal principles of justice in rigid, fanatical pursuit of unjust laws.
The more that modern-day Javerts and their masters subvert justice, the more dangerous they perceive We the Outlaws to be. Because we see as clearly as Jean Valjean did that law never defines justice. That in an unjust society like France’s in 1832 or ours now, defying or ignoring law is the true course of justice.
If they understood what was going on, they’d see that we don’t threaten them (no matter how often or forcefully they define us as criminals and “domestic terrorists”). We threaten their flawed and rigid worldview.
There’s nothing new in this observation, I know. It was just intriguing, and moving, to see it played out so plainly on the big screen.
And of course, while Javert eventually did the honorable thing (which I’m trying not to spoil too badly for anyone who hasn’t seen or read Les Miserables), the Javerts who govern us are more likely to take an opposite course.