Sympathy for Identity Politics?

In Primal Screams, Mary Eberstadt observes that identity politics is, if nothing else, a substitute good for meeting real human needs.

Mary Eberstadt’s book How The West Really Lost God made a novel and compelling case for St. Paul’s contention that some of us “shall be saved in childbearing.” Eberstadt argued that secularization — defection from religious faith — follows declines in family formation and childbearing. I came upon the book the year that I became a father. And I have to admit that it’s an argument about the spiritual consequences of fatherhood and family life that had a profound effect on my own book about my transformation from fatherless American son to Irish-American father. Armed with Eberstadt’s insights, I found I had recovered something of a lost birthright through my own children: the answer to a question deeply wrapped up in identity.

Ever since reading How the West Really Lost God, I have been thinking, talking, and writing about how the shrinking size of families and their brittleness is exercising a powerful influence over our society and politics. Shrinking families means smaller networks of kinship and familial care, which spreads out. Your friends and neighbors have fewer brothers, sisters, and cousins who might serve as role models or a kind of professional network for those who don’t go to top-tier universities.

Now, in her new book, Primal Screams, Eberstadt explores how the unstable, half-formed, and shrinking family explains the urgent cries and screams found in modern identity politics, which emerged just as the sexual revolution was radically transforming the default family life for most Americans.

She begins with an evocative introduction about the myth of the “lone wolf” and our misunderstanding of a fundamentally social creature. She writes:

Why did anyone believe in the myth of the “lone wolf” in the first place? Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson theorize that people missed the truth initially because most research on wolves was done on animals in captivity. Animals in captivit — typically separated from their families and surrounded by nonrelated animals in an unnatural setting — exhibit behaviors markedly dissimilar from those left in nature. These effects range from heightened anxieties and aggression to the development of “stereotypies,” or compulsive repetitive tics, and other self-destructive habits that do not arise in the animal’s native ecosystem. Animals can indeed live in “forced packs” (i.e., among unrelated members of their kind). But it is in forced packs that problems of dominance and hierarchies become accentuated, as animals deprived of familial order must then develop new strategies for competition. Wolves living in families, explain Grandin and Johnson, do not have dominance fights.

She recounts the multitude of changes in how large pluralities and small majorities of families and children live now, and she says:

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. This book makes a different case, also in good faith: 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. Its argument is not about individual choices, but about the collective environmental impact of many millions of them, taken over the course of many years.

By the end of the book, we’ve had similarly suggestive parallels to the breakdown of kin networks among elephants, coyotes, and other social species. The heart of Primal Screams is an argument that humans form their social identity and their sense of self through their relationships to their parents, siblings, and an extended network of cousins, aunts, and uncles. Not only this, but they previously may have found peace and purpose through their religious identity, which puts them, their neighbors, and all of society into a familial relationship with God, the father. In the absence of these character- and self-forming influences, atomized individuals are seeking solace, consolation, and power — occasionally vindictive power — in the most abstract form of political identity groups.

The strength of Eberstadt’s argument comes from the fact that she finds fundamentally authentic the pained, plaintive expressions that are given voice in identity politics. They indicate real feelings of transgression, abandonment, and vulnerability. Though many identity-politics practitioners might find Eberstadt’s analysis condescending — as when she diagnoses certain novel political gestures as a pediatric tantrum — this reader found it sympathetic on the whole.

That is, Eberstadt’s analysis points to a process of understanding this phenomenon, not just fearing it. And with understanding perhaps may come social reconciliation and healing. “It is no disservice to its victims to observe that there might be wider environmental changes that have increased the attraction of gender fluidity and ambiguity,” Eberstadt writes. “Like feminism, the new virtual gender communities offer what in-person communities used to: connections, an audience, a sympathetic ear, and a relational answer to the question Who am I?Primal Screams takes it for granted that identity politics is, if nothing else, a substitute good for meeting real human needs.

At the end, this book has short comments and critiques on its thesis from conservative Rod Dreher, liberal Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel, the investor and determined futurist. Lilla acknowledges that Eberstadt has helped explain the demand side for identity politics, where he addressed the supply side. But he takes the sexual revolution for granted and complains that conservatives underestimate the innate desire for smaller families that is revealed once the process of embourgeoisement takes place. Thiel credits Eberstadt on the theory but attributes family breakdown and uncertainty not to the pill and the revolution in mores but to the declining economic base for the middle class, one that can only be restored by a full recovery of working toward a better future. Somewhat paradoxically — though, no less convincingly — Dreher holds that the recovery of “familism” could come through a revived monasticism.

These reactions are a useful reminder that Eberstadt’s work is not only for conservatives but also for everyone who thinks about contemporary society and finds himself puzzled, worried, or in a foreboding frame of mind about the alarming spike in identity politics as well as suicide, depression, substance abuse, and loneliness.


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