E Pluribus Unum

Paper by Lara Santos.

Entities that are self-serving must be dismantled, or at the very least, challenged. When corporations, governing bodies, or social groups look to solely fulfill selfish needs without showing empathy or concern for others, they exist as antagonists to the rest of society. Whistleblowers in real life and characters in films alike can be turned to as models for standing up for justice in society. This paper will discuss the logic of a whistleblower’s [individual protagonist] separation and opposition to entities like the above through utilizing the films Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939), The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2007), and through the show Mr. Robot (Sam Esmail, 2015) to expound. These pictures all hold protagonists who play characters ill-fitting with the conforms that their governing or company body have assigned. In these films and this show, one can see how the protagonist acts to showcase the inhumanity and inefficiency of selfish entities as they take action against them; where these actions are so inflammatory to the system’s operations that it generates a change. Both on screen and in the real world, it is important for people to stand up to self-serving entities, as these entities create an environment where more people suffer than can succeed.

To begin, capitalism is a system that functions through benefiting from those that are disadvantaged. One can see it in action in America, where there is an enormous wage gap between the greater 2% and the 98%. For one, chain restaurants, major companies, and big retail stores see their gain through paying their employees as close to minimum wage as they possibly can. One can see how effort put out by workers is taken advantage of, as the owners of these institutions rake in profit from little payout and maximum labor, to satiate their self-serving greed. To further illustrate the term ‘self-serving’, one can consider a main scene in the whole of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The corrupt politician, Jim Taylor, wants to have only a senator who will follow his command in office, tries to dismantle seemingly positive legislation to fulfill his own motives, and works to delegitimize protagonist Smith and all his goals through controlling the newspapers. Smith faces this corruption directly because he is passionate about making politics and government honest—where government would be used to serve the majority of the population rather than political bosses. Smith’s challenge is exemplified in his famous filibuster scene where he says, “…this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here—you just have to see them again.” This shot in this scene is impactful for making viewers feel the call to action that the fellow members of Congress in the room do. Mere seconds before these words are uttered, the camera keeps Smith centered, but always with politicians on either side of him, whether the shot was a 2-shot or a wide-shot. However, when he says these words that’re meant to be geared towards other senators, the camera makes it so that there is nothing in the frame besides Smith and his impassioned, sweating, and exhausted body. Further, there is focus maintained as there is no additional sound or music or dramatic lighting to dramatize his words for anything but their pure meaning. A scene having a protagonist at his breaking point forces the viewer to consider what he is fighting for, and that is: an honest government rather than one that is maintained by manipulative and self-interested individuals.

What more, something that is interesting to note regarding this film is the very thing that spurred Smith’s need to confront the corruption with the government—his push for boys’ camps—and how it was not something the real-life boys’ clubs (Boy Scouts) supported. In Charles Wolfe’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Democratic Forums and Representational Forms, it is stated that the Boy Scouts of America said no to letting the film use their name because of its depiction of the Senate. In doing this, they did not accept a challenge posed to a government for a check on its maintenance of power. In disallowing use, the action they took reinforced only one idea: that the government is always constructive and never corrupt, rather than saying it can benefit from a degree of scrutiny.

In contrast to reinforcing dominant powers, an example of a real-life situation that confronts depictions of government, but welcomes critique, is Edward Snowden. Unlike the Boy Scouts, Snowden did precisely the opposite and exposed the government so as to give the public information that would challenge their previous dispositions about it. When Snowden leaked information regarding the National Security Agency’s collection of data on the American people, many were angered by it. Michael Scherer and Simon Shuster wrote about the sentiments of citizens in the article Number Two Edward Snowden the Dark Prophet and said, “Just 35% of Americans ages 18 to 30 say Snowden should be charged with a crime, compared with 57% of those 30 and older, according to a November poll by the Washington Post and ABC News.” The younger generation of millennials were less focused on the damage he had done in revealing government secrets and more focused and unforgiving with how the entity had enough power to collect and use the data from their personal lives. While it is still argued whether Snowden is a whistleblower or a traitor, it is undeniable that he and his personal beliefs did not fit in with the standard and conforms that his government assigned for him. Nicolas Rapold described in Alan Clarke that “conformist neighbors provide an additional note of societal surveillance…” (10) It can be said that Snowden wanted to destroy this very conformity of people accepting society for what it’s worth. He wanted to instead give them the opportunity to think critically about how they live, where the acknowledge how their life habits and choices are analyzed. He believed that the NSA using technology to store information on its citizens was inhumane in that it was a violation of privacy; so, he acted to stand up and provide transparency against an institution that has more power than average citizens might have realized.

Snowden showed more empathy towards the American people than he did to his job in a government role. Like Snowden, the character Wiesler in The Lives of Others showed more empathy for those he was surveilling than he did for his job. In Matthew Bernstein’s review of the film in The Lives of Others: Matthew H. Bernstein on an Emotive Surveillance Thriller Set in Communist East Germany, Bernstein expounds on how the government is not interested in its people or wellbeing, but more in themselves saying that the Stasis [state security officials] believed, “human beings can be neatly categorized and managed, in the manner of Pavlov, to ensure the state’s dominance.” (30) Throughout the film, there is the use of the color red in its overall bland and saturation-lacking color palette to emphasize positives: passion, life, and love. The maintained color palette opposing red lends itself to a political meaning: when a government is overbearing and centered on power, existence is lacking in importance and is colorless, but when constituents are able to act on and engage their goals in life, aspirations, and personal beliefs, there is vibrancy. Wiesler as an individual plays a role against the nation as he counters the enemy-of-state versus artist mindset by transforming into a man who no longer wants to categorize and be ignorant towards creativity, as others in the government do. He embraces humanity through art, emotion, and genuine empathy instead. In general, this film connects so thoroughly to the thesis of this paper when one considers the whole story: as Wiesler’s connection saves the constituent and writer Dreyman, Dreyman in turn uses his art of telling stories to expose the selfishness of the government, which leads to a shift and collapse of an old form of rule for a more open form. While fictional, one can learn from the film that expressing humanity and concern for others rather than exerting power and control without empathy leads to a freer and happier society.

Turning away from the fiction and taking on reality once again, one can note how empathy needs to be embedded into society, especially for those who call shots, in analyzing the American Food and Drug Administration. The FDA wields great power because of how much it regulates. From drugs to food to water to even appliances, this facet in the government has a great say over what goes up for and what goes away from consumer purchase. A department that has great decision-making responsibilities must be held accountable and must be placed under public scrutiny, especially when their decisions affect nearly every area of American life. While there are criteria that needs to be met, it is not like the FDA is impermeable to corruption. In How Congress May Have Failed Consumers with the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007, Cameron Rhudy uses examples to explain shady activity within the department. Rhudy writes that, “According to Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), “[t]he pharmaceutical industry has supplanted the American people as the FDA’s primary client and number one concern.” (130)”. She expounds in saying that the pharmaceutical industry paid “fees” to the FDA, where there was a financial link between the two bodies. One can infer that this connection was made to be mutually beneficial for each entity. This form of selfish politics made it possible for American people to have easier access to drugs that might have more serious side effects or do more long-term damage. Continuing in this thread of political and medical selfishness, there is the individual level to be considered as well. Martin Shkreli became well-known for making the prices of a lifesaving drug skyrocket so that he could profit. Both big and small groups have the capacity to be self-serving rather than compassionate towards those that depend on them for their services. To allow someone to ingest something that could have worse effects in the future without them knowing because of trust, to allow people to die because of a lack of access to treatment, and other nefarious acts of the like is unacceptable. People need to be made aware of how powerful entities make decisions so that they can make it known that their wellbeing is more important than revenue.

Finally, the show Mr. Robot encapsulates how the entanglement of big companies driven by money affect people too. The show confronts the wrongs of society in deconstructing how capitalism allows dominant groups to call the shots for a nation, and usually for the worse, as those who are at a disadvantage are preyed upon. The main character Elliot Alderson hacks the financial corporation E Corp to erase debt; the political meaning is embedded in this narrative alone. Because E Corp is so powerful and citizens need it, the corporation is able to get away with abusing the livelihoods and peace of mind of these people as they always have debt to shackle them. Those with student loans, medical bills, and other overwhelming dues are constrained by their struggle to pay it all off and cannot fully move forward with their lives. This is an allusion to how a society cannot function when big corporations use their power to profit from people instead of help them. Throughout the show, regardless of season, unconventional framing is made use of; this framing further emphasizes the narrative of unfairness in this manipulative capitalistic system. Several episodes in the first season show the characters with little nose room, show them with great headspace, and show them looking minuscule. While they are empowered because of their efforts to undo a huge and predatory system, these characters are made to look smaller and powerless, through use of a camera, as they confront the challenges placed in front of them by those in power who want to maintain that power rather than be displaced. From this, it can be said that even those with great tools, brains, and self-efficacy can be made small by the select few that are in power. While anarchy may not be the most efficient or ethical way to make a change, the show elaborates on the very point of this paper: that conglomerates that do not care about people more than themselves can not and should not be upheld.

In summary, it is imperative to fight unjust systems since putting checks on those in a position of power allows for an environment of balance. This is especially relevant today, considering the news-dominating topic of gun violence and school shootings, where citizens across the nation are speaking up and facing the National Rifle Association unit. In having activists speak up, the issue of the NRA [unofficially] trading money for government officials’ support arises. Being an active agent in seeking justice for the majority population rather than a self-serving group matters, especially when many people face oppression and sometimes only come to realize it when there are protests against the very system they have been blind to. This paper was not meant to bash capitalism, to erode power from those who earn it and have support, or to try to say that chaos is the best route. Rather, it was meant to illustrate the fact that power is very corruptible, and that this needs to be regularly checked so that all people can be treated with equality and respect instead of being seen as a means or a tool to be made use of and discarded when they face hardship and need help. Both films and real life serve as ways people can learn about society. Namely, through the pictures discussed in this paper, the viewer learns an even larger political message through the main character: that it is in their [audience’s] duty to upset the corruption they see unless they want to be part of the group that the protagonist combats on screen.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Matthew. “The Lives of Others: Matthew H. Bernstein on an Emotive Surveillance Thriller Set in Communist East Germany.” Film Quarterly vol. 61. no. 1. (2007).

Rapold, Nicolas. “Alan Clarke.” Senses of Cinema, no. 67 (July 2013).

Rhudy, Cameron. “How Congress may have failed consumers with the Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007.” Biotechnology Law Report vol. 27, no. 22. (April 2008). p. 99+. Global Issues In Context. Web. 8 April 2018.

Scherer, Michael and Simon Shuster. “Number Two Edward Snowden the Dark Prophet.” Time vol. 182, no. 26. (23 Dec. 2013). EBSCOhost. Web. 4 April 2018.

Wolfe, Charles. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Democratic Forums and Representational Forms.” Temple University Press. (1998).


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