Kill the "47 Percent": The New Movie "The Purge" is a Republican Party Fantasy Come True
Members of which political party have recently made the following suggestions?
The poor in America have it too easy because they have refrigerators and televisions. Poor black and brown children should be given mops and brooms and put in veritable work houses like Dickensian street urchins. Food stamps should be cut because the Bible tells usthat, “for even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
America is a country of “takers” and “makers” where “productive” citizens, the “53 percent”, are being exploited by the "47 percent" of the public who are social and economic parasites.
Electric fences should be used to kill “illegal” immigrants.
Discussions of wealth and income inequality are “un-American” because they encourage “class warfare”against the rich.
Liberals, the poor, people of color, “illegal” immigrants, and any arbitrarily decided “Other” are not “real” Americans. As such they should be marginalized in—if not wholly eliminated from—American society.
They cheer death at their national meetings.
If you guessed that prominent members of the Republican Party have said (and done) such things then you would be correct.
The new movie The Purge takes this Right-wing fantasy one step further and depicts an America where for one night each year it is legal to kill anyone with impunity.
In all, The Purge is both a nightmare and a dream pulled straight out of the political imagination of theTea Party GOP and the Right-wing political entertainment complex. The Purge is far from a perfect movie; nevertheless, it is a crystal clear depiction of the politics of cruelty and Austerity that are the beating heart of Ayn Rand conservatism in the Age of Obama.
As depicted in The Purge, a night of cathartic violence has invigorated and reinvented a failing country. This evening has also somehow magically solved the budget deficit and raised America’s levels of self-esteem and patriotism--the country is even led by a single party called"The New Founders of America." Ultimately, and through processes mentioned but not fully explained in the movie, The Purge has created a very Ronald Reagan-like “new day in America.”
In this world, the poor and others who cannot afford private security, to live in gated communities, and arm themselves with all variety of weapons are “liquidated” wholesale on that night. The social contract that ought to promise safety and security between citizens and the State is broken with the agreement of the mass public. Consequently, the financial pressures on the social safety net are lessened precisely because “unproductive” citizens can be culled from the herd
The rich are safe—free or not at their own whim—to decide if they will participate in the country’s national bloodletting.
The plot of The Purge revolves around Ethan Hawke's character named James Sandin, a salesman who leverages the anxiety and fear of his neighbors for his own personal profit and gain. Predictably, his son, played by Max Burkholder, in a moment of mercy and sensitivity for a stranger in peril, disarms the home security system during that year’s night of wanton violence. This act of charity allows a nameless and homeless black man who is fleeing for his life from a white lynch mob to enter their residence.
While The Purge is a high concept movie that in its later acts devolves into typical action fare, there are powerful moments where its writers took real chances, daring to explore provocative and potent questions of race, class, justice, and community.
For example, the homeless man seeking refuge in Sandin’s home could have easily been played by a white actor. By choosing to make him a Black American, The Purge brings to the forefront how questions of race and belonging intersect with fundamental matters of safety and security for people of color in the United States.
The black and brown poor would likely be killed in overwhelming numbers during the movie’s grizzly macabre evening celebration of national reunion and belonging. Our First Nations brothers and sisters would also be easy targets. The white poor in rural America would be killed too.
To their credit, the creators of The Purge did not shy away from how certain people—the poor—are marked as marginal and disposable. This fact is true both in the movie’s imagined reality and our own present.
From the spectacular lynchings of Jim and Jane Crow America to the Trayvon Martin case, the black body (while an object of fascination, desire, and simultaneous fear and loathing) is viewed as something foreign, an invader in the White community, assumed to be a risk as well as a threat until proven otherwise--and to the satisfaction of the White Gaze.
Here, the process of “niggerization” works through the creation of a type of contingent citizenship where rights are not protected or absolute for certain types of people. Thus, human rights can be violated at anytime by those identified with White authority and White power.
For more than one hundred years, white lynch mobs burned their black victims alive by the thousands, cut them up into pieces, made their victims eat their own genitals, shot black people dozens or even hundreds of times, posed with and photographed the bodies, and then sent those images around the country as postcards because such acts of racial terrorism helped to cement the bonds of Whiteness across lines of class in the United States.
As has often been seen with genocidal violence, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen notes how if the primary goal is just to kill a person with maximum efficiency, then no ceremony is necessary to accomplish said goal. By contrast, "overkill" and the spectacle are important—as we see in The Purge—because the ritual has spiritual elements that feed the collective soul of the attackers. Ultimately, the body of the Other represents a pollutant that must be expelled from the body politic.
In The Purge, Sandin's family is offered a bargain: will they surrender a black body to the white lynch mob where the former will be killed for sport, and as a cathartic sacrifice that heals and brings peace to the (White) American political psyche? Does Sandin's family’s safety matter more than protecting an innocent black man?
As we think through those questions, one cannot forget how The Purge is a product of the sensibilities of post racial America and the Age of Obama.
Consequently, while American history suggests that Ethan Hawke's character would readily sacrifice a black homeless man in order to protect his family, in The Purge the main character chooses to take up arms and fight off a lynch mob in defense of a black man. The White Racial Frame, and the companion lie that is “color blind” post civil rights America, imagines itself as benign: in this fantasy, “good white folks”, more often than not, do the right thing when faced with racism and other types of discrimination.
As the movie concludes, The Purge offers up two transparent moments that exemplify its dualism as a stinging critique of Right-wing ideology while also channeling some of the Tea Party GOP’s anxieties and fears in post racial America.
First, the leader of the white lynch mob is a hybrid preppy, yuppie, country club, preacher, Christian Nationalist evangelical who would find his natural home as president of the College Republicans.
His rhetoric, rage, and channeling of American exceptionalism as reimagined through The Purge is a mix of Right-wing talk points and religious zealotry.
Second, the Sandins' neighbors betray them in the final act of the movie. They are jealous of his financial success: murdering the Sandin family is their act of cathartic violence during the annual Purge event.
Class envy has resulted in violence and chaos. In The Purge (and in contemporary Right-wing American politics more generally) the rich and other elites are "victims" who are to be pitied and empathized with.
While this is of course absurd, it resonates for those addicted to the mix of White identity politics, racial resentment, and identification with the banksters and plutocrats, who form the base of the Tea Party GOP. And of course, guns save us all in The Purge. They empower women, fight off attackers, and help a family return to a normal state of safety and security.
One does not need to have read authors such as Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall, or Naomi Klein to understand and “read” the politics of The Purge. The movie rewards deep viewing and looking beyond the foreground to the subtext, symbolism, story-telling choices made by its creators, as well as the radio and TV broadcasts in the background, that add richness and context to the film's setting.
Movies such as Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, The East, and Now You See Me, demonstrate how the public and the elite classes’ anxieties about the Great Recession and the future of the United States’ economy are being negotiated and resolved on screen. The Purge captures “the spirit of the age” quite well.
It is a work that reflects the neo-liberal national security state, a politics of meanness and cruelty where budgets are balanced on the backs of the poor, and the ways in which certain segments of the American people are marked as disposable human refuse.
Films talk to us, to each other, and as such, reflect a society’s worries, fears, and insecurities. The Purge, while not a perfect film, is wonderfully ambitious in its efforts at being socially relevant and politically provocative.
On those merits, The Purge is a scathing indictment of contemporary American politics, the mass media, and Right-wing politics in the Age of Obama.