The American Ruling Class (2005)

Posted: November 18, 2009 in Joe Giambrone
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The American Ruling Class

DVD: The American Ruling Class

Free Online (temporarily)

Film’s Website

This film describes itself as follows:

“In this first of its kind dramatic-documentary-musical,” essayist Lewis Lapham and an all-star cast (including Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Altman, James Baker and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.) take two young Ivy-League graduates on a tour of the corridors of power. This “astonishing”, “coruscating” satire poses the question: Is it better to rule the world, or to save it?”

I like this film for its boldness, tackling one of the most ignored open secrets in America. There are numerous cameos from people across the spectrum: Howard Zinn, Kurt Vonnegut and Pete Seeger to some of the darker Lords of the Sith. Each thinker is given screen time to get in his/her own take on America’s ruling class, what it means to them, and to weigh in on the moral implications.

I did not appreciate the musical interludes, and I thought it could drop this aspect and still remain a good exploration of the subversion of our democracy.

Later, I was prompted to respond to one of the comments on Snag Films, where the film is hosted online now.

Viewer Steven Vryce said:

After clearly presenting the case that there is indeed a ruling class, the film answers the original question. Their answer is a resounding: rule the world. This kind of thinking is precisely the reason we are in our present environmental dilemma. We have borne witness to environmental denigration since the Industrial revolution yet industry has continually been allowed to dump toxins in the name of progress.

I do believe that Mr. Vryce has missed the intended irony of the piece. It is true that the one character who had rejected the opporutunities to join the “ruling class” throughout the film does change his mind at the last scene, where he goes to Goldman Sachs to work, thereby selling out. However, the look on his face as he does so tells a different story. This is not an instruction manual to become a Master of the Universe, but an example of how the young and well meaning are usually co-opted and join the very destructive system they know is immoral and the source of most of the world’s problems. The co-option is arguably the main barrier to change as it defangs those who know the most about the system and have the greatest chance of actually reforming it.

Mr. Vryce continues:

The film sends the clear message that we should simply become complacent social automatons and give in to the corruption of the upper echelon.”

I would argue that the average gangsta rap music video does so, but not this film. In fact I cannot think of a more honest exploration of the American Ruling Class and its overarching philosophies with more well thought out arguments and counterarguments than this film. Many, many points of view are given voice — people seldom heard from, particularly on this topic.

It may be easy to confuse the plot points with the intended meaning in a satire. Often the meaning is the opposite. This makes satire a little dangerous.

The film Bob Roberts, for example had a great music soundtrack. The songs were ironic,twisted folk songs, as done by a right wing fascist (Roberts), although they sounded much like Bob Dylan and other music usually created by the common people.

Tim Robbins, who played Roberts, refused to release the music soundtrack. He feared, maybe rightfully so, that the satirical songs would be used by real right wing lunatics to spread hatred and a vile anti-democratic agenda. The satire could easily be lost if the songs were played out of context.

I strongly object to the direct quote from the film; What must never change is the belief that doing well is also doing good.

But, who said it?

This is indeed a quote “from the film,” but also from the mouth of Lewis Lapham, whose on-screen persona the entire film was to prompt the two graduates to join the ruling class. He is consistent throughout, and he never wavers.

The quote, “What must never change is the belief that doing well is also doing good,” is a self-justification used by the ruling class to ease their own consciences and to separate their personal successes from the systemic poverty of the great many. It is this self-justification — a bald lie — that is the theme of the film. Slyly calling it a “belief,” Lapham signals that we should look more carefully at this rationale. Who believes it? Is it a true belief?

Half a dozen other people dispute this rationale throughout the film. Lapham is being a devil’s advocate for the purpose of dramatizing the co-option of the “best and the brightest.”

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