Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, by Mary Eberstadt (Templeton Press, 192 pp., $24.95)
In Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, Mary Eberstadt makes three claims: first, that sexual liberation has contributed to family breakdown; second, that the breakdown of the family has produced a crisis of identity; and third, that identity politics are a natural response to this crisis, insofar as they help answer the question Who am I? Eberstadt isn’t the first to draw a link between individualism and identitarianism — Christopher Lasch and, more recently, Patrick Deneen, have both explored the connection — but she does so in an especially provocative way, albeit with less bomb-throwing than one might expect.
Still, there are bombs. The term “identity politics,” Eberstadt writes, was first coined in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists who had by then become “canaries in the coal mines of the revolution.” African-American women were and remain “disproprotionately affected by abortion, out-of-wedlock births, fatherless homes, and related metrics, ” she writes. “Is it really any wonder that the first collective articulation of identity politics comes from a community where familial identity was becoming increasingly riven . . . a harbinger of what would come next for everyone else?”
Later, she traces the online “incel” movement back to the “sexual chaos” of the 1960s, whose “prelapsarian promise of pleasure for all” could not possibly be squared with the “new social hierarchies” such chaos created. And she notes that “white nationalists are much more likely to be divorced than married,” suggesting a “link between domestic dispossession and identitarianism.” Say what you will about Primal Screams — it is just as concerned with the far Right as the far Left, and this evenhandedness belies the book’s trollish title, inoculating Eberstadt against charges of partisanship.
Unfortunately, it also undermines her empirical thesis. Eberstadt wants to say that family breakdown is driving “the frenzied search for identity” on both sides of the aisle, include the Left’s “belligerent fights over ‘cultural appropriation.’” If this were true, we would expect the groups with the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates — namely, blacks and Latinos — to be the wokest demographics in America. Yet poll after poll has shown that it’s not racial minorities who are leading the charge on social issues but wealthy, educated white liberals — the very people least likely to come from broken families, by Eberstadt’s own admission. “American meritocracy has produced families at the top of the socioeconomic ladder that avoid divorce and single parenthood,” she notes in passing, “even as many of their members tend toward the more progressive end of politics.” So why think that divorce and single parenthood have anything to do with left-identitarianism, given its prominence among the bourgeoisie?
Eberstadt never answers, let alone asks, this rather obvious question. And her failure to do so reflects a conceptual problem that has plagued many recent treatments of identity politics: the conflation of tribalism, which is an attitude about identity, with identitarianism — a theory of what identity is and means.
In arguing that family breakdown causes the latter, Eberstadt shows only that it caused the former, by erasing the “givenness into which generations are born.” Deprived of “organic connections,” cut off from familial ties, many people now experience “erotic leanings and ethnic claims” as “substitute answers to that eternal question, Who am I?” In other words, as a kind of surrogate family.
But attachment to one’s ingroup is not — and needn’t always entail — hostility toward one’s outgroup, let alone a coherent theory of the relationships between groups that might explain tribal competition. And it is tribal competition, not tribalism itself, that defines identity politics — from Richard Spencer’s campaign against “white genocide” to campus crusades against white men, white authors, and whiteness writ large. Each clash revolves around a sense of victimhood, of being locked in a power struggle whose stakes are too great, too existential, for any “tribe” to compromise, never mind cooperate.
But whereas white nationalists rally around their own tribe — and against everyone else’s — white liberals are the only demographic in America with a pro-outgroup bias: with a tendency, that is, to exhibit more warmth toward blacks and Latinos than toward other whites. Hence the self-flagellating character of elite progressivism (confessions of privilege, lamentations of inequality) that inspires so much ire and ridicule from its opponents. Woke-scolds and white supremacists alike believe that life is a clash of competing identities; they differ only as to which identities deserve allegiance, and which tribes are winning.
The link between divorce and identity politics now comes into view: If the sexual revolution caused (or contributed to) family breakdown, and if family breakdown caused (or contributed to) tribalism, you’d expect the most penitent whites to be those with the strongest families, and the most racist to be those with the weakest — which would in turn dispose them toward different politics, even as they agreed on identity’s import. You’d also expect white guilt to coexist with a certain kind of cosmopolitanism, of humanity over ethnicity, because the need for primordial bonds has already been met by parents and grandparents and siblings. Sure enough, that is precisely what we observe.
By contrast, the tribalism of non-white non-elites tends to manifest more in voting blocs and cultural attitudes (the taboo against “acting white,” say) than in adherence to critical race theory — partly because, being non-elite, they are unlikely to have read any, but also because progressive pieties are just that, a secular religion for a religiously starved ruling class. As Eberstadt notes in passing, “the vote by much of Western humanity to live without a transcendent horizon removes one more way of answering the question Who am I? that religion has traditionally supplied.” True — but a disproportionate share of those votes come from wealthy, well-educated white professionals, who just so happen to be the wokest segment of America. To the extent that left-identitarianism fills a void, it’s not familial so much as cultural, driven more by a loss of meaning than a loss of connection.
Blacks and Latinos, on the other hand, are among the most religious members of the Democratic party, and are more conservative on social issues — including racial ones — than their white counterparts. Seventy-five percent of white Democrats think that a woman should be able to obtain an abortion for any reason; only 50 percent of black Democrats agree. 76 percent of white Democrats believe that “someone can be a man or a woman even if that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth”; for black and Latino Democrats, the numbers are just 42 and 58 percent. Most strikingly, 79 percent of white liberals now say that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead,” whereas only 60 percent of black Democrats say the same — an almost 20 point gap.
All of which suggests Eberstadt is right that the Sixties played a role in the creation of identity politics but wrong about what role it played. Really answering that question would require a much longer book. But asking it is a start.