Social commentator and author Mary Eberstadt discussed her most recent book, Primal Scream: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, at the Catholic Information Center on September 4. She began by noting that her earlier book, Adam and Eve after the Pill, examined from empirical evidence “the paradoxical outcomes” of the sexual revolution. It considered the condition of “a humanity thrown into radical new forms of living.” Her subsequent How the West Really Lost God examined family breakdown as a source of secularization. This breakdown “interrupted the transmission of religious learning.”
In the current book, she examines identity politics as the central feature of today’s political life, claiming a “new code of conduct” has been mandated by “our radical new way of living.” She identified “abortion, fatherlessness, divorce, single parenthood, childlessness, the shrinking family, and the shrinking extended family” as part of this new way of living. These now common phenomena have greatly increased the individual’s power of choice in life, but also result in “reducing the number of people we can call our own.” And the result of that, it would seem, is a greatly diminished culture, in which people live without much of the warmth of human fellowship known in the past. Additionally a strong culture provides security from external threats, and an explanation of “your place in the world.” Eberstadt noted the claim of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that there can be no private languages, and observed that the loss of common culture has resulted in a loss of personal identity. People no longer identify (at least as much) as father, brother, aunt, or wife. People can identify with political groupings, greatly increasing the importance of politics in giving life meaning. In support of this, Eberstadt observed that identity politics has grown “in tandem with the sexual revolution.”
In looking at the identities that were universally understood and accepted in the past, she observed that for Christians, the chief identity was “I am a child of God.” Of course it will always be a Christian’s chief identity, and perhaps has acquired even greater importance for Christians living in the diminished wider culture. This writer would observe the notable presence of older, single adults in contemporary Christian congregations. However, for the increasing number of nonreligious people, Eberstadt pointed out, this is not an identity they can claim as long as they remain nonreligious. They are left without a satisfying identity, and particularly not satisfactory in being generally culturally acknowledged. One result of this is “the explosion of loneliness studies” across the Western world. Loneliness particularly affects the elderly, while “psychiatric problems are rising” with young people, and “for the first time in American history” life expectancy is declining. And of course, even identities based on human anatomy are questioned, and thus unstable.
Eberstadt pointed to the beginning of her book, which discusses social relations among animals. Primates and other mammals are social creatures, accepting the very familial identities many of the cultural leaders of our society now question. Indeed, she said, scientists have recently found that some animals are very familial, remaining with their mothers until mother or child dies, or at least for an extended part of their lives. It has been observed that avoidance of inbreeding within a family is part of animal behavior for at least some animals, so that nonhuman animals indeed have what modern humans might call taboos. There is also cooperation in acquiring food. Animals, like humans, are “social learners,” she said. Such mammals as dolphins and rhesus monkeys must learn what they need to know in adult life. Experiments in the 1950s showed that individual monkeys who were isolated lacked the social skills necessary to be part of a group. Most strikingly, there was an inability of females to nurture their offspring. She observed a comment of Father Arne Panula, formerly director of the Catholic Information Center, that if scientists were to run on animals the kinds of experiments “we run on ourselves, catastrophe would result.”
Eberstadt also pointed out the observation of Hegel that “the desire for recognition” is important for human society. As generally understood identities weaken, people’s appeals for recognition “become ever more insistent and childlike.” One manifestation of this is “the furor over what is called cultural appropriation.” This is the use of a cultural symbol by persons who are understood to be not part of the culture that it belongs to. The controversy over Halloween costumes at Yale University was cited as an example. People for whom identity politics is not important may find it strange or silly to object to the general use of a cultural symbol associated with a particular subculture. But to those clinging to that group as their chief identity in a greatly diminished general culture, “cultural appropriation” evokes a passionate and sincere cry of “mine.” She observed a University of Virginia study that found that white nationalists tend to come from broken families. “Something has been done to me and my people” is the unanimous cry of everyone involved in identity politics. Although identity politics manifests itself in politics, its real source is a fundamental disturbance of the perennial social conditions in which people live. No longer is one’s identity and place in the world generally understood and acknowledged. The real source of identity politics is, she said, “prepolitical.” While social and political conservatives may disdain identity politics, she believes nonetheless that “the trauma is real.”
To resolve the problem identity politics raises, arguments about particular issues such as abortion or race relations will not suffice. The “ill-fit” of the consequences of the sexual revolution with our nature as social animals is at the heart of the problem, she believes. She hopes that her analysis of identity politics will occasion “serious” thought by “reasonable” people on the Left, while critics of identity politics on the Right will have a greater understanding that the problems they see come from a real underlying problem and pain. She said that the “take home” for the Catholic Church and other traditional Christians is that the church got “a pretty big thing right.” She noted social commentator Leon Cass’ meditation of the “beauty and logic” of the dietary laws of Judaism, which protected people from harms that were not understood until the advent of modern medicine centuries later. Eberstadt also maintained that the social relations prescribed for Christians from the early Christian centuries gave people “an unseen shelter” that was not noticed until it disappeared in recent generations in our social and sexual revolution. By contrast, the contemporary doctrine of moral autonomy “overestimates” the importance of the “solitary self” and “underestimates our primal need for one another.”
In response to a question about why students at elite universities behave in childish and irrational ways to speakers they don’t like, Eberstadt referred back to her contention that more than the specific cause of offended feelings, people involved in identity politics are “responding to the primal loss” of basic social relations. For instance, the ubiquity of such practices as abortion and divorce has left many people without siblings or families.
In response to another question about the prominence of cultural Marxism in the universities as a major and continuing source of identity politics, Eberstadt acknowledged this, but also observed the sexual revolution has for the last sixty years been “a big party.” Today the party has reached the point where “things are really out of control,” but people do not want to return to the traditional authorities (surely religious and legal, but also simply reason and common sense) that once restrained the desires the revolution has unleashed. Nevertheless “everybody has a sense that something has gone wrong,” and there are efforts “to pin the tail on the donkey” in identifying what should be restrained. She said that while Donald Trump may be identified as the problem by the Left, the problem driving identity politics predates his presidency. The real problem is “underneath politics,” and it is “transforming the political world.”
It seems to this writer that to a very great extent, the sexual revolution and the moral autonomy it requires have been produced and driven by the culture of entertainment that has replaced the family as a source of joy. Entertainment in turn is driven by the industry that produces it. It focuses on gratification, and tuning out realities which are unpleasant. Entertainment was once dominated by television and the movies, but that has now been substantially replaced by social media and smartphones. A solution for the pain and rancor driving identity politics will be a problem as long as people get much of their joy in life from the popular culture fed by the entertainment industry. It will also be a problem as long as people are focused on rights rather than responsibilities.
For the larger society, we may well seek laws and policies that strengthen the badly weakened family, restrain the worst excesses of popular entertainment, and focus more on personal responsibility. But for Christians and their families, there is great wisdom in turning away from much popular entertainment, which perhaps the new entertainment media – with its many choices – more than the old media of radio, television, and the movies allows us to do. While it is impossible to live in the same kind of isolation as the pre-modern past (unless we have thoroughly insular communities), committed Christians should be faithful to God and an example to society through the attention we give and the joy we gain in focusing on God’s Word, and the joy of church and family life.