Airports are places of joy, someone said to me a number of months ago — which actually startled me. I was asking him about joy in the world, and that was about the last thing I expected him to come back with. Sometimes when I’m in an airport, I’m overwhelmed by how transitory so many of us seem. And how casual we are about it. I get nostalgic for a time I never knew, when, as I hear, people got dressed up and prepared for the experience (one they had not even close to every other week) because it was much more pleasant than it is now and because it was a big deal to leave home.
But if you walk through city streets, sometimes nothing looks like it could seem like a secure resting place. People seem to be zoned out to the reality around them, listening to music or a podcast on that headset that seems permanently attached. (One upside of the airport security line — a reminder that those headphones are not actually an appendage?) Even if you avoid looking at your phone, you’ll inevitably wind up talking to or overhearing a conversation about the president’s latest tweet. And then there’s the whole topic of Donald Trump. Even saying his name can result in wild rage or (same adjective) adulation. Both seem like thinly veiled cries for help from a people who sometimes seem to be drowning in ideological immersion. Again, if you look up, you may see signs in the window of every restaurant and store, and of many churches. (I’m thinking first here of the ubiquitous rainbow flag, which is meant by many as a simple welcome, but which no doubt comes with a political and cultural charge.)
Mary Eberstadt is listening to these cries. She calls it a primal scream. And she identifies identity as the core plague. We don’t know who we are, who we belong to, where we are going. Maybe you do, but you know someone near you who doesn’t. If you look up on a commute or in traffic, that person right across from you may be in agony. And you know it’s true. Agony is what you hear all around. You probably don’t need to know about rising rates of suicide or opioid addiction to realize it. You’ve probably encountered it, if not struggled with it yourself.
More and more, politics has become a place where people go to find their identity, or create one, or join one. And so here we are, gathering people not quite sure what life is anyway, making demands of politics to help with this craving to know and be known.
Eberstadt’s new book is Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. It’s about our existential crisis, which strikes at the heart of the human person and the family, the most essential elements for civilizational life and health. And this isn’t just another conservative diagnosis of our bad morals. It’s a plea. And it’s a plea made in the book by people who hold different worldviews. You don’t have to be religious or right-of-center to consider her argument. You just have to know that something’s very off right now and that our political and ideological colonies (a phrase Pope Francis has often used), which seem to bleed into all of life, usually only make matters worse. If you’ve ever had a nagging feeling that this could be an existential crisis, this book is one you’re going to want to take a look at. We can’t help heal the individual and civilizational agony without having some agreement about what we’re dealing with.
“Today’s clamor over identity — the authentic scream by so many for answers to questions about where they belong in the world — did not spring from nowhere,” Eberstadt writes. “It is a squalling creature unique to our time, born of familial liquidation.” The revolution led to “rising and skyrocketing rates of abortion, fatherless homes, family shrinkage, family breakup, and other phenomena that have become commonplace in the world since the 1960s.”
“Many people, back then and now, have believed in good faith that these familial mutations amount to a net plus for humanity, and that their own lives have been immeasurably enhanced by the freedoms that only the revolution could have brought.” But an honest look now shows “that these same changes have simultaneously rained down destruction on the natural habitat of the human animal, with radical results that we are only beginning to understand.” Eberstadt is not judging individual choices but rather pleading with people of goodwill to consider “the collective environmental impact of many millions of them, taken over the course of many years.” It’s decades into an “unintended and potent experiment,” and “a great many human beings now live as if we are not the intensely communal creatures that we always have been; and systematic consequences of that profound shift are now emerging,” she writes. “These include our increasingly surreal politics.”
The politics reflects how people are feeling. “Western politics is increasingly transformed by deep emotions that lie outside of politics itself. What to do about this moving yet destructive dynamic is among the most pressing issues of our time.” The solution doesn’t only involve summits on the matter, though such convenings have their place. It lies, in no small way, in acknowledging and responding to the cries around us. The healing balm of mercy and humility may help us serve one another better.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.
(This article has been amended since posting.)