The ghost of Jean Valjean spoke to me tonight about the recent SCOTUS decision regarding the Affordable Care Act. Though I must confess that the encounter didn’t take place between the pages of Hugo’s masterpiece.
I was (ahem) watching Family Guy.
But despite the less-than-lofty setting, Jean Valjean did make an appearance, of sorts.
The episode I reference here is entitled “Thanksgiving.” In it, one of the character’s children (Joe Swanson’s son, Kevin) shocks his parents and a house full of guests by showing up for Thanksgiving dinner – a nifty trick for someone who was killed in Iraq five years earlier.
Kevin’s initial story was that he was, in fact, in a coma for the past five years and the Army had mistakenly reported his death. But later in the episode, we learn the that Kevin actually deserted his post and has been AWOL ever since. This was a considerably awkward admission for Kevin’s father, the uber-macho, ultra-idealistic police officer, who promptly puts the handcuffs on his son, ready to return him to the military to answer for his crime.
But before the father can take his son to the authorities, Kevin explains why he walked away from the war. It was because of something his father said, and did, many years earlier.
Kevin tells the story about an incident he witnessed while accompanying his father on the job. In the flashback, we learn that the gruff “by-the-book” father had once allowed a shoplifter to go free. The shoplifter had stolen a can of soup to feed his children. He was a thief. He was doing the wrong thing. But for the right reasons. The father recognized this and let the man go.
Watching the story unfold, it dawned on me that Kevin was simply a pastiche of Jean Valjean. But he wasn’t really talking about the war. At least, not to me.
While Kevin spoke, I heard Jean Valjean speak about the ACA and the mandate/tax. He spoke about how the act violates the spirit (and, perhaps, even the letter) of Constitutional law. And he admitted that the act was, most likely, theft.
In that admission, I realized that Jean Valjean may not be so different from the impoverished mother who votes to take from others so that her children will have greater access to medical care. Yes, she is a thief, just as if she stole a loaf of bread or a can of soup. But are we ready to place her in irons for it (or take back her ill-gotten gains)?