Puzzled by the sudden surge of identity politics, Mary Eberstadt traces its genesis to the sexual revolution. By doing so, she addresses the “primal screams” of faceless, lonely people grabbing at an identity like a shipwrecked person clutching at flotsam.
Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, by Mary Eberstadt (192 pages, Templeton Press, 2019)
It surfaces in many forms with different people. The long loneliness is seen in the woman who never had children in order to please a selfish husband, who then divorced her for a younger woman. It is there in the face of a sincere, but nerdy young man who can’t find a decent girl to marry or the faithful young woman who is left on the shelf because all the men she knows are either panting for promiscuity or frightened of commitment.
It surfaces in the faces of children broken by their parents’ divorce, the young men who don’t know how to be men, and the young women trying hard to be men. It’s revealed in the old people sitting alone in the assisted living center with no one to visit because they only had two children and those children had no children and besides “they are very busy and live in Oregon.”
I could go on describing the multitudinous manifestations of the long loneliness brought about by the sexual selfishness of the revolution of the 1960s. The human race is only now realizing what demons flew out of that particular Pandora’s box. We have done what our race has never done before: we have learned how to turn off and turn on our baby machine.
Mary Eberstadt’s new book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics tackles the problem not from the pastor’s study, but the research journalist’s desk. Puzzled by the sudden surge of identity politics, Mrs. Eberstadt traces its genesis to the sexual revolution. In a short, but punchy and well researched study, she suggests (more than proves) how the sexual revolution contributed to the breakdown of the family which consequently left people as social orphans.
In her cornerstone chapter, “A New Theory: The Great Scattering,” Mrs. Eberstadt traces some of the causes of family breakdown. Divorce and absent fathers, alienated, angry, and confused children, the weirdness of artificial conception and it’s dysfunctional and distorted family relationships, the lack of siblings due to small families and the falling birth rate, all contribute to an epidemic of loneliness, alienation, insecurity, and lack of clear identity and belonging. Declining rates of church-going also contribute to the alienation since shared faith strengthens identity and belonging.
Mrs. Eberstadt then focuses on four particular expressions of identity politics showing that all four are the “primal screams” of faceless, lonely people grabbing at an identity like a shipwrecked person clutching at flotsam.
Cultural appropriation is the rage when one group feels threatened that their identity is being hi-jacked. Mrs. Eberstadt sees contemporary feminism with its manifestations of butch vulgarity, sexual aggression, and angry posturing as another group staking out their identity territory and defending it with irrational rage. Meanwhile other alienated souls seek to survive by crafting an individualistic sexual identity. Androgyny is the tabula rasa onto which they can design their own sexuality which then defines them and their tribe. Finally, the #MeToo movement is the expression of abused women who have had enough of a sexual playground which has turned out to be a war zone.
Mrs. Eberstadt’s analysis is complemented with comments by Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel. In the face of the crisis, Mr. Dreher recommends the “Benedict Option.” Mark Lilla, making a liberal response, highlights some of the economic factors involved in identity politics, and Peter Thiel offers brief support for Mrs. Eberstadt’s basic thesis and suggests other social trends that contribute to the crisis.
One can scarcely disagree with the essential argument—that family breakdown has contributed to identity politics. However, I’m reminded of Hilaire Belloc’s blunt statement that “every argument is a theological argument.” Mrs. Eberstadt mentions the thought of Rene Girard and his theory of mimetic desire as an element at the heart of human nature that also contributes to the problem of identity politics, and in my opinion, in those few paragraphs the author is really getting down to the heart of the matter.
The breakdown of the family is rooted in the sexual revolution, but the causes of that breakdown are greater than just the sexual revolution. At the foundational level is not only Girard’s “mimetic desire” but also the Ressentiment outlined by Max Scheler. When the insights of these two thinkers are conflated we have a grim picture of the human heart, soiled by the power plays of Eden.
Mrs. Eberstadt’s study is a welcome contribution to the current crisis in an increasingly secularized society. It is an attempt to pick away at a problem that is a vast tangle of personal motivations, subconscious drives and desires, societal currents, historical trends, socio-economic factors, and the irrational reactions of the mob. She’s done well to hone in on a crucial aspect to shed light on the problem.
As in Rusty Reno’s recent book, I found myself admiring the author’s learning and agreeing with her analysis, but I found myself hungering for suggested solutions. Mrs. Eberstadt would agree that a return to faith is vital as part of the solution, but how does one do that? Just as we are in a historically unique situation after the sexual revolution, so we are in a historically unique situation in being post-Christian. We can’t simply mutter, “You should go back to church!”
What will they find if they do go to church? Mr. Dreher points out that they are likely to find the dreaded Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. I might add they are also likely to find bored boomers desperately trying to keep the denominational show on the road.
John Allen’s 2009 book Future Church considers current trends for the Catholic religion and world Christianity generally. If we read those trends correctly, a lot of hand wringing about evangelization is not the answer. Top down programs of evangelization and clever media gimmicks won’t do the trick. I’m not sure Mr. Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is a magic bullet either. It will be part of a solution, but not the only answer.
Instead the Spirit blows where it wills, and I believe the renewal of Christianity and a subsequent rebirth of Christian civilization will be a long term project beginning with a zealous and vibrant Christianity from the global South which will springboard into the East and plant seeds of a new Christendom that none of us can yet imagine.
While we bite our nails about identity politics, trans-sexuality, the demographic winter, and the long loneliness, this resurgent Christianity from the South will simply sweep over us like an incoming tide. This is not to denigrate Mrs. Eberstadt’s book, but to point out that there are larger global movements that may, in the long run, not so much solve our problems as obliterate them as the dawn banishes the dying night.
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The featured image is “Titania Sleeping” by Richard Dadd (1817-1886), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.