Identity Politics Runs Much Deeper than Politics

Mary Eberstadt hears a civilizational cry in her new book Primal Screams.

‘Conservatives and other nonprogressives have missed something major about identity politics: its authenticity. But the liberal-progressive side has missed something bigger. Identity politics is not so much politics as a primal scream. It’s the result of the Great Scattering—our species’ unprecedented collective retreat from our very selves.”

Mary Eberstadt writes this in her new book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. The book includes responses by Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel. She talks about Primal Screams in this interview.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: At one point in the book, you write: “The crisis over identity is part and parcel of a larger unraveling. . . . Foreboding saturates the politics and societies of the West today. . . . It is not impossible to hear in today’s secular jeremiads a displaced panic for a pandemic no one saw coming: the diminution of the human story itself.” How is that not overly dramatic, and if it’s not overly dramatic, well, shouldn’t we panic?

Mary Eberstadt: Sometimes the truth is dramatic. Ours is one of those times.

As chapter two of Primal Screams spells out, we’re now surrounded by evidence that something about the way we live has run amok. Psychiatric problems are rising, life expectancy is falling, and many people in public life are at each other’s throats. So-called “loneliness studies” have become a fixture of sociology not only in the United States, but across all of the materially advanced nations. There’s also new evidence that loneliness has exploded at the other end of time’s telescope — among the young. And of course there is multiplying confusion of all sorts related to gender identity, ethnic identity, and much more.

In other words, we live in a time when a great many people are struggling to answer the most basic human question, “Who am I?” How did it ever come to pass that so many of us don’t even know who we are? It’s hard to think of a more dramatic turn of events than that existential erasure. I wanted to address that confusion, to see what’s really driving it.

Lopez: What does the sexual revolution have to do with identity politics?

Eberstadt: A lot. In part, it’s simple arithmetic. Think of all the post-revolutionary phenomena that are quotidian facts of life. Abortion, fatherlessness, divorce, single parenthood, childlessness, the shrinking family, the shrinking extended family: Every one of these developments has the effect of reducing the number of people whom we can call our own. And since we are relational creatures, the result is a great vacuum. That’s a lot of what the increasingly panicked flight to collective identities is about.

As emphasized in the book, the focus of this argument isn’t on any single one of these post-revolutionary acts of choice. It isn’t about the moral content of those decisions, either. Instead, Primal Screams is about the collective environmental impact of many millions of such instantiations of autonomy, taken over the course of the past 50-plus years.

Considered together, these phenomena amount to a massive perturbation of the human ecosystem. How could such massive retreats from the community that’s first among equals — the family — not have radical effects on the lives and well-being of social animals?

Lopez: Is Primal Screams minimizing real things, real suffering and injustices? Like racism?

Eberstadt: The opposite is true. The book shines a light on something that hasn’t been adequately addressed by left or right, which is the primordial panic underlying identity politics, and its accompanying psychic distress.

Unlike other critics, I believe there is suffering among the adherents of identity politics — lots of it. The trauma is real. But its origins aren’t always correctly diagnosed. Yes, racism, sexism, and cruelty toward sexual and other minorities exist. Cruelty exists, period. And it’s always and everywhere to be opposed.

Primal Screams does not make a mono-causal argument. In some cases, clearly, injustice drives people to embrace collective identities. As mentioned in the book, for example, it makes sense that Native Americans — and others — object when items sacred to their traditions are used as mere decorations, or for sport. It makes sense when African Americans — and others — object to the existence of public reminders of racism, such as certain statues honoring certain figures. In a healthier political environment, conversations and decisions could be engaged about such affronts on a case-by-case basis.

But that’s not our environment, and identity politics is not typically expressed in a rational vernacular.

Just think about what controversial speakers on campuses encounter these days: screams, monosyllabic chants, students with duct-taped mouths, threatened — sometimes real — violence. These aren’t civil rights or anti-war demonstrations of yesteryear. They are outbreaks of serious group irrationalism. And the infantilized language in which they are couched tells us, again, that something more is going on in identity politics than just politics.

Many people who are “identity-firsters” want desperately to cling to their groups, and to demonize everyone outside them — despite the fact that such zero-sum moral thinking is divisive and harmful to the body politic as a whole. This, too, tells us that identity politics is disengaged from rational discussion, and coming from a much more primordial place.

Lopez: How are the origins of identity politics pre-politics? And if they are, where do we begin to solve this problem?

Eberstadt: As mentioned, though there are more causes than one of our disarray — as enumerated in Primal Screams — the most overlooked cause of all is radical social change beginning in the 1960s. The phenomena and behaviors that have whittled away at our primary attachments have by now deprived a great many people of traditional answers to the question, “Who am I?” These traditional answers involve our relations to others: I am a sister, mother, aunt, cousin, wife, etc. We define our identities relationally — as the popularity of 23 and Me indicates; as the well-known search for biological relations by children of anonymous sperm donors also affirms. But for a lot of us today, thanks to family vanishing, those fundamental familial building blocks of identity are harder to come by. 

Lopez: Why did you pick the respondents you did? Did anything surprise you about any of the analysis?

Eberstadt: Susan Arellano, head of Templeton Press, brainstormed with me about people who would take the argument seriously and contribute interesting perspectives, and came up with an A-team.

No one works more diligently or with more insight to chronicle the unexpected downward course of Western civilization than Rod Dreher. Primal Screams offers a new argument about the roots of social and civilizational decline, which made Rod an ideal choice as commentator.

Mark Lilla was an equally obvious call. He’s been the most outspoken liberal critic of identity politics — and we wanted a liberal to weigh in on this book’s argument. Mark’s 2017 manifesto, The Once and Future Liberal, caused an uproar on the liberal left. In fact, that’s what first sparked my interest in the subject of identity: the fact that this prestigious public intellectual had written a reasonable, measured book and that it caused an emotive, unreasoned, impassioned outpouring on the part of many people on his side of the spectrum. That reaction made me start thinking about the possible non-rational origins of such politics.

Peter Thiel was one more obvious call. He’s the most prominent student and proponent of French-born philosopher Rene Girard, who emphasized the profoundly relational nature of human beings; and Primal Screams focuses on that same relational character of human nature in a different way. As well, we had exchanged thoughts earlier about my 2013 book on secularization, How the West Really Lost God. Since Primal Screams is a logical follow-on to that book, we wanted Peter’s participation in this new conversation as well.

Of course the contributors don’t see eye to eye on the book’s argument – but that was exactly the point! We wanted to get a real conversation going. If there’s anything surprising about the contributions, it’s that they are uniformly respectful and informed, in an age when differences are typically aired with acrimony and ignorance.

Lopez: What do you hope happens with the book? Whose hands do you want it in, and what do you pray they do with it?

Eberstadt: Ideally, and for starters, conservatives and other critics of identity politics might come away from this book with a more empathetic understanding of where our national divisiveness is coming from. There’s a lot of collective anguish lurking under all the electronic flame-throwing, bizarre behavior on campus, and other manifestations of social unraveling and descent into unreason. If we’re going to ameliorate it, we need first to understand its fundament.

As for the liberal-left side of the spectrum, I hope readers will understand that this book is an attempt to understand identity politics from the ground up — that it takes such politics seriously, even if its analysis may challenge common suppositions.

It’s also to be hoped that some of those same readers might re-think the wholesale embrace of the sexual revolution and all its works. Within living memory, there have been men and women of the Left who did just that — among them, Christopher Lasch and other writers cited in the book. Maybe some liberals today might be persuaded to think twice by the data in Primal Screams about the revolution’s more pernicious consequences, such as the sharp rise in psychiatric trouble among the young, the role of pornography in divorce, the explosion of loneliness on a scale never before recorded, the rise in so-called “deaths of despair” that are plainly related to loss of love.

Partisanship aside, I hope all readers take home this thought experiment: If we urged on other animals the destructive behaviors we shrug at in ourselves, there would be public uproar about the suffering that would result — and rightly so. As J. M. Coetzee, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, explained, “Destroying the family life of highly social, intelligent animals leads inevitably to misery among individual survivors and pathological misbehavior among the group.” He was speaking about elephants, of course. But his words apply to humanity as well.

In the end, as noted in the book, discussion of today’s crisis over identity concerns anthropology more than it does politics. We are bearers today of a false anthropology that overestimates our solitary selves — and underestimates our need for one another in the most elemental ways. That’s why I wrote the book. That’s what Primal Screams is trying to change.


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