Beginning in January 2019, my employer granted me a one-year research sabbatical. This has meant that I have spent very little time reading the news or writing opinion pieces. It has also meant that I have spent very little time on Twitter, that social media outlet which is very good for a few limited tasks (e.g. notifying people about a given matter, pointing them to good books and articles) and aggressively, noxiously bad for most other tasks (e.g. setting forth positions, debating ideas, reweaving the fabric of civil life).
Most importantly, it has meant that I have spent an extraordinary amount of time reading books, among the best of which is Mary Eberstadt’s Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (2019). In fact, it was so good that I outlined the entire book for my own benefit and will provide a very slim summary and response to the book in this post.
The significance of Primal Screams is that Eberstadt provides a compelling account of the wider story of which identity politics is a part. Many commentators have described and/or criticized identity politics, but in my opinion, none have sufficiently located it in the broader narrative of the West’s shared life. In sum, she argues that there are many factors giving rise to identity politics—including the fact that real injustices have been committed against minorities—but none of those factors are more significant than the Sexual Revolution.
The Great Scattering
Towards the beginning of the book Eberstadt sets forth the argument that people feel like victims today partly because we are victims. We are victims of a “great scattering.” We were born into a society in which traditional familial forms of socialization have dissolved. Instead of being primarily the member of a family embedded in a community of other families, and with a certain givenness characterizing life, people find their identity in erotic leanings and ethnic claims. In other words, they have a weaker sense of givenness than previous generations and must search for it elsewhere.
But what does Eberstadt mean, specifically, when she speaks of the dissolution of familial forms of socialization? Her argument is multi-layered, but six aspects of it are highlighted.
First, American families—white and black—have experienced an increase in divorce, single-parent homes, and out-of-wedlock births. Because of this, many children grow up with their father out of the picture. And, as James Q. Wilson has argued, this development is especially problematic because family structure is more important than race, income or class in determining future positive outcomes.
Second, as sociologists Norval D. Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt have demonstrated, children of divorced parents experience a fractured identity. They are torn between their divorced parents and even express the feeling that their personal identity shifts depending upon which parent is present with the child at a given time. Eberstadt even explores pop music at the turn of the twenty-first century, demonstrating that many of the most influential musicians (e.g. Papa Roach, Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Eminem) have family rupture, anarchy, and breakup as their signature lyrical themes.
Third, many parents’ embrace of assisted reproduction technology (e.g. sperm donation, surrogate pregnancy) has denied their children the possibility of ever meeting their biological father. Eberstadt notes that, in My Daddy’s Name is Donor (2010), Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval D. Glenn, and Karen Clark demonstrate that children experience significant hurt, confusion, and isolation as a result of assisted reproduction technology.
Fourth, Western families are shrinking in size, simultaneously causing an increasing number of children to grow up without many, or any, siblings. Eberstadt draws upon a collaborative study, Sibling Relationships, to explain the problems this phenomenon causes for society:
Siblings set and maintain standards, provide models to emulate and advice to consider, enact complementary roles in relation to one another through which both develop and practice social-interactional skills, and serve as confidantes and sources of nonjudgmental social support in times of emotional distress.
Other sociological and psychotherapeutic studies support this type of conclusion.
Fifth, many studies have revealed the increasing loneliness felt by modern Westerners. This loneliness is a type of poverty. Divorce, cohabitation, contraception, and abortion have combined to shrink the family’s nucleus.
Sixth, many people now have no experience of organized religion. As a result of secularization, we have seen a decline in charitable giving, health, and literacy, and an increase in criminality and welfare dependence. In the place of families and churches, schools are often forced to act as a substitute.
In sum, the second chapter makes a convincing case that the Sexual Revolution’s diminution of the family has caused many families to fracture, which in turn has cause children to look for a sense of givenness outside of the family. Identity politics offers them a firm—but insufficient and ultimately harmful—alternative sense of givenness.
Four Lines of Evidence
Backgrounding the Great Scattering, Eberstadt argues, is the Sexual Revolution. In the second part of her argument, she highlights areas of dissolution driven by the Revolution, leading to the destruction rather than construction of the types of social bonds necessary for society to flourish. These include the following:
In the third chapter, Eberstadt notes that identity politics often is characterized by infantilized behavior and language, such as “Me!” and “Mine!” Yet, she is not mocking. The panic and outrage is as real as that of a toddler’s. She illustrates by exploring briefly the debate over cultural appropriation, the writings of alt-right personalities, and the phenomenon of involuntary celibates. She concludes that this sort of behavior is a survival strategy that attests to the prerational origins of identity politics.
In the fourth chapter, Eberstadt explores the changes in feminism, noting that today’s feminists are purposely rude, vulgar, and thin-skinned, and are especially so toward one another. Yet, she is not mocking. Eberstadt argues that today’s women feel cornered for real and obvious reasons. The Sexual Revolution has not caused a golden age, but instead has fostered male irresponsibility, sexual predation, and violent sexual fetishes such as bondage. In this environment, some women even take on male characteristics (defiance, cursing, etc.). Thus, women are captives. But they are not captives of patriarchy or gender norming. They are captives of a society in which families are dissolving and communal bonds are loosening.
In the fifth chapter, Eberstadt explores gender dysphoria and transgender ideology. She argues that it is part of a broader phenomenon in which our society as a whole has gravitated toward an androgynous mean. Our society ignores or minimizes strength and endurance differences between the sexes. It alters standards for military and rescue jobs. Again, the Sexual Revolution has played a formative role in fostered the rise in androgyny. Its libertinism, coupled with the abortion industry, fostered male sexual irresponsibility and predation, thus causing women to act more like men as a way of protecting themselves. Similarly, it has reduced the number of fathers who have sons, thus paving the way for fathers to treat their daughters like sons. Eberstadt writes, “These changes are dictated in part by ever more furious women, reacting to ever more distant men, and in part by anxious men who are learning the social lesson that the feminine is to be feared.”
In the sixth chapter, Eberstadt argues that the Sexual Revolution caused the need for a #MeToo movement. Our post-revolutionary order subverts the normal process by which boys and girls learn about the opposite sex.
Although men have always behaved badly, they have not in the past behaved consistently this badly. Eberstadt writes, “…after the Great Scattering, many men lack exactly such textured, long-running, socially informative, nonsexual experiences of the opposite sex—just as many women lack them too” (95). Often, children grow up in homes with only one parent and often with no siblings. Often, they do not attend church regularly. Often, they learn about dating and sex by watching movies and porn, which teach young men that women are always sexually available and desirous.
The Sexual Revolution also harms women. The victims in the #MeToo movement, Eberstadt notes, are almost always graduates of elite schools or sophisticated career women. Why were they in harm’s way in the first place? They did not follow the dictates of common sense. They are clueless about the proper way of relating to the opposite sex. They did not learn the most basic life lessons such as not entering a boss’s hotel room at night. If they were indeed fortunate enough to have had good father figures, still society’s message unfortunately came across stronger than their fathers’ protective messages.
Reflections on Eberstadt’s Argument
I do not intend to provide a critical review of Eberstadt’s book, something which would take much more time and effort, and something which has already been done (such as this review by Carl Trueman). Instead, I wanted to offer a summary of the book’s main lines of argument and offer it as a very helpful book that gets to the heart of one of the root causes of identity politics. Like Eberstadt mentions, other factors contributed to its rise, such as real crimes and injustices committed against minorities.
The first thread of Eberstadt’s argument that I wish to highlight is her observation that today’s identity crisis is part of a larger undoing. Something seriously bad is afoot and people know it. They are seeking a diagnosis. They are afraid, and rightly so. “Homo sapiens really has gone and done something harmful to itself” (106). Both conservatives and progressives have failed to discern that identity politics is more primarily an existential “scream” rather than a primarily political phenomenon.
A second thread is her observation that identity politics is more destructive than constructive. Sadly, and ironically, identity politics destroys even its own. “[The] deepest problem with identity politics [is that] the collective signals to which identitarians respond are increasingly incoherent. Identity has become a forever war whose combatants now habitually turn on their own in a spiral of scapegoating and social destruction that no one seems to know how to stop” (105). Something must be done to replace identity politics with a “common good” politics.
Third, although identity politics is more about anthropology than politics, one political irony must be noted. While left-leaning circles talk ceaselessly about identity politics, they will not be able to provide deliverance from its negative consequences. They believe unalterably in the Sexual Revolution, unwilling to see the devastating consequences of sexual libertinism, pornography, prostitution, abortion, polyamory, sex reassignment surgery, no-fault divorce, and other revolutionary phenomena.
Finally, Eberstadt urges Christians to prepare for the future. Nobody can know for sure what will happen next, other than the fact that, inevitably, winners and losers will emerge. Some people and communities will figure out how to navigate the Great Scattering. Others will not. (Many liberal elites are navigating it, Eberstadt argues, by paying lip service to leftist values but steering their families and familial patterns of living firmly to the right.) Christians who wish to survive must form a moral counterculture and learn to speak their minds on these issues with a Christlike combination of truth, grace, and humility.
There are many other things that could be said, the most important of which is that Primal Screams can be purchased here. It is a slim little volume, very well-written, and well worth the time spent.