With no prior exposure to Les Miserables (except some of the songs as produced by my grandmother’s music box collection), I am free to think about its plot like I didn’t know it before. Because I didn’t. And in thinking about what happens in that tale, I am forced to confront the fury I felt as soon as it was clear the little boy was in with the rebels. I imagined what did happen to him, would. Because he’s a little kid. Because he’s surrounded by people old enough to have ideas but young enough not to think them through. They were always going to get them killed, and then they went and did so. Congratufuckinglations, O Brave Revolutionaries.
Does this make me a curmudgeon? I worried about this even as the film played out before me. I am a fiercely liberal person. But this flimsy hopeless pile of chairs—was this what was to bring “freedom” to people? Really? And when people my age speak of the 2006 riots in Paris, or any number of violent clashes with security forces outside of this or that summit, I boil over in frustration. This pointless violence, this idiocy, can get innocent people killed. And often does.
So I tried to puzzle out where this conviction came from. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Malafrena, for one, though I need to reread it because I do not recall if there were any innocent parties there. (Ugh, what a cynical thing to say—what I mean is, I do not recall if there were any non-adults there.) And then there was my years-long and grossly uninformed obsession with the Irish struggle, which began with the strictly fantastical words of Morgan Llywellyn (Bard, Druids…which itself was banned from my high school for portraying sex magic, ha!), carried on through Llewellyn’s own historical novels addressing various failed revolts (1916, 1921), and ended rather abruptly with the IRA-sympathizing Terrible Beauty, written by Peter King, who rather startingly was also a congressman.
Actually, I can point to the precise moment where my fascination with the Irish struggle died. It was a week before 9/11, and my history class (led by a woman with whom I’d have many clashes, not the least of which was her deciding to use me as an example of “the kind of people Hitler would have liked,” because of my hair and eye color. “I have GREEN eyes,” I snapped at her, in a time when I would have died before I snapped at anyone in public, let alone a teacher) was dividing its time between discussing the Taliban and the renewed hostilities in Belfast. She showed us a clip (recorded on a VHS on her home television!) of tartan-skirted schoolchildren of one religion trying to walk through an area of the other religion (I cannot remember who was Catholic and who was Protestant), being pelted by stones and escorted by their parents who, rather than sheltering them from the blows, were hurling frothy-mouthed threats and insults at the other parents and kids throwing the rocks. “You think this about religion?” our teacher asked, as little girls down their peter pan collars on screen. “They say it’s about religion, but it’s about land, and always has been. That’s all this has ever been about.”
Hardly an enlightening viewpoint, I know. Anyone should have been able to tell you that. But, before she said that, I couldn’t have done so. Because when I thought of the Irish struggle—I prided myself on my pronunciation of the names of terrorist groups, for godsake!—of the Fianna and Sinn Fein, of people who BLEW UP BUILDINGS WITH LITTLE KIDS IN THEM, what did I think of? Bards and harps and fairy tales promising glory to poor people in hovels if only they did x y and z first. Druids and Riverdance and good beer (as if I drank a drop before college!) and hornpipes and reels danced in the lowest reaches of steamer ships. And do you know why I thought of these things? I was a silly child who filled her head with the zealousness and magic of others, and I didn’t know enough to question it.
And maybe that’s why I wanted to grab the dashing revolutionaries in Les Miserables by their lapels and slam their heads into the wall. “You see that little boy?” I’d bellow at them. “He hasn’t had the chance you had to grow tall and go to school and be told things and DECIDE if he believes them or not. He hasn’t had that chance because HE’S A LITTLE BOY. And he worships you because HE HAS NO ONE ELSE. And he believes in your cause more than you do because that’s what children do, they believe. And YOU ARE GOING TO GET HIM KILLED.”
I felt the same watching American History X, or watching protest rallies where people make politically inflammatory shirts and put them on their six-year-olds waving flags. You can’t rob little kids of the chance to decide, with enough background and context for it to be an educated decision, whether they believe all this shit or not. You can’t deny them that. They get to grow up first. They do, or you’re a terrible manipulative person for not letting them. No matter how good you look in a frock coat, stuck full of bayonets under a dirty flag. If you’re messing with kids you’re as monstrous as the powers your glorious revolution is fighting against.