I had a personal experience over the weekend that made The First Purge hit home for me in a way that it otherwise might not have, and I didn’t want to shoehorn this personal anecdote into an otherwise straight review. It’s a feeling that had been growing since long before I saw the movie, this gnawing sense that we’re losing our collective mind. Mass media has been fractured for a while now, “cyberbalkanization” was coined almost two decades ago, and most of us are well aware that we live in a kind of Google News ad-served echo chamber of our own making. Lately though, it seems like this splintering is increasing in speed and scope at an exponential rate.
Last weekend I attended a Keep Families Together march in Downtown LA. I went partly because I earnestly believe in a demilitarized border (even if you hate immigrants every study has shown that a militarized border mostly only keeps “illegals” in rather than the opposite) and because more and more, I feel like if the sane people among us don’t at least show up, the dickheads will continue to win (put simply). Also, some of my friends were going, I won’t pretend I’m Rosa Parks.
I learned a few things at the event — like that I’m still intensely uncomfortable with slogan chanting, that John Legend probably should’ve limited his appearance to one song, and that standing in the same spot for more than 90 minutes is never especially fun. Still, a mass protest is a bit like a funeral (I’ve been to too many of those lately, so it was fresh on my mind). What happens there doesn’t matter nearly as much as simply showing up. You don’t have to be the most eloquent speaker, you don’t have to achieve closure and catharsis in the first five minutes — just show up. People will remember.
Anyway, after the rally and the march, as we were leaving the event, a car pulled up alongside us. It was big white Toyota, with a Trump sticker on the passenger door and three people inside, all wearing big cardboard Trump masks. The driver appeared to be an adult woman, the passenger an adult or possibly adolescent woman, with a child in the back. All of them were yelling “Build the wall!” and making that okay-type gesture with their hands that’s kinda sorta maybe a white power symbol.
Or, I guess, the idea is that it *isn’t* a white power symbol, but the goal was to trick liberals into thinking it was, in order to expose “leftist lunacy” or whatever. That’s a fairly deep and asinine rabbit hole, but at a certain point the difference between a Nazi and being someone trying to trick people into thinking you’re a Nazi ceases being meaningful. Surprise! It’s just me, Dave!
Leaving aside the fact that the stated purpose of this rally was essentially for people to come together to say “putting children in concentration camps is bad,” I have had and continue to have meaningful friendships with people who would self-identify as “conservatives.” I can’t entirely refute the idea that I live “in a bubble,” as most people who live in cities, and especially traditionally liberal cities, do (though pretty much all urban areas lean left nowadays, even the ones in Texas). That being said, there’s a clear difference between someone who privately subscribes to a conservative ideology and someone who goes to a pro-immigrant rally to throw up white power signs. One is arguably worthy of reasoned debate, the other has clearly come looking for a fight and probably deserves one.
The purpose of this rally, assuming its existence wouldn’t immediately lead to the dissolution of ICE (would’ve been nice, but not many of us expected it), was basically to make us all feel like we haven’t gone insane for a few hours. To make people feel like we do have some unifying sense of humanity and decency, and to be able to agree on some kind of base-level national ideal. It’s nice to feel like you and your neighbors agree on some basic goals for the society you all share, however broad. This one seemed refreshingly non-controversial, milquetoast enough that one of the speakers was a member of the Black-Eyed Peas (we couldn’t stop making jokes about him taking the mic and leading the crowd in “Let’s Get Retarded” instead of what he actually sang, “Where Is The Love”).
Of course, it turns out you can’t have even half a day of relative sanity without at least one carload of dickheads trying to make you feel crazy again. Sure, it’s just one car. But then again, is it? After spending half a day around people whose motives seemed straightforward we were confronted with people whose goals were baffling.
Obviously, they were being deliberately provocative. Their goal was surely to “trigger the libs,” the be-all, end-all of public conservatism these days. But… what does that mean, exactly? Had they thought about it? Were they trying to make someone mad enough to hurt them or vandalize the car? And then what? Film it? To “expose” us as secretly violent thugs who can’t even have a civil discussion with someone openly advocating fascism? Or was it simply to use our provoked aggression as a pretext to “stand their ground” and shoot someone (like this guy apparently tried to do)?
If the goal was to paralyze me with conflicting feelings, to make us feel like we were in some kind of hidden camera show, I have to admit that they succeeded. I guess I was “triggered.” Mostly though, I just couldn’t get past the thought that someone had brought their kids along to try to incite a race riot. Did they want their kid to see them hurt brown people or to see brown people hurt them? Presumably, as far as you can presume anything about such people, the kid was there as a human shield. And since no one attacked them or vandalized the car, I guess the strategy paid off. Still, that’s a pretty big gamble. Also, what the fuck is wrong with you? It’s a question that has been echoing through my brain ever since: what the fuck is wrong with you? what the fuck is wrong with you…
It’s a sad fact that even with 55,000 marchers making you feel sane, it only takes one carload of emboldened Nazis (or whatever the hell they think they are) to make you feel crazy again. I think that’s partly why a silly movie like The First Purge actually hit home for me. The idea of being surrounded by potential sociopaths who may want to rape, murder, or rob you, or maybe just scare you into thinking they want to rape, rob, or murder you (lol, psych!), felt especially relevant.
So much of society is based on recognizing a shared humanity, on being able to recognize strangers’ motives. Money, stoplights, the sewage system, etc — lots of things only work because we collectively agree that they do. I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever felt this baffled by a reasonable chunk of the populace (90% of the 46% of the 58% of eligible voters who still approve of Trump — a minority, to be sure, but still way too many to wrap my head around). More and more it feels like we’re living out the end of Children of Men, where the world around us has started to go to shit and it has broken everyone’s brains, creating a paroxysm of factionalization, spawning small groups of eccentrics with impenetrably esoteric goals (“make a frog with your fingers so people think it’s a white power symbol to expose them as the crazy ones!”).
Is it any wonder that we’ve created ideological bubbles around us? Being around the like-minded can be the only thing that makes us feel human anymore. It is both the problem and the solution.