The American Ruling Class

After the brief blog dust-up a few days ago at Agnes’s place, I decided to check out John Kirby’s The American Ruling Class (IMDB), a quirky little documentary -dramatic-musical hybrid written and narrated with panache by Lewis Lapham, the longtime editor of Harper’s Magazine. The film bills itself as addressing “our country’s most taboo topic” of class privilege, by asking whether the United States has a “ruling class.” It follows through on this premise by having two actors playing recent Ivy League grads set up interviews–arranged by Lapham–with members of that ruling class or people who have unique access to it or awareness of it, including James A. Baker, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Bradley, Walter Cronkite, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Altman.  Because Ruling Class has been marketed, in part, to an education market–the website lists it as appropriate for 10-12th graders–I’ve tried to think about it, at least in part, in terms of both that audience.

As Mark Lavercombe points out, there is a certain fascination in seeing folks like Baker happily embrace the idea of an “American ruling class,” especially when their platitudes are juxtaposed against scenes such as the interview with Ehrenreich, who describes the struggles of working-class Americans to get by. And the “Nickel and Dimed” musical number, which sparked the debate on Agnes’s blog, serves as a useful reminder of the essential arguments from her book: all jobs require certain skill sets, many workers and their families are just getting by, and many others are just one health care emergency from deep financial troubles.

Perhaps more than anything, the source of debate about the film has been over its status as a hybrid documentary.  I do think the hybrid format can work well pedagogically, as it did in Radiant City (my review), in which actors were used to comment on the negative effects of suburban sprawl.  The stilted acting matters less to me than how the hybrid format is used.  Part of this, I’ll admit, is a matter of taste.  The musical numbers in Radiant City were integrated into the story through a plot device in which one character is part of a community musical theater troupe.  Here, the actors just break into song occasionally, so I’ll grant that the musical numbers will work better for others than they did for me.

But my bigger issue with the hybrid format is that it seems to set up what I would regard as a false question.  Part of this has to do with the assumption that we never talk about class and power in the U.S.  In fact, as the ongoing debate about Obama’s “elitism” illustrates, class and status permeate political dialogue all the time, albeit in ways that are often contradictory or misguided.  The film features a character, Mike, who is agonizing over the direction he’d like to pursue after graduation, and he confronts the choice of following his heart and becoming a writer, possibly a screenwriter, or joining the ruling class through a connection on Wall Street,  and by establishing this opposition, the film seems to suggest that one’s status is largely a matter of choice, which is certainly not the case.  To be clear, the film is relatively direct about the fact that the comfort and leisure of the ruling class depends upon the exploitation of the poor and working-class, but it felt like there were some assumptions here about social class that were left unexplored.

Finally, I think the hybrid format led to what felt like an odd ahistorical quality.  As I was watching The American Ruling Class, I had a difficult time pinpointing exactly when it was made.  I could guess, in part, through the presence of Ehrenreich, Altman, and Vonnegut in the film, but I would have liked a little more historical grounding.  There were a number of prescient moments, including references to Bear Stearns and other hedge fund operators, and the film certainly seemed to anticipate problems such as the mortgage crisis, but the hybrid format seemed to tie things up a little too neatly.   While Baker and others talk about how other countries welcome the intervention of the U.S. in their affairs, I’m not sure that we get enough visible evidence of the consequences of our actions, especially overseas, which might explain the reaction to the film at the Melbourne Film Festival back in 2005.

Still, The American Ruling Class has moments of clear insight, especially in its treatment of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book.  I do think that we need to find better, more insightful ways of talking about social class and power, and in a classroom context, I do think that the film can spark some valuable conversations about these issues.


  1. Agnes Varnum Said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 11:12 am

    As usual Chuck, you are even-handed and insightful with your comments. I’m going to update my post with a link to your review. Thanks!

  2. Chuck Said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 11:45 am

    Thanks, Agnes! It’s certainly an interesting–if flawed–film. The basic premise that class is a “taboo” topic seems especially flawed to me. The bigger question, always, is how we talk about class, and while the film has moments, I’m not quite convinced that it provides us with the best language for talking about it.

  3. The Chutry Experiment » Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy Said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

    […] science topics (usually when reviewing a doc), I’m very interested in mockumentaries and hybrid docs and wanted to see what Olson would be doing with the form. But a strange thing happened as I was […]

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