STATEMENT FROM LEWIS LAPHAM
Subsequent to the events of September 11th, 2001, I don’t know of any topic as relevant to the predicament in which the country now finds itself than the composition of the American leadership class. The headlines every morning speak to the rising surge of violence in the world, much of the anger directed at the United States, and on what ethical ground do we defend our American freedom and prosperity? Nobody disputes the fact of our military predominance, but with what moral and intellectual force do we confront the hostility of people who don’t see much of a difference between the prospect of death by starvation, gunfire, or disease?
The questions bear on the character of the American elites, and the film examines the ways in which we establish those elites. What do we expect our leaders to know? What values do we require them to hold? Of whom does the American leadership class consist; where does it find its philosophy, and how does it differ from its Asian and European counterparts? Define the American directorate as the few hundred thousand people who manage the government, coin the money, write the laws, administer the schools, own and operate the news media, and how do we know them when we see them? From whence do they come, and to whom or to what do they owe their positions of authority?
The documentary proceeds from the premise that no society can exist without some form of social hierarchy. The Roman Empire rested on a class system; so did medieval France and Victorian England. So does the United States—in 2005 as in 1805 and 1905. But being American, and therefore sworn at birth to the doctrine of egalitarianism, we don’t like to concede the existence of our own class system. We meet it every day in the street, but we pretend it isn’t there. The word, class, comes armed with so much ambivalence and so many contradictions that its meaning shifts with the social setting and the tone of voice, with the height of the ceiling, the names of the other people on the guest list, the view (or lack thereof) of the mountains or the sea. Our political rhetoric dwells on what must be done for the democratic many; the vocabulary of our commercial advertising dwells on what can be made available to the privileged few. Once having proclaimed our loyalty to the idea that all men are created equal, we do everything possible to prove ourselves unequal.
Absent a landed aristocracy that bestows entitlements at birth, a nominally democratic society must assemble its ruling elites from whatever egalitarian materials come most meritocratically to hand. Being an inventive and productive people, we manufacture our leaders in the same way that we build expensive automobiles and exclusive resort hotels. The documentary. We could as easily have made an industrial film about the composition of computer circuits.
During the years since the declaration of our war on terrorism, a good many people not only in the United States but everywhere else in the world have raised questions about the character and motives of the American Colossus. Do we hope to retain the republic that Benjamin Franklin knew would be hard to keep, or do we wish to invest ourselves with the mantle of an empire? How high a price do we set on the head of freedom? If we delete another few paragraphs from the Bill of Rights, what do we ask of the government in return for our silence in court? If we define our American democracy as a res publica, of what does the res publica consist?
Given the magnitude of the American presence in the world, the questions seem to me timely; they’re likely to shape the course of events, both at home and abroad, during the first quarter of the new century, and from whom else do we expect answers if not from the American leadership class?