THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

                Some are born in it; some see it and want to get in; others refuse even to acknowledge that it exists.  It is “The American Ruling Class,” and it is addressed head on in this film by Lewis Lapham editor of Harpers Magazine.  Lapham uses the plot device of two recent Yale graduates who are mulling their first life choices.  He introduces them to “The magic of money and the miracles of scene,” and he does it with sophistication and restraint.  He leads them to the players and then stands back to listen. 

                Lapham’s script is provocative but the power players, the students, even Lapham himself, are so obviously out of their element that the whole thing is merely awkward.  In many cases, you can sense the cue cards just off screen.  Still, it provokes.

Ever since George Washington refused to be King, Americans have worshipped at the shrine of mobility.  Any one can make it here, we believe, with a good brain and a strong work ethic.  It does help if you’re at the end of the funnel in a family dynasty (The Sulzbergers of the New York Times).

The power players welcome Lapham and his students and give willingly of their stilted advice.  “Make humanity proud of you” (Kurt Vonnegut).  “The rich who command industry and commerce…they control democracy.” (Walter Cronkite).   

Lapham defines the rules:  don’t take an interest in anyone who can’t do you any favors; choose between the virtuous life and making money;  He quotes a German poet on the “dull compulsion of the economic.”  In an embarrassing meeting with James Baker, Baker remarks, with a perfectly straight face, that we do not intervene overseas for the cause of human rights because though our principles and values are involved, our national interest is not (no oil), so people won’t back you for long.  He adds that in Texas a man’s worth is measured by the number of lives he can control and destroy.”  Young Mike learns that if you’re not in, you’re out.  No wonder we don’t talk about class.

Lapham encourages Mike and Jeff to ask, “Do I want to be a player?”  Lapham, smooth and perceptive, never criticizes but gives the advice that as long as you get into the struggle, you can do it from inside or outside the ruling class, that by doing well you are also doing good.”  Whichever choice they make, Lapham is gently telling them to be involved, be engaged, and to do no harm.  One thing they will likely not do from whatever perch of power they choose is to deny the existence of “The American Ruling Class.”  These young men may continue to worship American mobility, but they will remember too that they had a strong hand up.  We suspect, with a certain gratitude, that Lapham hopes they will step into the world of ideas.

…….

This film was shown in early November at The Two River Film Festival.

 


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