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Matthew Holland: 'Les Miserables,' 'Lincoln' offer pictures of hope

Matthew Holland

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 11:00 a.m. MST

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables", the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe and still breaking box-office records everywhere in its 28th year.

Universal

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With the start of 2013, the air hangs with a grey weightiness and the temptation to be despondent about America and her trajectory is nearly irresistible.

Thankfully, it appears we are not careening off the feared "fiscal cliff." However, we were rescued from this catastrophe only after an ample deadline was missed and with half the equation — sweeping spending cuts — put off for another vote in two months. Furthermore, within the first quarter of 2013, other cliff-like votes loom.

On Dec. 31, the Treasury Secretary announced we have reached our debt ceiling. Our last attempt to deal with this issue triggered a historic downgrade of the country's credit rating. At the end of March, our "continuing resolution" on the budget (something less than a full, fiscal year budget that should have been agreed to by Oct. 1) expires. Unless another is passed, temporary shutdown of a number of government functions and programs automatically kicks in.

Behind all of this stands a projection of deficits almost beyond comprehension.

With what seems the ossifying of personal rancor and philosophical differences in our public decision-making processes, we begin to doubt seriously our ability to even start to bridge, let alone actually bridge, the now epic gap between what we collectively give ourselves and what we collectively pay for.

We debate, denigrate and dither, even as we look aghast at several European nations — including once mighty Greece, the first democracy and fabled cradle of Western Civilization — on the literal brink of collapse because of their own sustained, now even militant, resistance to bring expenditures and revenues into some rational proximity.

Throw in the everyday fare of crime and violence in this nation, add a flurry of recent man-made and natural disasters, from Sandy Hook Elementary to Hurricane Sandy, and the rock of our republic seems, well, not so rock-like.

A common thread to most of these woes is a deeply troubling hostility between parties and people.

In some ways, this civic enmity suggests a threat more alarming than any posed by, say, fiscal profligacy itself.

As his "last communication" at the end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington issued a "Circular to the States," where he signaled his virtually unprecedented act of relinquishing supreme military command in the face of a war victory that gave him immense international stature and unrivaled domestic power.

In this extraordinary document, he also thoughtfully described for the fledgling country what he considered the key pillars of continuing independence and tranquility. The wise management of public credit is one such pillar. But, his final and most moving sentiments were reserved for his conviction that without "a brotherly affection and love for one another … we can never hope to be a happy nation."

Latter-day Saints should recognize in this an echo of expressions at the end of the Book of Mormon where there is a description of not one, but two massive civilizations entirely destroyed by inhuman hatred and rapacious self-indulgence. "Angry," "without order," "without mercy," "without principle," Mormon describes the faults of his own people (not even his enemies) as fundamentally a function of the fact that "they have lost their love, one towards another." They were, in a phrase, "past feeling."

The wonderful news is that, today, America is — as Mark Twain once said of Wagner's music — better than it sounds. The screaming headlines and endless cable news pronouncements notwithstanding, deep in the fabric of this country there still exists a rich spirit of liberty and love central to the preservation of the democratic order handed down to us by Washington and his compatriots. Evidence for this abounds in many places — too many, in fact, to list here. So, I simply turn to one rather unlikely source: Hollywood.

Currently, two of the top-grossing films in the country are "Lincoln" and "Les Miserables," the latter based on what may be the most successful theatrical production of all time.

A drama and a musical set in different countries and decades, the differences here outweigh the similarities. But, what they do share in common is profound and, apparently, immensely popular.

Both movies depict people in inspiring fights against tyranny that differs mostly in form (that of the awful racial-slave system the American founders could not eradicate versus the infamous French cycle of deposing one dictator only to be controlled by another) rather than substance. Thus, the euphonic tune and stirring words of "Les Mis' " "Do You Hear the People Sing" seem as apt to summon American slaves and Unionists as French Revolutionaries — and, for that matter, freedom lovers everywhere — to put their lives on the line to secure conditions of liberty for themselves and their countrymen.

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see? …

Then join in the fight

That will give you the right to be free!

More than a tribute to a patriotic defense of national liberties, as noble as such might be, both movies ascend to something even more sublime. Perhaps the greatest thrust of each show is an homage to men and women who suffered great human cruelty — the gross injustices of a heartless judicial system (Jean Valjean), the constant bombardment of self-righteous recriminations by friends, family and enemies alike (Lincoln), and the dagger-like wounds of unrequited love (Eponine) — yet still stepped forward in near miraculous fashion "with malice toward none" and actively blessed those that cursed them.

In doing so, these two movies take us somewhere truly transcendent. And, in response, we, as a nation, fill the theaters and cry and clap and come back for second showings.

As long as this is the case, as long as the chords of liberty and charity are intertwined with each other and strike the chambers of enough of our hearts with resonance and power, there remains a bright hope for this great country of ours, whatever our shortcomings and differences might be.

Matthew Holland is the president of Utah Valley University and a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.

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