Guest Contributor Sophia Justice Warren: The Intersectional Oppressiveness of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
If you’re intersectional and woke, you’ll let intersectionality impregnate your mind and purpose like a Facehugger from “Alien,” and then burst forth from your chest in renewed form, ready to tear down all the oppression of humanity in the interest of building a better world in the here and now. That’s how this stuff works.
By Sophia Justice Warren
The creator, manager, and main contributor of this blog, Luke Phillips, has been kind enough to let me share my thoughts here, in his respect for all points of view. He might disagree with someone’s ideas, and even view them as dangerous, but he’d never be so callous as to block them from speaking on a public forum. (This, by the way, is a private forum, so he’s extremely magnanimous for letting me write here.)
So first off, my thanks to him- he’s the best.
(Even though he’s one regressive son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t consider himself a feminist or an ally. So screw him. But thanks anyway Luke!)
If you haven’t already, go ahead and follow this link to a looped version of “Do You Hear the People Sing” and its reprise, from the 2012 Hollywood version of Les Miserables. Listen to that deceptively melodious and intersectionally odious piece of musical literature, which frankly ought to be banned by international law and scrubbed from the internet, while you read my takedown of its oppressive lyrics. Maybe someday you can be as woke as I am.
So “Do You hear the People Sing”- it’s a really nice-sounding song, I concede, and upon first listen it almost sounds revolutionary, as though its writers cared about human rights and personal expression. The French Left has evidently considered lobbying to make the French-language version into the French national anthem several times, without realizing what a reactionary backward step that’d be.
But just look at its intellectual history and environment, which no piece of work should ever be separated from. I’m sure conservative classicists have their own definition of what such an analysis would include, but I mean one thing and one thing only- look at the intersectional positions of the people whose minds birthed this song.
Victor Hugo, that bastard, was a French republican nationalist and was once a Catholic. (Read: white, rich, male, justifies his privilege by belief in a “God” who also happens to be white, rich, and male. Freudian narcissism much?)
Now look at the songwriters and producers of the 1980 French musical version of Les Mis, and, I suppose, their British and American counterparts who translated the songs, including “Do You Hear the People Sing,” into the even-more oppressive and imperialistic English language. A cursory Google Images search reveals them all to be white men. Notice a pattern here?
Anyways, the fact that Les Mis was literally created by a bunch of white guys, living and dead, is not nearly the biggest problem with it. For that, you can just go to the lyrics. Every lyric is a rubbishy piece of trash, frankly, but I’ll just highlight the worst transgressions of human rights.
First- The lyrics are totally masculo-normative and hetero-normative:
“Do you hear the people sing?
OK, “people” is gender-neutral etc., with some problems but not crippling ones. So off to a good start-
“Singing the song of angry men…”
Stop. Right. There.
Men? MEN? As though men- and they’re talking about straight white French men, by the way- have any reason to be angry.
Straight white French men don’t have their very humanity questioned in the canons of Western literature.
Straight white French men don’t have to worry about making less money than their labor and services are worth.
Straight white French men aren’t stigmatized because of who they love or how they use their sexuality.
Straight white French men have the world on their side- so don’t give me this shit about them being “angry,” either in 1832, 1980, 2012, or freaking 2017.
Or better yet, I don’t give a shit about them being “angry.” And the songwriters should’ve been woke enough, at the very least, to bring the actual concerns of the actually oppressed- women, people of color, gender minorities- into the song. That they don’t, means they don’t think those concerns are important.
Second- the experiences of actually oppressed people of color are trivialized:
“It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again…”
Right. As though the white French peasantry and middle class of the mid-19th Century was anywhere near as oppressed as the victims of British and American slavery, people of color all, or anywhere near as oppressed as the equally-literally-enslaved people of color in South Asia, Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and other regions victimized for their racial makeup by the white supremacist depredations of American, German, British, Spanish, Portuguese, and, yes, French colonialism!
This is wrong. “Slave” is a term that ought not be used lightly- terms that describe the literal appropriation and ownership- ownership!- of the bodies of people of color should never, ever, EVER be used to describe the “plight” of privileged white people who think their leaders aren’t letting them into city hall enough and who’re concerned they get 21, not 22, square meals a week.
When the term “slave” is applied to decidedly non-enslaved European whites, it removes that term of any meaning and trivializes- dehumanizes, even- the experiences and needs and rights of those who are actually enslaved. Rubbish.
Third- the song’s a shill for stupid fucking Christian understandings of human nature, theology, and morality- which marginalizes other religions and especially marginalizes those who believe faith is not important for moral living (and who rightly believe that faith can in fact be an instrument of oppression-)
First, a few personal points. I hate few things more than I hate Christianity, in all its hypocrisy, its delusional and irreconcilably contradictory demands for righteousness and humility, its anti-humanist emphases on suffering and sacrifice, its otherworldly mysticism, as though there can be a Heaven anywhere but what we make on Earth. I also hate the oppression it forebodes for sexual and gender minorities and generally anyone, even not a sexual or gender minority, who views sexuality and sexual expression as integral to human identity and central to human freedom. Pre-Christian Roman Europe was oppressive for many reasons; but the advent of Christianity brought an oppression of the soul which Roman patriarchy and pagan bloodthirstiness cannot begin to approach.
One more thing, before approaching the topic at hand. There are those- Luke Phillips included- who argue that Western modern liberalism, and its child, postmodernism, from which much of my woke-ness springs- is in some ways a mere “devolution” of Protestant Christianity, with all the emphasis on equality and individuality and communitarianism and none of the “moral realism” or emphasis on divinity or demand for the formation of character.
There might be an ounce of truth in the postmoderns-as-devolved-Christians argument, but it is mostly wrong, wrong, wrong. If anything, intersectionalists are much more advanced versions of the Rousseauian and Robespierran prophets who shook the Christian chains off of human freedom and started us along the great path of social enlightenment, whose clear pinnacle and conclusion is exactly what I believe and practice and preach.
But that is an argument for another time.
Meanwhile, let’s look at the Christianity within “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
“Will you join in our crusade?”
An appeal to “heaven” for the rectitude of their oppressive actions. Sure is insensitive and incensing to use the term for the Medieval Catholic Church’s attempted genocide of Muslims, though, as though it were something noble.
“They will live again in Freedom in the Garden of the Lord…”
More bullshit about the immortality rewarded if only you follow the big invisible man in the sky’s nonsensical and oppressive “commandments.”
“They will walk behind the ploughshare; they will put away the sword…”
A clear reference to the supposed “pacifism” of Christian living. (Look at Christianity from its very beginnings to see how fake that is.) I’m not sure which Bible verse it comes from- probably Fallopians 69 or something.
Fourth- the song is overtly and overly nationalistic and militaristic, promoting the sort of jingoism that has been the sole cause of war after war after unjust war-
“Will you give all you can give so that the banner may advance;
Some will fall and some will live, will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France…”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of revolution, including revolutionary violence, if such is necessary to bring down patriarchy, racism, and institutional oppression.
But the characters of Les Mis aren’t just talking about fighting the supposed “injustices” raining down on them. A brief look at history reveals them to be French nationalists, republican nationalists but nationalists nonetheless, whose vision of patriotism is not substantively different from Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” ethos.
Nationalism is a very dangerous thing.
Patriotism is also a very dangerous thing.
Justifying “sacrifice” and “martyrdom” in the name of a state and nation is tantamount to racism and jingoism, and should never be lauded. It assumes that there are nations and countries rather than one common humanity, and that individuals ought to profess loyalty first to those entities closest to them. The great Marxist thinkers highlighted the fallacy of this analysis, and the failure of Communism- that bastardization of TRUE socialism!- was not due to any intellectual or economic contradictions within the Marxist tradition, but rather because those who sought global revolution before national revolution were marginalized in the Communist Party of the early 20th Century. Humanity is the political unit- states and nations are the unjust and illegitimate domains of capitalists and aristocrats. “The people” means the people of all humanity.
So when the characters of Les Mis sing of shaking off the “chains of oppression” they are supposedly bound by, they do it with the same legitimacy that Donald Trump voters do it- a love for their “home” corresponding to a blind disregard and hatred of those outside their “home.”
Want to know how and why the First and Second World Wars started?
I hope it’s clear, then, that “Do You Hear the People Sing” is not the revolutionary universalistic anthem so many poor unfortunate souls believe it to be. It is, rather, something like the Jacksonian Revolution of 1830s America- it superficially advances towards things that aren’t entirely wrong, but it neither seeks to overthrow the corrupt and oppressive institutions of the past, nor to expand true equality of rights to all the marginalized of a particular society or, indeed, of the planet.
In that sense, “Do You Hear the People Sing” is literally no different from Disraelite Toryism, Rooseveltian Progressivism, New Deal Democracy, or Rockefeller Republicanism- an inherently nationalistic, conservative, quasi-reactionary ethos meant to reform society just enough to quell the just uprisings, so that true revolutionary change is strangled in its cradle. The primary goal is the preservation of fundamentally unjust institutions, to preserve the privilege of those who inhabit them. The primary goal is not universal human justice, is not the alignment of humanity and human society and human institutions with the ultimate moral ideal of intersectional equality, and is not human progress in any real form (though conservative “Reformers” like Luke Phillips will undoubtedly argue that they are trying to advance society at as quick a pace as it can be advanced along while preserving “what is best of it.”) Benjamin Disraeli and Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller, all cast themselves as “reformers,” as does Luke Phillips today. The thing is, “reformers” all try to preserve the structural violence of the modern patriarchal west for its own sake. That is unacceptable.
A total fucking bastard named Barry Goldwater, despite being wrong about literally everything else, was right about one thing and one thing only:
“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Once you’ve found the truth, the only way is all the way- defend it, advance it, preserve it, eliminate all opposition to it, that it may flourish and reorder the world in accord with your inmost conscience’s prejudices.
And that is what we, the disciples and practitioners of intersectionality, are called to do.
I hope you’ve realized, reader, who the enemy is, and what you must do.